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Secrets of the Scribbler: An Interview with Anne Roiphe

Anne Roiphe is the author of numerous books, including the memoir “1185 Park Avenue,” the novel “Up the Sandbox” and “Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World,” which was nominated for a National Book Award in Nonfiction. Her most recent accomplishment, “Secrets of the City” (Crown, 302 pages), began as a serialized novel published every week for 15 months in the Forward. A departure from her previous works, “Secrets” is a playful, punchy romp through the numerous escapades of Mayor Mel Rosenberg. With a September 11th-like disaster having hit Mel’s city (a deadly epidemic, initially affecting birds, has spread to humans — which some say is the fault of the Jews), he must discover who — or what — is the culprit. Impressively encapsulated in short chapters, Roiphe’s book juggles a colorful constellation of characters, which she astutely captures in compositions that resemble snapshots. Together they form an imagistic collage of life inside the buzzing metropolis. Whimsical chapter titles such as “The Imp of Darkness Ducks for Cover” and “Kibitzing from a Front-Row Seat in Heaven” suggest a send-up of the Jewish folktale, with a sprinkling of Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small mystery series (“Friday the Rabbi Slept Late,” “Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry”) thrown in for good measure. “Secrets of the City” is fast-paced and full of intrigue, scandal and mystery, while also embodying the depth of Roiphe’s razor-sharp satirical wit. She reminds us, again and again, that writers “amuse us by holding up a mirror to our lives.” With “Secrets,” amuse us she has.

Suzan Sherman talked with Roiphe recently about everything from the process of serializing her writing to the “humanist soul” she will never betray.

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Suzan Sherman: How did you come to serialize your novel, “Secrets of the City,” in the Forward?

Anne Roiphe: I was asked to write a holiday piece for [National Public Radio], which turned out to be the novel’s first chapter. The idea that I could write a book in little snippets appealed to me, so I called up J.J. Goldberg at the Forward, who I’ve known for a long time, and said, “Would you like to have this?” And he said yes. It took a little while to define the initial pieces and find the voice. But after that, it became like a daydream; I wrote an episode each week, always waiting until the last minute, but something always came to me.

SS: For a lot of writers, the first draft is figuring out what they’re writing. To do that every week, and complete something that stands as a whole, is phenomenal.

AR: What was pleasing about it was that I let myself play. But it doesn’t have the careful revisions of a novel which a writer spent three years mulling over. There are dangling characters, and plot lines left unexplored. When I look over the book now, I see language I would change and characters I’d do differently. Since I had a short amount of space to work with — 1,200 words or so per episode — I couldn’t deepen my characters fully. Each scene had to be set in a second and stand on its own.

SS: Why is the city unnamed, yet a photograph of the Empire State Building is on the book’s cover?

AR: It was a question of form. Remember, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. Supposing I wanted to blow up the city? Or seal off the bridges? It gave me much more freedom; my unnamed city became a fantasy place. It could have been Chelm. It could have been anywhere. You don’t begin a fairy tale, “Once upon a time there was a sleeping princess in the town of Lodz.” You don’t set the place where a fairy tale occurs too closely.

SS: “The Spawn of Lilith,” the “Demons,” and the “Imps” certainly conjure an Old World folktale flavor.

AR: Yes, and there are names of characters in “Secrets of the City” which are famous characters in Jewish literature. I was playing with that, with the long line of Jewish storytellers in literature.

SS: The novel is also reminiscent of a TV or radio show, and has tremendous historical resonance. People don’t realize how significant serialization was in publication: George Elliot’s “Middlemarch,” Dickens’ “Great Expectations”…

AR: But Dickens had 25,000 words or more per serial, which allowed him to write a real novel. When you have a space constriction, something has to happen to make the reader come back next week.

SS: Was the structure confining?

AR: No, this is what the form required. The story had to build toward something. I didn’t know what, except I knew I wanted Mel Rosenberg to become president. That I knew the day I started — but I had no idea how I would get there.

SS: The non-Jewish characters Audrey and Anston believe that wherever there are Jews, there are problems; and the Reverend Crick is an alarmist black leader reminiscent of Al Sharpton. Were you concerned about perpetuating stereotypes?

AR: I was poking fun. Al Sharpton is not a stereotype — he’s himself. And the WASP types are perfectly real — and even fairly nice. Those people exist in this city. You go to a Metropolitan Museum [of Art] opening and they have donated something wonderful and that’s all very good and nice, but there was a time when people like that would never have associated with the Rosenbergs. This city has changed; the Jewish world and the society WASP world are rubbing shoulders, the power chasm has shifted. That’s what interested me.

SS: Was the process of writing a male main character more difficult than writing a female?

AR: It might have been, if it was a different novel. I’ve never been able to write fully from a male point of view, but in this case it was such a stylized voice that it worked perfectly well. At the same time, a man would not have written this book; there are details only a woman would notice and put in.

SS: That was such a beautiful, heartfelt scene, of Mel’s wife getting a mammogram. As a feminist, do you feel any responsibility in your portrayal of women and men?

AR: Not only do I not feel responsibility, I am extremely uninterested in what is — or is not — politically correct. That’s the death of writing. I have a humanist soul and will never betray it when I write. Every time you present an image of a woman, it doesn’t have to be a perfect image, or a perfectly strong image. It’s a corruption of the creative process to be politically pleasing while you’re writing. That a woman character may be flawed seems accurate — real.

SS: Did you see the recent Time Out New York cover story, “The New Super Jews,” with Adam Goldberg of “The Hebrew Hammer” pulling off his shirt to reveal he’s Superman?

AR: No, I didn’t.

SS: I was thinking there’s a superhero quality to Mel Rosenberg.

AR: Yes, in some sense, I was playing with the 1940s comic book form. It was an opportunity to transform the violin-playing Jew into the policeman, the tough guy.

SS: Your narrator goes on a fantastic little rant about writers: Writers are soul-murderers; writers do not respect privacy; writing is an act of revenge. Which of these statements is true for you?

AR: Which of those statements? You mean, as opposed to all of those statements? [laughter] Writing is not nice. I have hurt people as a writer, and I’m sorry. But not so sorry that I wouldn’t do it again. Any writer who is telling the truth knows there’s something bloody afoot here. Writing is the center of my life, but I do not think of it as doing good work in the sense of being a good person. Because it can almost never be done without hurting somebody else, and never without aggression and hostility on some level.

SS: It’s amazing how many characters you were able to juggle in “Secrets of the City.” You seamlessly incorporate them without even a space between paragraphs, shifting time and place instantly. I was witnessing a bustling city.

AR: That was my intention exactly. There’s a lot of motion, noise, a lot going on at once. It reminded me of when I was a child, riding on the elevated Third Avenue El and looking into apartment buildings going by. I couldn’t see very much: an arm, a hand, a curtain, a lamp, a face. But I had a sense of what was happening, I was moving and participating in an experience. I wrote “Secrets of the City” with some of that sense of speed, of traveling through people’s lives and getting glimpses here and there.

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