Interview: Molly Antopol
Molly Antopol is the author of the 2014 collection of short stories, The UnAmericans. Widely praised and rightfully so, this collection explores topics from communist ideology in the United States in the 1950s to the present-day Israeli military and tragedy in the Gaza Strip. What’s impressive is how each of these stories earns unquestionable authority in its loaded subject matter while being rooted in real relationships. Yes, these stories are about the global, the political, the biggest questions of the twentieth and twenty-first century, but they’re also about the family, the individual, the human heart.
Antopol has crisscrossed the country several times. She grew up in California before earning an MFA at Columbia University in New York. She then returned to California as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, the first of a string of fellowships. After a 2016 Radcliffe fellowship at Harvard University, she will be off to Berlin, Germany for a 2017 fellowship at the American Academy.
In 2013, Antopol received the “5 under 35” award from the National Book Foundation, and The UnAmericans was nominated for a 2014 National Book Award. Molly is currently working on her first novel.
Breakwater Review: You’ve been all over, which translates into multiple settings in The UnAmericans. How important is place in your work, and how important is it in the characters themselves?
Molly Antopol: I think it’s really important. I wouldn’t know how to write a story without really thinking hard about the setting and thinking about where the characters live. All my characters are so deeply influenced by their environment and by place, because so many of them in this book—and I think so many of the characters that I’m interested in writing—are either trying really hard to get back home, or trying so hard to flee their homes.
BR: What’s home for you?
MA: I mean, it’s tricky. I would say the short answer is San Francisco, which is where I live. The long answer is: I don’t know. I think that, in some ways, there hasn’t been that one spot I’ve ever been that’s like, “Okay, this is where I need to be and this is where I need to settle.” I’m still trying to figure that out.
BR: Is that why you write, do you think?
MA: I think so, yeah. [laughs] One of those reasons. But I’m from Los Angeles and I now live in San Francisco… Although this year home is Cambridge [for the fellowship at Harvard University].
BR: The UnAmericans as a title, for me, somehow feels perfect despite something like over half the stories not taking place in the U.S. It’s both fitting, but also in contrast with the title. How did you settle on it, and did you have other titles you were working with?
MA: It was tricky. It’s so hard to title a story collection, because it has to be in conversation with all the stories and also work as an overall, overarching title. I liked the idea of The UnAmericans as a title because it’s sort of a direct nod to the McCarthy era stories in the U.S. But I’m really interested in this complicated relationship between Americans and Israelis. It’s this really complicated and yet very symbiotic relationship between these two places—especially with this current generation of Israelis—like the Israeli soldier [in the story “Minor Heroics”] who really hates having to defend the settlement filled with American religious families, but is still pining for a chance to visit the U.S. for himself. Or thinking about it in terms of class, like in the last story, [“Retrospective”], with Boaz, who never feels American but his wife can globetrot the entire world with ease.
So the title made sense in a lot of those ways. And also, the idea with my Eastern European characters is that if you start to find yourself fighting so hard to come to the U.S. and then realizing you’re treated as anything but American—do you start to have nostalgia for this bleak place that you’ve left simply because you held a place in it?
That’s how the title worked for me. And every other title that I had just felt kind of forgettable. It would be a longer phrase and I would like it, and then three days later I wouldn’t remember it, so it just felt like it wasn’t the title for me.
BR: Do you remember any of the titles?
MA: Oh my gosh, they were all really bad [laughs]. Or you know what I would do… Right when my editor was asking me for title ideas—she wanted a couple before we decided on one—I had a notepad next to my bed. I was constantly thinking about it, and I would wake up in the middle of the night and think I had some great idea and scribble it down. Then in the morning I would look at it, and they were always the tiles of really well known books. [laughs] So it was both a good title, but not my title.
Photo by Debbi Cooper
BR: So I know you’re under contract with Norton for your first novel. Where are you in the process?
MA: Oh. I’m just… sort-of half way into a zero draft.
BR: Not even a first draft?
MA: I think of it as a zero draft, because so much of it will be figured out later on. I probably have about 150 pages of the book, but for me, I can tell that a lot of things will change. And I think in the early writing process, it’s me just figuring out what’s going to be important enough to highlight in another draft.
BR: So you’re at Harvard now. How are you enjoying the Boston area?
MA: Oh, I love it. It’s really great. Cambridge is pretty wonderful. The fellowship has been fantastic—the people have been great. Yeah, it’s been wonderful.