On March 10, I emailed Dara:
Dara, 28 (though she looks 27), calls me Wednesday, March 15, 2006 at 4:30 p.m.
Earlier in the week I had confided to a friend: "I just don't have anything to say to her or ask her. I've just done a ton of reading on her (in addition to reading her two novels over the previous few months) and she speaks and thinks so differently from me, oh boy. I'm going back to the basic questions I ask anybody about where they find meaning in life. This could be a big flop."
My friend responded that I should ask Dara more specific questions about her work. Why does she incorporate yiddishisms? Is this her response to the Holocaust? To the gaping literary hole created by the extermination of almost everything Yiddish? Is she a post-Holocaust writer? What does she think about that? Does she see her work as fitting into that genre? In Jewish literary studies, the big post-Holocaust writers are Melvin Jules Bukiet, Art Spiegelman, Norma Rosen and Thane Rosenbaum. The newcomers to that genre are Horn, Nathan Englander, Steve Stern, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Luke: "Is it OK if we speak on a first name basis?"
Dara: "Fine with me."
She laughs and breathes hard. My spirits lift.
Luke: "I'm tape recording this so I can transcribe."
Dara: "OK, sure."
Luke: "Let me start with some simple questions. When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Dara laughs. She speaks rapidly. "Nobody has ever asked me that in an interview before. I was obsessed with dinosaurs at one point, so I wanted to be a paleontologist. Every kid wants to be an astronaut. The Challenger blew up. I decided I'd be an astronomer. I was writing always, keeping journals. A certain friend [Elif Batuman, who's doing a PhD in comparative literature at Stanford] and I, when we played together, we would write down in our journals everything that had happened in our games. She now writes for The New Yorker.
"I was always writing but it didn't occur to me until I was a teenager that this was something a person could do. And even after that, I didn't think about it as something one could do for a living, it kinda isn't. You have to be doing other things."
Luke: "Was there a seminal event when you realized your destiny was to be a writer?"
Dara: "Gosh, I can make one up. I published an article in Hadassah magazine when I was 14. Then I published another article when I was 15. It was nominated for a national magazine award. It was the first time a Jewish publication was ever nominated for the award. It was a big deal. They had a big awards event with all these editors. I was the only person there with braces."
Luke: "Were you impossible to deal with after that?"
Dara: "It was too surreal. It wasn't the kind of thing you could explain to people you knew at school. 'I'm doing this thing over the weekend. I'm going to this lunch at this hotel for something I did for a magazine.' 'Oh, that's cool.' It didn't make any difference for my daily life at school and homework. I don't think I became too insufferable. Maybe my [three] siblings would disagree."
Luke: "Are there any similarities between your writing as a child and teenager and the writing you do today?"
Dara: "Probably. I never wrote any fiction until my first novel. I always saw myself as writing nonfiction. The first things I published were travel articles.
"One thing that is similar is my interest in Jewish literature. Also, an archival impulse of recording things. As a child, I kept journals and diaries. I had the fear that one's experiences disappear if they aren't written down. I never thought about it very clearly when I was a child."
Luke: "Is there any consistency in the feedback people have given you as both a human being and as a writer since you were a child?"
Dara: "Hmm. Interesting question. Feedback meaning?"
Luke: "'Oh, you're intense. Or intelligent. Or questioning.' Any common threads. Writing is the person. For instance, even when you were four years old, your parents told you this, and even today your husband tells you the same thing."
Dara: "I've always been a nerd. I've always been obsessed with trivial details. I've always had a good memory. As a teenager, I was CO-captain of my quizball team in highschool. We would go on local TV, like the character Benjamin [Ziskind] in my book The World to Come. I was very interested in things most people have little interest in. That crystallized in my interest in Yiddish, which is the epitome of my interest in Jewish literature and my nerdy interest in things that normal people are not interested in.
