The Rumpus Interview with Kim Brooks
Set on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, Kim Brooks’s masterful debut The Houseguest weaves together a complex range of characters who struggle to inspire greater political action. At the heart of the book is Ana Beidler, a Polish refugee and former star of the Yiddish theater, who finds temporary shelter in the quiet suburban home of Abe Auer and his family. Matters soon become complicated as Abe, haunted by his own traumatic immigrant past, becomes entangled in the mystery of a woman shadowed by devastating loss and a troubling agenda.
Brooks’s memoir, Small Animals: A Memoir of Parenthood and Fear is scheduled for release in 2017 from Flatiron Books/ Macmillan. Her stories have appeared in various journals, including Glimmer Train, One Story, Five Chapters, and her essays have appeared in Salon, New York Magazine, and at BuzzFeed. I spoke with Kim about her approach to character and historical narrative, as well as the value of engaging readers with larger social issues through literature.
The Rumpus: I found that the narrative structure of The Houseguest worked very well in depicting the complexity of early 1940s American life, from a specific Jewish American perspective to the larger mainstream society hindered by the politics of Isolationism, along with the ugly presence of anti-Semitism. The alternating character perspectives reveal how lives intersect and deepen one another’s story in a way that feels organic and true, never confusing or impeding the narrative. How did you come to structure the book in the way that you did? Did you find yourself having to plan out or reorder the storylines during the initial drafting stages of the manuscript?
Kim Brooks: There were many drafts and drafting stages of The Houseguest. There were drafts with fewer dominant characters, with different storylines at the forefront. But through it all, the thing that guided me toward this final vision in the end was that, more than being predominantly invested in one character’s story, I was interested in looking at the ways that different characters with varying perspectives and psychological sensibilities grappled with this sense of dislocation, impotence, frustration, and fear at this moment in American history. Once I identified that as my motivation, things began to fall into place. I understood that these are the characters I’m working with and, rather than having one take over the plot, I’m going to follow them as they weave their way in and out of the central events of the book.
Rumpus: In an interview with Laura Bogart for Tin House, you revealed that outside of a few essential reads, such as The Abandonment of the Jews by David Wyman and Stardust Lost by Stefan Kanfer, you did little historical research in assembling the novel’s intricate plot that absorbs the reader so effortlessly into the larger political tensions and fears coupled by the more intimate, domestic nuances of the specific 1940s time period. In responding to how the book might address America’s contemporary response to refugees and asylum-seekers, you remarked that “the ideas have to emerge from the characters themselves, the situations in which they find themselves, their psychological quests and contradictions, their fears and desires and inner-conflicts.” Where does character start for you? Especially in context of this book that is so heavily charged with ideas and ethical concerns?
Brooks: I suppose this is a way in which fiction is different for me than nonfiction. I really don’t think there are many differences between the two, but if there’s one important difference it’s that, for me, characters in fiction start from the same place as characters in dreams, which means that they don’t start deliberately or in any way that I have control over. In fiction, I start to hear the way in which a character talks or I get an image or a mood or some small tic or idiosyncrasy of a character long before I know who it belongs to. It’s far closer to a memory or dream than a deliberate choice. Then as I am looking at what I have, and seeing initial movements and impressions of these characters on the page, what they say or do in scene, I start to make decisions about what they might be thinking in some other situation or how they would react or respond to some other problem. My choices become more deliberate in the later stages, as the work develops.
In terms of what you were saying about current events and readers making parallels between that time period and what we face now as Americans, it’s sort of the same answer. I certainly didn’t decide that I wanted to write something historical that would serve as a metaphor for what we’re dealing with now regarding the European refugee crisis. It was nothing like that, nothing planned out or intentional. But I am preoccupied by these questions in my regular life. What is our responsibilities to strangers? What do we owe those who live beyond our front door? How can we be engaged with others’ suffering while still functioning in our own lives, being good to family and friends and not succumbing to despair?
This morning, I was reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, “Seafood from Slaves” by the Associated Press about the human trafficking and slave trade in Thailand. I read about these people, many of them children, taken into sheds in Thailand and held captive, forced to shell shrimp for eighteen hours a day in unspeakable conditions. I’m preoccupied by these stories. While here I am, sitting in my comfortable house with my comfortable life, my nice, healthy stir-fry is made possible by others’ misery. What if anything do I do about it? How do I stay aware of the suffering in the world, and at the same time not become a basket case, curling up in a ball and hiding under my bed? These are questions that have always intrigued me and certainly did when I started writing The Houseguest. So much has changed since 1941 in terms of how we get our news, how we digest and share information, but I started to think that that feeling, that psychological experience of having information that we don’t know what to do with, practically or ethically, hasn’t really changed much. That experience was of great interest to me. I believe that was one of the engines of the book.
