Saturday, June 22, 2019

Q&A with Susan Kaplan Carlton

Susan Kaplan Carlton is the author of the new young adult novel In the Neighborhood of True. She also has written Love & Haight and Lobsterland. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Self and Elle, and she teaches writing at Boston University.

Q: Why did you decide to set your new novel in Atlanta in 1959, and how did you come up with your character Ruth?

A: The jumping off point was an actual event—the bombing of a synagogue in Atlanta in 1958. Our family moved to Atlanta from Maine years later, in the early 2000s, and joined that very congregation. We were still new to town when our daughter came home from Hebrew class and said, “Did you know my school was once bombed?”

I didn’t know—not then—but the synagogue had been bombed in 1958, retribution for the rabbi’s involvement in the early days of the civil rights movement. But once I knew, I couldn’t shake the thought that the walls that held our kids had once been blown apart. The book started as a deeply personal response to the bombing. I imagined Ruth was like us—a Northerner who was new to town and trying to make sense of how to fit her old life into a new place.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I spent time combing through archives in Atlanta. The late rabbi of the synagogue had donated his papers to a library at Emory University, and it was fascinating to read his original typewritten sermons, complete with penciled-in lines. I also searched through debutante scrapbooks at the Atlanta History Center to get a sense of the dances of the times. That’s a big part of the novel, too…the allure of balls and dresses and country clubs and such.

What surprised me most was a conversation with the late-rabbi’s wife, who is sharp as can be at 96. She felt, in the end, that the bombing brought Atlantans together. In fact, she titled her own memoir of the event The Bomb That Healed, because outrage over the hate crime helped galvanize the Jewish community to more fully embrace civil rights.

Q: How do you think the novel's themes resonate today?

A: The book is timely—unbelievably so, horrifyingly so—in a way I never could have imagined. You can draw a line from Atlanta in 1958….to Charlottesville in 2017…to Pittsburgh in 2018…to San Diego two months ago. The story centers on Ruth Robb, who moves to Atlanta that sticky summer, falls for debutante dances and a cute boy, and hides that she’s Jewish…until her spiritual home is shattered.

Yet that anti-Semitism, that hate, that violence, that “good people on both sides,” is still swirling around and can be so very overwhelming. And I hear from readers that Ruth’s choices resonate, too—she has to choose between standing up for what she believes and losing everything she’s come to love about her life.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I had the ending from the get-go. But the middle—that changed seven thousand times. It took me a long while to find the beating heart of the novel. For me, I kept coming back to the question, what if you fall so in love with a place, or with a boy, that you forget who you are?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m playing around with a multi-generational YA book set in Silicon Valley—in the ‘70s, the 2000s, and now. So far it involves politics, mushrooms, feminism, genetics, and a road trip down the California coast.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Every one of my books has a standard poodle in its pages. I’m looking for a new puppy now and nothing is better than scrolling through videos of floofy poodles stumbling down stairs.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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