Creative Writing Lecturer Molly Antopol on ‘The UnAmericans’

Antopol-photo-for-Times-of-Israel“I hate Highway 17,” Jones Lecturer and former Stegner Fellow Molly Antopol told me on the phone this morning. For the sake of scenery, when our interview began, Antopol was driving up Route 1 instead.

The UnAmericans, Antopol’s first book, is a collection of short stories which take place in a wide range of settings from Southern California to Tel Aviv, Belarus to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Across these contexts, characters in The UnAmericans are sympathetic but three-dimensional, often caught up in the momentum of ideology and the quest for community. In one story, “Minor Heroics,” two Israeli brothers vie for the affection the same woman after Asaaf, the older brother, is seriously injured in a farming accident. In “A Difficult Phase,” a young journalist, Talia, reflects on her past career, working in Ukraine, and her future prospects as she begins to date a middle-aged widower, Tomer.

The UnAmericans has already won widespread critical approval. Adam Johnson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Orphan Master’s Son, called Antopol a “writer of seismic talent.” In 2013, The National Book Foundation named her one of their “Five Under 35” honorees.

To me, The UnAmericans is exciting for its deep sensitivity to the enduring influence of family. Each story contends with the way that values—and eccentricities—are transmitted across geography and generation. Antopol is the first to admit that, for her, storytelling itself is genetic, that her relatives are among her favorite storytellers of all time. Clearly, Antopol has inherited this gift: she writes stories that move us to remember our own.

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Stanford Arts Review: When did you start writing? Were you always sure you wanted to be a writer?

Molly Antopol: I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I was kind of a nerdy kid. My mom says that I would just write my way into whatever book I was reading. Every book that I loved…there would have [to be] a sibling named Molly that I would write into it.

So I always knew I wanted to write, but I just didn’t know any writers when I was growing up. It felt to me like this very high-in-the-sky profession, like being a magician—not something you actually did. I actually went to college wanting to study marine biology…I thought about being a psychologist. And then I found that I just loved writing so much that, as I got older, I tried to figure out a way to make a living out of it. When I realized how much I loved teaching—and what a nice compliment that was to writing—that’s when it really came together.

When did you start working on the The UnAmericans?

The book took me ten years to write. The first story that I wrote was still when I was in graduate school getting my MFA. And then, you know, in ten years, there were definitely stories that didn’t work or parts of the book I abandoned. But I wrote the bulk of it when I was a [Wallace] Stegner Fellow and a Jones [Lecturer in Creative Writing at Stanford].

That sort of leads me into my next question, which is about the process of creating a collection of short stories, in particular. What story did you write first? Was it difficult to transition from finishing one story to beginning another? Or did you write multiple stories simultaneously?

I always write [short stories] in pairs because I find that I’ll be working on one story and having a really great time with it—and then I’ll hit a wall. If I hit a wall with one story, it feels infinitely easier to begin another story. And then, when I hit a wall with that one, I can go back to the first one and fix it.

It’s almost like… once I get frustrated with [a given Story A], I’ll start to illicitly cheat on it with a new story. Everything starts going great with Story B, and we have this great illicit relationship. When I hit the same wall with Story B, I can go back to Story A with newfound appreciation and love for it. That’s kind of the way that I wrote the whole book.

That sounds like pretty healthy approach, in a bizarre way…I’d like to talk a bit about setting. Your stories take place in such diverse locations—from California to Israel to Belarus—and, yet, each setting is completely absorbing. How did you select these locations? What kind of work did you do to learn about these communities?  

I did a lot of work. All of the settings are places that are really central to my life. Most of the U.S. stories were very directly inspired by my family history, notably [my relatives’] involvement in the communist party. My family is originally from Eastern Europe, and some of my relatives still live there. So it’s a place that I’ve spent so much of my life thinking about and traveling to and reading about.

And then, with the Israel stories, I’ve spent so much time there in my life. Since I’ve been on an academic schedule, I’ve spent like three months out of the year there, always in the same apartment. I feel like I have such a close relationship to all of these places that it allowed me an intimacy when writing about them.

That said, I do a ton of research. I feel like I owe it to my readers to have done all the research I can, so that they can really believe in the world I’m writing about. And then I try in later drafts to make sure it doesn’t show. I spend a lot of time in the archives. I read every book I can find on the subject, I travel to the places, I apply for grants—all that stuff.

At your reading a couple of weeks ago, you mentioned that [Stanford Professor and fiction writer] Elizabeth Tallent was the one who helped you identify that the stories in The UnAmericans are united in their subject matter—politics. I read elsewhere (The Rumpus) that you see the book as one that is  “very much about politics, but isn’t political,” which seems, to me, very interesting and spot-on. How did you toe that line? Why does this theme interest you?

I personally have a hard time stomaching any “political fiction” that feels like it might be really didactic or contain a message. I just know that that’s something I don’t like to read, and, because of that, something I don’t want to write.  I never want my readers to feel like I’m spoon-feeding any of my own politics or any of my own messages down their throats.

That said, I can’t imagine writing a book that didn’t deal so intimately with politics because it’s sort of the way I grew up and it’s the way I think . It would be impossible for me to write a story that wasn’t aware of what was happening politically during the time of my characters’ lives and how they were being affected by these social, political, and historical things that were happening all around them.

How do you balance writing and teaching? How does your teaching inform your writing, hopefully, and vice versa?

Oh yeah! It’s an incredible balance. I love my students so much. There is something incredibly rewarding and inspiring about having discussions about fiction and nonfiction with an incredibly smart and motivated group of people. It keeps me on my toes…and it’s really helpful for me to discuss other peoples’ stories and talk about how…to help them get even stronger for subsequent drafts. It makes me think about my own revision process.

Do you write on Stanford’s campus? If so, do you have a favorite spot?

I live in San Francisco, so I go to campus [to] teach…One place I like to read a lot—and I have written during nice days, and I might go today—are those little creeks in Woodside, [where] you can sit by on the rocks and read…On beautiful day I’ll go sit by myself and do my class work there.

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