Saturday, October 22, 2011

Anna Solomon talks about The Little Bride, when writing feels like a lie, and the joys of research

Let's begin with this: I love this novel. Anna Solomon's The Little Bride, about a young Jewish woman who comes to the West as a mail order bride, is always haunting, sometimes horrific, and totally  sublime. I raved about this novel for my column at, and I wanted to talk more with Anna about her book.  Thank you, Anna!

How did the idea for the novel spark?

You had to ask that, didn't you? It's a bit embarrassing, actually. I was Googling myself - yes, indeed, in the good old days before 'Google Alerts' - and among other Anna Solomons, I came across one, Anna Solomon Freudenthal, who was on this website called "Stories Untold: Jewish Women Pioneers." I was fascinated. I had no idea that Jewish pioneers even existed! It seemed like a wonderful, exaggerated version of my own experience growing up Jewish in New England. I poked around, and saw that one of the women on this site, a Rachel Bella Calof, had been a mail-order bride to North Dakota. Now I was more than fascinated, I was hooked. I read Calof's memoir (an amazing account her children discovered and had translated from the Yiddish) and when I was reading her description of the "Look" she'd been given - this was the examination she had to undergo to see if she was fit to be a bride - when I read her line, "They inspected me like a horse," I was stunned. It's one of those lines that says everything and nothing. A perfect entry point for a fiction writer. So that's where I began.

What was the research like? Did anything surprise you?

My research process was intensive, thorough, and also random. I didn't research for a year and then start writing, I started writing immediately and researched as I went. I never really set out to write a historical novel. I felt like I was writing a novel that happened to be set during a different time. (I felt this way until I sold the book and was informed that what I'd written fell firmly into the category of 'historical novels.') So I really used the history to inspire the story, but I didn't want to be inhibited by it. Most of the book turned out to be true to history - or true enough - but I knew that for me the story's truth had to come first.
One thing that surprised me was that other fiction often turned out to be the richest source of information for me, especially when it came to bringing particular places to life. Odessa, for instance, I couldn't have written without Isaac Babel's 'Odessa Stories.' And Willa Cather's 'My Antonia' was critical to my own experience of - and expression of - the Great Plains.

 What I loved (and I don't want to give it away) was the ending of the novel, which was that glorious combination of exactly right and yet totally surprising. At Because I am always so interested i process, can you tell me when you knew the ending? Did you always know it or did it startle you?

I'm so glad you loved it! I love the ending, too, in part because it did surprise me. Not the general trajectory - I had a sense of where Minna (my protagonist) would end up pretty early on in the writing process - but how it occurs, how she gets herself to that ending. A lot of my writing it like that: I know where I want to go, but have no idea how to get there. For me, this ending is an opening out. Most of the book is very intimate, it's very close to Minna's point-of-view and you don't see a whole lot of what's going on in the wider world - because she doesn't, she is very focused on what's right in front of her, she is also pretty self-absorbed, I think that's fair to say. At the end, though, she changes, and so the book changes: suddenly the world (the public world of the 1880s - the events and trends and architect of the time) comes spinning into view. I found that exhilarating, and unexpected, but it was also just right, for Minna and the book. To me, it's a very hopeful ending.

What's your writing life like?

Usually, very regular. I thrive on routine, and discipline. (Sexy, right?) I write in the mornings. I used to write within 15 minutes of waking but now that I have a small child I can no longer do that. I have to come at my work after being awake for two hours and sending her off to school. I've adjusted, though. I write for 3 hours, on average, then try to take a break, a shower or a run, maybe one more idea ekes out of my unconscious, and then I open myself up to the world. Turn on the wi-fi, deal with emails, write copy for a PR firm, etc. But it's so important to me not to do any of that before I get the writing done. Sometimes I don't write very much, or what I write is bad, but I sit there anyway. It's a kind of faith, I guess.

Right now, though, everything I just wrote feels like a lie because I have been working really hard to promote this book and traveling a lot and writing essays and answering wonderful q&a's like this one and so I have absolutely no routine. I find it very disorienting. I mean, it's a lot of fun and I love giving readings and I am so thrilled and gratified to hear from people who are actually reading and discussing and debating my book! It all feels totally worthwhile and wonderful. But I do miss my good ol' daily routine. My goal is to be back to it by January 1.

 What's obsessing you now?

A personal essay I'm writing, for a magazine I won't name for fear of jinxing myself. It's a family story - about suicide, and memory, and living in the present. Small topics, right? It's kicking my butt. But it feels great to be struggling in that way, even if I'm not able to struggle with it every day right now.

What question should I have asked that I didn't?

Oh let's see. How about my short stories? It's funny, because I've been publishing short stories for years and this novel thing is so new so I still identify myself more as a short story writer and I have this weird feeling about the fact that more people are reading my novel than have ever read my stories. I'm so happy they're reading it but I want to knock on their doors and say, hey, you know what? It's not really my first book. My first book  - in my mind - is made up of short stories. I love short stories. They are such a demanding form, and they've been so important to my development as a writer.  I plan to keep writing them, even as I write my next novel. And yes, there is a next novel. It's set in Gloucester, MA - my hometown - during Prohibition.

1 comment:

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