"People who knew me as a child would say that I was very strange. I wasn't interested in cartoons and videogames. I would play games that I and my friend would invent together. We created this new galaxy and different creatures that lived on the various planets.
"My siblings and I wrote poems together and we still do for people's birthdays. I was raised in making things up.
"I never could throw anything away. I'm a pack rack."
Dara grew up in Short Hills, New Jersey. Her parents still live in the same hills.
"In some ways, they've led a traditional life.
"Short Hills is infamous for Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus (published in 1957). Short Hills was where Brenda Patimkin lived.
"Philip Roth is influential where I grew up. My mother's family is from Newark, New Jersey. After World War II and after the riots in the late 1960s, there was this massive Jewish exodus from Newark and everybody went west to other towns in New Jersey.
"Goodbye, Columbus says the Patimkins were the only Jewish family in the town, that they were there by some sort of special arrangement.
"I read the book when I was a teenager and I thought it was hilarious because the public school I went to in Short Hills was about 40% Jewish. It's not the same world he describes in that book.
"When people think of American Jewish writing, people think of Philip Roth. Well, I think that was true 40 years ago."
Luke: "How do you emotionally react to Philip Roth?"
Dara: "I'm not a huge fan for a couple of reasons. A big one is just the misogyny. It's annoying. It has nothing to do with American Jewish literature but it doesn't resonate with me. Philip Roth is a guy's writer. It's annoying that he's considered the quintessential American Jewish writer when his writing has nothing to do with anything anyone my age has ever experienced. Some day I should be lucky enough that people should say that about me."
Luke: "If you caught your husband enjoying Portnoy's Complaint and laughing uproariously, what would you do to him?"
Dara: "I wouldn't be surprised. I thought it was a funny book when I read it as a teenager.
"My favorite Philip Roth novel is American Pastorale because it was written as historical fiction."
"I went to private [secular] elementary school from first grade to sixth grade. Then I went to public school."
Luke: "What kind of clique did you hang out with in highschool?"
Dara: "No one. Have you ever had a writer who had a clique in highschool?"
Dara: "I don't think writers tend to have friends in highschool. It's a prerequisite for being a writer. If you ever have a writer tell you that he had friends in highschool, I'd be interested to know.
"I am lucky that I am close to my siblings. We were all close in age and we all went to school together. It didn't matter that I didn't have a clique in highschool because they were my clique. We had kids night out where the four of us would go out on Saturday nights.
"I'm second in the birth order."
Luke: "Were you the peacemaker? What was your role?"
Dara: "I don't know. I'm certainly not in any role of authority. I am the middle of three sisters. My older sister and I are four years apart. My younger brother is 13 months younger, and my sister is two years younger than him. I was the boss of the younger two in games we would play as children. We would do skits and plays and I was often writing the skits.
"My sisters are also published writers. My younger sister Ariel had a novel (Help Wanted, Desperately) come out two years ago. My older sister (Jordana Horn Marinoff) is working on a novel. She's worked as a journalist."
Luke: "Is it true that as a child, you had a dream that your siblings bowed down to you?"
Dara laughs. "It is not true. They would've killed me. They wouldn't have sold me into slavery.
"I was very much at their beck and call. I still am.
"My brother is also an artist. He's an animator for Comedy Central."
Luke: "Do you think that's art?"
Dara: "He's an artist. I don't know if what he does... I don't think even he would call what he does art. He's not high-minded about art. He just likes to draw."
Luke: "Were you always the smartest one and the one getting the most accomplishments?"
Dara: "Oh gosh. No. We all excelled in different fields. My brother shined in art. He had his work exhibited as a teenager. My sisters were also talented students in school and Ivy League graduates. We cooperated. We'd trade assignments. My brother was never a good writer and I was never a good artist so I would help him write an essay for school and he would help me with a science project where I had to draw diagrams."
Luke: "Were you a teacher's pet?"
Dara laughs. "These are leading questions, aren't they? My goodness. I did well at school."
