Sigal Samuel is the author of the debut novel The Mystics of Mile End, published this October by William Morrow.
Elie Lichtschein: The Mystics of Mile End is written from four distinct perspectives. How did you go about channeling these different voices? Were there any difficulties you faced in doing so?
Sigal Samuel: When I decided to write from the perspectives of a little boy, a middle-aged professor, a female college student, and an old man, I thought the hardest part would be accessing an authentic voice for each, but the trickier thing was actually staying “in the zone” of any one voice long enough to finish writing that character’s section. For a while, I actually had to give up reading fiction that was written in a vastly different voice from the one I was trying to create.
EL: A recurring theme in this book is that of the outsider standing on the fringes of a close-knit community. David, Samara, and Mr. Katz each manifest this at times. Which is a neat embodiment of the Kabbalah’s role in traditional Jewish study — it’s not meant to be examined until one is forty years of age, and even then only with a special tutor. Do you find that the study of Kabbalah is essential for a Jew’s intellectual development, or is it more supplementary in nature?
SS: I think it depends on the person. For many Jews, Kabbalah is unnecessary at best and heretical at worst. For me, it’s the most interesting (and moving, and radical, and literary!) thing that Judaism has to offer.
EL: What first inspired your interest in the mystical side of Judaism? Were you raised with it or did it develop later?
SS: My father was a professor of Jewish mysticism, so I was exposed to Kabbalistic texts and ideas from a young age. Once, when I was maybe eight years old, I sat in on one of his university lectures. Looking up from the flashing lights of my Gameboy, I saw that he was using a yoyo to illustrate the movement of the mystic’s soul as it ascends and descends on the path toward God. That was it — I was hooked.
EL: What other works informed your writing of this book? Which authors — classic or contemporary — were most influential while you worked on The Mystics of Mile End?
SS: I was inspired by Jewish works ranging from the ancient (Torah, Talmud) to the medieval (Zohar) to the modern (S.Y. Agnon) to the postmodern (Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss). The magical realist element in my fiction owes itself to contemporary Jewish writers (Etgar Keret, Jonathan Safran Foer) as well as South American writers (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges). While writing Mystics, I kept returning to my all-time favorite novel, Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov—the character of Alyosha Karamazov being a loose inspiration for Lev.
EL: I’m curious about your process in writing the book. Did you know from the outset that there would be four distinct voices, or was that a decision that came about once you had already begun writing?
SS: Originally, I tried writing the whole story from Samara’s perspective. But it felt claustrophobic to stay in the head of one increasingly insane narrator for 300 pages. So I tried writing it in four sections, with the final section written entirely from the perspective of the old neighbor, Mr. Glassman. But many readers told me that they wanted to return to Lev’s voice at the end of the book, since they’d bonded with him so strongly at the beginning. So I rewrote that last section from the point of view of the neighborhood, swiveling between the perspectives of a few residents (including Lev), and was happy with the result. I was surprised to find that the book could take so many different forms — it was almost infinitely malleable.
EL: You have a wonderful grasp on the lonely hope that is a major component to childhood — I found Lev’s constant attempts to set up his widowed father especially poignant. What are some of the difficulties in writing about childhood? Do you find it easier in your writing to grab the reigns of a twelve year old’s mind or that of an adult?
SS: I find it easier to inhabit an adult’s mind. Writing in a kid’s voice is tough because you have to remember that all kids, even precocious ones like Lev, are self-centered — they think the whole world revolves around them. I read Lev’s whole section out loud to myself to make sure every phrase sounded like something he would really say. Living in a child’s mind is also rewarding, though: it forces you to reconnect with your childhood self, to remember that experience in all its loneliness and lushness and confusion and awe.
EL: What do you hope readers will take away from The Mystics of Mile End?
SS: I think that some of us are so hungry for meaning that we get obsessed with certain ideas — often seductive religious or mystical ideas — and we forget that pursuing this obsession comes at a cost to the people around us. Without making any moral judgment about this, I wanted readers to consider what’s the value of devoting yourself to some notion of holiness if it means leaving behind those who love you most?
EL: What can readers expect from you next?
SS: I’m interested in writing about India these days. After I finished writing Mystics, I found out that my own family has a mystical connection — my great-great-grandfather was a revered Kabbalist in Bombay. I traveled there to hunt down his forgotten secret society and came back with a longform article for the Forward, “Searching for My Indian Jewish Family, from Kabbalah to Bollywood.” That trip left me with such powerful impressions — I wouldn’t be surprised if they find their way into my fiction.
EL: What are you reading now?
SS: I’m reading Sarah Wildman’s amazing memoir, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. On the surface, it’s a Holocaust story rooted in Vienna, but it’s also a story about growing obsessed with a deeply unreliable family mythology.
Elie Lichtschein is a writer and musician based in New York. He is currently pursuing an MFA degree in Creative Writing from the New School, where he is completing a mysti-fantasy Middle Grade adventure novel.
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