When Hilary Zaid’s Paper Is White opens in 1997, Holo­caust oral his­to­ri­an Ellen Mar­go­lis and her girl­friend decide to get mar­ried despite the fact that same-sex mar­riage was not yet legal in the Unit­ed States. Ellen’s search for a bless­ing leads her into a com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with a wily sur­vivor of the Kau­nas Ghet­to, a woman in search of a bless­ing of her own.

Amy Feltman’s Willa & Hes­per also focus­es on the rela­tion­ship between two women — in this case, two MFA stu­dents who meet one night in Brook­lyn. The two quick­ly fall in love — but when Willa starts to know Hes­per too well, Hes­per shuts her out. Escap­ing the rela­tion­ship, she fol­lows her frac­tured fam­i­ly back to her grandfather’s home­town of Tbil­isi, Geor­gia. Mean­while, heart­bro­ken Willa joins a group trip for Jew­ish twen­ty-some­things to vis­it Holo­caust sites in Ger­many and Poland. When this expe­ri­ence proves to be more fraught than home, she must come to terms with her past-the ances­tral past, her roman­tic past, and the past that can lead her forward.

The two authors dis­cuss each other’s books, writ­ing about the Holo­caust at a gen­er­a­tional remove, faith and assim­i­la­tion, and the emo­tion­al pull of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List.

Hilary Zaid: One might call Willa & Hes­per an anti-romance, struc­tured as it is on the after­math of a rela­tion­ship between two young women, who then go on to search for their indi­vid­ual his­to­ries. In cer­tain ways, your pro­tag­o­nist Willa reminds me of the pro­tag­o­nist of Paper is White, Ellen Mar­go­lis, an oral his­to­ri­an of the Holo­caust. In par­tic­u­lar, both of these women grow up in emphat­i­cal­ly assim­i­lat­ed Jew­ish homes. It’s fine to be a Jew,” Ellen’s moth­er likes to tell her, but you don’t have to make a career out of it.” Like­wise, Willa remem­bers her moth­er’s warn­ing: We’re not those kind of Jews … You don’t need to be a fanat­ic about it.” Both Ellen and Willa have Jew­ish iden­ti­ties that devel­op in con­trast to this assim­i­la­tion­ist impulse. I think Willa’s jour­ney in par­tic­u­lar reflects a dri­ve toward faith. Do you think that’s accu­rate and can you say more about where that comes from?

Amy Felt­man: For a writer, it’s inter­est­ing to exam­ine the gen­er­a­tion once-removed from a geno­cide or sim­i­lar­ly large-scale trau­mat­ic event. We assume that sur­vivors of the Holo­caust would have a com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with faith, and that their chil­dren would be raised with the impulse to pass” and assim­i­late no mat­ter what. Now, Amer­i­can Jews are suf­fi­cient­ly removed from that trau­ma to have to reck­on with what’s lost in the process of assim­i­la­tion as well as what their ances­tors’ faith looked like, and whether it can be acces­si­ble in some form today.

I start­ed this book with some of those issues rat­tling around in my sub­con­scious, but most­ly I wrote from a per­son­al van­tage point to start. Willa’s rela­tion­ship to G‑d and to her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty are close­ly aligned with my own. There have def­i­nite­ly been points in my life where I felt less con­nect­ed to faith and Jew­ish­ness, and the loss of that con­nec­tion felt lone­ly and alien­at­ing. Even though Willa is in love in the begin­ning of my book, she’s also try­ing to jump-start the rela­tion­ship she used to have with G‑d and the hard­er she tries, the more she doubts it. I want­ed Willa’s jour­ney to be about all of these dif­fer­ent pieces of her­self — per­son­al trau­ma, inher­it­ed trau­ma, the beau­ty and heartache of a short-lived rela­tion­ship — and lay­ing them out into a mosa­ic, so to speak.

AF: How about you? When you began writ­ing Ellen’s char­ac­ter, how did you form her rela­tion­ship to faith and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty? Were there any spe­cif­ic texts or expe­ri­ences that you had in mind?