Rumpus: Certainly the Internet and social media have made such information much more immediate and accessible around the world, but I think it’s also too easy sometimes to put our blinders on, especially as Americans. Literature can serve as a very compelling means of connecting people to more difficult realities.
Brooks: I absolutely agree. It’s hard because we are so inundated with images and snapshots and sound bites of horrible things happening that it’s easy to become desensitized and callous. It becomes white noise. For me, that’s the reason why I both read and write literature, because storytelling is one of the few things that can break through that static. If a person’s story, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, engages you on an emotional level, it’s much harder to dismiss it. I mean there are images that are haunting, but for me personally, perhaps because I’m less of a visual person, stories are what really stay with me, hearing and reading people’s stories. That’s certainly one of the reasons why I write, and definitely one of the reasons why I read.
Rumpus: Another aspect of The Houseguest that fascinated me was the way you used storytelling to explore trauma. There is an immediate sense of emotional and psychological dislocation that many of the characters share, whether or not they were displaced or had immigrated to America years ago. Decades after fleeing a life persecuted by the Cossacks in Brodno, Abe Auer remains stalked by visions of his lost brother, Shayke, while Ana Beidler takes up a nocturnal existence in Utica, where she grieves her actress mother and a husband still trapped in Poland. Rabbi Max Hoffman struggles against the continued sense of alienation and social displacement of a lonely past growing up in, and later escaping, Chicago. He states how the “flight was physical, intellectual, demarcated by distance and great passages of time….[he] imagined that if he pushed the memories down deeply, they’d eventually shrivel and fade.” In approaching these characters, how did you consider both the personal and intergenerational trauma that shapes their lives?
Brooks: First, I should say that I was very inspired by a book I read some years ago by Daniel Mendelsohn called The Lost, which is a memoir that involves his meditation on the murder of his family members in the Holocaust, family members he never knew. He’s an American and decides to go to Europe and figure out what exactly happened to them. I remember reading it and feeling it was the kind of Holocaust story that I hadn’t read before, because even though he personally hasn’t directly suffered in the way that a survivor has suffered, he still feels this absence, this ghostly presence permeating his childhood and family life. He sees that his family is haunted by what happened and by what they were spared. There is this one incredible scene where he finds a letter from a relative in Europe that was sent to his family in America, begging him in this letter, as in the prologue of The Houseguest, where people are writing to Rabbi Field, begging him for help. Mendelson doesn’t know how his American relative responded; he just knows that they perished. I found it moving and I began thinking that maybe there’s another story here that’s not being told or not being told as much, another side of this narrative.
I think that there is a way that as American Jews, many people like me struggle with this sense of cultural orphanhood, the senselessness of being spared. It’s almost like we’re touched by having not been being touched by the atrocity. For me personally, my paternal grandmother was born in this country but her older siblings were born in Ukraine, and so their family came here a little after the turn of the century and left that world behind long before the Holocaust, where so many others stayed and perished. Why were we spared? Why was it that those who happened to come to America ten or twenty or forty years earlier should be safe, and go on and have children and grandchildren, while this other massive part of the culture was eradicated?
I’m an atheist, but for those who are more religious, some might say that that’s part of God’s plan. I’ve never been able to believe in any of that so for me the reason is luck. We are lucky, but that luck gives us a responsibility to interrogate other people’s suffering. If the only reason that we’re spared suffering, whether it’s the Holocaust or being a slave in a shrimp farm in Thailand, is luck, then we have a moral and ethical responsibility to engage, to care.
Rumpus: Or at the very least to produce literature that is socially conscious and strives to engage readers with larger social questions. Perhaps there are parallels that one could draw up in terms of the contemporary hostility, indifference and Islamophobia against welcoming refugees from Syria and Iraq that could echo the anti-Semitism and political tensions of the early 1940s?
