Historical Context: Jonathan Raab on ‘Among the Living’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m honored to welcome Jonathan Raab on the publication date of his newest work.

Jonathan is the author of the novel, Among the Living (Other Press). Also an essayist, he has written five previous books, including The Berlin Trilogy (RosaShadow and Light, and The Second Son), a critically acclaimed series of historical thrillers. Rosa won the 2006 Director’s Special Prize at Spain’s Semana Negra festival, and was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2005. Jonathan has taught at Columbia University, New York University, the 92nd Street Y, and is currently a professor in the writing department at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

jonathan-raab
Author Jonathan Raab.

Praise for Among the Living:

“[Among the Living] vividly reveals the complex texture of Savannah’s thriving Jewish community, its diversity as well as its heroism, but also the clash between Reform and Conservative Jews and the lingering prejudice against African Americans. This stirring, powerful novel never sugarcoats its themes or characters; what emerges is a hard-won realism and a compelling look at one corner of the postwar world.”–Booklist

“In this amazing novel full of plot twists, Rabb examines true love, fair treatment to people of all races, how to practice honorable journalism, and what it means to be truly alive.”—Library Journal

“Rabb is an accomplished storyteller with an eye for telling detail and for dialogue.”—Kirkus Reviews

From the publisher:

“Jonathan Rabb is one of my favorite writers, a highly gifted, heart-wise storyteller if ever there was one. What a powerful, moving book.” —David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award–winning author

A moving novel about a Holocaust survivor’s unconventional journey back to a new normal in 1940s Savannah, Georgia
 
In late summer 1947, thirty-one-year-old Yitzhak Goldah, a camp survivor, arrives in Savannah to live with his only remaining relatives. They are Abe and Pearl Jesler, older, childless, and an integral part of the thriving Jewish community that has been in Georgia since the founding of the colony. There, Yitzhak discovers a fractured world, where Reform and Conservative Jews live separate lives–distinctions, to him, that are meaningless given what he has been through. He further complicates things when, much to the Jeslers’ dismay, he falls in love with Eva, a young widow within the Reform community. When a woman from Yitzhak’s past suddenly appears–one who is even more shattered than he is–Yitzhak must choose between a dark and tortured familiarity and the promise of a bright new life.

Set amid the backdrop of America’s postwar south, Among the Living grapples with questions of identity and belonging, and steps beyond the Jewish experience as it situates Yitzhak’s story during the last gasp of the Jim Crow era. Yitzhak begins to find echoes of his own experience in the lives of the black family who work for the Jeslers–an affinity he does not share with the Jeslers themselves. This realization both surprises and convinces Yitzhak that his choices are not as clear-cut as he might have thought.

among-the-living

Now, Jonathan Rabb brings history alive for readers …

John Valeri: What was the impetus for writing Among the Living – and how did your own ancestors’ experiences influence this particular story?

Jonathan Raab: I’ve always situated my historical fiction in Europe between the wars, but when we moved to Savannah about 8 years ago, I found many of the same qualities here that I had always looked for in, say, Berlin or Barcelona – a decorum with a quiet despair just beneath the surface, a sense of uncertainty. It was wonderful. And even though we were embraced by many of the various communities here, I knew I would always be seen as an outsider of sorts. So, if I were to write about Savannah, I needed a character who was also an outsider. Add to that the startling discovery (given my own northeastern parochialism) that there were actually Jews below the Mason/Dixon Line. It made perfect sense to bring a Czech Jew (my background) to Savannah: as he would come to understand the world, so, too, would I. Years earlier I’d spent a good deal of time with a cousin of mine (a few years older than my father) who, at the age of 9, had been sent to a concentration camp along with his mother. His father had been sent to a different camp and, miraculously, all three survived and were reunited after the war (the book, in fact, is dedicated to them). When I moved to New York after college, I found myself living across the street from my cousin. We would meet for breakfast from time to time and, while he was leading a very normal life – he was an accountant – it was clear that something was shattered inside of him. How could it not be? I wanted to create a character who could find hope after that experience, but I knew placing that story in NY would be too obvious. So I put the idea in the back of my mind. When we moved to Savannah, it all came together.

JV: Your protagonist, Yitzhak Goldah, is a Holocaust survivor who finds himself in America’s postwar south. Why did you decide to combine the Jewish and African American experiences – and how did doing so enhance the narrative?

JR: That was something I discovered only once I started researching. I had picked 1947 for several obvious reasons: I needed it to be close enough to the end of the war so that Yitzhak could already have been through all the various Displaced Persons camps, etc. before arriving in America; and I wanted it on the cusp of the recognition of the State of Israel. That meant 1947 which, of course, was at the height of the Jim Crow era. What became very clear to me early on was that, while Yitzhak could never understand what it was to be a Black man living in the south at the time, he could certainly hear echoes of his own recent experiences in the way that the Black community was being treated. And that was a story no one – as far as I know – had ever tried to tell. The relationship between the Jewish and Black communities during the Civil Rights Era is well-documented, but there had to be a precursor to that connection. As it turned out, there was. And that became an essential part of the story.

JV: It’s been said that past is prologue. How do you see this story as being relevant today – and what ethical and moral questions do you hope might resonate with readers?