Luke: "Did teachers adore you?"
Dara: "I had some teachers who adored me."
Luke: "Were you adorable? Were people like, 'Oh Dara!'"
Dara: "No. I was very obnoxious. I don't think I was very likable as a child and teenager."
Luke: "Were there any subjects you were bad in?"
Dara: "I was never fond of math."
Luke: "But you still got A-grades?"
Dara: "I did OK in math."
Luke: "Did you get As?"
Dara gives a guilty laugh.
Luke: "Tell the truth."
Dara giggles. "These are questions that no one has ever asked me. Perhaps that is for the best.
"Yeah, I was a big nerd in school."
Luke: "I promise I won't ask you the difference between genre and literary fiction.
"I've read all your other interviews on the web."
Dara: "It's humbling being a nerd because you don't have much of a social life and in the hierarchy of school, nerds are at the bottom of the totem pole. While teachers really like you, nobody else does."
Luke: "Did you ask someone to the Sadie Hawkins dance?"
Dara: "No. I really didn't date anyone until I met my husband at 19.
"That's right. I had one boyfriend before."
Luke: "Were you invited to the Junior Prom and the Senior Ball?"
Dara: "I was not invited to the Junior Prom. I went to the Senior Ball with a friend.
"I was highly unpopular at all these things. I wrote an essay about this ("The Last Jewish American Nerd") in The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide To Guilt.
"No, I was never invited to the prom. People always wanted to be my lab partner."
Luke: "Is your husband allowed to criticize your writing?"
Dara: "Oh wow. But of course. Oh wow. Ohmigod. My husband is encouraged to. It's very helpful to me. It's helpful to have people tell you what's wrong with your writing and you won't think they're saying it because they have some personal vendetta against you. It's important to have people critique your writing who, even if they don't like your writing, will still like you. That's not true of editors and other people you deal with professionally. If they don't like your writing, that's pretty much the only reason they're talking to you.
"My husband reads, generally, chapter by chapter of what I write. It's annoying for him. It's like being serially published. By the time I finish another chapter, it's been months since he finished the last one.
"My siblings and my parents read a lot of it also."
Luke: "Did you spend much of your childhood in your head alone fantasizing and dreaming?"
Dara: "I didn't because I was always surrounded by my siblings. We were always playing these imaginative games. I didn't come home from school and plant myself on the couch with a book until I went to bed. I was lucky that I had playmates who were always with me.
"The idea of creativity as a group effort is not talked about a lot when it comes to writing, but it is important to create with other people, and not just in your head."
Luke: "Were you a happy child?"
Dara: "Yeah. Our parents ran our family like an institution. Everything was regulated. At dinner, it became rowdy and my parents decided that each child would have five minutes to speak and no one else was allowed to interrupt. Then we had to devise all sorts of ways to get around these rules. We'd hold up cards with numbers on them telling people what we thought of their day.
"We went to about 40 countries around the world."
Luke: "I read that."
Dara: "So you know everything there is to know about my life already.
"That [travel] had a big impact on my writing.
"I was a lucky child. I had parents who encouraged me and my siblings. In my house, you were always fighting for attention and you always knew you were not the center of the world. That's important not just for writing but for life."
Luke: "Which fiction have you seen yourself in most clearly?"
Dara: "Seen myself? I'm reminded of Kafka's comment that 'I have nothing in common with other people or even myself.' I don't look for myself in fiction."
Luke: "What about your experience of life?"
Dara: "Hmm. I'm not really interested in reading about myself. What do you mean?"
Luke: "You read something and you go, 'That's how I've experienced life.'"
Dara: "Not, 'This is taking place in my highschool.'"
Luke: "You emotionally resonate with it."
Luke: "As a teenager?"
Dara: "Gosh, this is an interesting question. I've never thought of it that way."
Luke: "I confess it's Portnoy's Complaint."
Dara giggles. "'This is my life.' Probably not in quite that way, but I don't know you.