Brooks: I’m sure racism plays an enormous role in our indifference. That was a surprise to me in my research, too. I knew that there was anti-Semitism and xenophobia but it was a surprise to me how identical the language was that was used to talk about the hoards of Jews crowding our shores, and how they were a threat to our country, our economy. How identical the language was to the language used by, for example, the governors today who vowed to keep their states refugee-free. The sentiment, the language, the fear, is identical, even though the situation is different in many ways. I don’t know if it’s that history repeats itself insomuch as perhaps people don’t change all that much.
I was talking to my old writing mentor, Ethan Canin from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in an interview for Salon, and he was telling me that he thinks that there are two different kinds of writers. Those drawn to the external, that their characters are going to go out and have these adventures and epic tales, but that it’s all very external. Then there are writers who are very internal and interested in psychological movements of characters as opposed to physical ones. He was saying that older writers tend to be the latter. I said, “Oh, I know I feel old. I’ve always felt old.” Sometimes people will say to me, “I could never write about a different time period because how do you know what it was like and it must’ve been so different. Of course in many ways the external life would be unrecognizable, but I don’t think that people’s basic psychology changes that much. I’m interested in what doesn’t change about human experience.
Rumpus: Again, your response brings me back to the brilliant characters in The Houseguest. I am fascinated by the theme of fractured identities in this book. Many of your characters struggle to remake themselves from violent pasts or the painful complications of present-day realities. For instance, Ana Beidler, like her famed actress mother, internalizes acting not just as a profession, but as a means of survival, where one becomes a kind of shapeshifter in navigating wartime life and accessing resources and mobility. Judith yearns to understand her father’s secret past, while Abe yearns to fulfill the unlikely kinship he discovers in the ever elusive Ana. There is a distance that separates many of your characters, whether self-imposed or circumstantial, a mystery that both alienates and attracts in their search for greater intimacy. How much or little do you think the ordeal of wartime experiences and displacement influence characters’ ability (or inability) to connect with one another?
Brooks: I hadn’t thought of it that way regarding wartime trauma impeding connection and intimacy, but that certainly sounds right. I also think connection is hard for everyone, or for many, whether we’re recovering from trauma or just dealing with life. Even today, or perhaps especially today, which is weird because in some way we’re more connected to the world and one another more than ever with social media. We’re constantly out looking at our screens and connecting, but at the same time, we’re still very disconnected and alone. My fate isn’t tied up with the fate of the person who lives next door or across the street from me. We don’t live in a village anymore. We’re all very isolated from one another, whether individually or in our own little nuclear families. We are unhinged, unlinked to any kind of communal life or communal story. That’s a theme that I explore both in my nonfiction and in my fiction, the way that people strive and fail to connect to one another, to achieve intimacy. That may be my primary interest as a writer.
The novel started with a story that I wrote that was later published in Glimmer Train, a story that just involved Abe Auer and his family and Ada Beidler, that section where she arrives in their house. The heart of that story was a scene between Ada Beidler and Abe Auer, the nighttime scene when he finds himself unexpectedly confiding in her, telling her about a story from his childhood that he’d never told anyone. Even though so much changed and evolved as I worked through the novel through various drafts, that did stay the same, that I found myself moved by that moment of actual intimacy. You have these two characters, who in so many ways feel out of control over their lives. Abe feels out of control in the sense that he is a victim of stasis, the fact that he settled into a life that is numbing. Ana is out of control in the sense that she is being flung from one world to the next. And yet despite their fear and flailing, they are both able to find this moment of stillness where they connect unexpectedly and deeply.
Rumpus: Ana Beidler is so fascinating in the complexity and mystery with which she is rendered. Although women had an undeniable presence in Yiddish theater, it is often difficult to obtain much in the way of biographical information about them. What inspired Ana’s character, and your fascination with Yiddish theater? Were you able to find specific resources about women in the Yiddish theater or did you have to rely heavily on your imagination?
Brooks: This was also something that surprised me as I stumbled upon it. As a secular American Jew, I was always searching for role models, for figures that inspired me. Before I started the book, I knew absolutely nothing about the history of Yiddish theater in America. I still don’t know that much about it. But I was enchanted by what I read. There was one fact that I remember reading that around 1913 there were as many Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue as there were on Broadway Manhattan. This wasn’t a little niche where there were just a couple of theaters. This was an enormous part of the culture, an entire world that was eradicated. That’s a part of the Holocaust that seems under-discussed.
