Interview with Rachel Kadish
Questions by Janice Weizman
As soon as I read Rachel Kadish’s essay “Unrequited Love Letters“, I knew she would be an ideal candidate for an interview in the Sacred Words issue. In it she explores her almost visceral relationship with the written word, reflecting on such ideas as the Jewish custom of storing away old and damaged books, the poetics of hand-written dance cards, visits to rare-document rooms, and what is lost when we write on a computer screen. The essay appeared in a series of blogs for the literary journal Ploughshares. Taken as a collection (at the moment they appear only as internet posts), her essays and interviews convey an approach to writing, and to reading, in which the written word, in its capacity to communicate what is most essential about being human, takes on a vital importance.
Kadish is the author of two novels, From a Sealed Room, which is set in Israel, and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story, set in New York. Her writing has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies; she is the recipient of the John Gardner fiction award, and was the 2005 Koret Writer in Residence at Stanford University. She is a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in Lesley University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her latest work, I Was Here, is about to appear as a serialized novel at Daily Lit, an internet site devoted to publishing downloadable works of fiction in commuter-sized installments. Rachel is currently working on a historical novel that takes place in 17th-century England. For more about Rachel’s work, see her website.
This fall, Rachel has been teaching Creative Non-Fiction at the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing program at Bar-Ilan University. We met at a café in Jerusalem where we talked about writing as an act of love, the merits of writing by hand, and about her “no excuses” approach to getting the work done.
Why do you write?
RK: Henry James wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I don’t know what I think until I work it out on paper or on a computer screen. Something might be bothering me, and the best way I can figure it out is through words—it’s my way of metabolizing life. Often I think that I’m writing about a small thing, and then I start writing and I realize that I’m writing about something much bigger. Also, I think writing allows me to be more generous. There are characters who, were I to interact with them in real life, would drive me nuts—I’d have to put up walls around them. But when I’m dealing with them on the page, I don’t need those walls. Instead, I can imagine what it’s like to actually be that person. And then, if I’ve extended my imagination and empathy enough, perhaps later if I meet similar people in real life I can approach them with more empathy than I would have otherwise. So in that sense writing helps me understand people, and the world, better.
Your upcoming serialized novel, I Was Here, is a tale of abuse, intimidation and the quest for closure, told from the points of view of 10 very different characters. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for the project, its unusual mode of publication, and how you worked on developing these characters?
RK: When I began work on I Was Here, I was thinking about situations in which one person’s action ripples out to affect many lives. I’ve long admired Tobias Wolff’s short story “The Chain” in his collection The Night in Question, and for some time I’d toyed with the idea of experimenting with that sort of fierce, wild, one-thing-leads-to-another type of plot.
I started writing a story set in a working-class suburb about a woman named Charlotte, whose childhood abuse at the hands of a neighbor was long ago hushed up. Now Charlotte is grown and has her own kids, and she’s asked to serve as a character witness against the man in court…but soon she starts receiving obscene text messages warning her not to.
Writing this woman’s story, I asked myself: what if the malice directed against Charlotte were to have unexpected consequences? And when I asked that ‘what if’, I had a feeling like opening a door onto a long corridor and seeing a series of doors fly open in front of me. I had an almost instantaneous sense of all the different people around Charlotte whose lives could be impacted—all these different characters and voices and points of view.
I originally wrote I Was Here as a traditional novella. But when I started speaking with the very wonderful Yael Goldstein Love at DailyLit about serializing it for publication, those editorial conversations took the novella to a different level. Thinking about I Was Here as a serialized piece forced me to consider structure and tension in new and exhilarating ways. When you know, as a writer, that the reader has to decide at the end of reading each section whether to come back the next week for more, then it sort of ups the narrative ante. So it really made me sharpen my thinking about structure, and suspense…and how you always want to make sure, alongside all the essential literary work of image and voice and metaphor, that you’re telling a cracking good story.
As an MFA student, your thesis advisor was the novelist Toni Morrison. How, if at all, did working with her influence your writing?
