by Rebecca Rubenstein)
Molly Antopol is a writer who takes her time—and that’s not a bad thing.
The UnAmericans, Antopol’s remarkably polished and self-assured debut, is a collection as diverse in its emotional scope as it is in its geographical wanderings. Featuring a cross-pollination of characters from the U.S., Israel and Eastern Europe, The UnAmericans embraces both the sprawl of history and the intimacy of human relationships, with stories that observe macro-level themes alongside micro-level tragedies. The defeat of Communism and the morally ambiguous behavior of World War II resistance groups are given weight equal to the fraught, personal connections among siblings, lovers, and absentee parents and their children. Selected by Jesmyn Ward as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 in 2013, 35-year-old Antopol’s words hum with the electricity of a writer who approaches the art of narrative with a fearless gait.
Though it exudes such confidence, The UnAmericans was not, Antopol insists, written in a feverish haze over the course of several productive nights. Instead, the stories came slowly: Each of them took a year or more to write, and the collection took 10 years to put together, Antopol’s pacing tempered by her own revision process. “For me, there’s just something so demoralizing about waking up and staring at a pile of rubble every morning,” she says. So she tinkers as she goes. “Once I’m completely done with the draft, then I print it out, and I mark it up, and I do that for months and months and months, and I reshuffle it, and I just think about my characters in these situations for a long time.”
Antopol is also a die-hard fan of research, which adds to the meticulous nature of her process. “Whenever I read interviews with other authors, they talk about how, oftentimes, they write the thing, and then they research to fill in the blanks, and they just fact check against their own imagination,” she says. “But for me, that would just be impossible.”
Antopol will sometimes conduct research for years at a time, homing in on the details. She’ll often apply for grants and visit the places she’d like to write about. Her ongoing residency at the Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania, for instance, helped her craft “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” a harrowing confessional about partisan fighters and questions of morality in times of war.
“I can’t imagine writing about a place without really knowing about it as well as I can,” she notes. “I just feel like people are so informed by their environments and their histories, and that’s, to me, how character is created.”
Since the intersections between character and plot are so prominent in Antopol’s work, the research that went into The UnAmericans was key. Though the stories are not, Antopol contends, autobiographical, many of them were borne from an interest in her family’s history.
Growing up aware of her family’s roots in the Communist Party, Antopol always wondered what life was like for her mother, living under surveillance, especially “when it wasn’t her choice to live that way, and it wasn’t her choice to be political.” Antopol’s grandfather, who worked as a shipping clerk in a cardboard box factory, joined the Communist Party in New York prior to World War II, and the FBI monitored his activities—which led to several arrests—from the 1930s through the ’60s. “One thing that was important to me, when writing my McCarthy-era LA stories,” Antopol says, “was to highlight the distinction between the working-class Jewish communists in LA [as in “Duck and Cover”] and the wealthier Hollywood liberals, like the Hollywood Ten [as in “The Unknown Soldier”]. That was hard on my grandfather: that so many people assumed Jewish communists in LA had money and were in the industry, when in reality he felt so far from—and ignored by—that world.”Antopol_cover
The title, The UnAmericans, is a riff on the House Un-American Activities Committee, but it’s also a nod to identity politics and to this same idea of being ignored, of being made invisible in a place where you’re supposed to be anything but. “In so many ways, it’s this idea of…being considered an un-American as an immigrant, especially a refugee from Europe,” Antopol says, “where you were so political and so vocal in your own country, and then you come to America and you realize, people aren’t surveillance-ing you—they’re not even noticing you.”
Many of the stories in The UnAmericans are also inspired by Antopol’s time split between living in the U.S. and living in Israel. “I’m not Israeli, but I’ve never spent so much time or energy trying to understand a place as I have Israel,” she says, noting that her investment has nothing to do with religion or her family. “Politically, it’s really interesting to me. It’s such a young place. It’s such a mess, and there are so many things that are so heartbreaking about it.”
Antopol first traveled to the country as an undergraduate, studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and later moved back after graduation, working for a year at a human rights nonprofit and also at an immigration absorption center with teenagers from Chechnya and Russia. Now, during summers off from Stanford University—where she was a Stegner Fellow in 2006 and has taught in the undergraduate writing program since 2008—Antopol will often swap apartments and estimates she has traveled to Israel at least 25 times. But despite the familiarity, she has always been aware of “the very thin piece of glass between me and the country”—the glass that exists when you’re considered an observer rather than a participant.
Ridding the self of this metaphorical glass is mostly what makes reading Antopol’s work feel alive: Her stories are filled with full-blooded characters attempting to survive the inherent tragedy of being human, and though we’re not asked to forgive their flaws, we do find ourselves empathizing. “I really love every single person in my book,” she says. “Even the philanderers and the absent dads and the liars and all of these people. I feel like a story’s only working when I really feel the humanity for everyone in that story.”
Rebecca Rubenstein is the interviews editor for The Rumpus and a contributing editor for STET. She resides in San Francisco and can be found thinking aloud on Twitter at @rrrubenstein.