HZ: I think, in every gen­er­a­tion, there is usu­al­ly one per­son in a fam­i­ly who is inter­est­ed in the past, who wants to under­stand the sto­ries. With­in her assim­i­lat­ed, twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish fam­i­ly, Ellen Mar­go­lis is that per­son (to her mother’s con­ster­na­tion!), and a sig­nif­i­cant part of what draws her to the Jew­ish past is the silence that sur­rounds it. Her desire to plumb the unspo­ken leads her to her work with Holo­caust sur­vivors. We read a lot of his­tor­i­cal nov­els that attempt to give us a pic­ture of the past. I want­ed to write a nov­el about what it means to live in the after­math of his­to­ry and to live with not know­ing, which is the sit­u­a­tion for most of us.

Ellen’s inter­est in her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty isn’t only about the past. She and her part­ner, Francine, are plan­ning a wed­ding. The year is 1997, and in the absence of legal mar­riage, Ellen and Francine seek legit­i­ma­cy in the rit­u­als of the Jew­ish wed­ding. They both feel a sol­id con­nec­tion to a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and they want to take part in a tra­di­tion that con­nects them to thou­sands of years of Jew­ish his­to­ry. Ellen’s ques­tion is not one of faith, but of belonging.

HZ: What about Willa? Willa is a young woman who falls in love with anoth­er young woman, who imag­ines a wed­ding cake and chil­dren. But, when she sees an Ortho­dox cou­ple on the sub­way, Willa is strick­en with shame. She seems deeply con­flict­ed about the rela­tion­ship between her sex­u­al­i­ty and her faith, even ask­ing a rab­bi whether it is pos­si­ble to be both les­bian and Jew­ish. I admit, I found these pas­sages both sur­pris­ing and painful – painful because, like Willa’s will­ing­ness to be pre­sumed het­ero­sex­u­al for the length of a Jew­ish young adult roots trip, they remind­ed me of a time not long ago when gay men and les­bians lived lives of fear in the clos­et, a time I lived through. And sur­pris­ing, because, twen­ty years after the women of my gen­er­a­tion were chant­i­ng in the streets and blaz­ing a path toward mar­riage equal­i­ty, Willa (and to a degree, Hes­per as well) are still strug­gling to claim their place in the world. What’s hap­pen­ing for them?

AF: Willa is divid­ing the world into safe spaces and unsafe spaces through­out the whole book, hedg­ing about whether peo­ple will accept her. In some cas­es, she wor­ries about being accept­ed because of her queer­ness, and in oth­ers, she wor­ries about her faith mark­ing her as dif­fer­ent. Nowa­days, when you live in a gen­er­al­ly accept­ing envi­ron­ment in a lib­er­al city, some­times you assume that every­one accepts you, and you can get snapped back into this real­i­ty when you remem­ber that not every­one does. I want­ed to explore that, because it’s such a recent phe­nom­e­non that a queer per­son might auto­mat­i­cal­ly be accept­ed by every­one. One of the peo­ple whom Willa fears rejec­tion from the most is a reli­gious fig­ure, and I want­ed that to be there because if you’re reli­gious, that com­mu­ni­ty is who you seek accep­tance from the most. When a reli­gious author­i­ty fig­ure rejects you, it’s not just one per­son reject­ing you. It feels like a whole com­mu­ni­ty turn­ing against you. For Hes­per, the stakes are much low­er because she sees her­self as an indi­vid­ual, and doesn’t crave accep­tance from a par­tic­u­lar group.

AF: I found the set­ting of your book inter­est­ing. You men­tioned your expe­ri­ences in the 90s. Could you talk more about why you decid­ed to set the book in that time and place?

