New Arrivals

Novelist Rachel Sherman on Voicing Three Generations of Jewish Women

By Sarah Seltzer

Published November 23, 2009.
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The critically acclaimed short story writer Rachel Sherman’s’s first novel, “Living Room”, tells the story of three generations of Jewish women: There’s the teenage Abby living in Long Island suburbia and experimenting with her identity and sexuality; her alternately depressive and flighty mother, Livia, struggling with marriage, motherhood and her lack of a career, and Abby’s paternal grandmother, Headie, who learns to use email just as her grounding in the present is slipping away. Darkly realistic but ultimately hopeful, “Living Room” explores connections missed and made between people living in the same house and town. Sherman, who’s been keeping busy promoting the novel and taking care of her baby daughter, spoke recently on the phone with The Sisterhood about voicing three generations, another new arrival and whether she’s part of a Jewish literary tradition.

Sarah Seltzer: Tell me about how the story evolved to be about these three separate characters.

Rachel Sherman: Initially it was about Abby and her grandmother. It was very different, with a totally different plot. Abby was much older and living in California. I got the idea for the email correspondence because I had a grandmother and I always thought that it would be so great if she could use the computer and email and she refused. So that’s how it evolved. And Livia sort of embodies all of the things you don’t want in a mom. She’s all id. I was reading about borderline personalities at the time and some of that came into it, but really, she’s her own person.

How did you juggle switching perspectives from one character to the other?

I feel like I knew them pretty well, so it was kind of a relief to switch. Because all of them are so intense, so it felt novel again to go into someone else’s head for a while.

Is the suburban setting taken from your own life?

Yes, I grew up on Long Island in Cold Spring Harbor, which is on the North Shore. It was a WASPy town with very few Jewish people. It’s a great setting because it’s very beautiful and it’s prime for so much conflict. There’s so much wealth, but it’s old money — so it’s not even about wealth, it’s about how many generations you’ve been there. There’s sailing and country clubs; it’s bizarre. People don’t associate Long Island with that. When I say I was one of the only Jewish kids in my class, they’re surprised. But we were very different. It was a very strange experience.

You wrote a story called “Jewish Hair” and a pivotal opening moment for your character Abby is getting her eyebrows waxed by her cooler friend. Do you think there’s a uniquely Jewish female kind of body and hair angst?

It did seem to be something I’ve focused on a lot. It comes up in my writing a lot with the plucking and all that. When I grew up I was the only one around with hair like me. In New York City, it’s not that way at all.

Do you consider yourself part of a Jewish tradition, or Jewish female tradition of writers?

My writing hasn’t been embraced by people who promote Jewish books. It’s perhaps too dark. The characters are Jewish and that’s part of who they are, but I don’t know that I fit into a tradition of Jewish writers, not that I don’t want to. I would aspire to fit into a Philip Roth tradition.

You have a new baby — how does that affect your creativity?

It’s so interesting. At a certain point in your life you know so much, but then you have a baby and there’re all these new things you don’t know. Having a baby has been the most transformative thing I’ve ever done. I think it’s given me more ideas. I’m less angry than used to be, and I think there’s new stuff to write about now. It’s ironic that I finished a book about motherhood before I had a child. Reading it, I don’t think I got motherhood wrong for these characters, who don’t necessarily know how to be mothers. Still, this is something I wanted to write for so long, my first novel. It’s good timing to have this book come out and the baby at the same time!

Sherman will be reading at New York’s Happy Ending on December 10 at 8 p.m.

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