Author pho­to by Kyrre Kristoffersen

Ben­jamin Selesnick speaks with Andrew Rid­ker about his soph­more nov­el Hope. They explore the Jew­ish­ness of guilt, shift­ing fam­i­ly dynam­ics, and Amer­i­can Jew­ish privilege. 

Ben­jamin Selesnick: Hope involves more con­ver­sa­tions on Judaism and Jew­ish insti­tu­tions than your pre­vi­ous nov­el, The Altru­ists. What com­pelled you towards this change? What role do you see Judaism play­ing in Hope?

Andrew Rid­ker: I’m tempt­ed to say it’s a sim­ple mat­ter of geog­ra­phy. Hope is set in my home­town of Brook­line, Mass­a­chu­setts, which has some­thing like eleven dif­fer­ent syn­a­gogues. The Altru­ists is set in St. Louis, where you might have a hard time assem­bling a minyan. 

But things are rarely so sim­ple. In the four years that passed between the nov­els, I start­ed think­ing more about my Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. The sub­ject began to feel more artis­ti­cal­ly fruit­ful. The nov­el I’m writ­ing now leans even hard­er into the sub­ject. At this rate, I’ll be Ortho­dox by 2025.

In Hope, I was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the way that Jew­ish cul­ture and his­to­ry impose them­selves on a mod­ern, sec­u­lar, Amer­i­can fam­i­ly. Their syn­a­gogue is not so much a place of wor­ship as a site of social jus­tice. Israel to them is less a holy land than a polit­i­cal (and sex­u­al) bat­tle­ground. I’m not pass­ing judg­ment on these devel­op­ments, but I think they are noteworthy. 

BS: All of the Greenspans car­ry sig­nif­i­cant guilt — for uneth­i­cal work prac­tices, infi­deli­ty, their priv­i­lege, and try­ing to strike out on their own against the will or wants of the fam­i­ly. Can you speak to the cen­tral­i­ty of guilt in the novel?

AR: Guilt is a very Jew­ish feel­ing. Maybe it’s the pres­sure that comes with being told we’re God’s cho­sen peo­ple. Maybe it’s our moth­ers. What­ev­er the cause, guilt plays a major role in my life, and in the lives of my char­ac­ters, regard­less of whether I (or they) have done some­thing wrong. 

That, to me, is the crux of the mat­ter: the guilt is there no mat­ter what. It’s one thing to feel guilty for cheat­ing on a boyfriend or com­mit­ting fraud, to cite two exam­ples from the book. In those cas­es, guilt is not only appro­pri­ate, it may even be required. But feel­ing guilty about one’s priv­i­lege, or for going against the will of one’s family…these are murki­er waters. There is a lot of dra­ma in trans­gres­sion, and it’s cer­tain­ly fun to write, but my char­ac­ters would prob­a­bly feel guilty even if they led moral­ly impec­ca­ble lives. I don’t know what it’s like to be any oth­er way.

BS: Both Hope and The Altru­ists have char­ac­ters, whose lives start­ed in the sub­urbs, ulti­mate­ly going over­seas to more impov­er­ished and war torn nations to try and find them­selves and do good.” What drew you to this top­ic and con­tin­ues to inter­est you?

AR: Years ago, when I was apply­ing to col­lege, it was con­sid­ered savvy to go on some kind of ser­vice trip to round out your resumé. One friend, I remem­ber, went to build hous­es in the Domini­can Repub­lic. There’s noth­ing wrong with that on the face of it — ser­vice is ser­vice, how­ev­er cyn­i­cal the moti­va­tions — but it struck me as a par­tic­u­lar­ly Amer­i­can phe­nom­e­non, this impulse to go to far­away places with the idea of fix­ing” them. Grow­ing up in the Bush era, it wasn’t hard to see the sim­i­lar­i­ties between these kinds of trips and America’s mis­guid­ed attempts to spread democ­ra­cy” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Hope, I ini­tial­ly set out to tack­le Birthright. Some­thing like 700,000 young Jews have gone on trips spon­sored by that orga­ni­za­tion, and yet I’d nev­er seen it dra­ma­tized in nov­el form. (Sarah Glid­den has a great graph­ic mem­oir on the sub­ject, How to Under­stand Israel in 60 Days or Less.) More and more, young peo­ple were walk­ing off these trips in protest of the government’s treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans, or at least the one-sid­ed­ness of the tour agenda.

I was also read­ing about the Syr­i­an Civ­il War, and the young Amer­i­can social­ists — many from the sub­urbs, a num­ber of them Jew­ish — who vol­un­teered to fight on behalf of the Kurds. The pod­cast­er Brace Belden is prob­a­bly the best-known of these vol­un­teer soldiers.

It’s no coin­ci­dence that left-lean­ing Jews were drawn to the cause. The Kur­dish leader Abdul­lah Öcalan’s phi­los­o­phy of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­fed­er­al­ism — which empha­sizes direct democ­ra­cy, envi­ron­men­tal­ism, fem­i­nism — chimes in many ways with the val­ues I was raised on in my pro­gres­sive Jew­ish sub­urb. In fact, Öcalan him­self was influ­enced by a Jew­ish-Amer­i­can social the­o­rist by the (fan­tas­tic) name of Mur­ray Bookchin. I start­ed think­ing about how an unmoored young man like Gideon Greenspan might find his way from a planned and reg­i­ment­ed Birthright trip to the chaos of a near­by war zone.

