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A Reverie of Small Details: An Interview with Kim Brooks

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Kim Brooks’ debut novel, The Houseguest, may be set in the days before the United States entered World War Two, but it is a powerfully prescient work that deals with some of the most controversial issues of today – specifically the crisis of conscience around taking in refugees who are fleeing genocide. Her characters – from a young rabbi who becomes increasingly desperate to save the European Jews seeking safe harbor to a suburban family man who wants to ignore the war and his own memories of violence until he takes up with a charismatic Polish-Jewish actress who has lost everything – approach the Holocaust from a unique vantage-point, that of American Jews. I talked to Kim about her research process, writing about “capital I-issues,” and learning to reserve judgement when crafting her characters.

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Laura Bogart: The Houseguest addresses the Holocaust from a perspective that hasn’t been fully represented before—that of American Jews. Your characters have varying degrees of awareness about the crisis in Europe. Some of them, like Max Hoffman, the rabbi, become desperate with a need to take action; others, like the Aurer family, comfortably ensconced in small-town Americana, prefer to ignore the crisis (until, of course, it shows up on their doorstep).What made you interested in writing about these particular people at this particular point in time? Where do you see this book fitting in among other works about the Jewish experience of World War Two?

Kim Brooks: Fiction never begins for me with an idea or a conscious intention. For me it almost always begins, and began this time, with a mood, a feeling, a sort of agitated curiosity more than any clear idea. The mood or curiosity in this case was that it was 2007, I was pregnant with my first child, our country was entering the final stretch of George W. Bush’s second term in office, and the world basically seemed an all-around horrible place, impending doom on every horizon. I was under-employed at this point, so I spent a lot of time just lying on my couch, being pregnant, and reading stories on the internet about war, destruction, worldwide suffering, and encroaching, catastrophic climate change. I wanted to stay informed, so I kept reading. Sometimes I’d cry when I read and sometimes I’d feel nothing at all, just numbness. But there was always this strange mix of caring, compassion, helplessness, and rage— the four things mixed in different proportions. I found that I wanted to write something about that feeling, that combination of empathy and impotence. But I didn’t want to write about myself, lying pregnant on the couch. My grandmother had passed away not long before, and I began to wonder if she had ever felt something similar when she was my age, in the early forties, reading about what was happening to Jews in Europe. She would have been almost exactly my age at the time, and her parents had come to this country just a year before she was born— so they still had plenty of connection to this world, this culture being swept away. I thought, what would that be like, to be in that position? What would it be like to be a Jew in America, safe, removed from what was happening, filled with anxiety and dread, wanting to do something and not being able to do anything, feeling both lucky to be removed from it all but also somehow unjustly privileged to be spared? I think many American Jews have felt this at one point or another, this kind of survivor’s guilt, the historical accident of our existence. I wanted to explore that feeling. So much has changed in the past seventy years but I suspected that feeling, at its core, had stayed the same.

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LB: There are, obviously key historical events that you cover in this book, such as the timeline of the Nazis’ advancement across Europe and the attempted evacuations of Jewish refugees; however, the time period is also conveyed in such a reverie of small details, like it would be like to take a train ride in Chicago, or how it would feel to try and sleep in a tiny room in Poland right before the Germans invade. Can you talk about your research process? What specifically did you research on the macro and micro-levels, and what sorts of sources did you use? Did you find yourself overwhelmed, at times, with the breadth of material you were finding? If so, how did you overcome those feelings? When did you know/decide that you had to put the research away and start writing? How did you integrate research into the writing in ways that felt natural and organic as opposed to simply dropping in period detail just to show that you knew it? Which historical fact/detail did you find that surprised you the most? Is there a moment of research integrated into writing that you’re particularly proud of?

