Yesterday we presented Part 1 of our interview with one of America’s Best Young Novelists, Dara Horn. Part 2 of the interview continues below.
BGB: You appear in a recent article in the New York Times about the Jewish Book Network, an organization that supports Jewish authors by coordinating book events nationally with Jewish Community Centers and other organizations. The results seem to be fairly impressive – the article names other authors who have participated in the network, such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krausse, Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, etc. How did you get involved with the group? Did you have to go through one of the “star search” style interviews described in the article? And finally, do you think that your experience with the Network was a big boost to your career when you were starting out?
DH: I was very lucky in that my first book was published in 2002, about a year or two before the Jewish Book Network began their auditioning system, so I was spared the trauma of having to pitch my book to an audience of hundreds of bookfair people in two minutes or less. At the time, the director of the program apparently just read my book and liked it, and I was invited to a Jewish Book Network lunch during BookExpo America (the annual book industry convention, which in 2002 happened to be held in New York, where I live) at which I basically ended up doing an audition—pitching the book to representatives of Jewish book fairs from around the country—but in a more one-on-one
kind of way. I think publishers have recognized what a resource this is for promoting books of Jewish interest, and as a result the Jewish Book Network had to set up the audition process because so many authors were interested in getting involved.
In my experience, the Jewish book fairs have been a wonderful way to build an audience for a new writer’s work. For Jewish communities in cities outside the northeast, these fairs are very important communal events, and they can draw pretty big audiences even for writers who aren’t so well known. People come to the fairs because of the community and to be involved in Jewish culture (particularly in parts of the country where such opportunities are rare), even if they haven’t previously heard of the author. For an author who hasn’t been on Oprah, having 25 people show up at a bookstore reading in St. Louis is usually an amazing turnout, but at the last Jewish book fair I spoke at in St. Louis, about two hundred people came. They do a remarkable job of building an audience.
It’s easy to be snobby about the Jewish book fairs, since not everyone in the audience is there solely out of a love of literature. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Jewish book fair where at least one person didn’t ask me whether I was married and whether I wanted to meet their son/grandson/nephew/cousin’s-college-roommate’s-dogwalker. Despite all the crazies who tend to show up at bookstore readings (like the reader in Boston who presented me with a handmade collage with my name pasted across dozens of newspaper clippings about local murders), it must be said that no one at Barnes and Noble has ever tried to marry me off. But in an era where everyone is always complaining about how hard it is to sell books, I have nothing but gratitude for how the Jewish Book Network introduced my work to readers. And it is really a gift for a writer to be able to meet so many readers in person who have read and enjoyed her work.
BGB: Let’s talk about your most recent book. The World to Come is a wonderful novel that combines elements of the art heist genre, a bit of historical fiction, and a profound spiritual element. Let’s start with that last bit. The book presents a very comforting
idea – our unborn children are taught in heaven about our world by their own ancestors. I love this idea of “the world to come” as somewhat circular. How did you come up with this concept?
DH: It originated with a story in the Talmud about what happens to a child before he is born. In the story, we are told that the child spends the pregnancy being taught all of the secrets of the Torah—by which is meant not merely the five books of Moses, but all of the secrets of an ethical way of life. Just before the child’s birth, an angel slaps the child across the face (which is the reason why we all have dents below our noses), causing him to forget all of the things he has learned, and then, once he is born, he is forced the spend the rest of his life trying to remember. There is something terribly haunting about this story’s suggestion that when we learn new things, we are in fact remembering them from before we were born rather than learning them new. This implies a further question: from whom did we learn them?
In developing the supernatural “world to come” as it appears in the book, I answered this question by using another strand of Jewish tradition, the idea that one’s deceased ancestors bear the responsibility of being “gute beters” or “good requesters”—that is, that they are responsible for interceding with God on behalf of their descendants. This is a very old Jewish idea that is built into the structure of Jewish prayer, which repeatedly invokes the patriarchs and other ancestors by name, as well as the promises God made to these ancestors, when asking God to intervene in the present world. In the novel, I took these two traditional ideas and combined them, so that those who haven’t yet been born are taught all of these secrets by their own ancestors.
This may seem like pure fantasy, but I believe that the ideas behind both of these stories are reflected in the reality of genetic inheritance. A person at birth is exclusively made of spare parts from people who lived before him, but despite the fact that this is all that we are, we cannot access it or “remember” those who made us who we are. But the way I have dramatized this—which you refer to as “comforting”—is in fact much more than a metaphor for genetics, because it suggests that what we might rationally think of as genetic codes are in fact real people that we (or our parents) have known, and that therefore there is a way for such people to continue living.
I am interested in the points in human experience where religion, instead of being a metaphor, becomes a genuine description of life as we live it. No matter how rational or secular we become, we remain unable to answer two fundamental questions: when a person is born, where did he come from? And when a person dies, where did he go? Being present at a childbirth or a death makes it very difficult to be satisfied with a merely physical explanation of how a person (rather than merely a body) comes into our world or leaves it. I think it is possible to imagine that “the world to come” is just what the phrase suggests—that whether or not one chooses to believe in a supernatural world beyond our own, our reward or punishment for our acts in life is also embodied in the impression that those acts will leave on our own world in the future—that is, on the world, to come.
Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion in Part 3…