We talk a lot about the lost lives and physical bodies and the tragedy of that, as we should, but I was also interested in the culture that’s now gone. I was also enchanted by the idea that there were these Jewish women who were beautiful and charismatic and dominated the stage. There was a period in Yiddish theater where the entire production and show revolved around the female star. In some ways, this was looked down upon, considered schlocky to build these shows around one woman. What came later focused more on the script and the play and the ensemble and the production. It was certainly a more serious stage in the art form. But I was still enchanted by the idea that there would be these incredibly powerful women whose sexuality and charisma allowed them to dominate Second Avenue at that time.
Rumpus: I’m interested in learning more about your memoir Small Animals: A Memoir of Parenthood and Fear forthcoming in 2017. Could you discuss some of the themes you explore in this book?
Brooks: In a lot of ways, I feel that this memoir could not be more different than The Houseguest. But in a review from the Chicago Review of Books, someone pointed out a similarity which now makes a lot of sense. The memoir begins with an event that I wrote about for Salon a number of years ago when I ran into a store and let my son wait in the car for five minutes. Someone outside recorded me with their phone while I was doing this, and called the police. I was arrested and a year or two of legal issues followed suit. I ended up writing about the experience, the stigma, the repercussions, and other women began reaching out to me who had been through similar experiences. The memoir begins with that experience, but is more broadly about how anxiety and fear and uncertainty and competitiveness and judgement have influenced the culture of parenthood, along with my experience of being a mother. The critic remarked how she saw that essay as the other side of the coin of what I’m writing about in The Houseguest, whereas in the novel there is so much indifference and looking away from what people know is happening. But here in the essay, I write about this experience of people looking so intensely and so judgmentally at each other in a way that’s really destructive. My take on that response is that I don’t think it’s necessary the other side of the coin, but rather the same issue, the issue of people not knowing how to help each other. People watching or engaging with someone that they don’t have a relationship with, and wanting to help but not knowing how, and not thinking about the consequences.
Rumpus: I really appreciate your recent essay, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom,” in The Cut, where you explore a very much-needed conversation regarding the struggle between carving out the mental and physical space necessary to write in the face of the relentless, often all-consuming demands of motherhood. Is it a mental adjustment that both men and women have to make in embracing the realities of parenthood while carving out writing careers, or is it more of an issue of social privileges that need to be reexamined? What social changes do we need to implement in order to counter the lack of support that many mothers face in struggling to achieve that balance?
Brooks: I’ll answer with an anecdote. I was recently interviewed by a Scandinavian filmmaking couple who are making a documentary on similar parenting issues to the ones I write about. They have done one documentary together, which won the Impact Award at Sundance, and this is their second documentary. They have one son who is four. They had read my essay, and we were discussing the work-parenting balance. They have a great situation because the woman’s mother will often travel with them when they’re shooting and babysit their little boy. But despite this, the mother-filmmaker is wracked with guilt. She told me that last year when their film won that award at Sundance and they had to fly out to the festival circuit, she felt so, so guilty because she wasn’t spending time with her son. I asked who her son was with. Did she have to leave him in an institution or something? No, he was with his grandmother, whom he adores. She told me this and I thought, isn’t that sad that a young, really ambitious and talented women has to feel guilty about leaving her child with his grandmother for a week or two while she goes to support her film at the Sundance Film Festival? I completely empathize with her because I have the exact same feelings when I go to a writing residency or a conference, but at the same time it’s so sad that our expectations for parents, particularly for mothers, are so high.
Mothers are expected to be everything for their children, to give our children everything they need, including things that traditionally came from extended family, friends, the larger community. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m not an anthropologist but I have to guess that this is not the way that it’s always been, where we put almost all of the responsibility for a child’s wellbeing on one or two people. I think if there is to be any hope for women finding better work-life balance, it has to involve a shift in responsibility, which is not to say that we love our children any less or are any less invested in their wellbeing, but maybe we have to be better at challenging this idea that we are fully responsible, the sole shapers and of our children’s future. It seems to me that it’s too much for any one person to carry. Certainly it is for me.
Rumpus: We definitely need to continue having this conversation in our culture in order to bring about real change. Outside of these books, do you have other projects that are in the works?
Brooks: Gosh, I feel like that is enough for me right now. My children aren’t babies anymore, but they are still very young, so between them and my writing, it’s a lot. I’m working on the memoir still, but also short stories and essays similar in theme.