(A version of this interview appears in the Fall 5771/2010 issue of Jewish Book World)
A Conversation with Allison Amend
by Erika Dreifus
Allison Amend’s remarkable novel, Stations West, traces a story of Jewish-American pioneers and the many challenges they face. The book begins in 1859, when family patriarch Boggy Haurowitz arrives in the Oklahoma Territory, and it ends several generations and decades later.
Amend was born in Chicago on a day when the Cubs beat the Mets 2-0. She graduated from Stanford University and holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her IPPY Award-winning debut short story collection, Things That Pass for Love, was published in October 2008, and a novel, Stations West, was published last March. Amend lives in New York. Visit her on the web at www.allisonamend.com.
Stations West has been known—somewhat tongue-in-cheekily—as “The Jewish Cowboy Novel.” More seriously, it is an epic historical western about Jewish immigrants in Oklahoma in the nineteenth century. On a larger scale, it is a story about assimilation and alienation, and the formation of America. I’m also hoping to reclaim the myth of the Wild West, and paint a truer portrait of what life was like on the frontier.
You are also an accomplished short story writer. Readers may not know that Stations West began its own published life as a short story, in the prestigious journal One Story, in 2002. How did you know that this story was destined to become a novel?
I’m not sure I knew Stations West was destined to become a novel until I finally finished it, and even then I wasn’t sure it would be a published novel until I held the printed copy in my hands many years later. I still worry that I’ll wake up and it will all have been a dream. I received a lot of response from my One Story appearance, and everyone encouraged me to further explore the (mis)adventures of the Haurowitz family. I decided to continue the story when realized that the scope of what I wanted to accomplish with this book would not be completely exhausted in a short story. But Stations West’s road to publication was rocky; the book had many incarnations. Originally, the story shared its setting with a modern woman in Tulsa, Okla., who traces her family’s roots. Then I realized I didn’t need or want this frame. Other versions included a hundred pages of one character’s life in Chicago. I love those pages, but they don’t fit the rest of the book. Stations West and I survived an agent’s attempt and failure to sell it to a mainstream press, the death from cancer of its champion at Oklahoma University Press, and finally its acceptance by Michael Griffith, curator of Louisiana State University Press’ Yellow Shoe Fiction Series.
What do you imagine your novel’s characters would think about Jewish life in the United States today?
There are so many kinds of Jewish life today. I wonder which kind my characters would be asked to comment on. If they were asked about my life, I’d like to imagine that they’d be happy at how assimilated I am. I’ve lived nearly free of anti-Semitism and have had no opportunities denied me because of my religion/ethnicity. I hope the Haurowitzes would be excited that their efforts at assimilation had paid off. They lived fairly secular lives; they would probably not be too shocked at the secularity of mine.
At the end of the book, you thank your grandparents, Ethel and Edward Cohen, “whose experience as Jewish Oklahomans and collection of Oklahoma Judaica inspired this story.” Please tell us a little more about your grandparents as Jewish Oklahomans.
My maternal grandmother was born in 1916, and she grew up in Tulsa. My grandfather came down to Oklahoma from Duluth, Minn., in 1939. They were extremely active in Jewish life, perhaps because Tulsa’s community was so small. My grandfather was involved in their synagogue; he got re-bar-mitzvahed at the age of 70. My grandmother did a lot of charity work. They were ardent Zionists, and made aliyah with my paternal grandparents to Israel. They also traveled throughout Europe, seeking out Yiddish/Jewish communities so they could speak to the locals. My grandmother singlehandedly supported the local fish store, which sent over an entire salmon when she passed away.
What does it mean to you to be part of the Jewish Book NETWORK?
I was just visiting an interfaith book club, and talking about the Jewish Book NETWORK. The depth of its commitment to literature and reading and the extent of the network’s influence are incredible. Anyone who believes that the death of publishing and of serious literature is imminent needs to look at the JBN to see that’s not true. The Network also emphasizes the very Jewish tradition of scholarship, and I am thrilled and honored to be among the successful writers that the JBN has championed.
Who are some of the authors who have inspired you?
For Stations West, I was looking at books by Wallace Stegner and Saul Bellow. Stegner for his amazing descriptions of the American West and his ability to make location a character in his fiction, and Bellow for his portrayals of the dance between assimilation and alienation that we, as Jews, perform daily. I am also inspired by my peers, emerging fiction writers such as Thisbe Nissen, Margo Rabb, Josh Weil, Sheri Joseph, Laura Van Den Berg, Adam Haslett, Hannah Tinti and others.
What can we look forward to reading from you next?
So glad you asked! I’m working on another novel, this one set in the near future. It’s currently wearing the title “The Cunning Hand” and explores art forgery and human cloning. I like to work in different styles and voices, though it might make me a less marketable author. I’m also working on a couple of screenplays and some children’s titles for the PJ Library, a wonderful organization that provides books free of charge each month to Jewish children around the country. Additionally, I’m starting a memoir that chronicles my family’s experience as the possible victims of a hate crime.
Erika Dreifus contributes frequently to Jewish Book World. Her short story collection, Quiet Americans, will be published in early 2011.