We prompted this year’s Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about “how they came to write their book.” Over the past several weeks, we shared their responses:
- Digging Deep into the Soul in the Heart of Iowa (Stuart Nadler)
- Writing a Rooster (Asaf Schurr)
- Writing Forever Stories (Shani Boianjiu)
- Working Against the Image of the Conventional Novel (Ben Lerner)
With the twentieth century vivid in our collective memory, it is perhaps unsurprising that we in the European Jewish communities can be more cautious about drawing attention to ourselves. And so for a Jewish writer, to come from that climate to this one is an elixir. To breathe the air in New York is instantly to become braver, and once it is deep in your lungs, it inoculates for life against that old, old fear. To write honestly— to write social satire, even — does not arm our enemies against us, it merely says the obvious: that in our struggles and strengths we are human, just like everybody else. The UK’s Jewish cultural scene is burgeoning, too — our first ever JCC will open soon, and Jewish Book Week has become a hugely impressive landmark in literary London. But there’s still a lot of catching up to do. I am a British-American hybrid and until recently I believed that I was equally familiar with Jewish life on both sides of the Atlantic, but after the publication of my first novel, The Innocents, I began to understand that I had completely underestimated one extraordinary facet of Jewish-American life — that here there is a broad, deep support for and an appreciation of contemporary Jewish fiction. It is both humbling and inspiring, and the very existence of the Jewish Book Council is a testament to its impressive scale. Everywhere you look, there’s dialogue. There’s disagreement. There’s vibrancy. Like Judaism itself, Jewish literary life is a very broad tent. Texts; stories; debating our conflicting narratives; these are the ways in which the Jews have always asked our questions, how we’ve always argued, how we’ve solved our problems, but it is nonetheless an art that needs nurturing — and with the support of unique prizes like the Sami Rohr Prize it is nurtured in America, and it is nurtured openly. I do not take that for granted.
But in my late twenties, New York offered me something else that I found equally seductive. It offered anonymity, a draw with which my native London simply couldn’t compete. I left behind a warm, loving, supportive, and often somewhat claustrophobic community. Jewish life in England offers a great deal, but I needed to breathe. I needed perspective. I needed to live in a city, for a while, in which I didn’t bump into someone who knew me, or a member of my family, every time I left the house to buy a pint of milk. And I needed space from north-west London in order to be able to write freely about north-west London.Francesca Segal was born in London in 1980. Brought up between the UK and America, she studied at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, before becoming a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in Granta, Newsweek, theGuardian, the Financial Times, and Vogue UK and US, amongst many others. She has been a features writer atTatler, and for three years wrote the Debut Fiction column in the Observer.
And so it is perhaps no surprise that The Innocents was written during a period in which I was living in America, though it is, to its core, a very English novel. Set in the Jewish suburbs of contemporary north-west London, it explores the pressures and the expectations of life within that community. Adam Newman is newly engaged to Rachel Gilbert, who has been his girlfriend for more than a decade. Their lives and their families are entirely intertwined. Adam works for Rachel’s father, and has been going to the soccer with him since he was a teenager. And everything is easy and safe and settled and stable until Rachel’s cousin, Ellie, moves back to London from New York. If Rachel represents the values and climate of north-west London, Ellie embodies its antithesis — she is independent, promiscuous, vulnerable, palpably lonely, and Adam finds her deeply unsettling. She challenges him — but he also begins to understand the allure of everything she represents. She offers him a way out of the strictures, the judgment, and the increasing suffocation of everything he’d never thought to question.
It will not take the reader long to anticipate an impossible love triangle; beyond that, perhaps also to recognize that I have used the structure of Edith Wharton’s glorious, vicious, nostalgic novel The Age of Innocence as the foundation on which to build my own. It offered the perfect matrix on which to build a loving, honest, nuanced, and most importantly clear-eyed portrait of a world — a very specific world that I know inside-out, but which I was also certain would represent many others. With all its strengths, with all its foibles and weaknesses and rich, unexpected comedy, I believe the community in this novel could be almost any community, anywhere in the twenty-first century Diaspora. Anywhere there are Jewish parents trying to inculcate their children with Jewish values there will be Jewish sons struggling to live up to them; anywhere there is a Jewish life enfolded within a wider, secular city, there will be young people struggling to navigate a path between the security within, and the freedom without. Anywhere families build life-long friendships, there will be young adults who chafe against the restraints that that imposes, unable to define or redefine themselves before the knowing eyes of people who first met them in diapers. I wanted to write a novel that would resonate beyond the confines of the world that it depicts, and The Innocents was the result.
Francesca was born in London in 1980. Brought up between the UK and America, she studied at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, before becoming a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in Granta, Newsweek, the Guardian, the Financial Times, and Vogue UK and US, amongst many others. She has been a features writer at Tatler, and for three years wrote the Debut Fiction column in the Observer. The Innocents won the Jewish Book Award for Fiction and the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2013.