These mis­ad­ven­tures abroad serve dif­fer­ent func­tions in each book. In The Altru­ists, the patri­arch, Arthur, goes to Zim­bab­we with osten­si­bly good inten­tions, but he’s blind­ed by per­son­al ambi­tion and ends up caus­ing a dis­as­ter. In Hope, Gideon goes to Syr­ia with sim­i­lar inten­tions and blind spots, but begins to sus­pect he’s not see­ing action because an Amer­i­can is worth more to the cause alive than dead. He can’t escape his priv­i­lege, in the end. Even in Syr­ia, he’s still a Greenspan.

Guilt is a very Jew­ish feel­ing. Maybe it’s the pres­sure that comes with being told we’re God’s cho­sen peo­ple. Maybe it’s our mothers.

BS: It’s rare to see par­ents in a fam­i­ly nov­el be in an open rela­tion­ship, which Scott and Deb Greenspan are. What made you want to explore this type of rela­tion­ship with­in the con­text of a fam­i­ly novel?

AR: A decade ago, I would have asso­ci­at­ed open mar­riages with key par­ties and oth­er prod­ucts of the sex­u­al rev­o­lu­tion. But in recent years, open mar­riages have become increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar among cou­ples (or throu­ples) of all gen­er­a­tions and ori­en­ta­tions. Even Bill de Bla­sio has one! 

I was already writ­ing about a cou­ple, Scott and Deb, who see them­selves as some­what excep­tion­al — and still haunt­ed by desire. They have every­thing they could pos­si­bly want, but they want more. An open mar­riage, as a metaphor, seemed to fit this fam­i­ly: you get the sta­bil­i­ty of your long-term part­ner, plus the free­dom to explore. At least, that’s the idea.

BS: Your won­der­ful sense of humor is one of the most strik­ing aspects of both your nov­els. Do you have any comedic writ­ers or oth­er comedic artists that par­tic­u­lar­ly inform your writing?

AR: Com­e­dy has always played an enor­mous role in my life. On the lit­er­ary side, I love writ­ers who can make me laugh: John Kennedy Toole, Fran Ross, Lor­rie Moore, Paul Beat­ty. But long before I was read­ing seri­ous com­ic fic­tion — not the oxy­moron it appears to be — I was watch­ing Mel Brooks movies, lis­ten­ing to George Car­lin albums, and watch­ing Cheri Oteri on SNL. My sis­ter, Ele­na, works in tele­vi­sion, and the two of us have been writ­ing com­e­dy pilots and oth­er scripts in recent years. There’s noth­ing more sat­is­fy­ing to me than get­ting a big laugh out of her.

BS: The sto­ries of the four Greenspan’s are told in their own sec­tions and in many ways play out in sep­a­ra­tion to the oth­ers. What brought you towards this struc­ture? Did you dis­cov­er it along the way or was it some­thing you’d been con­sid­er­ing before you wrote the novel?

AR: I had a sense from the begin­ning that I want­ed the nov­el to be a kind of relay race, with each char­ac­ter car­ry­ing the baton for eighty or nine­ty pages before pass­ing it on. That pre­sent­ed cer­tain lim­i­ta­tions, but I find lim­i­ta­tions to be nec­es­sary, even help­ful, when I’m start­ing a project. The sto­ry takes shape around those lim­i­ta­tions. It seemed fit­ting that a book about a frac­tured fam­i­ly would be chopped up into iso­lat­ed sections.

The idea was to keep the nov­el mov­ing for­ward while allow­ing for those Rashomon moments, when a giv­en event is seen from an oppos­ing point of view. To me, that’s what it’s like to live in a fam­i­ly, when mul­ti­ple or even con­tra­dic­to­ry truths can be found under a sin­gle roof. 

BS: Maya and Gideon have par­tic­u­lar­ly rocky rela­tion­ships with the par­ent of their same gen­der: Maya resents Deb’s over­bear­ing and moral­is­tic stance towards her, and Gideon, long hav­ing stood in the foot­steps of his father, is par­tic­u­lar­ly rocked by the news of his father’s pro­fes­sion­al wrong­do­ings. Can you speak on these dynamics?

AR: I don’t want to speak in gen­er­al­i­ties, but in my expe­ri­ence, at least, the chil­dren of het­ero­sex­u­al part­ner­ships tend to have more intense feel­ings about the par­ent of their same gen­der. I dis­tinct­ly remem­ber hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with my sis­ter some years ago when we real­ized that each of us were involved in these one-way psy­chodra­mas with our par­ents that broke down on gen­der lines. I don’t know that father-son or moth­er-daugh­ter rela­tion­ships are always rock­i­er, but they seem more volatile, more com­pet­i­tive — more dra­mat­ic. Then again, Philip Roth and Sopho­cles might disagree.

BS: What are you cur­rent­ly read­ing and writing? 

AR: I’m always read­ing nov­els, new and old. Some recent high­lights: My Phan­toms by Gwen­do­line Riley, Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence, The Guest by Emma Cline, Of Human Bondage by Som­er­set Maugh­am, The Lost Week­end by Charles Jack­son, The Veg­an by Andrew Lip­stein, The Tremor of Forgery by Patri­cia High­smith, Orfeo by Richard Pow­ers, Decent Peo­ple by De’Shawn Winslow, The Fam­i­ly Carnovsky by I.J. Singer, Mr. Bridge by Evan Con­nell, Sec­ond Place by Rachel Cusk. I’ve been priv­i­leged to read two new nov­els by friends, San­je­na Sathi­an and Lee Cole, in man­u­script. Keep your eyes peeled for those next year.

I’m work­ing on an his­tor­i­cal nov­el right now, so I’ve also been read­ing a lot of non­fic­tion for research. Apart from that, I like lis­ten­ing to biogra­phies — Jonathan Eig’s new book on Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. was a stand­out, as was Whit­tak­er Cham­bers by Sam Tanenhaus.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.