"So you're looking for a character I identify with?"
Luke: "No. This book is how I experience life."
Dara: "I'm afraid of giving an answer I'll regret."
Luke: "That's what I'm hoping for."
Dara laughs. "I know you are."
Luke: "I want you to say something that you will eternally regret that will be captured on my blog."
Dara laughs. "And it will be there every time someone types my name into Google for the rest of my life."
Dara: "Gosh. I should just pick something."
Luke: "Pride and Prejudice."
Dara: "Gosh no. The plot of which is, 'Will you marry me?' Four hundred pages later, yes. No, that's not my experience of life.
"I'm going to walk around my apartment and look at my books. The problem is that I have just moved to a new apartment."
Luke: "Is there any one book that has made you cry the most?"
Dara repeats everyone one of my questions that catches her by surprise. "I'm looking at See Under Love."
Luke: "I'm looking for something that reveals your emotional psyche and lays it bare."
Dara: "I don't have an emotional psyche."
Luke: "I'm looking for a Rorschach's test."
Dara: "Yes, I know."
Luke: "But I failed because I made it evident."
Dara: "Someone I don't like is Bernard Malamud.
"I really like Haruki Murakami but I don't think he reflects my experience of life."
Luke: "If it comes to you..."
Dara: "No. Now I'm looking through all my books..."
Luke: "What do you love and what do you hate about your life now?"
She repeats the question. She says "Gosh." She repeats the question.
"I love my family. I love that I finally feel like I am doing what I want to do. I hate that having this eight-month-old daughter I have to work around her. I don't like having to decide whether I should spend more time on her or more time on my work. While I feel lucky to be able to choose to spend more time with my baby or more time on my work, I still hate choosing. I hate that that's such a boring problem. I don't mind it. I have a baby-sitter. I hate that you can't talk to people about the problem."
Luke: "They'll fall asleep."
Dara: "It'll go nowhere and not be meaningful.
"There are certain things I don't like about myself. I wish I was more organized. I wish I was more patient with my work and with people in my life."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about being interviewed?"
Dara: "I used to think I hated being asked the same questions over and over again, but now that I'm being asked different questions, I feel stymied."
Dara: "I feel like I'm in trouble.
"I'm still looking at my bookshelf as we talk to see if I can find a book that resonates with the way I feel. What I like is usually not my experience of life. I'd tell you 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' and 'The Kreutzer Sonata.'"
Luke: "Is there a movie that reveals your emotional landscape?"
Dara: "A movie? I don't have such a complicated emotional landscape. I'm a happy person. I'm a lucky person. My life could not be made into a novel because it would be boring."
Luke: "I'll have you in tears by the end of this."
Dara: "You're trying to dig out some dark secret of my past. Good luck. I don't have any dark secrets in my past. If you can find one, that would be very interesting to me.
"I've never been psychoanalyzed."
Luke: "I've had too many years of therapy."
Dara laughs. "You know all the tricks."
Luke: "Anything else you love and hate about being interviewed?"
Dara repeats the question.
Luke: "How many people who interview you have a clue what your work is about?"
Dara: "That's something I don't like. I don't like it when I do an interview with someone who is asking me the questions off my publisher's material or asking me something after having just read the back of the book. The interviews I've liked best are ones where people have spoken to me about the book, not about me."
I laugh. She laughs.
Dara: "I feel like I have something to say about the book. Questions about me? It's like a bad blind date. We don't know each other. Who are you? It's like filling out a personals ad. I like long walks on the beach.
"I'm used to talking about my book. I'm much less used to talking about myself."
Luke: "As you travel, what depresses you and what inspires you about Jewish life?"
Dara: "Are you from England?"
Dara: "OK, now I can. I lived in England for a year. I found Jewish life there depressing for several reasons. First, the lack of variety of Jewish religious life. I grew up in an egalitarian community. I was a professional Torah reader as a teenager. I was very involved in my community's religious practice. When I went to England, there was nothing like that. There was just traditional Judaism with Jim Crow seating in the synagogue.
