by Adam Rovn­er

Best-sell­ing author Tova Mirvis achieved main­stream suc­cess with her nov­els about women in insu­lar Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties. After a ten year hia­tus, Mirvis is back with her third nov­el, Vis­i­ble City (Houghton Mif­flin Har­court), an intense­ly per­son­al tale of love, loss, and transformation.

Adam Rovn­er: Some review­ers of Vis­i­ble City found the nov­el to be pes­simistic because it depicts failed rela­tion­ships. Can you dis­cuss your own sense of whether Vis­i­ble City was opti­mistic or pessimistic? 

Tova Mirvis: I want­ed to write about real life and I don’t think we divide real life into opti­mistic and pes­simistic. Life has its ups and downs. The hard parts and good parts are all inter­twined. I felt that the book was about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of change. At the begin­ning of the book, a lot of the char­ac­ters are in a state of paral­y­sis, but what I think is amaz­ing about life are those open­ings — those win­dows — where we can and do make a change. 

AR: Speak­ing of win­dows, a cen­tral plot­line in Vis­i­ble City con­cerns the search for a lost mas­ter­piece of stained glass by Amer­i­can artist John LaFarge (18351910). Stained glass seems to me to be an espe­cial­ly Chris­t­ian art form. I always asso­ciate stained glass win­dows with church­es, even though syn­a­gogues have them as well. For a writer who is so steeped in Jew­ish tra­di­tion, why did the motif of stained glass attract you? 

TM: I have those same asso­ci­a­tions! Stained glass was prob­a­bly one of my least favorite areas of art, iron­i­cal­ly. I got inter­est­ed in stained glass because of my ex-hus­band. That was how I learned about John LaFarge. There are stained glass win­dows that LaFarge made near Boston that I went to see. They are huge and stun­ning. You can look at those win­dows as a whole, but you can also look at each indi­vid­ual piece of glass and get a sense of how they were con­struct­ed to be a part of this mas­sive work. It made me think about nov­el writ­ing and I said: That’s what I’m try­ing to do, to put all my lit­tle pieces togeth­er.” And so I devel­oped this love for stained glass. 

AR: Jere­my is one of two char­ac­ters in Vis­i­ble City who search­es for the lost LaFarge win­dow. He’s intrigu­ing because he has left the Or­thodox Jew­ish world. At one point in the nov­el there’s a lament from Jeremy’s per­spec­tive about the loss of Shab­bat obser­vance. Why was Jeremy’s aban­don­ment of tra­di­tion so cru­cial to the novel? 

TM: His sto­ry felt impor­tant to me because I was inter­est­ed in what hap­pens when we make change. I felt like the idea that we can change our lives doesn’t tell the whole sto­ry, because of course we bring the past with us. I was writ­ing a book about phys­i­cal objects that were left behind in the city — stained glass win­dows that are walled up, or [aban­doned] sub­way sta­tions — and then I thought about the parts of our own past that are sort of emo­tion­al ghost sta­tions. Even when you make a change, even when you want that change, there is still regret and loss. I felt like Shab­bat was an exam­ple where you view time dif­fer­ent­ly, and hav­ing some expe­ri­ence with lawyers myself, every sec­ond can be tak­en up by work. But Shab­bat is kept sep­a­rate. By leav­ing that behind, Jer­emy no longer had the feel­ing that at least for those twen­ty-five hours, his time was his own. 

AR: Would it be fair to say that Vis­i­ble City may be even more per­son­al a nov­el than either of your pre­vi­ous books? 

TM: Vis­i­ble City was hewn out of my own need for change, my own emo­tion­al tra­jec­to­ry. It took ten years [to write], which I can’t real­ly believe. […] It took a lot of time and a lot of soul-search­ing to fig­ure out how to fin­ish this book. Ulti­mate­ly, I feel like I had to be will­ing to unleash the char­ac­ters and write a book where peo­ple make changes. I think I had to come to learn that peo­ple do make changes, do take action. I had to be will­ing to let that hap­pen, both in my own life and for the characters. 

AR: Can you let us in on what you’re work­ing on next? 

TM: I’m work­ing on a mem­oir, which is new for me. I wrote an essay that was in The New York Times about my divorce that will be the first chap­ter. Writ­ing [that essay] was not the emo­tion­al part — putting it out there was. But I end­ed up get­ting a few hun­dred emails from strangers and it was so nice to have peo­ple share their own sto­ries of change, of divorce, and of reli­gion. There was this feel­ing that I’m telling a sto­ry that oth­er peo­ple expe­ri­ence also. So now I’m writ­ing a book — the ten­ta­tive title is The Book of Sep­a­ra­tion, which is a trans­la­tion from the [bib­li­cal] Hebrew term for a divorce doc­u­ment: sefer kritut. I’m writ­ing about how you make changes after hav­ing lived in a cer­tain world, what you leave behind, and what it means to recre­ate you own sense of com­munity or belong­ing that’s dif­fer­ent from what you’re accus­tomed to. I have to turn it in Decem­ber of 2015. That scares me because I’m used to the ten-year plan, so I’m hard at work.

Adam Rovn­er is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver. He is the author of In the Shad­ow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (NYU Press), a nar­ra­tive his­to­ry of efforts to estab­lish Jew­ish home­lands across the globe.

Relat­ed Content:

Adam Rovn­er is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver. His arti­cles, essays, trans­la­tions and inter­views have appeared in numer­ous schol­ar­ly jour­nals and gen­er­al inter­est pub­li­ca­tions. Rovn­er’s short doc­u­men­tary on Jew­ish ter­ri­to­ri­al­ism, No Land With­out Heav­en, has been screened at exhi­bi­tions in New York, Paris, and Tel Aviv.