16 January, 2018

Questions from Book Tour, Part 3

1. What are the main differences between working in the two art forms: performance versus writing?

It’s fascinating. Two major observations.

The first is the difference between the social versus private nature of both art forms. (These are not exclusive observations and, of course, there are exceptions).

The theater is an innately social art form— created in collaboration with others, and enacted in the presence of others. Though I suppose you can technically recite speeches into thin air, that is not why theatre was created. In Ancient Greece, the theatre was born out of the need for communal catharsis— a shared cleansing of the mind and spirit, performed to and for the people. Aristotle defined it as “the purification of the spirit…by witnessing the playing out of such emotions or ideas on stage.” The result is personal, as well as sociological, positive change. Therefore it is an art form that cannot be created or experienced in solitude.

Literature is the opposite. Its nature is of solitude— both in its creation and in its consumption. It is an art that must occur within the confines of an author’s inner world. Though collaboration may occur in the later parts of the process, the majority of the writing experience takes place (necessarily) in utter solitude, quietly attempting to capture a universe before it escapes from your fingers. Further, literature (specifically) is experienced in solitude. The relationship between a writer and her reader is among the more intimate relationships that exist. The reader is being taken on a journey, often experiencing many emotions along the way, all taking place within the confines of the “theatre” of their imaginations. Writer and reader in a private, intimate space for a period of time. I have relationships with authors I will never know or meet, but have had more of an impact on my life than certain boyfriends or family members.

The second has to do with the form of creativity that is exercised.

Both art forms are, of course, creative. But being an actor in the theater is, at its essence, an interpretive creative art form— one is interpreting (and hopefully, elevating and breathing very real life into) characters that one did not write, dress, light, or direct. Your role in the creative process is to interpret. This is in no way to diminish this art form, it is merely to clarify it. Interpretive artists are among our highest contributors in society, shedding an illuminative light upon the intricacies of life.

Whereas writing, I contrast, is innately creative. A story, a character, a sentence, did not exist before the writer created it.

Something about these artist dichotomies deeply enriches me— it provides a satisfaction across the spectrum of creativity. I wouldn’t want to be without one now that I’ve tasted the gratifications of both.

2. What is the reaction of readers who attend your book signings and events? 

I’d say less than 5% of interactions are a little unpleasant and have included such gems as cornering me about politics, presenting me with pages of critical notes they have on my book (one woman even told me she’d “wait” so she could go through them with me in person, thought by thought), pearl-clutching about the darkness of the book, dozens of people trying to set me up with their grandson/the Rabbi’s son/literally anyone. Those were mostly sort of hilarious and happened quite rarely (okay, the setting-me-up part happens every time...). But pah! Worth it.

The best parts are always meeting people who have had an emotional experience with your book, who have spent hours in this world that prior to a year ago, only I lived in. Now these characters that I love as if they were real, are known and sometimes loved by others. These readers share their insights, stories, their vulnerabilities, and reflections, and sometimes illuminate my own work to me in a way I had never considered.

Further, though many of these people are incredibly cultured, not all of them would have the chance or funds to make it to a theatre, let alone a Broadway theatre, let alone to the stage door after the show. I am meeting so many people I would never otherwise cross paths with because literature is the ultimate democratic art form—thanks to libraries, the written word is accessible to all. There have been some people I met in Austin, St. Louis, Naples, Saratoga Springs, that I have formed lifelong connections with, and will be indebted to for the rest of my life. Connections I would not otherwise have.

Above all, I endeavor to share my story with as much authenticity as I can with both the organizers and the attendees of these events, and when they respond with the same generosity back, when they hold your personal story and honor the depth of love that went in to creating a project like a novel, there is no greater transaction— gratitude always begets gratitude.

3. Other than writing, have you got any hidden passions you’d like to pursue?

I love the accordion and have taken lessons! I passionately love travel of all kinds— Antarctica is at the top of my list.

I would also love to spend more time creating visual art of some kind— I once took a collage workshop with my idol Nick Bantock several years ago now, and I’d love to try my hand at engaging with the visual on a more consistent basis. But apartment living + curious cat = not conducive? Still worth a try! I just have visions of Tati-shaped paint paw prints all over the place…

4. Do/did you feel any extra responsibility or pressure playing and writing about Hodel/Tzeitl in London/Broadway— seeing as they are among very few overtly Jewish characters in musical theatre?

I believe that if you portray any character or story with honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability, the work will resonate. Our only responsibility as artists is, to tell the truth.

5. Your next book is White Hot Grief Parade, about the death of your father. How has After Anatevka impacted that book?

They say that all fiction is in some way non-fiction, thus, yes, these two works are very much companion pieces.

The writing of After Anatevka felt like a necessary personal exercise for me because of the extraordinary significance playing Hodel had in my personal life. That significance was directly related to my experience playing Hodel, and “saying goodbye” to him every day (whilst singing “Far From the Home I Love”)— an experience I felt robbed of in my actual life, approximately five years after the death of my father. White Hot Grief Parade is a direct account of the experience of that loss.

So you see, one could not truly have happened without the other. In fact, if I were to chart the writing in real-time: I wrote the first two-thirds of After Anatevka very quickly, got terrible writer’s block for over a year, marked the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, then, almost in a frenzied trance I wrote the first draft of WHGP in about three months. It came galloping out of me! Then, almost as if the writing of WHGP had shifted something essential within me, the finale of After Anatevka became clear to me and I felt ready to complete it.

There are definitely crossover characters as well—Hodel is in every way a combination of myself and my mother. Perchik is a version of my father (particularly his experience in childhood). Gershom is modeled after my paternal grandfather. And Rabbi Syme is a real man who oversaw my father’s funeral service and gave me the great gift of advocacy when I need it the most—I wanted to honor him in After Anatevka by making him Perchik’s advocate as well (thus Rabbi Syme is the only actual character in both books).

But to answer the question directly: I am a direct descendant of these people from the Pale of Settlement. Their legacy of suffering, endurance, oppression, and persecution trickled down and affected the generations that eventually touched my life directly. To write about their trials helps me feel compassion for the “characters” in my actual life. We all come from somewhere, and these two books, though wildly different in tone, genre, voice, and setting, have threads that reach across all barriers and interweave.

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