Authors tell you what inspired their work
Rachel Kadish, author of "Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story"
For a long time the idea was only a doodle in my notebook. "Happy families," wrote Tolstoy, "are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Why, I wondered, do so many intelligent people cite that line... without ever seeming to question whether it's true? Do we honestly agree with Tolstoy that only tragedy is interesting... that happiness is boring, cliché? And if so, what does this say about our own expectations and dreams? Is our choice really between being interestingly tragic, or else being automatons of contentment? Or can happiness be quirky, hilarious, deeply challenging?
In my mid-twenties, I wrote a short story about a character named Tracy, a graduate student weighing--with equal parts bemusement and gravity -- some serious questions about life and love. But it was just a short story. I made some notes toward a novel, but set them aside. I was busy with travel and research for a book of non-fiction -- a book about Holocaust restitution and reparation claims, and the experience of watching my elderly relatives, who survived the Holocaust, pursue a claim. I was concerned with the question of what, if anything, a reparation claim repairs. I imagined I'd get back to writing Tracy's story at some other point.
Then came September 11, 2001. Like so many writers, I was unable to work for some time. When I was able to write again, it was clear to me that the topic of the Holocaust took me too far into human darkness for a period when I already felt heartsick. One of the only restorative acts I could imagine was laughter. I needed, more than anything, to be sitting at my desk and laughing out loud.
So I ended up pulling Tracy's story out of the mothballs and writing her story. Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story is a novel of ideas... but it's also a romantic comedy. Or maybe: a novel of ideas on helium. Suddenly nothing seemed more urgent to me than this question of happiness: Was it attainable, and at what cost? And what did a happy ending look like -- not the blanched-out happiness of a Hollywood ending, but the sort of textured, hard-earned happiness that two real people could create in their lives?
I advanced Tracy seven years, into her life as a single, tenure-track professor living in Manhattan. And I gave her the Tolstoy idea as a project. The academic setting was a natural for me -- I've always been drawn to characters who love something outside of themselves, and Tracy's true passion for literature was a window into understanding her view of the world. I started letting Tracy speak out about life, literature... and also love, romance, marriage, and the ways they do and don't intersect. I put her in a relationship very different from my own, and let her engagement happen in a very different manner... and then basically sat back to see what would happen. This gave me a chance to talk about the conflict between 19th and 20th century views of love, and the trouble I see with some modern ways of talking about marriage. And also, the question of how far feminism has carried us, where love is concerned. About the differences between commenting about love from the sidelines and wading in... the risks of real -- not theoretical-- relationships. And, of course (and with greatest respect for Tolstoy) what a colossal cop-out I think that first line of Anna Karenina is. Most importantly, it gave me a chance to think passionately (it often seems to me this is one definition of fiction writing: passionate thinking) about control -- the desire for it, the loss of it, how these shape our lives. Writing this book was an opportunity to laugh at some things I think merit serious laughter, and take a hard look at some questions that trouble me.
My narrator is a professor of American literature, and I understood early on that my own background as a M.A. in American literature wasn't going to do. I wanted to write Tracy's passion for literature, and I wanted the novel to reflect the breadth of her knowledge. So I decided I needed to deepen my own education on the subjects that mattered to her.
Among other things, I subscribed to academic journals, read up on topics Tracy would teach, and set myself the task, one summer, of reading the Norton Anthology of American Literature -- all 5,000 + pages of it. (Yes, I skimmed a few bits.) It was a wonderful / grueling / revelatory experience; I'm sure I'll be drawing on what I noticed about, for example, the evolution of the sentence, for years to come. Though there may only be 12 or 15 lines in the novel that reflect all that background research, I'm a firm believer in Hemingway's statement: the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. While I don't overtly mention most of what I learned, I hope its presence is palpable.
I checked my academic sections with professors at several universities; my sections on bipolar disorder with two psychiatrists; the lupus material with a lupus specialist. While I'm sure I missed something, I try hard to get my facts right.
Tracy's story is not mine. But I couldn't have written this book had I myself not fallen in love and gotten married. This is a book about a constitutionally skeptical woman who works her way toward an unexpected kind of faith: faith in love, faith even in the institution of marriage. It would never have occurred to me to write this book had these issues not been on my mind.
Now that I'm through -- and with a preschooler and a baby to keep me laughing -- I think I'm ready to go back to the nonfiction book.
Rachel Kadish is the author of Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story.
(Photo credit: Neil Giordano)