HZ: I think you are so right about the assump­tions peo­ple make about where we are in terms of accep­tance, and that this is some­thing that is still chang­ing — not always in a for­ward direc­tion. That’s some­thing I need­ed to address in Paper is White as a nov­el about mar­riage equal­i­ty set in the 1990s, but pub­lished in 2018, when that con­cept had shift­ed so rad­i­cal­ly. I would like to say that I chose” to set the nov­el in 1997, but the time real­ly pre­sent­ed itself, in part, if you can believe it, because I wrote the very first lit­tle pieces of the nov­el then. In ret­ro­spect, the 90s were such a hope­ful time in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, a time of a great par­a­digm shift in LGBTQ his­to­ry, and the nov­el, for that rea­son, has become a his­tor­i­cal nov­el about the grass­roots of mar­riage equal­i­ty. At the time I was writ­ing, I was also think­ing of the 90s as a fraught, tran­si­tion­al point in our under­stand­ing of the Holo­caust because sur­vivors were start­ing to become very old and that liv­ing his­to­ry to feel so frag­ile. As a writer, I’m inter­est­ed in what it means to be alive on this plan­et right now, and one of the inter­est­ing things about hav­ing writ­ten a nov­el set in the not-too-dis­tant past is appre­ci­at­ing, through it, how much has changed so quickly,in some­thing as seem­ing­ly fixed as the set­ting. The Bay Area of 1997 is worlds away, now, from the Bay Area of 2019, and I miss it!

HZ: This leads me to a ques­tion I had about the rela­tion­ship between Willa and his­to­ry. You’ve men­tioned the impor­tance of the dis­tance Willa’s gen­er­a­tion has from the trau­mas of her grand­par­ents and par­ents. I was struck when Willa describes a trau­mat­ic moment from her own past: when she is a child, a Hebrew school teacher yells at her for wear­ing a red coat. Because the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List died. It seems the lit­tle girl in the movie about the Holo­caust has become a proxy for the Holo­caust itself.

AF: That’s such an inter­est­ing way to view that mem­o­ry. To be hon­est, I includ­ed that scene because it hap­pened to me when I was in Hebrew school; I was about eight or nine, and I loved that red coat. I was com­plete­ly unpre­pared for the teacher’s response when I came into that room. One rea­son I have Willa recall the inci­dent in dia­logue, rather than show­ing it in flash­back, was that I don’t remem­ber the details super clear­ly — only the refrain of her yelling, It will hap­pen again.

Now, I think about what it must be like to feel such an intense bur­den of respon­si­bil­i­ty about teach­ing the past to gen­er­a­tions who will grow up detached from it. What would dri­ve a per­son to tell a room full of third- and fourth-graders that anoth­er geno­cide is right around the cor­ner. She must have felt so strong­ly that she need­ed to warn us of that danger.

When I thought about Willa’s con­nec­tion to the past, and how in some ways it leaves her spin­ning in this kind of lim­i­nal space between hon­or­ing those who came before her and masochis­ti­cal­ly retrac­ing their steps, this mem­o­ry seemed to fit real­ly nice­ly. When Willa relates this trau­mat­ic mem­o­ry, it’s to a group of strangers dur­ing an ice­break­er. I want­ed to choose a real­ly squirmy moment for her to say this because it high­lights her dif­fer­ence from the oth­ers in the group right away. She isn’t speak­ing the same lan­guage as the oth­er par­tic­i­pants in the Jew­ish young adult tour group. Lat­er, Willa’s can­dor and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty set the scene for her friend­ship with Bren, who ends up being a real source of emo­tion­al sup­port for her. I loved writ­ing their friend­ship, and I want­ed to have some­one in the nar­ra­tive who views Willa’s faith as some­thing admirable, if mysterious.

AF: What did you have in mind as you wrote the trau­ma in Paper is White? Ellen’s work as an oral his­to­ri­an allows for such can­did con­ver­sa­tions about the events of the 1930s and 40s. I was par­tic­u­lar­ly struck by one obser­va­tion by a Holo­caust sur­vivor ear­ly on in the book, who says: These young peo­ple are very shy, very timid about the past.” I notice that in Ellen’s inter­views, these events are often detailed in blunt, mat­ter-of-fact tones. I won­dered if that styl­is­tic choice was influ­enced by that idea of con­fronting trau­ma? What sorts of things did you have in mind when devel­op­ing the voice of this story?

