Joan Leegant’s latest novel Wherever You Go tells the story of three Americans in Israel whose lives intersect against the backdrop of Jewish extremism and the tension between democracy and terror. Wherever You Go is Joan’s second book; her first, An Hour in Paradise, a collection of stories that grapple with religion and identity, won the PEN/New England Book Award and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Joan was a lawyer and taught at Harvard for eight years before seriously pursuing a career in fiction writing. She splits her time between Boston and Israel, where she’s the visiting writer at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. Wherever You Go and An Hour in Paradise are both available from W.W. Norton. You can learn more about her and her work at her website. Joan was kind enough to talk to me about her writing over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: How did Wherever You Go come about? Can you talk about the genesis behind the plot?
Joan Leegant: I knew only a couple of things about the book when I began to write it: first, that I wanted to write a novel about Israel, and second, that I wanted to write about Americans in Israel, specifically American Jews. The impulse for that is pretty straightforward. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life either being in Israel, or thinking or reading or worrying or despairing about Israel. In fact, my adult life seems to have been bookended by long stays in Israel. I first went there from Massachusetts in 1978 as a young lawyer for what I thought would be six months; I stayed 3 years. Flash-forward 30 years when I was invited to be a visiting writer for a semester at an Israeli university that, lucky for me, keeps inviting me back.
So the experience of American Jews in Israel interests me — why they go there, what they do when they get there – and that’s what I wanted to write about. Some of that curiosity is personal in that I lived there for a time and thought I would stay but didn’t. So part of the impulse to write is the “what if” that fiction writers traffic in: what if I had stayed?
But I learned through writing the book that I have strong feelings, passions, related to the experience of Americans in Israel that aren’t strictly personal. Americans have been among the most notorious Jewish extremists in Israel. Americans also comprise a segment of the radical settlers. Their numbers are small, but some Israelis hold a stereotype of American Jews in Israel as fanatics. Obviously there are plenty of American Jews living there who are not fanatics of any sort. But I was interested in exploring those who were.
There’s another source of this curiosity, which someone reading the book would be hard-pressed to guess. And it’s this: I was a college student in the late 1960s, during the heyday of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Weathermen, the anti-war movement, the push to get ROTC off campus. At my university there were student take-overs of university buildings, faculty protest strikes. My school was no Kent State, but I remember the president of the university calling in the National Guard at some point. And who was making all this happen, yelling into the megaphones on college campuses and morphing from heiress Patty Hearst into the SLA’s Tanya with a machine gun? Young twenty-somethings convinced of the rightness of their cause. As a cautious, careful person, I was intrigued by their passion. Often their cause was just even if their methods were violent or wrong-headed. This came back to me while I was writing Wherever You Go.
But I didn’t know any of this when I began the novel. I’m one of those writers who gropes her way into a story. I don’t think anything through in advance. I don’t even like to think much about a story while I’m writing it. It’s like I have to turn off my head to write. I don’t know if that’s because of my legal training (linear, organized, concerned with relevance, and in my case, probably a bit rigid) or if it’s one of those left-brain right-brain things. Whatever the reason, I’ve learned to trust my instincts and have faith that something will emerge if I’ve got a reasonably promising premise or situation or character to work with. I wrote short stories for a long time before attempting a novel, and that turned out to be good practice for learning to let the story run the show. So I began Wherever You Go with some characters, went where they led me. Not accidentally, they led me straight into my own passions.
The plot emerged from the characters. Fairly early on, I knew that one of them, Aaron, was going to do something violent. I wrote the scene where he commits the violent act, and for a long time I kept that scene as a prologue. I thought I might structure the book so that the reader knew about the act from the start. Eventually it occurred to me that keeping it as the prologue had been a kind of place-holder for me, a helpful signpost: all things in the book needed to either lead up to that event or be the aftermath of the event. Once all that was written, I moved the event into the body of the book.
I also intuited at a point early on that the lives of the three main characters would intersect around this violent act, though I didn’t know how that would come about — how or why their paths would cross — until I wrote it all out. This enabled me to envision a structure. It also allowed me to use points of view I felt reasonably proficient in, which were three third-person narratives. From all this — the characters, the specific event, the structure, the points of view — a plot emerged.
