Molly Antopol is the author of The UnAmericans (W.W. Norton), a short story collection spanning three continents that is full of wit, humanity, and heart.
Antopol received her M.F.A. from Columbia University, and her writing has appeared, or is soon to be featured, on NPR’s This American Life, The New Yorker, One Story, The Wall Street Journal, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. A recent Wallace Stegner Fellow, she currently lives in San Francisco and works as a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, as well as a writer-in-residence at the Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania.
How did your family history help to inspire some of these stories?
Molly Antopol: Many of the stories in this book were inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I come from a big family of storytellers, and I grew up surrounded by tales of surveillance, tapped lines, and dinnertime visits from the FBI. Those things — combined with my very nerdy love of research — informed my McCarthy-era stories. In terms of the Israel stories, I’ve spent my entire adult life going back and forth between there and the U.S. I lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for years — I used to work for a Palestinian-Israeli human rights group, and at a youth village aiding new immigrants from Chechnya and Russia. And for the past seven years, since I began work on Stanford’s academic schedule, I’ve spent my summers there. Eastern Europe is a part of the world that’s always fascinated me. My family’s originally from there, many of my favorite books were written in (and about) communist-era Europe, and in recent years I’ve been lucky enough to have received research grants to a number of countries in the region, including Ukraine, Lithuania, and Bulgaria.
It’s interesting — though my family loves to tell stories, the one place I never got to hear about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where my relatives came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. A little more that a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. She led me to an oral history book about the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. The moment I finished reading it (I remember just where I was, at the kitchen table in my apartment in Tel Aviv), I began writing The UnAmericans.
What do you hope readers take away from your debut title?
MA: I hope readers get swept up in the stories the way I’ve gotten swept up in so many books. I’ve missed my subway stop any number of times because I was so wrapped up in what I was reading, and felt disoriented when I had to put the book away and was no longer in the world of my characters.
Were books an important facet of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you?
MA: I was always a big reader, and a really nerdy kid — I had all sorts of imaginary friends and my mom says on camping trips I’d sit in my tent all day and write myself into whatever book I was reading. Lois Lowry wrote a series called the Anastasia Krupnick books that were particularly meaningful to me. I used to pretend that Anastasia had a sister named Molly who she did everything with. I imagined that I, too, had a tower bedroom, a younger brother to harass, a pipe-smoking poet father who watched Nova every night. A couple of weeks ago, I reread the series, wondering if my niece would be old enough to appreciate them, and I found them just as wonderful as I had as a kid. Anastasia’s so self-deprecating and funny and self-aware; her parents complex and nuanced and lovingly rendered.
As a kid, I also loved books about explorers, particularly Gulliver’s Travels, The Boxcar Children, and Call of the Wild — for a long time I wanted to be a zoologist, and even as an adult, I’m happiest when I’m outdoors, on some kind of adventure.
Are you working on anything now?
MA: I’m working on a few essays: one about the roles research and travel play in my writing, one about contemporary Israeli fiction, and a couple travel pieces on Lithuania and Ukraine. And I’m at work on a novel, called The After Party. It’s set in Israel, Eastern Europe, and New York. But I’m superstitious about discussing a book-in-progress — I shouldn’t say anything else!
When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?
MA: Searching for an indie bookstore in a new town is one of my favorite things to do when I travel. One indie particularly close to my heart is The King’s English in Salt Lake City — my dad lived in Utah when I was little, and when I was visiting him, I’d walk down the block to that bookstore and spend hours in the fantastic children’s room, reading on the floor. And Green Apple Books (in San Francisco, where I live) is about as ideal a local independent bookshop a writer could ask for.
What book is on the top of your nightstand “stack?”
MA: I just finished Sayed Kashua’s novel Second Person Singular and I can’t stop thinking about it. Kashua writes movingly and hilariously about the intersecting lives of two Arab-Israeli men, a social worker and a wildly ambitious criminal lawyer. A truly beautiful and heartbreaking book.
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand?
MA: I’d choose two books: Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man. They’ve both had such an enormous impact on me, and I only wish I’d encountered these books sooner — it wasn’t until college that I read either one of them. It would have been incredible if a bookseller had recommended them to me when I was younger.
When I first started writing, I was really nervous about being sentimental, so I wrote these very lean and tightly controlled stories, though it went against what came naturally to me. It was only when I read Paley and Baldwin that I saw how emotionally direct stories can be without seeming manipulative or sappy. I get the feeling that every one of their stories is something they felt they needed to write, that they were more interested in being straightforward and honest than wowing the reader with their cleverness. They also write such character- and voice-driven stories while still giving us a grand sense of the larger events happening around them — the politics of their fiction extend so naturally from their characters that I never feel they’re forcing their opinions down my throat. More than anything, they both taught me that writing can be angry and passionate without ever resorting to meanness — they’re two of the most compassionate writers I’ve read. And they both write such gorgeous prose without ever being arty or flashy. I could go on and on.
If you could invite three authors (past or present) to a dinner party, who would they be? What do you think would be the topic of conversation?
MA: Edith Pearlman, Alice Munro, and Deborah Eisenberg. I would love to sit around a table with them and hear them talk about which books they’ve turned to throughout their lives, and also what it is about the short story that speaks to them so deeply that they haven’t felt compelled to write novels. They’re three of the writers whose work I love and admire most — three of the writers I always felt I was writing to when working on my own stories. Whenever I was struggling with my book, I found myself searching out interviews with them, looking for nuggets of inspiration that might help along the way. I learned about Pearlman’s love of Dickens, that Munro doesn’t show work-in-progress to anyone, and that for Eisenberg, the earliest seeds of a story begin for her with an image or a phrase, and “sometimes a kind of tonality … almost as if I was writing a piece of music.”
The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol (W.W. Norton & Company, Hardcover, 9780393241136) Publication date: February 4, 2014.
Learn more about Molly Antopol at mollyantopol.com
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