"I remember they had this newsletter from the Hillel [type college organization] that said, 'Jewish law respects women because Jewish women are mothers.' We're in college. No one here is a mother. I found that depressing. I don't necessarily find traditional Jewish life depressing. I find the lack of openness to other possibilities depressing.
"What I truly found depressing was the anti-Semitism and the lack of outrage against it. It was the European Jewish community. These people were used to lying low. People would say things that in America he'd be strung up for but British Jews would just laugh it off.
"What I find inspiring -- when you travel the world and find so much consistency from one community to another. You can be anywhere in the world and walk into a synagogue at 10 a.m. on a Saturday and you know what will be happening. That's not true of anything else in the world.
"Being Jewish is a very unique and particular way of being human that makes the world a little bit smaller. You can experience the whole variety of the world within this smaller community. You can expect people to welcome you any place in the world."
Luke: "Do you believe in the God of the Torah and have you always done so?"
Dara: "That's an interesting question that no one has asked me before.
"I do believe in God. I would hesitate to say that I believe in the God of the Torah because that means so many different things to so many different people."
Luke: "Whatever that phrase means to you?"
Dara: "I do."
Luke: "Have you always?"
Luke: "Oh man."
Dara laughs. "I'm such a boring interview. I don't have any crises of faith.
"I'm going through a time now where I'm less into it. People always say that having a baby is such a spiritual experience. I say the opposite. Once the baby's there, it's distracting from spiritual thoughts. As a mother, I have less mental energy to devote to religious thought. That's something I regret about my current life. I wish I was more passionate about my religious beliefs."
Luke: "I assume you are a Conservative Jew and I assume it is hard to be passionate about Conservative Judaism?"
Dara: "These denominational labels are on the way out. Am I a halakhicly observant Jew? I'm not strictly shomer shabbat, but I observe Shabbat in my own way. It sounds stupid. I take the elevator on Shabbat but I don't do my professional work on Shabbat. I don't write my books on Shabbat. But I turn on lights so people will say, 'She's not shomer shabbat.' I eat in non-kosher restaurants. So I don't keep kosher? I only eat vegetarian food at non-kosher restaurants.
"I'm not Orthodox."
Luke: "Is it fair to say that it is hard to get passionate about Judaism if you are not Orthodox?"
Dara: "I totally disagree with that. I am very passionate about Judaism. I just happen to be at a moment in my life where spiritually I don't feel particularly moved. I've been thinking about that for the past month.
"I always have been passionate about Judaism. I consider myself blessed to have been born into a tradition where religion is similar to literature. In how many religions do people go around dancing with books? Would I have been a writer if I hadn't been Jewish? Probably."
Luke: "Are there parts of Jewish life you find artistically stifling and other parts you find inspiring to your creativity?"
Dara: "Jewish literature after the haskala (Jewish enlightenment aka 19th Century) has been inspiring. That tradition is something you can reinvent is a radical idea that is the essence of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature. It's not either/or. It's not either you live a traditional Jewish life or you forget it forever and are severed from it. It's not a matter of degree. It's something completely different. It's taking the tradition and doing something with it that changes what it is.
"That's what people have done every generation.
"You see a radical change in the literature. You don't really have self-aware fiction until the 1800s.
"I grew up in Jewish suburbia, which most people find empty."
Luke: "Did you feel like some things weren't being done in American Jewish literature?"
Dara: "Well this I have surely talked about in other interviews. I guess I can say it again.
"In the Philip Roth generation, you had writers who didn't know much about [Judaism], or if they did know, it wasn't reflected in their writing. They were only interested in social life. If you read Philip Roth, it's anthropological. There's not a lot of looking back.
"I was interested in writing fiction that was informed about Jewish tradition.
