Saturday, August 31, 2013

Jillian Cantor talks about her provocative new novel Margot, Anne Frank, the emotional journey of writing and so much more

I hung out with the sublime Jillian Cantor at the Tucson Book Festival, which included book talk, lunch and even some shopping thrown in.  I'm so thrilled to host her here. She's the genius writer of The September Sisters, The Life of Glass and the Transformation of Things, and her new novel, Margot, imagines what might have happened to Anne Frank's sister in post-war America. It's a dazzling achievement. Thanks so much for being here, Jillian.

Can you tell me how the idea for this novel sparked? I always believe that writers write the book that they themselves need to read. Would you say this is true for you, too? 

Yes, I absolutely think that’s true. Writing is always such an emotional journey for me that I feel my stories come from the emotional point I’m at at a particular time. Margot’s story first came to me a few months after the shooting in Tucson in 2011. I live in Tucson and happened to be having coffee in the shopping center at the time of the shooting. I was very fortunate that I didn’t get shot or even see what happened, but for months afterwards I felt paralyzed by sadness, and I had trouble writing anything. I reread Anne Frank’s diary during that time, and I realized that in real life Margot Frank had also kept a diary during the war, but that hers was never recovered after. I wondered how Margot would’ve felt had she survived and saw what had happened with her sister’s diary after the war. Margot’s story in my novel is very much one of finding her way through grief and fear, of learning how to live and love again after horrendous tragedy. That’s what I needed to read – and write – at that particular time.

I’ve read and enjoyed your other novels, and this one seems a departure for you--it has a new, kind of thornier feel to it, a more moral depth, almost, which I absolutely loved. Did you feel the writing of this book was different than your others? Can you talk a bit about that please? What was the research like? Did anything surprise or startle you? 

Thank you, Caroline! The writing was definitely different, first because this was the first historical novel I’ve written so it required a lot of research on my part. I definitely labored over the first draft more, not only to get the writing right but also to get the historical details right. But I think I also wrote Margot purely for myself, at first, and never thought about what people would think or if anyone would ever even read it. I’d written another novel between this novel and my last published novel (which was published in 2010), which over the period of a year failed to sell and which I struggled to revise repeatedly and it just never came together right or sold. So I came into writing Margot with the thought in my head that no one might ever read it but me, but that it was a book I needed to write all the same. It felt very personal to me, and I got so emotionally attached, more so than with my other books. I was a mess when the book did actually go out on submission to editors and when it started getting rejections, which, as writers, we know always happens. But it felt more personal to me, this time.

My research involved reading about the Holocaust and reading and re-reading and re-reading again Anne Frank’s diary (for details of the annex), as well as researching Philadelphia in 1959 (a time I knew very little about before I started writing). I was surprised by how much blatant anti-Semitism existed in Philadelphia still in 1959. I had expected to find this in my research of the Franks’ life in Europe in the 1940s, but I was surprised to find so much anti-Semitism still existed in America in the late 1950s. But this also ended up playing a big role in the book.

Let’s talk about craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you outline everything out? Did you know the ending, or do you set up characters and let them dictate the action? 

I don’t outline. I wish I could, but I just can’t. If I know exactly everything that will happen that takes some of the authenticity out of the voice for me, and essentially I get bored if I know all the answers up front. So yes, I set up the characters and let them dictate the action, which generally ends up in a very messy first draft. I had a big pacing problem initially in this novel as a result, but for me, it’s easier to go back in and fix the plot and the pacing later if I can get the characters and voice right first. I do usually have an idea of around where I want my characters to end up, and I knew when I started writing about Margot what she would do and where she would be in the last scene (which I won’t say here, as I don’t want to give any spoilers!). I kept to this vision all along, and it’s in the final version of the book.

What’s obsessing you now and why? 

I don’t want to say too much about what I’m researching and writing now (which is, of course, what’s obsessing me) because I don’t know what’s going to happen with it yet., but I’ll just say generally, my head in is New York City in the late 1940s and early 1950s during The Second Red Scare and post-atomic bomb. With more details to come J

What questions didn’t I ask that I should have? 

How about, what’s up next for you? I have a new book for young adults coming out next summer called Searching for Sky, about a girl who spent most of her life on a deserted island, and who is “rescued” and brought back to California just after her sixteenth birthday. But she soon learns both the real world and her idyllic island life were not at all what she believed. 

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