Biblioklept: That structure gives you the tools to explore these characters, who are all in very different places in their relationships to Israel and the Jewish faith. Obviously, Wherever You Go will appeal to a Jewish audience (American or otherwise), but were you ever worried about alienating certain readers who may feel that your complex approach might sometimes portray Jewish people in a less than flattering light?
JL: I did worry. After I’d finished the book and it was at the publisher, in production, I began contacting Jewish venues about giving book talks. One of the first people I reached was the program director of a prominent Jewish cultural institute. She enthusiastically requested a review copy and then called two weeks later to say that, though she’d loved the book, she couldn’t host me there; her board simply wouldn’t have it—she knew this without even having to ask. This worried me and I thought I’d killed the possibility of a book tour. As you may know, the Jewish community is very well-organized for book events. Nearly every city has an annual book fair where authors speak, and most synagogues regularly host writers for book talks. So when this institute turned me down early in the outreach effort, I thought: uh oh.
But then, remarkably, the opposite happened: Jewish organizations were eager to have me come speak. In the ten months following the initial publication of Wherever You Go, I spoke at 100+ Jewish venues up and down the east coast, in Chicago, California, Seattle. It turns out that a great many American Jews are worried about the same things I’m worried about; namely, the rise of extremism in Israel, the power and influence of the settlement movement, and the drift to the right in Israeli politics and policy. Like me, many are deeply devoted to Israel and care passionately about its survival; yet we also believe there must be a Palestinian state, and that the Palestinian narrative must be heard as well as the Jewish narrative.
Who were these audiences who turned out for my book talks? They weren’t young lefties or radicals associated with, for instance, the movement promoting sanctions or divestment. They were mostly middle-aged women and men who identify strongly as Jews and Zionists but are worried about where Israel is headed and dismayed about the hijacking of the Jewish tradition by those with fundamentalist views. Instead of being angry that I was talking about Jewish extremism, they wanted to know more about it, to become better informed. I think this feeling is best captured by a line from the review of Wherever You Go that ran in The Forward, the pre-eminent American Jewish newspaper: “Finally, a novel about Israel by an American Jew that’s written well and without sentimentality.” American Jews don’t want an update to Exodus. Certainly those who are knowledgeable about Israel, who’ve been there or follow the news, want to read books that depict the country, as it is today, with more nuance.
Which is not to say that some people didn’t get upset with me. I got some nasty reviews, most which I’m pretty sure were motivated not by literary critique but political animus. One early reviewer for a well-regarded Jewish newspaper was startlingly honest about his discomfort. In a measured and articulate piece, he praised the book for its insight, character development and accuracy–and then said he just wished I hadn’t written it. Couldn’t I have used my novelistic talent to write about something else? he asked. Frankly, I admired him, and still do, for being up front about his personal reaction instead of feeling the need to find a reason to rip the book apart.
I seem to be one of those writers capable of remaining oblivious of her readers while engaged in the act of writing. I didn’t much think about alienating readers or reviewers while I was working on the book. It took me seven years to complete this work, and for a long time I simply didn’t know if I would produce a novel at all, let alone publish one. So that enabled me to sink into the material without giving a lot of thought to its reception. I also didn’t know until quite a ways in that the book would contain such charged material, since I began with character, not theme or idea. This also helped me wade in deep while maintaining a kind of happy ignorance about what I was heading toward, subject-wise.
Nonetheless, I’ve come to understand that writers working out of a particular ethnic or religious or regional tradition often upset members of their own group when their work is released into the wider world. Philip Roth infuriated many in the Jewish community when he published Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 (National Book Award notwithstanding) because of the less than flattering light in which he portrayed his characters. I hope I’m not misremembering, but I believe I once read that Sherman Alexie’s work was not happily received by his fellow Native Americans, for the same reason. I have a friend who is a playwright; she is also Armenian. She told me that with her next play, her first about being Armenian, she expects to be nearly excommunicated. This is part of the territory of writing. You tell the truth, not, to my lights, in order to be outrageous or provocative or snide or even merely clever, but because honesty is essential. Not everyone is going to like it.
Biblioklept: I imagine (if you’ll permit me that license) that although Alexie would like for Indians to read his books and relate, and perhaps your Armenian friend wishes that Armenians will be able to identify the truth in her work, I imagine that both writers hope for audiences beyond their own ethnic backgrounds. Do you worry about your books being perceived as “Jewish books”—not necessarily during the crafting (as you’ve already described), but perhaps in the nitty-gritty of the marketing and so forth?