RK: Toni Morrison is a remarkably generous teacher. In addition to discussing the usual technical things, like character development or not using three adjectives when one would do, she also spoke with me about working with history. For my senior thesis, I was writing the opening sections of a novel about the Holocaust period, and I was doing a lot of research about Polish-Jewish history. She spoke one day about researching the subject of slavery for Beloved. One of the most valuable things I recall from that conversation was her saying that while the things you learn while doing such research can be overwhelming—and while there is a natural wish to tell your readers every stunning fact—if you try to cram all of those facts into your novel, you’re going to ruin it. You need to choose the few details that won’t show above the narrative waterline, yet will be the most persuasive. And you need to let those details stand in for the whole. She stressed the importance of prioritizing truth rather than fact. A novel has to prioritize human truth, and convey only those facts that are in service of telling that human truth: what it’s like to be human at this particular time, and in this particular experience. I found that freeing. After that conversation, I began thinking seriously about how to try to pick the facts that best convey the human truth of a situation. Even now, I think of that conversation as I labor to choose which facts to use in the historical novel I’m currently writing.
Much of your work has an inquisitive, intellectual aspect to it. Do you find that writing is a satisfying way to grapple with ideas that you want to explore?
RK: If there are ideas in my work, I come to them late in the writing process. I always start a story with an image or a character. I don’t trust myself if I start with an idea. If I were to begin with some abstract, intellectual idea, I suspect I’d write badly—I’d probably end up pulling the strings of my characters like marionettes so that they’d alight on whatever idea I’d decided to explore. But it’s always been my sense that when an author is manipulating a character that way, the reader can feel it…and the reader quickly gets bored, because there’s no life in the characters—they don’t have free will; they’re only there to serve the writer’s didacticism.
So I always start with a character, someone who is afraid of something or bothered by something, or laughing about something. I try not to control my characters, but give them freedom and see where they go. I hope that doesn’t sound too odd, but I really do believe in playing on the page and not over-controlling the writing process. I suppose I’m interested in ideas, so maybe I happen to gravitate towards characters who are interested in ideas. But to me the process is more about intuitive leaps than it is about intellect. When you put characters under pressure they start to do things, and those things lead to questions, and those questions lead to issues. And if eventually I happen to see that there is some bigger issue at stake, then I try to explore that.
But that’s speaking as a fiction writer. With nonfiction I suppose the process is a little different. I have to be more aware, when writing nonfiction, of what the central idea of a piece is going to be. Still, I trust myself only when I’m building from the ground up through anecdote, scene, character. If I can talk about something concrete that people are saying or doing, and if that then leads to discussion of an idea, then the idea will come across more authentically than if I just started stating it in the abstract.
But to answer your original question, yes, I find writing an enormously satisfying way to grapple with ideas… ideas I often don’t know I want to explore until I start writing and my characters stumble into them.
This theme of this issue is Sacred Words, and I felt that your essay, “Unrequited Love Letters”, is a wonderful meditation on the way that words can transcend time and take on a powerful presence of their own. In that essay you write, “all writing is an unrequited love letter”. Can you say a little more about this idea?
I think if you’re writing well, you care deeply about what you’re writing. Maybe it’s possible to write well in some clinical, dispassionate way, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it. And fundamentally, when you’re writing you don’t know who else will care about the topic that so rivets you. Putting words on a page is like a love letter in that it’s a reaching out—it’s the start of a conversation. And you don’t really know if there’s anyone on the other side who will care. Maybe there isn’t. But even so, the writing is an act of love for the subject, or for the world, or for whatever you’re exploring.
Also in the essay, you discuss the physical aspect of writing words, as compared with typing words on a computer screen. You write, “The digital age lets us all play it extraordinarily cool…but no writer has the right to play it cool…writers are ecstatic people.” What do you feel is being lost when an author writes a work of fiction or poetry on a computer?
