A Slice of Ourselves in Each Character That We Write:
Danila Botha In Conversation with Alison Pick
Alison Pick has written two beautiful collections of poetry, Question & Answer and The Dream World, three celebrated novels, including the Man Booker nominated Far To Go, and the courageous and heart opening memoir Between Gods. We had a chance to talk about her brilliant new novel, Strangers With the Same Dream, which will be published this month.
Danila Botha: Strangers With the Same Dream is set in 1921, just a few years after the Balfour Declaration. Can you tell us about this particular era in Jewish history and why it was especially interesting to write about?
Alison Pick: Have you read Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land? He has a chapter about the kibbutz Ein Harod [a kibbutz that was founded in the north of Israel in 1921 by Russian pioneers of the Third Aliyah] full of these little vignettes about the creation of Israel. I think it was first reading that that made me feel the novelistic possibility in the time and place. It was a crucible of so much growth and explosion of the movement… I think one of the things I learned in writing Far to Go is if you set a novel in a time and place where there is already a great deal of tension, you can kind of lean into that from a novelistic perspective. Of course there has to be tension and dramatic development between the characters but also just the historical moment ups the whole tension, so it seemed interesting to me from that perspective. I’d also never been to Israel, and I got a Chalmers grant, so I…did three two-week trips and I visited that particular kibbutz.
DB: How was it? What did you think of Israel?
AP: It was really fascinating. Everyone had said what an amazing place it was...I really did feel that there’s something sort of magical about it. It felt exciting and alive and everything is so present tense. People had said it’ll be such a different experience to be in a place where you’re in a majority as a Jew, and I found that true, but I also found it interesting to see the range of ways that people practice their Judaism. I understood it intellectually, but I didn’t understand in practical terms until I got there that there was a range from very liberal, secular Jews to Orthodox. I loved it, I really loved it.
DB: What was the research process like?
AP: Because it was new territory to me historically, and factually in every way, I tried to be quite narrow. I set it in a particular time and place. I went to Ein Harod and there was an archive there, and the archivist showed me all these journals that had originally been kept, and I had a translator, and she translated segments. So there was that material and the novels of Meyer Levin, which were set right in that area…I really lucked out with the archivist, and with the American born Israeli translator whose mother-in-law was there at the beginning.
DB: I’m also interested in the setting of kibbutzim versus for example, writing about being in Jerusalem (or Tzfat or Tiberius or one of the holy cities or even say a city) like Jaffa of that era. Was there something about the idealism in the kibbutzim that you find more poignant or more interesting than the cities of that era?
AP: I would say that was accidental. I don’t have a big background in history so I chose to go narrow and deep instead of a wider, broader sense. I feel like I could write another novel in that era and still be engaged.
DB: I want to ask you about the use of languages. There’s such a potent mix of Hebrew, Yiddish, and even German in the way the characters think and speak. Was it challenging to get all the vocabulary right, and era specific no less?
AP: (laughs) It was. I wanted to do it to give the story flavour and a sense of time and place. I had a couple of people who gave me feedback on the language, the Yiddish and a little bit of German. The Meyer Levin books were also very useful.
DB: What I loved so much about this book were the beautiful descriptions that fit with the succinct, precise, of-the-moment Israeli mentality. For example, the “air smelled of baked mud and sweat and a dense kind of emptiness,” and “the promise of night was like silk, or cool water.” The scene when Hannah realizes she’s pregnant: “She had felt the conception. There had been a tiny hook, like a needle making a stitch. A tiny, surprisingly painful tug… this sharp pinch was what tied her to the land.” So poignant and powerful, but also so fitting.
AP: Thanks, I’m glad you thought so. I feel like in a lot of ways it’s a very plot driven book. In order to get those three third person timelines and points of view to line up, I had to make a chart to hold the ways the plot intersected. The structure of the book called for a more straightforward kind of language.
DB: Tell me more about the writing of the three different voices. The story is told from the point of view of three characters: Ida, David and Hannah. They’re all so beautifully rendered and so three dimensional.
AP: When I set out to do it, I don’t know if I appreciated how technical that part would be. It’s easy enough to line up, in terms of time; for example, there’s Chanukah in all three, and Passover in all three, so I thought I could make a relatively easy chart to connect them. But it was tricky because part of what I wanted to show and explore was different ways, ideology versus theory or theory versus practice and the ways that we want to be good in this world and how that sometimes doesn’t translate in the way that we want it to. So that was part of the decision to have the three different voices, to show the different ways of showing up in this new place, and showing up to their ideals. It was difficult to keep track of them.
DB: Was there one character in particular you found most challenging to write or to empathize with and was there one that easiest for you?
AP: I would say that the voice of Hannah was the easiest.
DB: I thought Hannah was incredible. I loved her.
AP: Thanks. I think in some ways to write the characters we have to empathize with them. As they say, there’s a little, at least a slice of ourselves in each character that we write, and maybe Hannah has a greater percentage of me in her than David or Ida. I actually finished the book and wondered if I should go back and write it all from Hannah’s point of view. But then it was done, so…I think there’s something intrinsic to art where when you’re done you think how you could have done it better, and that’s what pushes us to think we can make the next one better.
