Ayelet Waldman on Writing Jewish Characters and Raising Daughters
Ayelet Waldman makes up half of one of America’s most prolific Jewish literary couples. (She is married to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon.) Her most recent novel, “Red Hook Road,” is the story of two tragically intertwined families: the Jewish Copakens, from New York, and the Yankee Tetherlys of Maine, led by matriarchs Iris and Jane, respectively.
Sisterhood contributor Allison Kaplan Sommer recently interviewed Waldman via email about writing Jewish characters, raising daughters, how the novel has been received in Maine, where her family is summering, and why she decided to immerse herself in the world of wooden sailboat-building.
Allison Kaplan Sommer: “Red Hook Road” was published on July 13 to numerous positive reviews. And the same month you organized and celebrated your son’s bar mitzvah. Which was more challenging — putting together a bar mitzvah or writing a novel? Which was more satisfying?
Ayelet Waldman: Ha! Well, honestly, writing the novel. This was bar mitzvah number two, and if it had a “theme,” it was “My Older Sister’s Bat Mitzvah.” I just did everything exactly the same way, but with a different menu, and in a different location.
What was amazing was my son’s preparation. He was incredible. I never had to ask him to practice twice. His drash was killer. I wish I could put it up on the web — Moshe as Dr. Who.
You’ve been summering in Maine — where “Red Hook Road” is set — pretty much since it was published. Has there been reaction from the locals? Did you expect it? Fear it?
I was terrified. I thought people would flip out, and in fact years ago a “friend” from Portland berated me for daring to write about Maine at all. But the reaction here has been overwhelmingly positive. Although one friend was convinced Jane was based on her cleaning lady (whom I’d never actually met), and she tore through her house to turn off the radio when I was on NPR, freaking out that she would overhear.
So many of the characters in your novels are Jewish — pretty much all of the main characters; and yet, you haven’t really tackled Jewish questions head-on in the way your husband Michael does. Is this something you aren’t interested in doing, aren’t ready for, or can we expect something from you in the future?
My next novel is set in 1945 in post-war Salzburg and in 1913 in Budapest. It’s all Jew-all the time. There’s even a Dachau liberation scene, God help me.
Your previous books tackle being a mother of small children. In “Red Hook Road,” you’ve really dug into mothering older children — teenagers, young adults. Your own kids are reaching that place. How much of you is incorporated the character of Iris, whose own fierce ambitions for her kids repeatedly clash with what they want for themselves?
Iris is me at my worst. She’s the mother I fear I am. Controlling, domineering. I put all my anxieties into Iris. And then I dared her to change, to try to be a better mother, and a better person.
Several critics have noted that you are far more vehement and outspoken in person and in your non-fiction and yet, your fiction and your characters are so nuanced. Do you think they are right?
My non-fiction is actually pretty nuanced, too. There are a few pieces that people tend to hang on to. But for example my essay about abortion and my essay about my father and Israel are, I think, the most complex and nuanced things I’ve ever written. But, it’s true I have a huge mouth that I shoot off on Twitter and in person. And when I was blogging [five years ago], I whipped off many a crazed post.
But novels are really where my heart is, and I put a huge amount of work into them. So they necessarily come off different than a fuming blog post.
It seems that you are most inspired from terrible tragedies, judging from your past two novels. So much grief, so much death. What is it about the sad parts of life that attracts your focus?
Here’s what’s weird. I have led —kenahora — a blessed life. My grandmothers lived well into their nineties, my parents are married to one another, my children are healthy. Kenahora, kenahora. I had one unpleasant experience with a baby who had a genetic abnormality and whom I aborted. (God, it sounds awful expressed like that), and I limned that pretty intensely for “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.” Other than that, I just have an inclination toward the melodramatic, I think.
Music is so central in “Red Hook Road.” Even the way it is structured — with a “Prelude” and a “Coda.” You write so intelligently about music, and about wooden sailboat-building, in this novel. Why those two worlds, and how did you enter into them so completely?
Oh my god. No one could know less about classical music than I. I am really honestly tone deaf. I forced myself to learn. I actually started with “Classical Music for Dummies,” and went on from there. As far at the boats, I hate boats. I feel like my people took one boat, it worked out fine for us, and we should just stay on dry land from now on.
But I’m a little obsessed with learning new things, and every book is another opportunity to learn something new. My theory of fiction writing isn’t “Write what you know,” it’s “Write what you want to know.”
You’ve taken a lot of heat in the past, ever since the infamous “I love my husband more than my kids” New York Times essay and the subsequent Oprah appearance. Your name became synonymous with “too much information.” You and Michael were declared, I believe, the second most loathed literary couple in America. I’ve always admired your bravery in putting it all out there, your thick skin and your ability to cope with the venom of anonymous Internet commenters. But this latest book is being received really well. Can you handle the praise? Or do you just wait for the next shoe to drop?
We were third most loathed. Which I found totally offensive. I mean, are [Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt really worse than us? I don’t think so. They’re mere pretenders to the loathsome crown.
I’m far too neurotic to be happy. The New York Times just gave the book a great review, with a first paragraph that essentially says how much Alexandra Jacobs, the reviewer, hates me. I haven’t any idea who this woman is, or what she does, but I’m obsessed with how much she hates me. ARG! It’s absurd. What the hell happened to counting your blessings???
It’s like my weight. Oy, all those years I wasted thinking I was fat when I weighed 103 pounds.
Full disclosure: you and I have been friendly since we met during freshman orientation in college when we were 18 years old. I’ve known you as a lawyer and as a stay-at-home mother. And I clearly remember how you sat down in 2001 and decided to write your first book while your baby son was napping. That was nine years and eleven books ago. You are constantly asked endlessly how you have manage to be so productive while raising four small kids. So for all of the mothers with literary aspirations out there struggling for a room (and 15 minutes) of their own. What’s your secret?
LEAVE HOME. Seriously. Twice a year I go away, once for two weeks, once for four days. On my own. And I work like a madwoman. It’s amazing how much a mother of small children can accomplish in 24 hours of uninterrupted time. If my husband wasn’t willing to let me do that I’d be playing Tetris 40 minutes a day and feeling like that was the most I could expect from myself.
In your fiction and your non-fiction, the topic you grapple with time and again is maternal ambivalence. You’ve stated that this is your turf. We’re the same age. Our mothers were ambivalent because they grew up in the 1950s and then went through the feminist revolution. We were and are ambivalent because we grew up in the feminist and careerist 1970s and 1980s and got a shock when our ambitions collided with the demands and emotions of motherhood. So what are young women ambivalent about today? What are our daughters going to be ambivalent about? Can you imagine an age of motherhood without ambivalence or is it just built-in?
It’s an interesting thought. I’ve wondered about it, too. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if they weren’t ambivalent at all? If the workplace changed so that everyone worked five hours a day, and then had 7 or 8 waking hours to spend with their families? We’d solve our unemployment problem, too.
My best case scenario is that my daughters struggle, like we do, but they go in with their eyes open, and somehow manage (again, HA) to avoid the guilt. So much of what I see troubling women our age is the sense of surprise at the way it turned out, the toxic brew of boredom and thwarted ambition. Thwarted in many cases (in most, perhaps) by our own choices. I hope my daughters can avoid that.
But you know, our mothers chanted, “The Personal Is Political,” from the rooftops, and every woman I know feels like her ambivalence is her own personal failing. So maybe nothing ever changes.