Arts & Culture

Building character

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

long read

Attention to detail deepens Molly Antopol’s fiction

Molly Antopol’s debut, “The UnAmericans,” took almost 10 years to write, but was worth the wait. Published in 2014, the collection of stories about men and women struggling to navigate their place in the world and in complex relationships won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and made the National Book Award long list. 

 Antopol, the Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, has devoted her time as a Radcliffe Fellow to work on a novel that explores surveillance and privacy in politics and history. She answered questions from The Gazette for the second installment in “Decisions and Revisions,” a series of interviews with Harvard-affiliated writers on how their stories take shape. Read the first installment, with lecturer and novelist Claire Messud, here.

GAZETTE: Where does your love of language come from?

ANTOPOL: Even as a little kid I loved to read and write, but I never considered actually being a writer. I didn’t know any writers growing up — it seemed to me a completely pie-in-the-sky profession, like being an astronaut or a magician. When I was young, I would often just disappear somewhere in the apartment and my mother would find me writing myself into whatever book I was reading. As I got older and began to take writing more seriously, I started trying to figure out a way to make more room for it in my life. Once I realized how much I loved teaching and how beautifully that balanced with writing, I started trying to carve out a way to do both.

‘I often feel that writing forces me to be a better version of myself, which is to say that I can’t be dismissive of people, I can’t be quick to judge.’

GAZETTE: Are there certain writers who had a big impact on you?

ANTOPOL: Grace Paley and James Baldwin have been hugely important to me from the beginning. They not only inspired me to write, they got me to think about why I write. When I was an undergraduate and in workshops for the first time, I had such a deep fear of seeming sentimental or overly emotional. So I was writing these really cool, tightly controlled stories even though they went completely against what came naturally to me and even went against what I wanted to read. Then I read Paley and Baldwin and I thought, “Wait, they’re not worried about that. They’re writing about the things that matter the most to them — the things they have to write.” That was a huge breakthrough for me — they’ll sit on my shoulders forever. Some other writers I turn to again and again are Natalia Ginzburg, Deborah Eisenberg, Joy Williams, Edith Pearlman, Edward P. Jones, Sergei Dovlatov, Louise Glück … I could go on and on.

GAZETTE: What matters to you most when you are writing?

ANTOPOL: Compassion. I often feel that writing forces me to be a better version of myself, which is to say that I can’t be dismissive of people, I can’t be quick to judge. In order to write the kind of fiction I’m really trying to write, I have to feel compassion for even the least sympathetic people, and spend time trying to understand their psychological makeup. If there’s one thing that links all of the writers I admire that I just mentioned, it’s that they have enormous empathy for every one of their characters.

GAZETTE: Can you talk to me about your process? I know “The UnAmericans” took 10 years to write. Can you walk me through that?

ANTOPOL: I had this piece of advice in my head early on. I’m not sure where I heard it — I have a sneaking feeling that I made it up. It was the idea that I should throw my entire self into a book and when I was finished, trash that book and start fresh. And that was basically what I did. I worked really hard on a collection of linked stories when I was in graduate school. I put everything that I could into it with the idea that no one would ever see it. My goal was that writing it would teach me many of the technical skills I hoped to have before I began writing the second book, the one I’d try to put out into the world. I ended up keeping two of my early stories — but, basically, that’s the reason “The UnAmericans” took so long.

I’m also just a slow writer. I’m not a person who’s going to write 25 books in my life, and to be honest, I don’t really want to be. I love taking my time. I love the entire process of it, even though it can be humbling and lonely and difficult. The only way I know how to write a story is to think about my characters’ lives from the beginning to the end, and then, through subsequent drafts, to start to figure out what the most fraught or interesting moment is in their lives and begin to structure the piece once I understand that. And all the stories in “The UnAmericans” required a massive amount of research. With all of them, I read everything I could find about the story’s time and place, and applied for grants so that I could travel and interview people and spend time in archives. Every early draft of those stories was initially 70 or 80 pages long. With the early drafts, I’m still including bits and pieces of my characters’ lives that aren’t essential to the story, and am also still struck by so much research rapture that I include every detail, even the things that no one else would find mildly interesting.

And then, many months and sometimes even a year after working on a story, I’ll begin to see its shape very clearly and I’ll start shucking away all of the details about my characters that no longer feel essential, along with most of the research I’ve done. With all of my stories, I’d say about 5 percent of the research remains by the end. But I can’t imagine not doing it — understanding the politics and history that influence my characters feels essential, and I also just don’t see the point of writing about a time and place that I haven’t tried my hardest to understand.

GAZETTE: You have been a lecturer at Stanford for the past 10 years. How does teaching help inform your writing?

ANTOPOL: I love teaching. I’d do it even if by some miracle I could afford to write full time. I really value the relationship I have with my students — it’s an incredible thing to get to work with a group of smart and engaged people who value fiction, who value sentences, in such a deep way. That isn’t something I always feel when I’m out in the world. I’ve had this experience a few times now, where I’ll assign a story that I’ve read 30 times and think I have a completely clear way to teach it, and then I walk into the classroom and they have an entirely new take on it that cracks the whole thing open for me. And, on another level, having a stable income and health insurance goes a long way toward giving me the freedom to write whatever I want. It feels essential to me to try to keep financial anxieties as far away from my work as they can be — I would never want any market to influence the kind of fiction I write.

