author of Among the Living

Other Press: Among the Living is absolutely fascinating. It has a specificity of time and place and perfectly captures the tensions between so many different communities—the Jewish and black communities in late 1940s Savannah, the Conservative and Reform Jewish communities, European Jews who have experienced the Holocaust and American Jews who have observed it from a distance. Why write this novel? How did you first come up with the idea for it? Was it difficult to render all the different moving parts into one cohesive narrative?

Jonathan Rabb: I’m not sure there’s ever a satisfying answer to “Why write this novel?” At a certain point it becomes: how can I not write it? You get so involved with the characters—you’re grappling with questions that have more to do with you as the writer than with them—and you have no choice but to dig yourself deeper into that hole. For this book, the first idea came when I was living in New York. I had a cousin who had survived a concentration camp when he was only nine years old, and I began to spend a bit of time with him. We’d meet for breakfast, where we’d invariably talk about the book he was writing (about the head of the Gestapo in Paris during the war). I never saw a page of it—I can’t even be sure that he was writing it —but I realized that he had never really moved beyond those moments in his life. How could he have? At the same time, he wasn’t lost or delusional. He was a fully functioning man, with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. But a part of him was always back there. I suppose there was a part of me that wanted to find a way to free him of that. I couldn’t, of course, but maybe I could create a character who would be given that choice for himself.

And then my cousin died. To me—to my entire family—he had always been known as Edi (Ai-dee). At his memorial service, an American friend of his got up and said, “Let me tell you about my friend Ed Goldah.”

Ed.

I’ll be honest, for a moment I had no idea who he was talking about. This was Edi’s memorial. But it suddenly dawned on me how crucial a name could be, especially in the Jewish experience, questions of identity and belonging and alienation. To his friends he was Ed. To me he would always be Edi. And I knew that I had found an inroad to the character I’d been imagining.

The trouble was, New York seemed too obvious a place to start his story. So I waited. When I moved to Savannah—and discovered a Jewish life I had never imagined—it suddenly dawned on me that here was the place I could bring my character. It was so foreign to me, even if the Jewish experience dated back to the founding of the colony. I suppose I thought that, as I discovered what it was to be a Jew in the South, so too would he. So I set him in 1947—why not make the choices even harder?—and called him Yitzhak Goldah, a gentle nod to my cousin. (I dedicate the book to him and his parents, also survivors.)

Setting the story during the height of the Jim Crow era made perfect sense to me. If this was all going to be about identity and alienation—all those different moving parts—then I needed Yitzhak to hear echoes of his own recent past in the way the black community was being treated. Of course, he couldn’t know what it was to be a black man living in the South, but he could feel a certain affinity. And he could ask the hard questions.

That many of those same questions remain with us today made it even more important to situate them at the center of the book.

As to the other moving parts, those are what define the rich complexity of Savannah itself. It’s the key to the story. Where else were all those tensions bubbling just beneath the surface? And how else could Yitzhak find his way back into the world of the living without having to confront them?

OP: Did you do a lot of research before or while you were writing the novel? Can you share a particular piece of history or anecdote you found to be interesting?

I always take about six months to research a book and, with this one—for the first time—I was able to interview people who had lived during the period. (My most recent books took place in 1919, 1927 and 1936, which made that virtually impossible). That said, I waited until I had worked my way through a lot of the archival material (the Savannah Jewish Archive and the Georgia Historical Society have put out some really wonderful books and oral histories). I also spent a lot of time reading Primo Levi, to my mind the clearest and most shattering voice to come out of the Holocaust. That he’s able to describe what he lived through without a hint of judgment or vengeance or self-pity is truly remarkable, and I tried to give that sensibility to my Yitzhak.

When it comes to the Savannah Jewish community, there are too many anecdotes that come to mind—some of which I happily sprinkled into the narrative—but my favorites all arrived on a single afternoon, when a friend of mine in town, the late Larry Wagger, invited me to a lunch with a few people he thought might be of help in my research. There were five of them, including Larry (the only male), and when I stepped into the dining room, I think I took the average age down to about eighty-nine. I had brought along a legal pad, filled with questions. I asked the first and then didn’t speak for the next three hours. I heard about the train out to Tybee and the late-night dancing at the Sapphire Room and the basketball games at the JEA—but the one tidbit that struck me most was the name of the housekeeper that one of the women had grown up with. Her name had been Mary Royal. That the black community, in no small measure, was going to serve as the moral compass in the novel made the name “Royal” so perfect. So I took it and made it my own.

