Q. When did you start writing the novel?
A. It’s amazing that I started writing the manuscript over thirty years ago. At that point, it took the form of a 120-page memoir about my experiences in the Soviet Union as a Russian language student. I worked on it for five years, but felt like I just couldn’t find the structure for the story I wanted to tell. I put it aside for many years and started working on the manuscript again about fifteen years ago.
Q. Why did you decide to use the novel form?
A. I’ve always felt Emily Dickinson’s words, “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” is the best writing advice I have ever received. By writing fiction, I felt I had more freedom to get at the truth of what I hoped to express. By telling the story of three generations of Russian Jews, the novel form clearly worked best for me to get at these intersecting stories.
Q. What kind of research did you do for it?
A. I did a tremendous amount of research for the novel over a number of years. I read accounts of Americans, some of them originally Russian Jews, who went to the Soviet Union in the 1930’s. They were heartbreaking accounts of Americans who couldn’t leave the Soviet Union once the purges reached a peak in 1936. Many were imprisoned. I had the opportunity to interview a few Americans who went to the Soviet Union in the 1930’s and managed to return to this country. I researched the 1930’s and the living conditions in Leningrad. I also read a tremendous amount about the Ukraine during the Civil War following the Russian Revolution. It was a very unstable place then, and when the White army finally lost control of the Ukraine, as they retreated, they entered the shtetls and murdered many Jews in widescale pogroms.
Q. What made you return to your manuscript after putting it aside?
A. The story was always tugging at me. I could never really abandon it. Then about fifteen years ago, I had the incredible experience of spending some time with our beloved Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison, when she was the commencement speaker at Ramapo College, where I teach. Because I published a full-length study of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf, I was asked by the college to serve Toni Morrison tea and muffins before her talk. It was an amazing experience. Out of a sense of appreciation, I gave her a copy of my book of creative nonfiction, Letters to Virginia Woolf. Then a couple of months later, I was at a conference concerned with Morrison’s novels, and she was there as well. I went up to her and just said it was Lisa from Ramapo, and I was so happy to see her again. Out of the blue, she told me she had read my Letters to Virginia Woolf book and found it very interesting. She told me, It’s really good. Somehow that encouragement from her went so deep inside of me, and I decided I was going to go back to my Russia book and finish it.
Q. Since your own grandmother was named Sarah, and you went to Moscow in 1980, how much of the novel is true?
A. The novel is a work of fiction. While it is based on my own family history, I had to use my imagination to create these characters and their lives. For instance, while I knew my great-grandmother was murdered and raped in a pogrom, in order to write about Zlata’s experience, I had to recreate it through my imagination. The same is true with the sections about Moscow in 1980. The fictional world has its own truths, and to get at the truth of what I wanted to express, I found I needed to fictionalize my actual lived experiences.
Q. What kind of truths are you trying to get at?
A. This is a very difficult question to answer. I wanted to understand how an initial act of violence could affect the subsequent generations of women. I wanted to understand what this obsession with Russia was about. Everyone in the novel wants to forget Russia, but ultimately, they cannot. By spending so many years writing the novel, in a sense, I too could not forget Russia even though I desperately wanted to come to some kind of conclusion with this manuscript. I wanted to understand how the experiences of three generations in a family can intersect, and ultimately the novel is a type of elegy for my own ancestors. It’s a type of love song to some of the incredible people I met when I was a student in Moscow. I wanted in some way to recreate the truth of that experience since my four months there influenced the course of my life.