Author pho­to cour­tesy of the author

Francine Klags­brun spoke with Johan­na Kaplan about her lat­est book, Loss of Mem­o­ry Is Only Tem­po­rary: Sto­ries.

Francine Klags­brun: Your sto­ries are beau­ti­ful­ly orig­i­nal; each seems to open up a uni­verse of its own. What led you to fic­tion writ­ing? Were there writ­ers in your fam­i­ly before you? Did you start writ­ing as a child and did your fam­i­ly encour­age you?

Johan­na Kaplan: I come from a sto­ry-telling fam­i­ly. Both my par­ents were unstint­ing in talk­ing about their own lives, and the lives of their quite dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies – their child­hoods, their ear­ly work lives, and in my father’s sto­ries, his Low­er East Side child­hood neigh­bor­hood. His accounts were filled with unique, wry humor and a near ven­tril­o­quism, his innate gift. My moth­er was a very dif­fer­ent kind of nar­ra­tor, intense­ly impas­sioned. She filled her sto­ries with the inti­mate details of the trou­bles and tri­umphs of shtetl life from her own youth, and fre­quent­ly includ­ed accounts of Europe’s Jew­ish past. Though I was a great read­er as a child, I kept my wish to become a writer most­ly to myself, since my Depres­sion-bat­tered par­ents did not encour­age it.

FK: The char­ac­ters in your short sto­ries are very dif­fer­ent from on anoth­er. Yet there is a sense of irony and humor that marks many of them. When writ­ing a sto­ry do you begin with a char­ac­ter you want to cre­ate and let that being shape your nar­ra­tive, or do you have a sto­ry­line in mind and fit your char­ac­ters into it?

JK: Almost all my sto­ries are begun with a phrase or a sen­tence I hear” in my mind’s ear. Then I have to find out who that per­son is, to whom he or she is speak­ing, and what those lives are all about. From there, the sto­ry evolves. Some­times I know from the start what a char­ac­ter is wear­ing, even if I don’t yet see” the whole per­son clear­ly. I’ve found inspi­ra­tion from oth­er sources as well: a news­pa­per arti­cle, an obit­u­ary, the face of a per­son I’d see on the bus or in a store.

FK: Any­one who has read your work imme­di­ate­ly notices your uncan­ny abil­i­ty to con­vey per­fect­ly the voice of your char­ac­ters, whether the Ger­man-born Maria, in Oth­er Peo­ple’s Lives,” or the Israeli play­wright, Amnon, in Sour or Sun­tanned…”. Is that per­fect pitch” in writ­ing relat­ed in any way to the beau­ti­ful singing voice I hap­pen to know you have? Or is it a desire and abil­i­ty to real­ly lis­ten to peo­ple when they speak?

JK: I don’t have lit­er­al per­fect pitch, but for singing and for lis­ten­ing to music my sense of pitch is winc­ing­ly accu­rate. Luck­i­ly, that same qual­i­ty obtains for near­ly anyone’s speak­ing voice, though for an unfa­mil­iar accent, I do have to hear it many times to set it in my ear. The con­nec­tion between music and cre­at­ing dia­logue? A good ear is the basis for both.

I think my sto­ries res­onate today because the path­ways to the heart and mind are uni­ver­sal and unchang­ing, as is the hunger for stories.

FK: Sev­er­al of your char­ac­ters have psy­chi­atric con­nec­tions, such as Louise, the for­mer men­tal patient, in Oth­er Peo­ple’s Lives,” and Nao­mi, the young psy­chi­a­trist in the title sto­ry, Loss of Mem­o­ry…” In your own life, you taught chil­dren hos­pi­tal­ized for psy­chi­atric ill­ness. Was this always an area of inter­est to you? How did that inter­est influ­ence your writ­ing in general?

JK: My moth­er was a psy­chi­atric social work­er who missed her ear­li­er pro­fes­sion­al life so much that she often talked about it when she was at home before she did go back to work. My father, a teacher, often brought home col­leagues with prob­lems,” and my moth­er would close the kitchen door as she prac­ticed her pro­fes­sion with­out charge. I had done some tutor­ing of chil­dren hos­pi­tal­ized for psy­chi­atric ill­ness in col­lege, so that when it was time for me to earn a liv­ing, teach­ing these chil­dren seemed an easy choice. Much of my work reflects the dis­tinct ambi­ence and under­stand­ing I gleaned in my unusu­al teach­ing years since my class­room and stu­dents were locat­ed in the Child Psy­chi­a­try depart­ment of a major hospital.

FK: Your sto­ries cen­ter on Jew­ish char­ac­ters and fre­quent­ly Jew­ish New York. Yet they res­onate uni­ver­sal­ly. Do you think Jew­ish writ­ers have a spe­cial respon­si­bil­i­ty in the way they han­dle their sub­ject matter?