JR: I come from a long line of historians – my father, my grandfather – so seeing the past in the present is almost genetic with me. I don’t have any interest in writing books that could be seen as allegory, but I think it’s hard not to tap into issues that continue to challenge us. Sadly, this election has brought many of them to the fore – racism, nativism, isolationism. How we managed to confront them in the past might help us in trying to tackle them as we go forward. I do try to hint at that at the very end of the book, when Yitzhak – in a simple aside to himself – thinks that perhaps it’s not Israel he should be writing about but the greater injustices – primarily with the Black community – that are still rampant in 1947. I see him as someone who will take on that issue as a journalist and, hopefully, in some small way set the stage for the Civil Rights movement. It’s a movement we need to take seriously now – Black Lives Matter, the status of immigrant and refugee communities. Clearly, we haven’t resolved those problems by any stretch of the imagination.

JV: Speaking of history, please tell us about your research process. How do you know when it’s time to stop reading and start writing – and in what ways do you allow “creative license” to influence the process?

JR: This was a unique research opportunity for me. With my previous books, I couldn’t find anyone from the period to interview, either because they were long dead (1919 and 1927 Berlin) or because the wounds were still too raw (1936 Barcelona…yes, there were still a few who were around). In those instances, I went back to my academic days and started with the big books on the period, getting more and more obscure with the titles until I felt completely saturated in the moment. And I was always reading with my main character in mind – what would work for him, how would he digest that information, etc. But here in Savannah, I was able to sit down at a luncheon one day with five people – one man, four women – with ages that ranged from 90 to 94. I brought along a yellow legal pad with pages of questions, asked the first one, and then didn’t speak for the next three hours. I didn’t record anything. I simply listened, jotted down a name (I stole a character name completely – Mary Royal), a reference to a location, a story that made them all laugh, and THEN I went to the books. There are some wonderful archives in Savannah, both of general history and the Jewish community… including an oral history that went back to the turn of the last century. But because this story felt so much more personal to me than my previous books, I dove into the writing much earlier. On occasion, I would need to go back to the books to make sure I was getting something right but, for the most part, I let my characters create the world I needed. It’s funny, but many people who knew I was writing the book would come up to me say, “Well, you must include the story of….” and I would listen and nod and then tell them, “You’ll recognize Savannah in the book, but it will be my Savannah, and I hope that’s ok.” That doesn’t mean I altered anything or created fictional locations. But place is always a character in my books. It reflects and interacts with the other characters. So I have a very specific idea of that moment in time. It’s all consistent with what was there. It’s just that the angle of the lens is perhaps a little different from what a native Savannian would expect. After all, this is all through the eyes of a Czech man who has survived the war. And I had to commit myself to that.

JV: You use the lens of fiction to tell this tale. What are the benefits of doing so? Also, do you have recommended non-fiction reading to share for those who might like to explore the subject matter further?

JR: Historical fiction allows you to focus on the small lives that were feeling the impact of larger events surrounding them. I’ve never had any interest in fictionalizing, say, Napoleon. There’s plenty on him. And how would I really see the texture of the time from those heights? But show me a sailor who manages to escape the wreckage of his ship during the battle of Waterloo, and is desperate to get back to his wife in Lyons….now that’s a way to understand the moment (and perhaps certain things about or own moment in time). I wanted to play with some of the big ideas, and fiction is a perfect way to distract the reader while you’re grappling with race or faith or identity or alienation or sacrifice or self-betrayal or…..the list goes on. If I can get the reader to commit to my characters, then the backdrop of history (like the place) will become just one more character. And then the big ideas don’t seem so daunting (or so preachy).

There are many books of non-fiction. Eli Evans The Provincials remains a fascinating look at southern Jewry. But for me, it was those oral histories that the Savannah Jewish Archive put out that really brought this world to life.

JV: You are also an educator. In your opinion, what of the craft of writing can be taught vs. what is intrinsic talent – and how does tenacity factor into the equation?

JR: There are two things that any writing teacher knows he/she can’t teach, and that’s voice and imagination. I don’t want students trying to emulate my voice (I have enough competition out there). And the idiosyncratic nature of imagination is probably the reason any of us get into writing in the first place. Savannah in 1947 or Spain during the first two weeks of the civil war – those get my juices flowing. That’s not the case (thank goodness) for anyone else. If your interests are the planet Zoob or some teenaged-driven dystopian retro future then that’s what makes you sit down every day. But there are things that can shape the voice and the imagination – give them a focus, clarity: knowing how to play with narrative drive, understanding what your intention is (and how every detail you pick must in some way further that intention), learning to breathe through a control of cadence, and – of course – recognizing the difference between genuine tension and shock (or faux surprise or hollow provocation or self-indulgent prurience….). I truly believe that there are no trite stories or ideas. There is only good and bad execution. Craft is what distinguishes between the two.

Of course, you do need to have the chops – the ear and the eye that make you a writer. Sadly, they’re meaningless without discipline. It’s not enough just to stick with it. It’s the way you stick with it: by forcing yourself to keep structure and all the rest of the craft in mind when things are going off the rails; by working the muscle every day, and not patting yourself on the back when you put down 1,000 words in an afternoon or donning your hair shirt when you get out one measly sentence in eight hours (a sentence you’ll hate the next day); by finding those exquisite moments, when a single line brings everything into focus; and by knowing you’re always playing the long game. If you’re impatient, don’t write. You will be miserable.

But if you have something that simply has to find its way onto a page, and you’re willing to commit to it, then anything is possible. And that’s what makes those hours and hours and hours of pure isolation worth every second.

***

With thanks to Jonathan Raab for his generosity of time and thought and to Maria Whelan, Publicist at Other Press, for arranging this interview.

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