KB: Well, at first I did no research at all. The writing started on a personal, familial, relational level. I was writing about this family in Upstate New York, how their family life changes when they take in an odd refugee woman. I’m sure these pages were filled with anachronisms and inconsistencies, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to figure out who these people were, how they talked to each other, the texture of their inner lives. All of that got me like 30 pages of material, and then I was completely stuck. So I started reading some random stuff about the general time period, and I sort of stumbled upon two books that became very important. Or actually, I stumbled upon one, my husband gave me the other. The first was a book called Stardust Lost, and it was about the history of the Yiddish theater in America. It came as a revelation to me that there had been this entire culture and art form and all these larger-than-life figures whose work has been so thoroughly forgotten. The second book, the one my husband gave me, was The Abandonment of the Jews by David Wyman, a book I feel like every person in America should read. Over the course of roughly 600 pages, it recounts in excruciating detail the various and profound ways that American foreign policy and also (and most surprisingly to me) American Jewish organizations failed to respond in a meaningful way to the Jewish refugee crisis in Europe, all of the missed opportunities, the way that petty rivalries and political alliances impeded rescue efforts. I shouldn’t talk too much about this because, you know, I’m not a historian. I don’t really know anything about this subject besides the little bit I’ve read. But what I did read ignited my imagination in a powerful way. There was one part in particular, about a right-wing Palestinian named Hillel Kook who, under the name of Peter Bergson, came to America and started a lobbying effort to raise a Jewish army. Even in these rather dry, historical books, he leapt off the page at me, seemed like such a complicated, strange, tormented and passionate character. It wasn’t so much that I started writing about him. It was more like he charged into the book. Or, I should say, a character loosely based on him charged into the book. As far as the research whose integration pleased me the most— well, I was pleased to find I could write scenes around these advertisements that Bergson’s committee ran in various newspapers. He had an idea that the problem he faced in getting Americans involved in the refugee crisis was not one of apathy but of a lack of mobilization, a failure of anyone to come along and frame the problem to the public and sell it and present it in its proper proportions. So he collaborated with artists and writers and they raised money to run these advertisements in major newspapers, ads that would say things like “HOW WELL ARE YOU SLEEPING?— 4,000,000 JEWS REMAIN IN HITLER’S PATH.” This was something bold and new and shocking. There’s a line of dialogue in the book where the character based on Bergson thinks something like, “why not sell the refugee problem the same way Chrysler sells cars or Camel sells cigarettes?” I was able to tweak the sentiment and steal it, which made me very happy. As far as research on the micro-level, the answer is simpler. I did almost none. I mean, I did read some newspaper articles, a few letters and journals, but very few. I don’t really know any way to research my way into what it’s like to be riding a train to Chicago or making love in a hotel room in 1941. God, I wish I did. I just had to imagine, make it up, then, in revising, go through and fix all the things that were obviously wrong.

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LB: Since the novel is driven by characters who are grappling with very profound ethical questions—are they their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and if so, how responsible are they?—did you feel pressure to make the characters’ dilemmas speak to broader cultural and moral issues? I’m thinking specifically of the synergy between the refugee crisis in your book and the current debate over whether the U.S. should accept refugees from Iraq and Syria. If not, then how did you tamp down any pressure or expectation that the novel should treat its characters’ issues as global capital I-issues?

KB: I think there probably was a draft early on where I was very excited about the reading I’d done and I tried to make the book an exploration of capital I-issues. This was probably the worst draft and the one that most terrified my readers and made them think I’d really lost my mind. This is not to say I dislike books that have ideas or that engage with ideas. Those are my favorite books and they’re the ones I want to write. But for me, the ideas have to emerge from the characters themselves, the situations in which they find themselves, their psychological quests and contradictions, their fears and desires and inner-conflicts. But what I find is that if I’m moving through this territory with any intensity and authenticity, the ideas about the world or issues of the world emerge naturally. I mean, we’re all living in the world. Whether you’re writing something that takes place in 1941 or 2016, I don’t think you can write about a character honestly and meaningfully without also, by extension, writing about the world and the Issues of the world that character inhabits.

LB: A number of your characters occupy moral gray zones: Abe Aurer, an immigrant who has experienced violent anti-Semitism first-hand, is wholly disinterested in pitching in with the refugee relief effort until his wife, Irene, pressures him to take in Ana Biedler, the Polish actress; Ana is, well, to say she is not exactly what she seems would be an understatement. Spiro and Metzger, the men who head up the Jewish refugee efforts, have adopted an “any means necessary” approach, even if those means are duplicitous, even dangerous. And Max, the character with the biggest bleeding heart, acts outside of his religious teachings. In crafting troubled characters, how did you, as a writer, separate your own judgments about their actions from the characters’ own reasons and motivations?

KB: I’ve learned from experience that I can’t judge a character and write about them in any kind of compelling way. Judgement, I think, is the opposite impulse of literary writing. When I write, I’m trying to understand, to gain insight, and when we judge, we’re doing the opposite, aren’t we? Judgment marks the death of curiosity. It’s funny, because in life, I think I’m a highly judgmental person. This quality brings me much misery, as you’d expect. But somehow, when I’m writing, (or at least when my writing is going well), I’m able to suspend that judgmental side of myself. Several of the characters in this book would be considered by many to be terrorists or criminals—but that doesn’t make me any less interested in them. It makes me much more interested! My writing teacher, Ethan Canin, says that fiction depends on bad behavior, on people doing things that fall outside the realm of what’s accepted and expected. I can’t imagine anything worse than a book about people who are respectful of social mores and follow the rules and are generally good citizens and neighbors.

