A few years ago, Molly Antopol put aside a story she’d been working on about Jewish partisans in World War II. She was “so swept up in it,” had done extensive reading and conducted interviews to get the background right for the fiction. But “everything I was writing felt very researched, very academic, sort of bloodless,” she says.
About a year later, while swimming in a lake in upstate New York, she caught herself thinking about it again. She resolved: “I won’t get out of this lake until I have the first paragraph.”
Her partisan story at last began to take on flesh. The result, “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” is one of eight short stories in “The UnAmericans,” Antopol’s debut collection.
The book earned her a spot on the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” list last year, when Antopol was 34. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, nonfiction writer Chanan Tigay. Both teach writing at Stanford University.
“My Grandmother Tells Me This Story” is relayed in the first person by a former teenage partisan to her granddaughter. The story opens in the intimate, matter-of-fact but defiant tone familiar to many Jews whose elderly relatives had their formative years interrupted by the terrors of the 20th century.
It was “a very, very hard story for me to write, and it took me a long time,” Antopol says. In Israel, “these partisan fighters are national heroes. Growing up in the States, I hadn’t learned much about partisans at all.” In gathering information, Antopol spent a lot of time in Israel, reading Lithuanian partisan poet Abba Kovner and talking with friends and acquaintances about the partisans.
In Antopol’s story, the grandmother recounts how she was driven to commit acts both bloodcurdling and heroic to ensure the survival of her partisan band and avenge her family.
After spending a decade working on her first collection, Antopol is gratified by the reaction from readers — it’s been “such an incredible experience,” she says.
One of the best things has been finding common connections, she explains. “I think there must have been 20 people [I’ve met] from the village of Antopol — some whose relatives came from Antopol, some who were born in Antopol or are my age or younger whose grandparents came from there.”
The author herself hasn’t visited the town in Belarus — a town whose Jewish population was wiped off the map in the Holocaust. “It would make me too sad.” And ultimately, she thinks that “getting the stories from people is more important than actually going to a place.”
Growing up, “a good chunk of my childhood was just me and my mom.” She spent “a lot of time alone in my head. I was a big reader who was pretty content to be solitary. But I was developing certain habits that would help me later on.”
Her grandparents on her mother’s side were involved in the Communist Party, and their stories helped Antopol to write pieces set during the McCarthy era. A common theme in her work is the Jewish interaction with history and politics, and many of her characters sense that they’re being spied upon.
“Before sending out the book, I wondered if anyone was going to be interested in these history stories about Communists,” she notes. But by the copyediting stage last year, Edward Snowden had made his revelations of NSA spying and “everyone was talking about [government surveillance].”
Antopol’s stories show her skill at revealing character through a rich and organic accretion of detail, and re-creating the interior worlds of men and women, teens and the elderly, of different nationalities.
“It feels so important for me to have my reader trust me,” Antopol says, “to make sure I’ve gone to the trouble to have all the details add up, make sure the research doesn’t show and the reader isn’t aware of all the work I’ve done. I had to do so much research, I applied for a travel grant for almost all of the stories, to be able to go to those places myself, interview people, read about the time period and look in archives.”
After 30 trips to Israel, the American-born Antopol feels like both a native and an outsider when she sits and writes all day in her favorite Jerusalem café. “My people” — as she affectionately calls the hyper-self-aware characters — include a diverse swath of Israelis. Israel was a “central place” for Antopol and her husband before they met, and today they spend a typical summer in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood.
At home in Noe Valley, she and Tigay structure their writing life around their teaching, and are usually one another’s first readers. “I try to write on all the days I don’t teach. He writes in the office, I write in the kitchen.” And when Antopol writes, her Bernese mountain dog, Rocky, often rests at her feet. “She’s been more helpful with the book than anything, she just lets me know when it’s time to take a break.”
For a writer as busy as Antopol, that’s a gift. Between her book tour and other activities, she’s also working on a novel and preparing for a series of Bay Area events in October to coincide with the appearance of “The UnAmericans” in paperback.
“The UnAmericans” by Molly Antopol (272 pages, W. W. Norton & Co., $24.95)