DB: I think all the perspectives were so great. Also I feel like because Hannah was so compassionate and empathetic there probably would have been less tension.
AP: No for sure, it would have been a different book.
DB: A lot of Ida seemed like very open-hearted idealism. The way for example she looked around the open field and could see the kibbutz, and she could see the room where all the kids would live, for example which was a thing that was practically hard for a lot of mothers and families.
AP: Certainly she was by far the most idealistic. She was the youngest; she hadn’t been in Palestine yet, and David and Hannah had been there already for ten years. In some ways the second two parts are meant to be a contrast to the first part, just in terms of that naiveté and optimism. In some ways it’s a trajectory from the most idealized to the most real. I was trying to use her character as an embodiment of that optimism and the hope that was before the Holocaust and the passion for Israel and a new way of being in the world, a new paradigm. In a lot of ways, her character embodies unchecked idealism.
DB: In an interview with The Globe and Mail recently, you said: "I was curious about the cognitive dissonance that underpinned the Zionist project: the Jews were fleeing such hatred and oppression that they could not afford to see the problems intrinsic in “settling” a land that was already occupied.” Can you tell me a bit more about this?
AP: I knew when I sat down to write it was a place that was infinitely complex with a nuanced history. But really the more I tried to arrange it in my mind in one way, the more another narrative presented itself. There are so many different and equally legitimate stories. There’s this tiny piece of land and this prism of experiences and backgrounds. It’s a place where it’s impossible to pin down one narrative, and I think good fiction should try to open up. I felt acutely aware that the Arab story in particular was not my story.
DB: Were you worried about telling it incorrectly or not sensitively enough?
AP: I was worried. I felt like you can’t tell that story just from a Jewish perspective.
I was asking myself if there was a way to tell the story just from the Zionist perspective, but there wasn’t, or it wouldn’t have been a book I wanted to write. The Arab characters are minor characters, but as you know they’re important ones. I paid close attention to how I was portraying them, and to making them nuanced and complex and showing the complexity of the whole situation.
DB: For sure. Tell me about David. One of the lines that I love is where Hannah says: “He had the privilege of being only where he wanted to be in his mind, where she was forced to go back into her body again and again.”
AP: One of the things I’ve learned in terms of my editing process and my writing is to trust my body. So I’ll have an intuitive feeling from my body that something is good, or there’s something to lean into, or away from, and I have learned to really trust that. But sometimes when I’m trying to articulate why I make certain decisions it’s difficult.
DB: Because it’s a feeling sometimes, right?
AP: It really is. And I would say I’m becoming more and more like that in my writing process. Strangers with the Same Dream was the first book I’ve written since my daughter was born.
DB: You transition so beautifully from one genre to the next. (Your previous book was the non-fiction memoir Between Gods.) What was the transition from fiction to non-fiction back to fiction like?
AP: It was kind of exciting. I was surprised with the overlap in terms of writing fiction and memoir. I thought they were going to be entirely different projects — of course the raw material you’re using is different, but it was a similar set of tools, you’re creating narrative tension, you’re focusing on character development, you’re thinking of what’s going to make the reader turn this page, and then the next page. So writing Far to Go and then Between Gods was more similar than I had anticipated. The promotional stuff with a memoir is very different because...people forget that it’s also a work of art, that it’s curated. There’s things you leave in, and things you leave out and it’s not the whole story of your life. So people feel they have a license to ask you…
DB: Inappropriate things?
AP: Yeah, things that are outside of the scope of the book. And then there’s also the reaction of everybody who’s in it. Most of my family was really wonderful, but I had a couple of people who weren’t happy about it. Anyway, I’ll just say I was excited to go back to fiction.
DB: (laughs) It’s true. I’ve read interviews with non-fiction writers where I was astounded by how interviewers feel entitled to ask personal questions. There’s sometimes no propriety or sense that it’s craft and curation, and that writers are only sharing the parts of their lives that they’re comfortable sharing.
AP: Yeah. I think it’s a writerly thing to understand that there actually can’t be a direct translation of experience into words. The words themselves mediate the experience, and I think people read memoirs almost like a transcript of what really happened. But as you sit down to try to write something you realize that it’s absolutely impossible, because of all the decisions about what goes in and what goes out and what to emphasize.
DB: Alison, thank you so much.
AP: Thank you.
Danila Botha is a fiction writer based in Toronto. Her first collection of short stories, Got No Secrets was published in 2010, and was named one of Britannica’s Books of the Year (Canadian short stories). Her first novel, Too Much on the Inside was shortlisted for the 2016 Relit Award and won a Book Excellence Award for Contemporary Novel. Her most recent collection of short stories, For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I've Known was a finalist for the 2017 Trillium Book Awards and was recently shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature. Danila teaches Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, and at Humber College’s School for Writers. She is currently working on her second novel and on a new collection of short stories.