HZ: There are so many ways to respond to what hap­pens to us, includ­ing silence, includ­ing telling our sto­ries. I want­ed, above all, through this nov­el to explore the ques­tion about the impact of stay­ing silent about our expe­ri­ence and not to answer that ques­tion in any defin­i­tive way, but to see the ways in which silence can be a tool of sur­vival for some — like Eliz­a­beth Lan­dau, the char­ac­ter you just men­tioned — and a very destruc­tive force, as it was for Ellen’s dis­ser­ta­tion advi­sor, Annie Tal­bot. Eliz­a­beth Lan­dau is a sur­vivor who has come to a point in her life in which she decides it is time to tell her story,and from that point on, there’s no hold­ing her back. That’s true of the real per­son who inspired that char­ac­ter, a Holo­caust sur­vivor named Lucille Eichen­green who spoke to an under­grad­u­ate Eng­lish class I taught at UC Berke­ley, and who wrote her own mem­oir about her expe­ri­ences. I think that blunt­ness is a tool of sur­vival. At the same time, we learn that Eliz­a­beth and her hus­band (not based on Lucille’s life), also a sur­vivor, nev­er spoke to each oth­er about their expe­ri­ences dur­ing the war. And Elizabeth’s sis­ter, like Lucille’s real sis­ter, faint­ed when she saw com­mer­cials for Schindler’s List.

HZ: Speak­ing of the inter­gen­er­a­tional trans­mis­sion of trau­ma … Your nov­el is about two young women who have a famil­iar his­to­ry of geno­cide. Hes­per, Willa’s ex-girl­friend, dis­cov­ers on a fam­i­ly roots trip to the for­mer Sovi­et Repub­lic of Geor­gia that her grand­fa­ther escaped as a child from a geno­cide in north­ern Europe and that what every­one thought was his birth fam­i­ly in fact were the peo­ple who res­cued him. One of the novel’s threads is the dis­cov­ery of Hesper’s fam­i­ly his­to­ry. Giv­en that the nov­el has sent these two women on sep­a­rate paths, what was your plan in giv­ing them these par­al­lel his­to­ries, and are they a reflec­tions of or foils for each oth­er? Also, I have encoun­tered read­ers who com­plain that sto­ries about the Holo­caust ele­vate it above oth­er tragedies, or some­how give the upper hand on loss to the Jews.Did you feel like it was impor­tant to reflect that there are oth­er geno­cides in the world?

AF: Hesper’s fam­i­ly his­to­ry was some­thing that came along lat­er in the game as I was work­ing on the nov­el. I knew that I want­ed her grand­fa­ther to be from a for­mer Sovi­et coun­try, and that he’d escaped when the rest of his fam­i­ly had not, but the details of their fam­i­ly his­to­ry came togeth­er rel­a­tive­ly late in her char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. For Willa, grow­ing up in the shad­ow of the Holo­caust was very out in the open, although shroud­ed in silence. Since Willa was very young, it’s been known that this atroc­i­ty hap­pened, and if she had been born a few decades ear­li­er in a dif­fer­ent part of the world, she would’ve died in the Holo­caust. At least, that’s how she’s thought of it– that her sur­vival is pure­ly by chance. For Hes­per, the rev­e­la­tion that her grand­fa­ther escaped from a geno­cide is a com­plete sur­prise. Hes­per hasn’t ever con­sid­ered her life as a stroke of luck, or had to think about fight­ing for sur­vival being a part of her fam­i­ly his­to­ry. The end of the book finds Hes­per grap­pling with the past and start­ing to tack­le this dark­ness, but not real­ly hav­ing an idea how to go about it. The last words of Hesper’s sto­ry are in a lan­guage that wasn’t mine.” I meant that lit­er­al­ly — she’s piec­ing togeth­er words in Geor­gian through Google Trans­late — but also fig­u­ra­tive­ly, that Hes­per is learn­ing to see his­to­ry through a lens that she nev­er had to access before, and she’ll have to reck­on with that past and what it means to her and to her family.

