Today’s blog guest is one of my absolute favorite writers: Ayelet Waldman. Ayelet and I have crossed paths many times over the years. An author of acclaimed fiction, memoir, and cozy mysteries, I’ve been following her exciting body of work for the last decade, always eager to see what she’ll do next. Her new book is LOVE & TREASURE, a heady mix of Literary Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Mystery, and Historical Fiction set partially in Hungary, a place I love to read about. Read on for Ayelet’s singular take on the writer’s life.
LS: LOVE & TREASURE is a novel in 3 parts, each functioning almost like a novella. Why did you structure the story the way you did?
AW: You said the dreaded word, “Novella!” No! No! No!
The truth was that I had the structure before I had the novel. I fell in love with three-story structure first when reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham, then in Three Junes by Julia Glass. I read them when I first started taking the project of writing seriously, when I had emerged from my apprenticeship writing light-hearted mysteries, and had started to imagine trying something more ambitious. Those two books gave me a deep appreciation both of structure, and of the importance of theme in creating the world of a novel. They taught me that what is true and real about a story can transcend even characters. That’s a terrifying thing to contemplate, in a way. That what we care about in a novel can be something deeper even than the people in it, that our commitment to the story can survive the disappearance of characters we are invested in and care about.
LS: LOVE & TREASURE’s main subject is the Hungarian Gold Train. Tell us how you came up with a character-driven story about a historical event.
AW: It’s almost embarrassing to tell the story of how I learned about the Gold Train. Writers like to maintain an air of mystery about them, mostly so people won’t know that we get our ideas from the least sublime places in the world – the newspaper, say. Or by eavesdropping in public restrooms.
I had a friend who was appointed ambassador to Hungary. I had begun to screw up my courage and contemplate writing about the Holocaust, and at the same time I was flirting with the idea of writing about art – a topic I know nothing about. So…I googled the words Hungary, Holocaust, and Art. The Gold Train was the first hit.
The Hungarian Gold Train was a train full of the stolen property of the Jews of Hungary, everything from gold to gemstones, furs to silverware, candlesticks to sets of china dishes. The fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross and their Nazi allies forced the Jews of Hungary to turn over all their valuables. Much of what was stolen was then loaded on a very long train car, which fled Hungary as the Soviet Army advanced on Budapest.
The train was staffed by bureaucrats, officials of the “Jewish Property Office,” and guarded by Hungarian Army guards, and it perambulated around Mitteleuropa as the war drew to a close. Finally, when the Nazis finally surrendered, the Hungarians realized that to be found in possession of the entirety of the possessions of a murdered people might not be the best idea, and they handed it off to the American Army, which then had to decide what to do with it.
LS: This book feels like it has something to say, but it’s not didactic. What points can you make in fiction that you can’t make in nonfiction?
AW: I’m so glad you say I’m not didactic, because in all honesty, I hate political novels (at least I do, theoretically). I think it’s a terrible mistake to write with an agenda. And yet I find myself inevitably making some larger point with my fiction, whether it’s about class, or marriage, or identity. I comfort myself with the thought that the writers I love all seem to have something to say about the greater world, and that the best ones do so in service to a terrific story. Because the truth is despite my protestations I love political novels. One of my favorite Philip Roth novels is Operation Shylock, which is about Israel and Zionism. What could possibly more political than that? Another example – A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. It’s the most personal of stories, and yet it forced us to confront the issue of incest. That was in its way a political act! And yet most of all it’s a gorgeously written, compelling story.
For me, the biggest challenge of any novel is finding the right voice. In an essay, the voice is there waiting for me – it’s mine. For that reason, I love writing personal essays as a kind of break from the much harder (for me) work of fiction.
LS: This winter I watched the movie adaptation of your novel Love & Other Impossible Pursuits, retitled The Other Woman and starring Natalie Portman. I really liked it—I definitely cried. What’s it like to hand off your novel to a team of filmmakers?
AW: My role was to cheerlead and applaud and weep on the set, muttering to all who’d listen, “Oh my God, my words are being said aloud!” I wasn’t involved in any official way, though the director and writer, Don Roos, very generously allowed me to hang out on set, and kept me apprised of developments as things went along. He didn’t have to do it, and he and his adorable (and talented) husband Dan Bucatinsky have become dear friends.
LS: You’ve amassed an enormous following of really engaged readers on Twitter and Facebook. Has anything happened in your career that wouldn’t have been possible without the advent of social media?
AW: I’m not sure social media has done anything for my career, in all honesty, mostly because I don’t tweet for self-promotion, but rather because I have impulse control issues. Twitter is like heroin for those of us with big mouths. One big blast of joy or thrill, a lifetime of regret. I also worry that it’s filling the place that I used to fill with personal essays. When something bugs me, I tend now to tweet, when once I might have let it fester for long enough to turn it into a decent essay.
But the truth is that writing is a lonely business, and I’m an extrovert. I like hanging out with people. I like hearing what other people are talking about. I like mouthing off about what I love or what I hate or what I ate for breakfast. So whether it helps or hurts, I don’t think I’ll ever stop.
LS: Do you think about genre when you start a new book? What genres would you say that you write?
AW: I used to write strictly genre. Mysteries, specifically “cozies.” But it’s been a long time since I wrote those. Nowadays I don’t think about genre at all. I just write the kinds of books I like to read. Writing that, I’m suddenly afraid I sound a little like Matthew McConaughey – “My role model is me… in ten years!” I don’t meant that! I just mean that I love books that you’d shelve in all different places in the bookstore. I love Ursula LeGuin. I love Jane Austen. I love Jane Gardam. I love Kate Atkinson. What genre would you classify those writers as? (And yes, I know, I just named four women. On purpose. I love lots of male writers, too, but they all get plenty of ink.)
LS: What is a line from LOVE & TREASURE that you feel really proud to have written? Why?
AW: Gosh, that’s a hard question. I’m going to choose something that might seem a bit odd.
“In the spring of 1913, nearly a decade ago, I was asked by a colleague to undertake the analysis of his niece, a young lady of nineteen years, whom he described as suffering from neurasthenia complicated by chronically recurrent dyspepsia of a hysterical origin.”
That line is the first of the third section of the novel, my favorite section. The words came to me complete one day, not long after I woke, while I was standing in the shower. Everything about the character of Dr. Zobel exists in that line; his delightful pomposity, how very very seriously he takes himself. And, yes, also, the depth of his experience and knowledge. He’s not a fool, just a man who has no idea how little he really understands about the woman he is treating (or about himself). As soon as those words came into my mind I saw Dr. Zobel. I knew him. Again, it’s all about voice, the hardest thing for me when I write fiction. With this line you can tell that Dr. Zobel’s voice was so very loud in my head.
Ayelet Waldman’s new book is Love and Treasure, which is out from Knopf now. Red Hook Road and The New York Times bestseller Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Her novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits was adapted into a film called “The Other Woman” starring Natalie Portman. You can connect with Ayelet on Facebook, Twitter, and her website.
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