Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Q&A with author Anna Solomon

Anna Solomon is the author of the novel The Little Bride, about a mail-order bride who comes from Odessa to the American West in the 1880s. Her short stories have appeared in various publications, including Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, and Harvard Review. She is the co-editor, with Eleanor Henderson, of the forthcoming anthology Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers. She lives in Providence, R.I.

Q: What type of research did you do to recreate Odessa and the American West of the 1880s?

A: I did research of many kinds, from looking at historical maps of Odessa to reading issues of an old farming journal called The Yiddish Farmer (I spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library's Dorot Reading Room) to contacting botanists in South Dakota about different species of grass.

I try, though, to let my story guide my research, rather than the other way around. I put a lot of XXs in my manuscript as I write and don't allow myself to jump on the Internet (i.e. procrastinate) when I'm in the middle of a scene.

My favorite type of research is reading other fiction, set in the place and/or during the time period I'm writing about. So, Willa Cather's My Antonia, and Isaac Babel's Odessa Stories were both important and inspiring books to me as I worked on The Little Bride.

Q: How many people were part of the Am Olam movement, and what do you see as its overall historical significance?

A: The Am Olam movement, depending on the source you consult, involved somewhere from 8,000 to 12,000 people--the majority of them Eastern European Jewish immigrants who couldn't find jobs or housing in America's crowded eastern cities and who were offered money and assistance by wealthier American Jews (many of these German Jews who had been in the States for some time and wanted to preserve their reputations as assimilated members of their communities, which meant getting their newer, more traditional brethren quite literally out of town) to head west and farm.

This all started in the 1880s and continued into the 1920s or so, but most of the Am Olam colonies, socialist agrarian outposts located everywhere from Oregon and Colorado to Louisiana, Texas, and New Jersey, didn't last that long. For one thing, Jews hadn't been allowed to own land back in Europe, so they had little in the way of farming skills.

Clearly, I could go on about this at some length--the whole thing fascinates me, or I wouldn't have written a novel about it. Anyone interested in learning more might want to check out this essay I wrote for Tablet.

Though the movement itself was small, it had a real impact both on the small towns of the Middle West and West (where many of the Jews settled after their farming ventures failed) and on the psyches of the Am Olam descendants, Jews who likely grew up in Chicago or Seattle or L.A. but who carried with them a different physicality than many urban Jews, and a more encompassing sense of what America was, beyond the tenements. They were more rooted to the country's landscape, and to its foundational myths.

Q: What have readers' reactions been to your main character, Minna?

A: I take it from your question that you had mixed feelings about Minna. Lots of readers do. Everyone reacts strongly to her. Either they seem to feel that she's a great example of a complex hero, as flawed as she is lovable, or they think she's entirely unsympathetic, selfish, etc. Often they wind up discussing whether their reaction would be the same if she was a male hero, or not.

I tend to write about characters that interest me--they have to, if I'm going to spend years with them--and not think so much about whether they're "likable."

Novelist Julie Wu wrote about Minna in relation to a couple other "flagrantly flawed" protagonists--I think she offers an interesting perspective, too.

Q: You also write short stories. Do you prefer one type of writing to the other?

A: Oh, I miss short stories! I'm close to finishing the first draft of my second novel and I'm looking forward--once I pass it off to readers--to writing one of the stories that's been bubbling around in my head for years now.

I still read short stories all the time, and I'll keep writing them. I love the form for its tightness, its control, how (as Poe said better) you can hold a whole short story in one glance. I love novels for all the opposite reasons.

I feel lucky to be able to write both, and at some point I would love to bring a number of my stories together (already published and yet-to-be-written) into a collection.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: That novel I mentioned. It's called Pear (for now) and it's set in Gloucester, Massachusetts (my hometown) during the 1920s. It's a much bigger book than The Little Bride, with a large cast of characters, multiple points-of-view, and lots of drama, including an abandoned baby, a shipwreck, and rumrunning. Fun!

Also, I've co-edited with Eleanor Henderson an anthology called Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Women Writers, which comes out from FSG on April 15! So the book is done, but now we're working to bring it into the world.

The book is really fantastic, which I feel I can say since I edited rather than wrote it, and includes essays--some hilarious, others harrowing--by authors such as Cheryl Strayed, Dani Shapiro, Julia Glass, Danzy Senna, Lauren Groff, and many more. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for creating such an excellent space for writers and readers to connect. I've enjoyed reading your other interviews and I'm glad to be part of the conversation. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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