Simone Zelitch Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Simone Zelitch
Photo: Douglas Buchholz

Simone Zelitch

An interview with Simone Zelitch

Simone Zelitch discusses the influences of Hungary on her writing, how and why she writes, and what draws her to the subject matters of her books.

Simone Zelitch (Peace Corp volunteer in Hungary 1991–92 ) is the author of The Confession of Jack Straw, published in 1991 by Black Heron Press. This novel won the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Award for Major Fiction. Next month Moses in Sinai will be published by Black Heron Press, and in September, G.P. Putnam will publish Louisa, a novel that draws upon her experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Hungary. With two books coming out in 2000, we decided to interview Simone about how her Peace Corps experience influenced her novels.

The topics of your novels are wide and diverse. What draws you to the subject matter?
It’s hard to generalize. If I was going to name something that my three novels have in common, it would probably be “revolution betrayed.” It's an old story. Peasants storm London, and within the week, their king breaks every promise, and the heads of their leaders are piked on London Bridge. Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, only to create a stratified society of conquerors. In my latest novel, Zionism itself is presented as a kind of failed revolution. It all comes down to a distrust of absolute answers and, by extension, centralized authority.

When The Confession of Jack Straw came out some years ago, a group of Philadelphia anarchists adopted the novel, and I couldn’t have been happier, although I once went into Saint Marks Books and found a copy in the Anarchism section, and I made them move it into Literature.

Still, as time goes on, I had to admit that my work has become less pointedly political. If Jack Straw is a political fable, and Moses is a kind of allegory, Louisa is really a novel about human relationships. I started with the characters, and only slowly put them in Hungary during the Second World War.

Even early on, I found my interest in my characters was what drove the work. Frankly, I wrote to find out what they’d do next. My work is always going to be shaped by my politics, but it’s always really been more about failed relationships than failed revolutions, perhaps even how a kind of personal idealism breaks down.

I also tend to be drawn to stories that don't get told. In the case of Moses in Sinai, I started thinking about the novel back in high school — a Jewish high school by the way — when a rabbi warned us not to be like the infamous Korah who led a rebellion against Moses and was swallowed alive.

Being an alienated 17-year-old, I immediately read and reread Korah’s story, as well as rabbinic commentary, and fifteen years later, I finally figured out how to make that story a central part of a novel.

A final note: as time goes on, my work seems to have become increasingly Jewish. Perhaps those years of Akiba Hebrew Academy had some effect after all.

What was your Peace Corps assignment?
I was a TEFL (Teacher of English as a Foreign Language) with the second group to Hungary. I taught English to teachers in training at the University of Veszprem. I was also involved in planning the first regional Central European Peace Corps conference. Perhaps my most lasting contribution was the development of a songbook designed to teach U.S. History and Culture as well as grammar. I even put together an accompanying cassette which contains a very embarrassing rendition of “Over the River and Through the Woods.”

Did you go to Hungary thinking that you would write about the country or did that experience grow into a novel?
I actually did go knowing that Louisa, the main character of my novel, would go to Hungary. To be more specific, early on in the process of research and writing, when I was also in the process of applying to Peace Corps, I knew the novel would take place in some Central European country, and had just about decided on Hungary when my assignment came. I went there knowing that I would probably feel too uprooted to get much serious writing done, and I was right. I didn’t finish a full draft until I returned. Without a doubt, the novel would have been close to impossible to write without my years in Hungary. I’m grateful that my site wasn’t Budapest, and that many of my PCV friends lived in villages near the Romanian and Ukrainian border. I spent a lot of time on trains, staring into space, and being stared at by Hungarians. I’d never felt more vulnerable, or more American. I think my experience of displacement had an enormous impact on the way I wrote about Louisa’s central characters, who are all, essentially, displaced, Louisa herself, who is a German in Hungary, and many other characters who are Hungarians in Israel.

What Peace Corps writers have you read?

I like Paul Theroux’'s travel writing, and I enjoyed Bob Shacochis’ Easy in the Islands, but it wasn’t until I read Living on the Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers that I realized that these writers had been Volunteers. At the same time, given the nature of the work, it didn’t surprise me. On the other hand, one wouldn’t automatically assume that Kent Hanuf was an RPCV. It makes me wonder what we mean by a Peace Corps writer. Is it someone whose writing is shaped by living and working abroad, or simply someone who, at some point was a Volunteer? When it comes to the work itself, do we RPCV writers have anything in common?

Give us some idea of how you write, and how long it takes you to write a book?
Because I teach, I tend to begin long projects during the summer, when I have a block of time, and then I build up a head of steam and work my way through a draft. The rest of the year is spent making sense of what I’d written, which, at least initially, is a mess. This pattern used to produce a novel every two or three years, but my most recent novel, Louisa, took considerably longer, in part because of my time in the Peace Corps, and in part because the novel was more ambitious, and needed four full summers for radical beginning-to-end revisions. I always tell my students to write every day, and I tend to be most productive when I follow my own advice and devote a few hours to at least trying to get something down on paper, even if none of it ends up as part of something lasting.

Why do you write in the first place, since it is so difficult to get published?
I write to be read. Wanting to be read is not the same thing as wanting to be famous. It may not even be the same thing as wanting to be published. I get real pleasure out of holding an audience, making them care about people or circumstances I invent, and making them anxious to find out what happens next. My boyfriend’s daughter recently discovered that I like to tell stories, and I’m not sure she realizes that half the time I have no idea what’s going to happen next until it comes out of my mouth. What drives me on is knowing that she’s listening. When I write rather than speak, I have that same sense of a story’s audience urgently pulling me forward, and, better yet, I can take the time to shape the language, literally build a world out of words. I also really love the idea that what I write can have some impact on total strangers. That's where publication comes in.

In some respects, these days, it’s easier than ever to find an audience. For example, you could post on-line, or you could take part in an open reading. You could even design a respectable book on your computer and self-publish, an honorable tradition. Then there are small presses, which are often as selective as big houses but are also more open to unknown writers, and many of them, my own press, Black Heron, included, have a commitment to keeping their books in print, something that’s true of very few commercial publishers.

On the other hand, to have fiction accepted by a commercial press, and to actually be paid cash-money - that’s another matter entirely. It’s a question of luck, of course, and also of persistence. I know quite a few writers who spend as much time sending out their work and establishing connections with agents and editors as they do writing. I’m not a good role model there, but I get occasional bursts of energy. After I finished Louisa, I sent out forty query letters to agents before I got letters of interest from three. I ended up with Gail Hochman, a gem of an agent, who placed Louisa with Laura Mathews at Putnam, a gem of an editor. I don’t think I would have gotten that far if Louisa had been a bad novel, but there are plenty of good novels that simply don’t find a home at a commercial press.

I suppose it comes back down to deciding why you write. If you’re doing it to become famous or to become fabulously wealthy, you’re bound to feel as though you’re knocking your head against a wall. If that had been the only way I measured success, I would have stopped writing fifteen years ago.

What's next for you in the way of writing?
I began a new novel that takes place in Jerusalem. So far, I’ve had a number of false starts, but I do know that the main character is an American girl who is going to make her way through all three monotheistic religions. Once again, I seem to be writing about a displaced person, and once again, I have a wonderful excuse to read about things that interest me. I hope it gives me a reason to spend some time in Israel. During my research trips there, I found I literally couldn’t stop writing.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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