In the last two months, authors Eve Harris and Deborah Feldman have each published books that focus on Orthodox Jewish communities. Exodus, one of our Best of the Month selections in Biography & Memoir in March, is a follow-up to Feldman's bestselling first memoir, Unorthodox. In it, she attempts to rediscover herself and her roots after taking her son and leaving the strictly religious Hasidic community she grew up in in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Similarly, Harris' debut novel, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, is set in an Orthodox community in Hendon, North London. It was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, and it is one of our Best of the Month selections in Literature & Fiction this month. We brought these two authors together to discuss the writing process, how their books were received, and what's up next.
Deborah Feldman: What was your reaction when you heard that The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was longlisted for the Booker Prize?
Eve Harris: Of course the Booker was a huge shock "“ I felt like I'd woken up in a parallel universe! And nothing has been the same since.
DF: Had it been a long process writing the book?
EH: I had actually had a hard time writing the book. Having never written a novel before, the structure was the biggest challenge. I ended up with a lot of colored post-it notes stuck to two flattened cardboard boxes donated by my local corner shop. Each note represented a chapter and each color represented a different character. I moved them around until I felt dizzy! Writing is a grueling, lonely slog, but the days when it just felt right and my characters leapt off the page were the best. And then having the book longlisted was just incredible.
Your first book, Unorthodox, also got a lot of attention, and was clearly quite controversial in some circles. Were you surprised by that reaction, and how has the approach you've taken with Exodus differed from the way you set about writing Unorthodox?
DF: I can't honestly say I was surprised by any of the reaction, actually. But the writing process for the second book was certainly a little different.
I decided to write Unorthodox in the present tense, because I was twenty-two years old at the time, and still felt very much entrenched in the story. As a result, it has a strong coming-of-age feel. I actually like that, because many of the books that inspired me when I was an adolescent were written in a similar tone, like Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Anza Yezierska's The Bread Givers. Yet when I started writing Exodus, I immediately reverted to past tense, even though many of the events that take place in the book are relatively recent. Leaving the community allowed me to become a much more reflective person in the past five years.
Otherwise they were both written in a similar time frame, with much of the same processes and rituals, although I've managed to fine-tune my method somewhat through practice, which is nice.
EH: That's so interesting, especially for someone who is just starting to work on their second book. I hope I will be able to fine-tune my method, too. I have an idea for the next book, but right now I am focusing on being a mum to my two-year-old and continuing to promote The Marrying of Chani Kaufman.
What are you working on next?
DF: I'm actually working on two different projects at the moment. One is a collection of narratives that focuses on unique ethnic identities and the role they play in a globalized society, and the other project is an in-depth look at the contrast between several women from very different cultural backgrounds who are exploring their sexuality in a unique and thought-provoking way. Both of these works are very concerned with the intersection between cultural identity and a globalized future, but I don't know which of these books will be completed first at this point, or if they might even end up coming together as one project. I feel like you really can't know what a book is until it's actually done.
EH: That's certainly true. Chani changed a lot throughout the writing process, but the central part of the story was always the same. I had taught at an ultra-Orthodox girls' school, and during that year I also got married by an Orthodox rabbi. So I experienced a lot of what Chani goes through as a bride and afterwards started thinking about how strange the Charedi world is, in a lot of ways. I was in a writing course and actually working on a set of short stories, which my tutor was pretty unimpressed by "“ not least because everyone else in the class was already working on their novel. But after having my confidence knocked I set to work again, and when I next read to the class, a few weeks later, it was the passage that would become the first chapter of the novel. That's how it all started!
DF: As I've said, there is an emerging canon of books dealing with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish experience, and I count your book among works by Chaim Potok and Naomi Ragen. I would say that Potok has a strong male perspective, specifically in The Chosen, and Ragen has a powerful female one. What's interesting about The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is that it manages to have a very gender-neutral perspective on the Hasidic community: when you read it you feel that the male and female characters get equal billing in terms of depth and impact. This is one of the reasons I found the book so startling.... I'm so glad you weren't discouraged and went on to write [it].