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Conversation with Margot Singer

Winner of the 2017 Edward Lewis Wallant Award to speak in Hartford May 2

By Judie Jacobson

WEST HARTFORD – On Wednesday, May 2 at 7:30 p.m., the University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies of the University of Hartford will present the 2017 Edward Lewis Wallant Award to author Margot Singer for her novel Underground Fugue (Melville House, 2017). Wallant Award runner-up Rachel Hall will be honored for her debut story collection Heirlooms.

The evening ceremony will also pay tribute to Frances “Fran” Waltman z”l, who passed away on April 1 at her home in West Hartford at the age of 96. In 1963, Fran and her husband, Dr. Irving “Chick” Waltman, established the Edward Lewis Wallant Book Award in memory of the late Edward Lewis Wallant, author of The Pawnbroker and other works of fiction. Today, the nationally recognized Wallant Award is one of the oldest and most prestigious Jewish literary awards in the United States. It is presented to a Jewish writer, preferably unrecognized, whose published work of fiction is deemed to have significance for the American Jew.

In addition to Underground Fugue, Singer is also the author of a collection of short stories, The Pale of Settlement (University of Georgia Press, 2007), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; and co-editor, with Nicole Walker, of Bending Genre (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), a collection of essays on creative nonfiction. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, Conjunctions, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, Agni, Ninth Letter, The Sun, and many others.

Winner of the 2013 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, Singer also received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, the Carter Prize for the essay, and an honorable mention from the judges of the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her short story, Deir Yassin, also appears in the Wallant Award anthology, The New Diaspora: The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction (Wayne State University Press, 2015).

Underground Fugue begins in April 2005 as Esther leaves New York for London to escape her buckling marriage and to care for her dying mother Lonia, who is haunted by memories of fleeing Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II. Javad, their next-door neighbor and an Iranian neuroscientist, struggles to connect with his college-aged son Amir, who is seeking both identity and escape in his illicit exploration of the city’s forbidden spaces. As Esther settles into life in London, a friendship develops among them. But when terrorists attack the London transit system in July 2005, someone goes missing, and the chaos that follows both fractures the possibilities for the future, and reveals the deep fault lines of the past.

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Margo Singer about her novel and the art of writing fiction.

 

JEWISH LEDGER (JL): Your works of fiction rely heavily on the Jewish experience. Did you tap into your own Jewish experience in crafting your stories?

MARGO SINGER (MS): I am not especially observant, but my Jewish identity is very important to me. My father was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930 and emigrated to Palestine in 1939, so I grew up spending many summer vacations in Israel with my grandparents and cousins. My mother’s father also left Europe in the early 1930s; he brought his parents and siblings to the U.S. from Lithuania in 1939. This family history of migration has certainly shaped my sense of self and has prompted many of the issues I address in my creative work.

 

JL: What was the impetus for writing Underground Fugue?

MS: The image that sparked the novel came from an NPR “driveway moment.” In April 2005, I found myself sitting in my car listening to a piece about the “Piano Man,” a mute stranger who had turned up on the beach in Southern England, evidently in a kind of fugue state. (A fugue state is a dissociative disorder in which people wander away from home and lose all sense of who they are.) The Piano Man, who ended up as a minor character in the novel, got me thinking about issues of identity and migration, about what it means to leave one’s home and try to start again in a new place. It also got me thinking about fugues in a musical sense (i.e., compositions in which different voices sound variations on one or more melodic themes), which provided a formal structure for the book.

 

JL: Underground Fugue seems to be about many things, not the least of which is multiculturalism or, perhaps more to the point, the strains inherent in making cross-cultural connections, especially in this day and age. Would you say that’s accurate and, if so, what is the message for the reader?

MS: Yes, definitely. The novel asks the reader to consider what it means to connect with – that is, to live in neighborly proximity with – people who are different from ourselves. The characters (parents and children, men and women) yearn for intimacy, but find that it’s more difficult to attain than they expect. I think this is both a universal challenge and a particular issue in today’s multicultural society. Empathy is shadowed in complicated ways by fear and doubt.

 

JL: Your previous work is a collection of short stories. Is it ‘easier,’ so to speak, to write a short story than it is to write a full-length novel? Does it take different sets of skills? And, while we’re on the subject, how do you decide if the idea will work better as a novel or a short story?

MS: For me, the hardest part of novel-writing was holding such a big idea in my head. I spent ages writing and writing, getting stuck, throwing everything out, and starting over again. You can quite easily experiment with a short story, but realizing that a hundred or more pages of a novel isn’t working is really tough. All writing is lonely, but novel-writing is the loneliest I’ve been as a writer. There were long stretches where I had nothing to send out for publication, not even a draft to share with writer friends. You come to realize that it’s entirely possible to spend the better part of a decade on a project and have nothing to show for it.

I tend to write very slowly, spending a lot of time at the sentence level. With short stories, I was used to writing very compressed, almost imagistic scenes. With the novel, I had to learn to settle into a different kind of pace, to let the important moments slow down and expand. I’m looking forward to writing stories again, but I wonder if it will also be hard to go the other way.

 

JL: Who among today’s stable of American Jewish authors do you find especially inspiring? Any books in particular?

MS: That’s such a hard question – there are so many wonderful American Jewish writers out there! I am indebted to many of the previous Wallant Award winners and others included in The New Diaspora (the anthology edited by Victoria Aarons, Avinoam Patt, and Mark Shechner): Edith Pearlman, Eileen Pollack, Ehud Havazelet, Scott Nadelson, Nathan Englander, Rebecca Goldstein. I also read the great contemporary Israeli writers (in translation): A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, Amos Oz.

 

JL: What advice do you have for beginning or aspiring authors?

MS: I direct a summer creative writing program for high school students, and they all say, “I want to be a writer.” I tell them, “Writers are people who write.” You are a writer if you are writing, simple as that. It’s all about the process. You have to be reading, and writing, and seeking feedback, and you stumble, you have to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and keep on going. Everyone writes a bunch of lousy drafts. Everyone gets rejected. You just have to keep writing!

 

Margot Singer will receive the Edward Lewish Wallant Award and discuss her book on Wednesday, May 2, 7:30 p.m. at the Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave. in West Hartford. Admission is free. Reservations are requested. For more information or reservations: (860) 768-5018, mgcjs@hartford.edu.

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