Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

So far this week:

  • Abi­gail Green brought our atten­tion to an ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry his­to­ry book for British chil­dren: Our Island Story
  • Jonathan B. Kras­ner revealed that one of his new projects focus­es on the evo­lu­tion of the term Tikkun Olam since World War II 
  • James Loef­fler lis­tens to puls­ing elec­tron­ic dance music while he writes

Today we hear from Ruth Franklin, a for­mer Net­work author and Vis­it­ing Scribe blog­ger (read her posts here). Ruth Franklin’s work, A Thou­sand Dark­ness­es: Lies and Truth in Holo­caust Fic­tion, was deemed an impor­tant, insight­ful, and per­cep­tive book about Holo­caust mem­oirs” by the Rohr Judges. 

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing non-fiction?

I love to do research — I could bury myself in the library for weeks on end, fol­low­ing tan­gents and chas­ing down obscure foot­notes. But all too often I wind up with gar­gan­tu­an notes files that can make it hard to see the big­ger pic­ture. The great­est chal­lenge for me is know­ing when to stop research­ing and start writing. 

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing non-fiction?

Many con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary jour­nal­ists and crit­ics inspire me: my edi­tor, Leon Wieselti­er, as well as James Wood, Daniel Mendel­sohn, Janet Mal­colm, Cyn­thia Ozick … the list is long. Look­ing back, Alfred Kazin is one of my mod­els: he goes deeply into the books he writes about, but also draws out their con­nec­tions to the real world we live in — and always with great clar­i­ty of style.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

I hope my book reach­es not only peo­ple who are inter­est­ed in Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture, but any­one who is con­cerned about how cat­a­stro­phe can be rep­re­sent­ed in art — and how faith­ful such rep­re­sen­ta­tions must be to the facts of his­to­ry. The false-mem­oir boom over the last decade, from Bin­jamin Wilkomirs­ki to James Frey, brought this pecu­liar form of lit­er­ary crime to the front pages. But the ques­tion of how to draw the con­tours of truth in fic­tion, from an artis­tic stand­point as well as an eth­i­cal one, has been around since the nov­el form was invent­ed, and it is far from clear-cut. My book is addressed to any­one who has ever read a nov­el and won­dered how much was based in real­i­ty — and whether it matters.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I’m writ­ing a biog­ra­phy of Shirley Jack­son, the author of the short sto­ry The Lot­tery” and the nov­el The Haunt­ing of Hill House, among many oth­er works. Jack­son, one of the defin­ing writ­ers of the mid­cen­tu­ry, was also a house­wife and moth­er, and much of her fic­tion explores the ten­sions of this dual role. My book is cen­tered around Jackson’s mar­riage to the sem­i­nal Jew­ish lit­er­ary crit­ic Stan­ley Edgar Hyman and the per­son­al and social com­plex­i­ties of their union. Many schol­ars believe that The Lot­tery” was inspired by the anti-Semi­tism that the cou­ple expe­ri­enced after mov­ing to an insu­lar New Eng­land town. Jack­son devot­ed much of her work to the cru­el­er aspects of human nature, par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious and racial prejudice. 

What are you read­ing now?

I’ve been immers­ing myself in books about Gertrude Stein for an event I just did with the schol­ar Bar­bara Will at the Muse­um of Jew­ish Her­itage. Will’s new book, Unlike­ly Col­lab­o­ra­tion: Ger­tude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilem­ma, tells the sto­ry of a lit­tle-known moment in Stein’s career when she active­ly pro­mot­ed the Vichy régime and even trans­lat­ed some of Pétain’s speech­es into Eng­lish. It rais­es some very inter­est­ing ques­tions about what exact­ly it means to be a col­lab­o­ra­tor and why some of the twen­ti­eth century’s great­est writ­ers also hap­pened to be fascists.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I’ve want­ed to be a writer since I was a lit­tle girl, when I would bang out sto­ries on my grandfather’s elec­tric type­writer. But for a long time I thought I would be an edi­tor instead. It wasn’t until I arrived at The New Repub­lic and was first asked to write book reviews that it seri­ous­ly occurred to me that I could do this for a living.

What is the moun­tain­top for you — how do you define success?

When I’ve writ­ten some­thing that is per­son­al­ly mean­ing­ful and it inspires oth­er peo­ple to think about the sub­ject in a new way, I feel successful.

How do you write — what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

I feel super­sti­tious about admit­ting this, but I have a lucky sweater that I wear on par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing days. It’s a big, rat­ty, unrav­el­ing, supreme­ly com­fort­able gray cardi­gan that I’ve owned for years. I nev­er wear it out of the house.

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

I hope read­ers will come away from my book with a new appre­ci­a­tion for the val­ue of fic­tion — all forms of art, real­ly — as a way of rep­re­sent­ing cat­a­stro­phe. As far back as humans can remem­ber, we have always used art to make sense of the world around us. But when it comes to the Holo­caust, art has been stig­ma­tized as detri­men­tal to col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. My book seeks to restore lit­er­a­ture to its prop­er place, argu­ing that to get at the truth, some­times you have to use your imagination.

Ruth Franklin, a lit­er­ary crit­ic and a senior edi­tor at The New Repub­lic, is nom­i­nat­ed for her first book, A Thou­sand Dark­ness­es: Lies and Truth in Holo­caust Fic­tion. Her writ­ing also appears in The New York­er, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She lives in Brooklyn. 

Pho­to by Cur­tis Martin

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.