Thursday, March 21, 2019

Q&A with Amy Gottlieb

Amy Gottlieb, photo by Nina Subin
Amy Gottlieb is the author of the novel The Beautiful Possible. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Other Voices and Lilith. She lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the ideas for your characters Walter, Sol, and Rosalie, and for the dynamic that exists among them?

A: The novel began with Walter, a traumatized German-Jewish refugee caught between worlds. I was compelled by his poetic sensibility and plowed through early drafts to uncover his story.

Along the way, I stumbled upon the characters of Sol and Rosalie, who are struggling to make their way as a rabbinic couple in a postwar suburban synagogue. 

The character of Rosalie was influenced by my mother and her friends, who were pushing against their traditional roles as suburban Jewish wives and mothers in the 1960's and '70s. I grew up listening to their stories and Rosalie's voice was very familiar to me.

Sol was my most elusive character, but I recognized his situation. For 14 years I worked as an editor for rabbis, and heard many accounts of religious doubt, professional ambivalence, and the inherent dissonance between a spiritual leader’s love of tradition and a community that may not understand that passion.

This is Sol’s plight, yet I had to write many drafts to understand how he loved both Walter and Rosalie. Each character is marked by vulnerability; they respond to each other’s desires in unexpected ways that shift throughout the novel.  

Q: The book takes place over 70 years. Did you research the different time periods, and why did you opt to include such a long time span in the novel?

A: The novel begins with Walter’s unfulfilled promise to Sonia that they will build a future in Palestine -- he as an historian of religions and she as a singer. Sonia is murdered along with Walter’s father, yet the full arc of the novel needs to extend to Maya, the inheritor and interpreter of her parents’ story.

I love how the immense canvas of a novel can suggest the passage of time, including generational shifts and spiritual realignments.

I researched quite a bit, but mostly I let my characters guide the narrative, and then checked in with several scholars to make sure the details were historically plausible.

Walter’s journey to India was inspired by the journey of Alex Aronson, a German Jew who fled Nazi Germany and found his way to Tagore’s ashram. I loved researching this section, and now I want to visit Shantiniketan and see it for myself. 

Q: How would you describe the role of religion in the book?

A: There’s a quote by Rabbi Nachman that I love: “The essence of faith lies in the power of the imagination.” In obvious ways, The Beautiful Possible is fueled by Jewish ideas and theological musings.

Yet in the process of writing and revising, I realized that writing fiction and studying Jewish texts have much in common. Both demand a degree of faith in order to surrender to a kind of fictive truth. Both fulfill the yearning to connect to a larger narrative. And both invite us to play with language and engage in imaginative possibility.

In the prologue Maya writes, “I once believed all the words of the Torah were true, just as I once assumed that my mother and father belonged to each other in the way of ordinary married people.”

As a girl she accepts the a priori “once upon a time” story, but she grows up to transcend that fallacy and write the book of her parents. The religious and narrative motifs are intertwined in the enigmatic encounter between faith and imagination.

Q: How was the book’s title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: The book was originally titled “The Mountain of Spices” (from the Song of Songs) and my agent asked if I wanted to find a stronger title.

I combed through the manuscript and discovered three different instances of the phrase “the beautiful possible” and each instance was significant. The Beautiful Possible refers to the unfolding story that always lies ahead.

Q: What has been the reaction to the novel?

The Beautiful Possible was published over three years ago, and I’ve been humbled, surprised, and gratified by its reception.

The book was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award, Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and Harold U. Ribalow Prize. I was invited to literary festivals in Australia, and spoke at college campuses, synagogues, and book groups -- in person and via Skype.

Most of all, I have been deeply moved by the generous notes I received from readers who were touched by my characters and their story.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I always return to my lodestars: Gabriel García Márquez, Michael Ondaatje, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, Isabel Allende, and Grace Paley, and a very long list of beloved poets, which grows daily.

I’m always passionate about finding work that teaches me about the possibilities of what fiction can do, challenging me to try something new.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve dug into a new novel which takes place in an eroding Italian hill town, and I’ve recently completed a poetry manuscript.   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A. Amy Gottlieb will be participating in the Temple Sinai (D.C.) Authors' Roundtable on March 23. 

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