"I saw in Hebrew and Yiddish literature something that I didn't see in American-Jewish literature [in English] -- fiction as a commentary on the Torah, a midrashic exercise where you are creating a story that is related to Torah text. I thought it would be neat to have it in English. There are other writers who do this, but not many."
Luke: "Has the Holocaust changed literary structure?"
Dara: "Is this the question mentioned in your email?"
Dara laughs. She repeats my question. "That's giving a whole lot of credit to Hitler for changing people's ways of creating art."
Luke: "That's what I say."
Dara: "I don't think so. It certainly ended secular Yiddish literature.
"Did it change narrative structures? Narrative structures have changed in the past 60 years but I don't think that the Holocaust is the reason for them.
"Can you tell something about what the reasoning is behind this?"
Luke: "I can't understand what she's saying. I really tried."
"I have some ideas about what this might mean."
Luke: "Sure. Go ahead."
Dara: "[Theodor] Adorno has this stupid quote that 'writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.' I think that's stupid."
Luke: "So do I. I don't have the foggiest idea about what she means. Something about midrash opens the tear in the text and fills it. Oh, I shouldn't even. I have such a hard time understanding what she's doing."
Dara: "There's a woman I'm always on a panel with named Alicia [Suskin] Ostriker."
Luke: "She's into Ostriker in a huge way."
Dara: "I don't know much about it either. The only reason I know about it is because I am always on panels with her. I don't particularly... I do slightly midrashic things also. I'm a feminist in that I think that men and women should be treated equally but it is not something that terribly informs my work.
"I don't like people going around saying, 'I'm not a feminist' because I don't think they really mean that. That's because 'feminist' now means kook."
Luke: "Or ballbuster."
Dara: "I don't like the pejorative use of the term.
"I happen to be a woman. I happen to be a writer. I don't think that I am a woman terribly influences my work. There are women for whom it does influence their work in a conscious way.
"Linear narrative. I'm writing my doctorate on narrative theory."
Luke: "Oh boy."
Dara laughs. "I should know more about this than I do.
"Both of my books are nonlinear."
Dara laughs. "I've often wondered if I would be capable of writing a linear narrative."
Dara: "I've wanted to try and never succeeded. I've often thought that for my next book, I should pick one character, one place and one time..."
Dara: "And just do that and be done with it. But I don't know if I could. I don't think it has anything to do with the Holocaust or feminism, it's that I'm easily bored and I have trouble focusing on one thing for that long.
"That's the stupid answer. The more complicated answer is that [linear structure] is not what is exciting to me about writing novels. It's the ability in a novel to see the connections between things that you wouldn't otherwise see. For example, in real life you don't have the opportunity to look back on your life and your family's history and see what led you to where you are now. We can guess. It's the way you are doing this interview. What kind of kid were you? Did people every say something to you as a child that they say to you as an adult? You can speculate on these things but you can't really know them.
"In fiction, you have this amazing opportunity to create a past that causes the present.
"This gets into the question of how we influence each other's lives. This is something you can not see in real life. You can't see what impact your life has on other people. In novels, you can see those ways, you can create this web of influence.
"I don't see how this has anything to do with the Holocaust.
"I guess you could say that there's a breakdown in certainty in the world...and that's reflected in writing. There's no authoritative narrative voice that can be relied upon to be the answer. But there was literature like that well before the Holocaust. In Yiddish literature, you had this post-Holocaust type writing before the Holocaust. I remember reading this poem in Yiddish called 'The Wolf' by H. Leyvik. It begins with a description of a town that's been destroyed told from the perspective of the one survivor. Eventually he turns into a werewolf. It reads like a Holocaust poem but it was written in 1920 after the Petliura Pogroms where 100,000 murdered."
Luke: "What did you think of Wendy Shalit's [January 30, 2005] article in The New York Times Book Review about people misrepresenting Orthodox Judaism?"
Dara: "It wasn't really about literature. I remember thinking it was dumb.
