Sunday, September 3, 2023

Q&A with Hilary Zaid


Photo by Mo Saito



Hilary Zaid is the author of the new novel Forget I Told You This. She also has written the novel Paper Is White.


Q: What inspired you to write Forget I Told You This, and how did you create your character Amy?


A: I was in the thick of trying to place my first novel, and thinking about what it means to be an artist who isn’t recognized for their art.


Amy, who is a calligrapher in the style of the medieval scribes, grew out of that preoccupation with the artist as a middle-aged mother, which is a category of invisible persons in itself. I put her into a situation in which Amy felt that invisibility most acutely, at a time when claiming an identity as an artist felt most dire, and like a last chance, and then I saw what developed from there.


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Forget I Told You This is a variation of a code phrase used late in the novel, and it’s also a touchphrase for a novel which is in part about data surveillance and data privacy.


As much as it’s about wanting to be seen and recognized as an artist, and about feelings of invisibility, the novel is also about the urgency of maintaining our right to privacy—or, after the European law, the “right to be forgotten.”


It’s an interesting desire at the heart of a Jewish novel, since so much of post-WWII Judaism takes as its slogan “Never forget.” Sometimes, when we choose it, forgetting is important.


Q: In our previous Q&A, you said of Forget I Told You This: “It’s a novel set in the world of surveillance capitalism about how it feels to be anonymous and what it means to be seen.” Can you say more about this, and why you chose this world?


A: There’s no way around it: this world is our world. Some have called this novel “dystopian,” but the fact is, in terms of the technology or how it’s used, I didn’t make any of it up. In fact, there’s so, so much more, it was a challenge just to focus on one little bit of the way that surveillance capitalism shapes our lives.


The recent Supreme Court Dobbs decision underscores what’s at stake in the data we shed—when a text message on a social media platform can get a person arrested, for example. But the impact of the data collected by social media companies on our lives through unregulated private enterprise is something we should spend more time thinking about. 


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


A: For me, the writing process is a process of discovery, and I think for me it would be horribly boring to write a novel knowing exactly what was going to happen and how it was going to end.


When I’m writing, I want to see where things are going to go, which is in large part a process of seeing how characters expand on the page. Eventually, I know the compass point I’m trying to reach, but the fun is in getting there.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a novel about aging and illness and housing insecurity and Nazis and murder. It’s a comedy.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The world is an interesting place, and if you look at it closely, you can see doorways open up where there didn’t seem to be any. I hope I’ve captured that sense of the world’s capacity for wonder here in my story about Art and AI and what it means to be human.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Hilary Zaid.

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