JL: I don’t worry about that kind of labeling very much, though perhaps I should. Maybe this comes out of initially publishing short stories. The first piece I ever published was about a 75-year-old rabbi thrown into a spiritual crisis when a pair of Siamese twins appears at his morning minyan — he’s been waiting for a sign from the Divine for a long time and wonders if they are it — and it was published in Nimrod, a very fine literary journal out of the University of Tulsa. Several things came out of that publishing experience. First, I learned that, like the old advertisement for Levy’s Rye Bread (“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”), you didn’t have to be Jewish to connect to and enjoy a good Jewish story. Now, of course, I knew intellectually that non-Jewish readers could, and did, appreciate intensely Jewish fiction all the time. One of my literary beacons is Bernard Malamud, many of whose short stories are masterpieces, particularly those in The Magic Barrel,another National Book Award winner from the 1950s. When it comes to Jewish stories, you can’t get much more Jewish than that. But I’m no Malamud, and until I began to publish, I didn’t know where my work might end up. When Nimrod took that first piece, I understood that the work had transcended a strictly ethnic readership, something, I might add, that my wonderful teacher, Bret Lott, had already told me. It was Bret who pushed me to send that story out in the first place.
The second thing that came from the Nimrod experience was attending their annual writers conference. The story they took — it’s called “The Tenth”– had won third place in Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize; they flew me to Tulsa to accept the prize and participate in the conference, where I also met the judge, novelist Anita Shreve. And what I found while talking to people all weekend and being at an awards dinner with a couple hundred guests was that the truths I was exploring in that story — the wish to connect to the Divine, the terror of having glimpsed the Angel of Death – were indeed universal. This gave me the impetus to keep mining the Jewish vein, and I did the classic obsessed-writer thing: I scribbled potential story titles and opening paragraphs all over the backs of the conference materials on the plane ride home. The prize and the talky weekend were the boosts I needed to say to myself, OK, write those Jewish stories. If they’re good, people will read them.
Marketing that first book as a Jewish book, then, became primarily a business decision, and it was by my doing, my choice. That holds true for my novel, Wherever You Go, as well. As I mentioned earlier, the Jewish community is well-organized in terms of providing opportunities for writers to get the word out. So the community has been a natural launching pad for my work. I was also very lucky with my first book, An Hour in Paradise, in that it was selected early on for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program and then won the Winship/PEN New England Book Award, two honors that kept it from being perceived as exclusively of interest to Jewish readers.
That said, I’d love both books, and especially the novel, Wherever You Go, to reach more readers in the broader world. Wherever You Go deals with religious fanaticism, and while the focus is the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Jewish extremism in particular, much of what’s explored in the book applies to any kind of fundamentalism. Which, as we know, is happening all over the globe. What allows people to commit violence in the name of God? What draws certain individuals to embrace the fanatic’s worldview? How do families deal with the rifts within them caused by differences in ideology? These are questions I think a lot of us are asking in this new century. Then there are the themes of forgiveness and atonement and repairing relationships. I’m hoping general readers will be interested in exploring these issues through the lens of fiction.
Biblioklept: What are you working on next? What projects are on your horizon?
JL: I’m working on stories as well as a larger project. I won’t say much about the larger work because I’m still finding my way into it, except to say that it’s set in central Massachusetts in apple growing country. The stories are set in Israel and are about secular Israelis — a departure from the world I explored in my novel, Wherever You Go. The new stories are also a change for me stylistically in that they are written in first-person, which is not a voice or point of view I’ve used much at all. But that’s just how they’re coming out. And you have to go with the demands of the story.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JL: I am the quintessential good girl and have never stolen anything. I even became a lawyer because I liked rules. The closest I came to stealing a book was when I stayed for a week at the home of friends who were away for a semester and began reading their copy of Francine Prose’s novel, Blue Angel. I was loving the book but wasn’t going to be able to finish before I had to leave. So I took it with me. But I felt so guilty that I bought another copy for myself and slipped back into my friends’ unoccupied house to return theirs. I know they would have given it to me had I asked. But I felt so tarnished by my original conduct that I couldn’t even ask.