Mol­ly Antopol is a recent Wal­lace Steg­n­er Fel­low and cur­rent Jones Lec­tur­er at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. She’s a recip­i­ent of the 5 Under 35 award from the Nation­al Book Foun­da­tion. Her debut sto­ry col­lec­tion, The UnAmer­i­cans, was pub­lished this week by W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

When I first read Chaim Potok’s The Cho­sen I wasn’t yet try­ing to be a writer myself, and was bliss­ful­ly unaware of all things writ­ing-relat­ed. Read­ing was, at that point in my life, a com­plete­ly per­son­al and hap­haz­ard expe­ri­ence: I stum­bled upon Potok’s nov­el in my mid­dle school library, sim­ply because the cov­er spoke to me: a young, timid-look­ing man clutch­ing a book, star­ing ner­vous­ly at some­thing out­side the reader’s view. Even before I opened the book, I knew I’d iden­ti­fy with that boy. That day in the library, I fell in love with The Cho­sen: with the friend­ship between two boys, Reuven and Dan­ny, both com­ing of age in 1940s Brook­lyn against the back­drop of World War II, and the wrench that’s thrown into their rela­tion­ship because of their wild­ly dif­fer­ent approach­es to obser­vance. Potok’s world came alive to me, and the themes his char­ac­ters grap­pled with — friend­ship, fam­i­ly and loy­al­ty — have deeply res­onat­ed with me since.

More than any­thing, though, The Cho­sen stayed with me all these years because it was the first time I real­ly expe­ri­enced male rela­tion­ships. For my ear­li­est years it was just my moth­er and me, and it took me a long time to learn how to act around men. They felt like a for­eign species that spoke a lan­guage I didn’t under­stand — not only old­er men, but the boys in my class: I always had a cir­cle of close female friends, but I was at a loss as to how to com­mu­ni­cate with the oth­er gen­der. The Cho­sen helped me edge out of my shy­ness, sim­ply because I cared about the fraught and com­plex friend­ship between Reuven and Dan­ny with as much focus and inten­si­ty as I did my own rela­tion­ships. Read­ing Potok’s nov­el was like hav­ing this unknow­able thing — the psy­che of a boy — cracked wide open, final­ly giv­ing me the chance to peer inside.

Late­ly, a few peo­ple have com­ment­ed on how un-bio­graph­i­cal” my sto­ry col­lec­tion seems — that there are no sto­ries about women my age, liv­ing in San Fran­cis­co — and have asked whether it was inten­tion­al that half the sto­ries are nar­rat­ed by men. And it was inten­tion­al. It was real­ly impor­tant to me to write from the per­spec­tives of both women and men, young and old, Amer­i­can, East Euro­pean and Israeli. I wouldn’t let myself see the book as fin­ished until I felt I’d writ­ten con­vinc­ing­ly from all those points of view — in a col­lec­tion that looks at how peo­ple are shaped by large his­tor­i­cal moments, I knew I need­ed to explore those events from a vari­ety of per­spec­tives. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I see now it was The Cho­sen that led me to set that as a goal for myself: that writ­ing should be an exer­cise in empa­thy, get­ting myself — and hope­ful­ly my read­ers — to care about peo­ple with expe­ri­ences wild­ly dif­fer­ent from our own.

Read more about Mol­ly Antopol and her debut col­lec­tion The UnAmer­i­cans here.

Mol­ly Antopol’s debut sto­ry col­lec­tion, The UnAmer­i­cans, was pub­lished by W.W. Nor­ton in Feb­ru­ary 2014, and in six oth­er coun­tries. She teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, where she was a recent Wal­lace Steg­n­er Fel­low. A recip­i­ent of the Nation­al Book Foun­da­tion’s 5 Under 35 award, she holds an MFA from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and lives in San Francisco.