GAZETTE: Do you have a favorite place that you like to write? A time of day?

ANTOPOL: I write whenever I can. I use Freedom software that allows me to block the internet — it’s amazing. I’m so addicted to the internet, and my brain is so trained every three minutes to check the newspaper, to check my email — it’s an incredible thing to only have access on my computer to my book for hours. I keep a notepad next to my desk and write down everything I want to research. At the end of my writing session that’s my treat to myself: I go back online and look all of it up. I have to do it that way. In the past I used to go down these research rabbit holes where I’d look up one seemingly simple detail and five hours later find myself in some intense bidding war on eBay.

Otherwise, I don’t really have a routine, other than just treating it like a job, rather than waiting for inspiration to strike. I love how portable writing is. I can take my laptop and be anywhere. When my writing’s going well, I can work on the train, on a plane — it doesn’t matter.

GAZETTE: What does it mean to you when your writing is going well? Can you describe that feeling?

ANTOPOL: When it feels as present and immediate as the things that are actually happening in my life.

GAZETTE: Tell me about the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel. Is one more challenging than the other?

ANTOPOL: They’re both incredibly hard. Every time I start a new story, it feels as if I’m learning how to do it all over again. It’s such a humbling process. I don’t think I’ve ever written a story in less than eight or 10 or 12 drafts. It just never happens. In a way, writing this [current] draft of the novel feels really freeing because everything that I want to put into this draft I can put in. I did the same thing with the stories, and then it was a process of chiseling in draft after draft. I think about novels in the same way. My goal, whether with stories or this novel, is to make my characters as complicated and emotionally messy as people in real life, while keeping the sentences tight and compressed. One thing that really helps with this goal is, once I’m close to the end of a story and am entering revision mode, to read only poetry. At that point I don’t want any more research to weigh down the story so I stop reading nonfiction related to the topic, and because I don’t want another author’s voice to carry too much of an influence, I don’t read any fiction. I just read poetry: Louise Glück, Jean Valentine, Philip Levine. I love that time in my writing — that’s the first moment that the arc of the story finally feels complete and I can think solely about language. And now that the structure of the piece is set, I can think less chronologically and more about emotional time and memory, which feels much truer to real life.

GAZETTE: I am interested in your work with character. In “The UnAmericans” you frequently assume the voice of a male character. Is that hard to do as a woman?

ANTOPOL: Nothing about writing comes easily to me, but I would say the one thing that feels somewhat natural is voice. Once I’ve figured out my character, it really does feel like method acting. I just start thinking about how this person would react to whatever familial or professional or social situation I’m in. And in many ways my male characters or the women who are a lot older than I am felt easier to write because of the distance between me and them. It’s as if I’m able to get closer to the really intense emotional truths in my own life by writing from the perspective of the people different from myself. In many ways my male characters feel the most autobiographical — the distance allowed me to write about things that might have been too scary to look at head-on.

GAZETTE: In reading your acknowledgements it struck me that it often seems to take a village to publish a book. Can you tell me about your village — your editors, your first readers and rereaders?

ANTOPOL: My husband [journalist and author Chanan Tigay] is my first reader. I also have a few close friends I trade work with whose opinions are enormously valuable — we’ve been reading each other’s writing for years. My agent and I worked together for almost three years before he sent the book out. Every six months or so I’d send him a new draft of a story and [he’d] give me feedback — it was incredibly gratifying having him as an early reader. He was basically doing all that work for free, since it was so long before he sent the book out. Both he and my editor are writers, too — he writes fiction and memoir, she writes fiction and memoir and poetry — and that’s one of the things I love most about working with them both. I just trust their takes on my writing so deeply. Many of my editor’s thoughts on the stories were global or character-based, but I was also so happy to have her poet’s eye on the stories, especially when we talked in such depth about sentences.

GAZETTE: How important is it for you that your husband and first reader is also a writer?

ANTOPOL: People sometimes ask me whether it’s hard being married to another writer. The truth is, I can’t imagine being married to someone who isn’t a writer. We shout sentences we’ve just written across the apartment, and we both completely get it if the other one wants to disappear into another room for days, or forgets to pay the electricity bill. I think in the beginning we worried about being in competition with each other, but that was a long, long time ago. I was honestly just as happy the day he sold his book as when I sold mine. There’s something amazing about watching a person you love devote himself so fully to a project, not knowing whether anyone will ever read it. And he just works so hard — it’s inspiring to be around.

GAZETTE: Is there anything that comes easier to you now — anything that was more challenging when you were first starting out?

ANTOPOL: One thing that comes easier to me now is that it’s less painful to cut things from my book that aren’t working. It used to be pretty hard for me to get rid of a sentence or paragraph I liked once I realized it didn’t belong. Now I just move on. I have that folder on my desktop that I imagine a lot of writers have, a place where I store all of the orphaned sentences and phrases I love but had to cut, in the hope that they can be used somewhere else. But I’ve never once repurposed anything from that folder. Every sentence I write should be deeply connected to my character’s psychology, to their situation. And so it doesn’t feel truthful to pull a sentence from one story and tack it onto another. If it fits easily in another story, it means it probably wasn’t that interesting of a sentence to begin with. The more I write, the more firmly my goal is for the writing to be invisible and for the characters to take center stage, and that means doing away with anything that feels decorative or showy.