OP: Savannah is almost a character in itself in Among the Living. What are your personal ties to the city?

We moved to Savannah in 2008, thinking we’d stay for a year, and we never left. One of the reasons is that everyone has always been so inviting. Truly inviting. If you’ve ever lived in New York City for a long period of time, you begin to feel that life doesn’t exist beyond the Hudson. But it does. It might be a little slower here but it’s also a little more gracious, and a wonderful place to raise kids. Not that I won’t always think of myself as a displaced New Yorker (my unwavering dedication to the Knicks is only one symptom), but there is something completely other when it comes to Savannah—something I thought I could find only in European settings—and yet here it is. That the city could inspire me to write about its past speaks to my connection. Add to that the fact that Savannah is home to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), where both my wife and I teach, and you have this wonderful artistic community situated in a city steeped in history. What could be better?

OP: Goldah is such a great character to place in the center of this story. He’s an outsider, which allows him to see things in Savannah in a way that characters like Jesler and Pearl and even Eva cannot. Do you think you could have told the same story if it were someone else at the center, for example Malke?

It was absolutely crucial that I bring an outsider. As I said above, I needed to learn about the city and its past as I wrote about it: how better to do that than to have a character who’s also trying to figure things out? And I steal from my own distant past: Moravian, Czech Jews, whose lives were uprooted by the Second World War. Yitzhak was the perfect choice. Could I have managed to tell the same story through Malke’s eyes? I don’t think so. And it’s not just that her experience in the camps is so different from Yitzhak’s. She was a very different kind of person before the war—harder yet fragile, in a way that would have made her entry into the American south far more difficult, given the issues I wanted to play with. I needed to have someone who could see that there was a choice to step beyond the experience of the camps—never completely, of course—and to find the relative youth of American life somehow invigorating. In the very first pages, Yitzhak is able to see how, in America, “the past here was young and untried, and how the world made sense only in the grasp of such promise and abundance.” That’s not something Malke would ever have understood.

OP: Among the Living is your sixth novel. How did you begin writing? When do you write? Do you have any special conditions or rituals you abide by? And finally, why do you write?

I began writing fiction as an escape from my academic work (in a previous life, I was a political theorist at Columbia). I bought a laptop and stole moments away on it to play with fiction, while my desktop remained solely for “more serious” work. Sooner than I care to admit, I was spending all my time on the laptop (to this day, I can’t write on a desktop). Before my wife and children came along (and the Internet and e-mail), I would write from about 10 PM to 3 AM, and sleep until noon. It was quiet, no one called, and the city was as uninteresting as it was ever going to get (at least for me). But then I decided I wanted to spend time with the people in my life, so I trained myself to write from about 8:30 in the morning until 1 (my wife always calls to remind me to eat), and then until about 3, when I pick up the kids from school (except for the two days a week when I teach). I imagine I have some rituals but I don’t think I’m conscious of them. All I know is that I have to be at my desk and ready to go. I usually read the last few paragraphs that I wrote the day before—although on the best days, that’s unnecessary—and I dive in.

I’m not a big outline follower. I have these astounding flashes when I get an idea for a book. For about a nanosecond, every moment in the book—every line of dialogue, every instant of tension, every description of place—comes to me, then disappears, leaving little pockets of information that form a nice arc. And then, for the next few years, I try to remember everything from that nanosecond. I’m a big believer in the subconscious mind. I think everything is there, and it’s just a matter of getting lost in the book so that I feel comfortable enough to tap into what’s waiting in mine. You’ve no doubt heard writers talk about those moments when characters do something we’re not expecting (or don’t want them to do). For me, that’s simply my subconscious saying, “Okay, I gave you enough time to figure this out, but since you’re being a complete idiot, this is what the character needs to do.” And I have to have enough faith in myself simply to let go and follow.

But that doesn’t mean I write purely by inspiration. There’s a wonderful old story about a French novelist who was asked by a journalist, “Do you write by inspiration or do you just slog your way through it?” The writer thought for a moment and said, “Purely by inspiration.” The journalist jotted something down and said, “Really? Then why is it that, every day, you go out to that little shack behind your house and sit at your desk from 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon?” Again, the novelist thought for a moment, and said, “I write purely by inspiration. I’m just not willing to wait for it.”

I suppose that’s my ritual, too.