LB: Your women characters are also incredibly nuanced, which means they are—to trot out that old chestnut—at times, “unlikeable.” I’m thinking of Ana—but also of Irene, who makes a great show of her faux piety in taking in a refugee, but does nothing to really learn about her guest or to connect with her. And yet both women seem to be reacting to the standards and mores of their times, with Ana openly flouting convention and Irene embracing it. Can you talk about the experience of crafting these two very different women, specifically in contending with (or setting aside) notions of “respectability” or “likeability” in our time, and within their time? Do you think readers have grown in terms of seeing women as “anti-heroes”, and if so, what has facilitated that growth?

KB: Oh man, I hope so. My day-job is personal essays editor at Salon, so I’m always reading people’s stories about their lives, and often, these people are women. When you read fifteen or twenty of these kinds of stories every day, you notice certain patterns and trends; one of the patterns I noticed almost right away is that so many women writers present themselves, or other women, as passive victims, as entirely good individuals who have somehow been wronged or abused or mistreated. I see this again and again, but I so rarely see women misbehaving, revealing themselves in a complicated or unflattering light. I received one proposal from a writer who said in the first sentence that she wanted to write about bad women, and right away, without even reading to the end of the paragraph I emailed her to say, yes, yes, please write this essay. I feel strongly that if we can’t write about women doing bad things—if we can’t write about them behaving selfishly, cruelly, erratically, or maliciously, then we can’t write about women. We can’t write about their actual experience in any truthful way. Because women are people and people do terrible shit, all the time. To idealize women is to erase them. To put it another way, there’s a scene in my novel where the character (based on the historical figure) of Za’ev Jabotinsky, a radical right-wing Zionist, is, on his deathbed, lecturing his student and friend Shmuel Spiro. Spiro is thinking about one of their fellow Zionists who went crazy and murdered a Bedouin family in the desert, and it’s making him question his entire project. And Jabotinsky says to him, “Remember, Shmuel, we deserve our own villains.” This is something Jabotonsky actually said. I think this is true for Jews, for all marginalized groups. And I think it’s true for women, too. We, as women deserve to have our own villains. We need to feel free to write “bad,” complicated, flawed women characters, and if we’re not going to, then maybe it’s better not to write about women at all.

LB: The Houseguest is your debut novel, but you’re also an accomplished non-fiction writer, with your memoir Small Animals expected next year. Which genre was your “first love” and how did you start writing in the other genre? Can you describe your creative processes of working with each form? What has writing non-fiction taught you about writing fiction? Vice-versa?

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KB: I have two different answers for this one, the short version and the long version. The short version is that fiction is my first and truest love. I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a year out of college because I’d fallen in love with the short story, specifically the stories of Chekov, Cheever, Alice Munro, Tobias Wolf, Mary Gaitskill, and others, and I wanted to learn how to write stories that would do to people what their stories had done to me, namely, to help me live. But not long after leaving Iowa I decided that no one was going to pay me to write short stories, that if I was going to be a real writer I’d have to roll up my sleeves and learn to write a novel. About ten years of misery and failure ensued. But in the midst of this misery and failure, I had two kids and began writing about myself, usually about my life as a wife, a daughter, and a mother. I started writing what I thought of as short stories about my life, self-contained pieces that took actual events from my life and shaped and molded them into coherent narratives. To my amazement and delight, people would pay me to publish these stories about my life if I called them personal essays. So I kept writing them, and the essays (stories) grew longer and more complicated. And in this way, I think, I finally learned to write long, to write with the novelesque depth and breadth that had so eluded me before. I don’t really believe there’s any difference between non-fiction and fiction, or at least between the kind of non-fiction and fiction I am personally most interested in reading and writing. I’m interested in writing that (whatever you want to call it, fiction/non-fiction) tells a story about what it’s like to be a specific person in a specific world.

LB: You’re now the personal essays editor at Salon, which is one of the most widely-trafficked sections of the site. How do you balance editorial work with your own creative writing? Has the editorial work informed your own writing, and if so, how so?

KB: I would say I’m terrible at balancing my editorial work with my writing, just as I’m terrible at balancing work-life with family-life, private-life with public-life, my desire to lose twenty pounds with my desire to eat a bagel. Balance is not my strong suit, but I do the best I can. I make things up as I go along.

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Laura Bogart is a featured writer for Salon, and her work has appeared in SPIN magazine, DAME, The Rumpus, and IndieWire (among other publications). She has recently completed a first novel, Don’t You Know That I Love You?

Kim Brooks—the personal essays editor at Salon—is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. She has been awarded fellowships by the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the Posen Foundation. Her stories have been published in One Story, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and other journals; she has received four honorable mentions in the Best American Short Stories series. Her essays have appeared in Salon, New York, and Buzzfeed. Her memoir Small Animals (Flatiron/Macmillan) is forthcoming in 2017.

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