JK: The major­i­ty of my sto­ries, and my nov­el, O My Amer­i­ca! cen­ter around NYC Jew­ish char­ac­ters, both immi­grants and Amer­i­can born, and all my sto­ries reach across sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions. Yet, as a life­long New York­er, the vibrant, hec­tic voic­es of that great mul­ti­tude of city-dwellers are always with­in my lis­ten­ing ear. I think my sto­ries res­onate today because the path­ways to the heart and mind are uni­ver­sal and unchang­ing, as is the hunger for sto­ries. Still, for me, as a Jew­ish writer, ear­ly imbued with the con­cept that all Jews are respon­si­ble for one anoth­er (Kol Yis­rael are­vim zeh la zeh), when I con­sid­er the recent shock­ing rise of anti­semitism in our own Gold­en Dias­po­ra”, and am writ­ing about Jews whose behav­ior is rep­re­hen­si­ble, doesn’t some mea­sure of ambiva­lence, if not con­flict arise?

FK: How much Jew­ish edu­ca­tion did you have – Hebrew school, Jew­ish camps? Do you speak Yid­dish as well as Hebrew, or read Yid­dish literature?

JK: My ear­ly Jew­ish edu­ca­tion was lim­it­ed to after-school Hebrew School, but Rab­bi Israel Miller’s Hebrew School at the Kings­bridge Heights Jew­ish Can­ter was so superb that it came to be deemed a mod­el. I did always go to Jew­ish camps, first Kindervelt, and then to Camp Habon­im, the Labor Zion­ist Youth Movement’s sum­mer­time attempt at repli­cat­ing kib­butz life, then in its hey­day. It’s to Habonim’s year-round activ­i­ties that I cred­it my mid-lev­el con­ver­sa­tion­al Hebrew, and a height­ened over­all Jewish/​Hebrew/​Israel edu­ca­tion. As for the child­hood Yid­dish I once knew, it had long dis­ap­peared into mere par­tial under­stand­ing. Still, recent­ly, I’ve found to my amaze­ment, that sole­ly at unsus­pect­ing moments, a vagrant phrase or an entire Yid­dish sen­tence will jump into my head and onto my stunned lips; that strik­ing reveal means I know more Yid­dish than I’ve real­ized. A result of the Pandemic’s iso­la­tion, perhaps?

FK: Read­ers often con­fuse fic­tion­al writ­ing with a writer’s real life. In what way, if any, do you draw on your own biog­ra­phy in your writ­ing? Did you real­ly have a great-aunt who became a doc­tor and knew Isaac Babel, as in your sto­ry, Fam­i­ly Obligations”?

JK: I did have a great-aunt who’d had to serve as a doc­tor on a Red Army train going to the bat­tle­fields of East­ern Europe in the 1919 – 20 civ­il war, but she was not on the same train as Isaac Babel, nor did she know him. But since Babel did trav­el on a sim­i­lar train to the Front as a war cor­re­spon­dent (Red Cav­al­ry), I put the two of them togeth­er on the same train, and had him write a fic­tion­al report – my imag­ined account of my great-aunt’s life in that peri­od. Still, even sophis­ti­cat­ed read­ers can con­fuse a sto­ry that appears to be auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal with the writer’s real life; in my sto­ries, when there is an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal ker­nel I’m aware of, it has always been great­ly trans­formed. So fic­tion read­ers should keep in mind that a nar­rat­ing voice is just that: the voice a writer has cho­sen to tell a par­tic­u­lar story.

FK: Can you tell us some­thing about what you are work­ing on now?

JK: I’m work­ing on a short sto­ry with an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal root that then goes far afield (“Almost 1950”), and a nov­el, tem­porar­i­ly titled For­bid­den.” I’d put that book aside for a while because some of its char­ac­ters, mem­bers of a very wealthy, very high-achiev­ing Jew­ish fam­i­ly behaved in such shock­ing ways that it made me uncom­fort­able. But they kept talk­ing to me any­way, so I have had to go back.

Francine Klags­brun is the author of numer­ous books, most recent­ly Hen­ri­et­ta Szold: Hadas­sah and the Zion­ist Dream, part of the Jew­ish Lives series pub­lished by Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Her pre­vi­ous book, Lioness: Gold Meir and the Nation of Israel, was named the Everett Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion Book of the Year for the 2017 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards. She was the edi­tor of the best-sell­ing book Free To Be…You and Me and wrote opin­ion columns for many years in both the Jew­ish Week and Moment mag­a­zine. Her writ­ings have also appeared in such nation­al pub­li­ca­tions as The New York TimesBoston GlobeNewsweek, and Ms.