To answer the last part of your ques­tion, yes, it was impor­tant to me to reflect the oth­er geno­cides that have hap­pened in the world besides the Holo­caust. I’ve also heard that opin­ion dis­cussed and I find it com­pelling. I tried to inject moments of that aware­ness in Willa’s nar­ra­tive, too.

AF: I would love to hear about what influ­enced Paper is White. What were you read­ing (or watching/​listening to/​thinking about) while you worked on this project? Were there any voic­es in par­tic­u­lar that shaped Ellen’s world?

HZ: Most direct­ly, this nov­el project was influ­enced by the death of my grand­moth­er. I was very close to her grow­ing up, and she was the per­son in my fam­i­ly who held the his­to­ry. She was a Hadas­sah Woman of the Year and the only per­son in my fam­i­ly who still went to Shab­bat ser­vices. I want­ed to write a nov­el that memo­ri­al­ized my love for her and was about some­thing I thought would be mean­ing­ful to her, which is Jew­ish sur­vival. At the time these seeds began to ger­mi­nate, I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent study­ing Eng­lish Roman­tic poet­ry. My under­grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion, too, focused on poet­ry, and, for­mal­ly, the rhythms of lyric poet­ry are strong influ­ences for my work. Milton’s Par­adise Lost is an influ­ence here and, above all, the Wordswor­thi­an con­cep­tion of time, which was also the top­ic of my doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion. For the last few years, I’ve been think­ing about sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism, and my cur­rent nov­el project takes that as its plot.

HZ: What about you? What are you work­ing on next?

AF: I’ve been work­ing on a new nov­el for a few years now and it’s been a messy, chaot­ic process so far, very unlike how Willa & Hes­per was in the ear­ly stages. The new nov­el is a fam­i­ly dra­ma about addic­tion, redemp­tion, trau­ma, and Inter­net friend­ships. The nov­el begins (at least right now) with one of the pro­tag­o­nists being led from their high school after a class­mate brings a gun in his back­pack, but it’s con­fis­cat­ed. So right from the start, there’s this ten­sion esca­lat­ing between what almost hap­pened and how to move past that jolt of thwart­ed dan­ger, and whether that ever leaves you. I’m inter­est­ed in explor­ing issues of gen­der and class in this book, too. After writ­ing such a per­son­al book, I’m try­ing to get away from myself a bit with this one, though you can only run so far!

Amy Felt­man grad­u­at­ed with an M.F.A. in Fic­tion from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty in 2016, and now works at Poets & Writ­ers Mag­a­zine. Her writ­ing has appeared in The Believ­er log­ger, The Toast, The Mil­lions, The Rum­pus, Lilith Mag­a­zine, Slice Mag­a­zine, and else­where. Her short sto­ry, Specu­loos,” was nom­i­nat­ed for a Push­cart Prize in 2016 and was long-list­ed for Glim­mer Train’s Short Sto­ry Award for New Writers.

Hilary Zaid has been a Ten­nessee Williams Schol­ar at the Sewa­nee Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence, a James D. Hous­ton Fel­low at the Com­mu­ni­ty of Writ­ers and a two-time atten­dance of Tin House Writ­ers’ Work­shop. Her work has appeared in Moth­er Jones, Eco­tone, Day One, Lilith Mag­a­zine, and else­where. Long-list­ed for the 2018 North­ern Cal­i­for­nia Inde­pen­dent Book­sellers’ Award for Fic­tion, her nov­el Paper is White is a 2018 Fore­word Indies sil­ver medal­ist and the win­ner of the 2018 Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­ers’ Book Awards (IPPY) in LGBT+ Fic­tion. Her nov­el For­get I Told You This, is the inau­gur­al win­ner of the Bar­bara DiBernard Award.