"Ehh, 'dumb' sound pejorative. I don't mean it pejoratively."
I laugh. "You don't mean 'dumb' pejoratively."
Dara: "I would take it back but since you're taping, what can I do?
"Fiction writers like to hide behind this idea of art for art's sake when it is convenient for them. There are writers who get a thrill out of pejoratively presenting religious Jews or women or other groups.
"There are a lot of books that positively present religious Jews and what bothers me is that they treat is as anthropology. I was a judge for a short story contest and there were so many stories that took place in religious communities that were always explaining everything to you. She was covering her hair because of her modesty. When I'm reading Salman Rushdie, he doesn't feel the need to explain to me in three paragraphs why this character is covering her hair. Obviously there are cultural things that go over my head when I'm reading Salman Rushdie but I prefer to miss them than wait for the subtitles.
"As a fiction writer, you need to invite a reader into a world. When people write about a culture that is alien to their readers, they feel a need to present this culture and that can be done positively or negatively. What makes it effective is when it's presented to you in a way that you don't feel like you are in a zoo.
"I think we're past the old idea, 'Is this good for the Jews?'"
Luke: "Would you agree with Wendy that authors Tova Mirvis, Nathan Englander and Jonathan Rosen just don't get Orthodox Judaism?"
Dara: "I don't think I've read their work carefully enough to answer that question. What does it mean to get Orthodox Judaism?"
Luke: "To love it."
Dara: "To know it is to love it?"
Luke: "I guess."
Dara: "That's presumptuous?"
Dara: "I feel that I know a fair amount about Orthodox Judaism and I don't feel obligated to love it. I don't feel obligated to love my own form of Judaism, whatever you want to call it. There are things I dislike about Judaism, mainly things I dislike about myself."
Luke: "What do you hate about Judaism?"
Dara: "The pedanticness. It's a problem in my personality and in Judaism. This obsessive need to go over every single word and assume that every single word is infused with this deep meaning. There's this OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) quality to it. There's so much of Judaism that you feel could've been made up by an OCD person or a little kid with OCD tendencies. 'This week I'm not going to eat bread.' 'This week I'm only eating outside.' 'Today I'm not turning on lights.' 'I'll eat milk and I'll eat meat but I won't eat them together. I have to wait six hours in between.'
"This is definitely an annoying thing about me. I've been annoying since I was a child for that reason."
Luke: "How smart does one have to be to get your novels? Are you writing for an elite? Do you have to have a 140-plus IQ to understand your novels?"
Dara laughs. "I hope not."
Luke: "Would 120 do? Would room temperature [IQ] do?"
Dara: "That would really ruin my publishing future. No, I don't think so."
Luke: "You think an average Jew can read and understand your work?"
Dara: "I think an average anybody can read and understand my work."
Luke: "Aren't they really difficult and intricate and really demanding?"
Dara: "They are definitely intricate and complex but I think they're presented in an acceptable way. All these [subjects] are made accessible to the general reader. I don't think you need to be Jewish to understand my books."
Luke: "You think the average person can navigate all these jumps in time and references to various literatures?"
Dara: "I think the average person can navigate the internet which has a lot of jumps in time.
"The purpose of writing is communication. I'd feel like a huge failure if I felt that people couldn't read my book and it was inaccessible."
Luke: "That last jump in The World To Come was a different way to go."
Dara: "People react strongly. They either really like it or really hate it.
"In serious literary fiction, you are not allowed to do stuff like that. You are not allowed to be earnest in serious fiction. You always have to be ironic. If you say something earnest, it is considered unsophisticated.
"In Yiddish literature, there's a lot of earnestness. They don't put emotions in quotation marks. They say what they mean. They're not afraid to throw in all kinds of parables. In our culture, they seem corny."
Luke: "Why couldn't the book end with the two main characters, Ben and Erica. Then they entered the world to come. What a downer."
Dara: "This is an ambiguous ending. You can either read it as they both died or they both survived.
