Next Up in MashableReads: ‘The UnAmericans’ by Molly Antopol
Molly Antopol, recently named one of The National Book Foundation’s top “5 Under 35” authors, makes her short story debut with her collection The UnAmericans. The collection follows a multiplicity of voices ranging from a teenager coming of age during the Red Scare to a former dissident writer from Prague reflecting on his negligence as a father. As Antopol navigates from story to story, she explores a global and multi-generational Jewish identity with so much heart, wisdom and tenacity that this story collection is bound to resonate with readers of all ages.
Be sure to follow @mashlifestyle to discuss The UnAmericans, using the hashtag #MashReads throughout the month. You can also join our Goodreads group to stay updated on MashableReads, and let us know what you think of the book.
Want to hang out with the author in person? Join our MashableReads San Francisco Meet Up for our event on March 26, at 6:00pm. If you’re in New York and want to get together with people to discuss the book, join our MashableReads New York Meet Up.
Also, we’ve created some discussion questions and a suggested reading guide to keep you on track throughout the month. We encourage you to grab some friends and get together to discuss The UnAmericans some time in the month of March. And as always, tweet at us or post in our Goodreads group to let us know what you think of the book!
Below, we spoke with Antopol about being a “5 Under 35” recipient, her advice for young writers and the influence of social media on storytelling.
Q&A with Molly Antopol
Mashable: You were named one of The National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35 Authors,” but the stories in The UnAmericans span generations. How did being such a young writer influence your story collection?
Antopol: It’s an extraordinary honor to get this kind of recognition — I was thrilled to get the news, and to be in such incredible company. Writing is often such a solitary pursuit; it was very nice to be acknowledged by people who aren’t related to me!
When I began writing these stories, I was blissfully ignorant of all things publishing-related. Reading was, at that point in my life, an entirely personal and haphazard experience. I’d stumble upon a book, fall in love with it and obsessively read everything by that writer, then read interviews with them to discover which writers they admired and go search for those books, and so on.
The book took me ten years to write. It was really important for me to keep my blinders on the whole time. Because I teach in a writing program, a lot of my friends were publishing books. For some reason, the excitement of seeing close friends publish never pushed me to write faster — instead, it just made me want to tune out any noise so I could focus entirely on the book I wanted to write, regardless of whether or not anyone would ultimately be interested in publishing it.
As to being young, you know how sports commentators sometimes say that young guys who’ve never been in the playoffs before can just go in and play without nerves because they’ve never been there before and don’t quite understand the magnitude of things? I started writing this book in my early twenties; I think that being so young, I didn’t quite recognize how tough it was going to be, which allowed me to jump in without all the nerves and self-doubt. That all came later!
What advice do you have for young writers?
When I was first writing stories, an older writer gave me a piece of advice that really resonated over the years: You only get one chance to have a first book, so make sure you stand behind every one of your sentences. That feels so true to me — there’s no rush to get published, and there’s something so amazing and rewarding about devoting those early years to reading and writing and messing up, until a writer feels truly great about the work they’re putting out.
I also think it can be incredibly useful to seek out other people who like to talk about books, and a few who are interested in swapping work. But it’s so important to be picky about readers, especially with new writing — I heard Philip Roth talk once and he said something that really stuck with me: Never let anybody read your early drafts unless you’re sure they’re on your side.
In each of the stories in The UnAmericans, your characters grapple with a hard truth about themselves, whether that be shame for being a negligent parent or ennui after returning home from abroad. What do you want readers to take away from reading your book?
I just hope readers get swept up in the stories the way I’ve gotten swept up in so many books. I’ve missed my subway stop any number of times because I was so wrapped up in what I was reading, and felt disoriented when I had to put the book away and was no longer in the world of my characters. One of the main reasons I write fiction is to try to understand what life might be like for other people. Writing a story is pretty all-consuming for me. I’ve always seen it as a form of method acting — for the year or two that I’m working on a story, I’m constantly thinking about how my narrator would react to whatever messy or strange situation I’m in, and it’s the moment I begin to see the world through their eyes that I know my story’s headed in an interesting direction.
I love the feeling of trying to explore what it might have been like to live in another place or during a different time, or even to live here in the present day, but as a man, or a person much older than I am — I often find that I’m able to access certain emotional truths about my own life by exploring things from different angles. I haven’t written any stories about female writers living in San Francisco, but I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I questioned and obsessed over during the decade I was writing them. And the theme I found myself circling back to, again and again, was the complicated — and sometimes devastating — impact one person’s quest to improve the world can have on the people closest to them.
Several of the characters in your book are Jewish-European dissidents, smuggling art from Russia, writing oppositional journals in communist-era Prague, or fighting as child soldiers in Belarus. How do notions of identity play into the stories you tell in The UnAmericans?
I kept thinking about this notion of “Un-Americanness” for my East European characters — as you said: dissidents, art smugglers, political writers, child soldiers — who, after risking their lives for their politics in their mother countries, then have to reinvent their identities in the United States, a country where they’re treated as anything but American.
I thought about the complicated emotional impact the fall of communism might have had on my characters during that time, and what it might have felt like to dedicate oneself to a cause that, in the course of world events, ultimately comes to an end. I wondered whether some people might have had a nagging feeling of nostalgia for that bleak time, simply because they held a significant place in it.
For so many of my characters, their entire sense of self is shaped by their politics, and I wanted to explore how having lived under surveillance in Eastern Europe influences their lives once they immigrate to America, where they quickly realize that not only are they no longer being watched — they’re no longer being noticed.
How do you think social media has influenced storytelling?
Oh, in every way imaginable! As a teacher, I love thinking about how to integrate social media into the ways in which I talk about storytelling. So often my students come into my office and tell me how worried they are about their stories seeming “real,” about finding their voices. I tell them to narrate the story the way they’d write an email to someone they’re close to — that casual, off-the-cuff confessional voice we use when emailing close friends is about as authentic as a voice can get.
At Stanford, our department now offers a Twitter Fiction class, and even in my regular writing classes I integrate things like Twitter and Instagram into the way I talk about narrative. I’ve always loved Joan Didion’s 1966 essay “On Keeping A Notebook,” a beautiful meditation on note-taking and memory, in which she looks back on past journal entries. I have my students do the same thing with Twitter, searching early tweets and trying to uncover their meaning — and what was happening at that particular moment in time, both in their lives, and in the world at large.