Dara Horn is the author of two novels. Her first novel In the Image won the National Jewish Book Award, and the Reform Judaism Award for Jewish Fiction. Her second novel, The World to Come also won the National Jewish Book Award and was named an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Entertainment Weekly. I liked it an awful lot myself. Horn was also named one of the Best Young American Novelists by Granta. In addition to all of that, she also holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University where she studied Yiddish and Hebrew literature. She’s also a mother of two.
I was thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed by Baby Got Books, which shows up in some of my rambling early questions. Don’t worry, I eventually get a hold of myself. Below is Part 1 of our conversation that spanned several weeks via e-mail. Parts 2 and 3 will follow.
Baby Got Books: You were recently named to Granta’s list of Best Young American Novelists. How did you find out? Has being named to he list become a life/career changing event? Who of your fellow honorees are you most excited to join? Who are your contemporaries that should have made the list with you?
Dara Horn: I found this out through a phone call in December, which was preceded by an email from a Granta editor requesting my number in order to ask me a “rather delicate” question. I have the pessimist’s habit of always expecting the worst, so my immediate assumption was that I was somehow about to be sued. (My last novel was about Chagall, and I had had a similar fear when Chagall’s granddaughter called the publisher for a copy of the book. Fortunately she liked it.) I was quite amazed to hear the news, though it turned out that the “delicate” part of the question was that the magazine wanted to include never-before-published fiction from everyone selected… and needed everyone’s submissions in three weeks! I’ve never written a short story, so I didn’t have anything lying around to hand in other than the novel I’m currently working on. I had never published anything from a work-in-progress before, and it’s actually been very exciting to hear responses from readers about it.
The list of writers in the Granta issue is pretty remarkable, as is the issue itself. I don’t read a ton of contemporary fiction, so the fact that I was familiar with a fair number of them was enough to impress me. One of my favorite things about the other names on the list, though, is that one of them– Akhil Sharma– lives downstairs from me in my apartment building. Apparently it’s a very small literary world. As for authors I might have liked to see included, I’ll put in a plug here for Jon Papernik, whose The Ascent of Eli Israel I found fascinating, and for T Cooper, whose surprisingly strange Lipshitz Six was even better in the thinking-about-it-afterwards than it was in the reading itself.
The Granta selection was a bit of a career-changing event for me in that most of the honors my novels had received previously had been from Jewish literary sources, so this has given my work some new attention. As for “life-changing event,” though, I’m afraid the Granta people really couldn’t compete, because I gave birth to my second child a few weeks after the issue came out.
BGB: You’ve never written a short story! I’ve read that you wrote your first novel while in the middle of pursuing a doctorate in Yiddish and Hebrew comparative literature at Harvard. How did you decide to write a novel in the middle of what was surely a rigorous course of study? Having never written a short story how did you find the confidence to crank out a novel? How did you go about getting it published?
DH: No, I’ve never written a short story. That’s mainly because I never took a fiction-writing course after middle school. In the introduction to the Granta issue, the writer Elif Batuman (who happens to be my childhood best friend) is quoted as saying that the short story form is played out in American literature and is merely kept alive artificially through fiction-writing courses. I do agree with that. I also think that writing a short story and writing a novel are very different skills.
Being a writer isn’t so much a career as it is a disease, like finding out you have asthma at the age of six. After you’ve diagnosed it, you just have to find a way to work your life around it. I was always looking for ways to support myself that would accommodate this habit. When I was a college senior, I won a scholarship to spend the year after graduation at Cambridge University in England. It was the kind of set-up no one could turn down—tuition to study “anything at all,” a “scholarship suite” in an 18th century house, and a stipend big enough to pay for all the takeout Indian food one could possibly need. It should have been a dream come true, except that I got engaged a few months before graduation, and my fiancé had a job in America and couldn’t join me. I was therefore doomed to spend the year alone, crying into pints of Guinness in smoke-filled pubs packed with crazed soccer hooligans. I soon realized that I don’t like Guinness, smoke-filled pubs, or crazed soccer hooligans. When you spend a year in England avoiding these things, you have a lot of time on your hands. So even though I had begun my graduate work, I found that I still had plenty of time to write. I had never planned to write a novel, since I had never written any fiction at all before I started writing that book. I had always thought I would be a journalist, and to that end I kept a notebook where I would write down ideas for articles and essays. At some point I read straight through these ideas and realized that many of them were strangely related to each other, because of certain preoccupations I had at the time when I had written them. And I saw how they would make more sense as part of a novel. I was quite bored that year, and I really wrote it to entertain myself. The idea of publishing it was more of a dream than anything else.
The story of how I got the book published also involves something inane that happened in England. In college, I wrote a lot of magazine articles, and at one point a publisher contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in expanding an article I had written into a nonfiction book. I was then able to find an agent without much agony, since I already had a publisher lined up. The problem was that I ultimately decided not to write that book. Two years later, I was writing the novel in England, and my masters program in Hebrew literature hosted the Israeli author Meir Shalev for a lecture and dinner. During the dinner, Shalev sat at the center of the long table, and I sat on the end. I didn’t get to speak to Shalev at all, but instead I spoke to the person seated across from me: Shalev’s British publicist. At some point I mentioned that I had been writing a novel and that I had had a contact with an agent years before, but that he would never remember me now, so it seemed quite unrealistic to me to try to get it published that way. The publicist told me, “Of course he’ll remember you. It’s his job to remember people like you.” The next day I mailed the novel to this agent. He called me when he received it, agreed to represent me, and sold it to W.W. Norton.
I did write my second novel while getting a doctorate at Harvard, where graduate students generally drink a lot less beer. But the nice thing about a doctorate is that no one ever expects you to finish it. In academia, procrastination is a way of life, and I used this to my advantage. Whenever the dissertation became too frustrating, I’d procrastinate by writing the novel, and whenever the novel became too frustrating, I’d procrastinate by writing the dissertation. As a result I completed both without ever feeling like I was doing real work.
BGB: I agree to a point that modern short stories can often come across as annoyingly didactic, writer-ly exercises. There is also a sense that short story writing is akin to the literary minor leagues. Some of your fellow Granta “best young novelists” had not actually written a a novel and were honored based upon the strength of their short stories. The idea being, I suppose, that they are headed for the major leagues. I’m not sure I agree with that thought process. However, there are some great writers that are doing wonderful things with short stories. Can you not imagine that there will come a time when you would want to tell a story that would be perfectly captured in a short story or novella form?
DH: Well, I recently wrote an extremely short story (three paragraphs) on a cocktail napkin, for Esquire magazine’s “Napkin Fiction Project.” I assure you it was quite “minor league.” But the short story and novella forms are far from “minor league” in the literatures I study, Yiddish and Hebrew; the great modern masterworks in both those languages are all stories and novellas, not novels. So I’m not against the concept of short stories. I just don’t have any reason to think that I know how to write them. What motivates me in writing novels is developing characters and following the plot to see what happens next, since I don’t plan the books in advance. It’s my impression that one has to have some slight preconception of where one is going in order to write something shorter, though I may well be wrong about that. I’ve also grown very accustomed to writing novels; I like creating characters that I can live with for a long time and get to know really well, since you generally have to spend a few years with these people when you’re writing a book. It’s therefore hard for me to imagine doing what I would want to do with less time and space. But there was a time when I would have said that I had no idea how to write fiction at all, so why not?
Come back tomorrow for Part 2!