"I just did an interview with some other blog and the person said, 'I got to the end of your book and I felt like somebody had just given me a million dollars. I was so happy about the ending. The characters all got together.'"
Luke: "What was he smoking?"
Dara: "But it's true.
"When it says he enters the world to come, does this mean they're dead?"
Dara: "But when you get to the final chapter, it says that this world to come is only a forgery, only a copy of the real world to come."
Luke: "So they got married?"
Dara: "It could be either way."
Luke: "Why not just be one way?"
Dara laughs. "If it had just been one way, you wouldn't ask the question."
Luke: "What do we get out of asking the question? In one way, we can get emotional fulfillment."
Dara: "It shows you what kind of reader you are.
"In the beginning of the book, there's the conversation between Chagall and Der Nister about the story called 'The Haunted Tailor.' At the end of the story, Shalom Aleichem says, 'Don't make you tell you the ending of the story. It should've ended happily. It ended sadly. Because I'm not the depressive type, I don't feel like getting involved.'
"Der Nister says, 'We should perform that one in the theatre.' Chagall says, 'But it doesn't have an ending.' People like endings. They like redemption. Der Nister says that's not realistic. There are no real endings in real life.
"There are two kinds of readers -- the Chagall reader who wants the redemptive ending, and there's the Der Nister reader who appreciates the open-ended possibility.
"What do you get out of asking the question? What do you want out of a book? What is the purpose of a story?"
Luke: "I want it to warm my heart. It's a novel. If I am reading it for pleasure, I want to go on an emotional journey."
Dara: "Do you want to control that emotional journey? Do you want to feel secure that it is going to take you to a destination you want to be in?"
Luke: "Yeah, I like a happy ending."
Dara: "Is there such a thing as a happy ending in life? No. If two people get married in a book, that's the happy ending. In real life, a wedding is followed by a marriage, which might be good or bad.
"There are no happy endings in life. There are only happy beginnings."
Luke: "The purpose of reading a novel, unless you're an academic, is pleasure."
Dara: "But there are more pleasurable things than reading a 400-page book."
"You want to experience life keenly and deeply in the concentrated form of a novel. You want to go on a journey and grow and experience things you don't get to experience in your life, like happiness."
Dara: "This has the potential to be a happy ending. It doesn't end with a death. It ends with a birth."
Luke: "If that's a happy ending..."
Dara: "Why not? You don't think so?"
Luke: "No. I did not experience it that way."
Dara: "It's an open-ended ending. It's a Jewish pattern. If you think about the Tanakh or the Torah (Hebrew Bible), it doesn't really end. The Gemara [Talmud] doesn't have an ending even though it is called the Gemara (completion).
"It's interesting that we feel like we need these endings in literature."
Luke: "Isn't the traditional three-act narrative structure built into our very being? That we demand from our stories a beginning, middle and end? Rising conflict, release of tension, followed by realization."
Dara: "This book has that."
Luke: "Do you think that traditional narrative structure is built into..."
Dara: "It's been destroyed after the Holocaust. No, I'm kidding.
"My book definitely has a beginning, middle and end. When you get to the end, it transfers the story into your mind. You as a reader become a participant in the story. Your impression of what happens at the end becomes part of the book.
"Perhaps there is some relevancy to all your questions about my childhood, perhaps creativity is collaborative, it includes the reader."
Luke: "You've redeemed my nosy questions. We've got a beginning, middle and end now to the interview. Rising conflict, tension release, realization."
Dara: "We've experienced it all.
"You don't think my book has a happy ending?"
Dara: "With the final chapter?"
Luke: "No. It drove me nuts. I loved the love story between Ben and Erica the curator. I wanted more of it."
Dara: "Everyone likes different things."
Luke: "Some people like the gloomy Russian parts?"
Dara: "Ohmigod, there are people who say the Russian scenes steal the show. Der Nister is the best character in the book and it really should've been a book about him."