RK: Here’s something I often ask people: when was the last time you wrote or received a hand-written letter? A few years ago I realized that the only hand-written letters I was writing were condolence cards. It seemed to me that there was something very wrong with that. I realized that I didn’t know what my friends’ handwriting looked like. So I started occasionally hand-writing letters to friends, and some of them wrote back. I found that it’s a very different experience. When I write by hand, there’s a more unguarded nature to the process. In those first few paragraphs, you often think, “no, that’s not what I meant, I should just scrap this and re-start the letter.” But once you’re a few paragraphs in, you’re not going to start anew and re-copy the whole letter. You either cross out the offending sentence or leave it the way it was. So it’s more spontaneous.
You are currently working on a historical novel set in 17th-century London. Having previously dealt solely with current material, what led you to take this direction? How is writing a historical novel different from writing a contemporary one?
RK: I’ve always loved history. Not “What was the capital of the country?” or “Who were the invading armies?”, but the kind of history that asks, “What did it really feel like to be there?” And I’ve worked with historical material before in bits and pieces, for certain elements of my first novel and in some of my short stories.
It was a lot of fun to do the research for this new novel. I would spend hours getting contentedly lost in searching out details. It’s the 17th century—what were these characters wearing? What were they eating? What were they drinking and from what kind of cups? When they looked out the window, what was the quality of what they could see—because, you know, the glass panes were thicker, so the view they could see might have been sort of distorted. The lever to open the window was different. And what was growing in the garden outside that window? This book is twice as much work as a regular novel because you have to do all the research…and then you have to hide the research, to jettison 95% of it and then take the essential 5%—the facts that show the human truth—and sneak in that material in a way that the reader barely notices he or she is being educated. You have to have your character simply open that window—and there is the world.
On your faculty page on the Lesley University website, you write, “I have a particular interest in the ways in which history and politics are metabolized through art.” Can you elaborate a little about that?
I feel like I’m always writing about history. All of my characters are from somewhere. I’m always interested in where a character’s been before they enter the story. But if you’re writing about history or politics and trying to make a particular point, you can make a mess of the art. It can feel like hectoring, like someone is lecturing on the page. If good writing is an emotional magnifying glass that shows you what it’s really like to be one individual person, then writing about history or politics can easily become emotionally miniaturizing, because you’re taking the experiences of ten thousand or a million people. So the question is: how do you avoid emotional miniaturizing? How do you keep the illumination of art, and the sense that it’s delving deep into a person’s experience, while also bringing in a larger story? It’s a very big challenge, but a fascinating one. At Lesley, I teach a seminar about different ways that people bring history or politics into art. It can be done a thousand different ways—through humor or through surrealism, through second-person hectoring, through satire, or even just through close attention to characters whose situations and choices carry the marks of history, like for example in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, or in any of Toni Morrison’s novels.
All writers need to learn how to negotiate the demands of both Art and Life. How does it work for you?
RK: I think I’ve learned to not be precious. I had to give up long ago the notion that I would have acres of pristine, uninterrupted writing time. I didn’t choose that kind of life. I have kids. I have a community, a family. When I’m working intensely on a book I can be a real cave-dwelling creature, spending time at my desk whenever I can, but I’m also deeply committed to my daily life.
When life throws me something unexpected and I can’t write the way I’d planned to, I try not to waste time chastising myself and despairing. Despair can be a very self-indulgent emotion. I mean, who has time for despair? I’ve learned to use every bit of time that I can, and not to waste time on berating myself or worrying about when I’ll get the work done. Instead, if I have, say, 15 minutes which I can use for writing, and I’m not able to concentrate on something demanding, then I’ll use it for sketching something else out, or answering emails. So it’s a question of picking the right task for whatever time I have at my disposal. And then just sitting down and doing it. If I couldn’t, I would have to stop writing, which for me would be like stopping breathing.
Toni Morrison used to talk to her students about this. She would say “I don’t believe in writer’s block. Just get the writing done.” I mean, she wrote her first novels as a single mother with two kids, working a full-time job at Random House. So you look at that and you think, OK, no excuses. No one said it would be easy.