(A version of this interview appeared originally in The Practicing Writer.)
Let’s go back in time nearly two years, to October 2009, and a blog post in which I wrote:
The Publishers Lunch “Lunch Weekly” free e-mail lists a selection of the new book deals routinely made available to paying subscribers. This week’s “Lunch Weekly” included the following information about another book I’ll be looking forward to reading sometime in the hopefully not-too-distant future: ‘Iowa MFA graduate Anna Solomon’s THE LITTLE BRIDE, a debut novel exploring the little-known history of Jewish immigrants who settled on the Great Plains – the story of a young Russian mail-order bride stranded on the South Dakota prairie, married to a man twice her age and increasingly in love with her nineteen-year-old stepson, to Sarah Stein and Sarah McGrath at Riverhead, by Ellen Levine at Trident Media Group.
I wrote further that I saw this new novel as an important addition to a small (but growing) collection of work inspired by less-familiar aspects of Jewish-American history and settings in parts of the country where relatively few stories featuring Jewish characters have heretofore been told.
To my surprise and delight, Anna Solomon left a comment on the blog post. That initiated a correspondence and, eventually, a friendship. Now that the time for The Little Bride to meet the world has come, I am thrilled to host Anna here for a Q&A about her book and her writing practice.
Anna Solomon’s fiction has appeared in One Story, The Georgia Review, Harvard Review, The Missouri Review, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. Her stories have twice been awarded the Pushcart Prize, have won The Missouri Review Editor’s Prize, and have been nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, Slate’s Double X, and Kveller. Previously, Anna worked as a journalist for National Public Radio’s Living On Earth, where she reported and produced award-winning stories about the impacts of environmental policy and politics. Anna holds a BA from Brown University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and has taught writing at the Sackett Street Writers Workshop and Manhattanville College. She lives in Providence, R.I., with her husband and daughter.
Please welcome Anna Solomon!
Erika Dreifus (ED): I’ll admit that I’m a bit ahead of other readers here, in that I’ve heard you speak about the highly 21st-century way you discovered the snippet of history that inspired The Little Bride. But please tell this story again for everyone else’s benefit.
Anna Solomon (AS): I hope it benefits people. It may just cause them to start Googling themselves (if they don’t already). Because that’s what I was doing – Googling myself – when I came upon an Anna Solomon Freudenthal on a wonderful website called “Stories Untold: Jewish Pioneer Women.” This Anna Solomon ran a hotel in Solomonville, Ariz., a town she founded with her husband Isadore. And there were other women on the site, too, with amazing stories, including one, Rachel Bella Calof, who’d arrived in North Dakota as a mail-order bride. I’d had no idea there were Jewish mail-order brides, let alone Jewish pioneers. Rachel Bella became the inspiration for my protagonist, Minna Losk.
ED: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?
AS: Probably figuring out my approach to writing “historical fiction.” Because I hadn’t set out to write an historical novel – it was that website’s fault! – the parameters for what that would look like were pretty wide open. I found I wasn’t interested in writing a book that would read like a history lesson or go into great detail about the style of buttons at the time. I was interested in the same things I’d always been interested in: why people do the things they do, what goes on in their hearts and minds, how their experience of the world – visually, sensually, socially, economically, etc. – makes them who they are. So while I did a tremendous amount of research as I wrote the book, I tried not to let it limit me.
In some ways that research, the context for my book you might say, became another writerly tool for me: something that helped to shape the characters, propel and complicate the plot, and inspire and elucidate the book’s themes. The interesting thing for me now, though, is that many readers do find the context – the historical subject – so compelling. There were Jews in the Wild West? Why? How? Thankfully, the answers my book provides to these fundamental questions are – in large part – historically accurate.
ED: What’s the most surprising bit of research that you uncovered as you worked on The Little Bride?
AS: If I had to say, I was probably most surprised – and interested – by the fact that there was an entire movement driving Jewish farmers to the American West; it wasn’t just a few isolated examples. In some ways this grew out of a very idealistic socialist vision, called Am Olam, which had its roots back in Eastern Europe, specifically in Odessa. This was in the 1880s, when violence against Jews was escalating and people were starting to flee. The Am Olam members believed that the answer to anti-Semitism lay in making Jews productive, independent, physically robust members of society, i.e. “farmers,” and they believed – in contrast to Zionist groups who were headed to Palestine during this time – that the place to do this was in America.
But in other ways the Jewish pioneer movement was also a very practical answer to the overcrowding in eastern cities at that time. The more established, assimilated Jews – many of them German, from an earlier wave of immigration – wanted to help the newer, Yiddish-speaking immigrants, but they were also embarrassed by them. So giving them money and tools to head West was a way to solve these problems. And I was fascinated by this, too: the complexities of philanthropy, the mix of motivations that often lie behind people deciding to help other people.
ED: You are a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Please tell us about the Workshop’s place in your authorial trajectory. How, if at all, is The Little Bride connected with your Iowa experience? How has your writing career taken shape since Iowa?
AS: Iowa has played an important role in my writing life, and in the life of this book. I had an amazing experience there, first and foremost because my peers were fantastic writers. I learned as much from them as I have from anyone. I also worked closely with teachers who pushed me to take my writing to the next level: Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth McCracken, Ethan Canin, Chris Offutt. They each pushed me in different directions, which was good for me: it helped me find my own center, and claim it.
I worked on short stories while at Iowa, which I’m grateful for. Not only because I love to write short stories, but also because it allowed me to practice so many things again and again. It allowed me to be less precious (sometimes): throwing out a short story you’ve worked on for three months is arguably an easier task than tossing a novel that took three years. Also, I think the short story is the most demanding form of fiction, the least forgiving. I felt that if I could do that successfully, even once or twice, I could do just about anything. Including write a novel.
ED: Please tell us about your agent. How did you and your agent connect? Were you already working with this agent before you completed a manuscript of The Little Bride, or did you sign with an agent only once the novel was ready to be shopped around?
AS: I signed on with my agent the summer after Iowa. This is another bonus of Iowa: the agents come out there, and whether you’re ready to show them work or not, you can meet with them. Which is half the battle, as anyone who’s tried to find an agent will tell you: making contact. I feel very lucky in that way.
My agent, Ellen Levine, read a number of my short stories and continued to read them over the next few years – though ultimately we decided to go out to publishers with the novel before a collection. Ellen was very patient. From the time we agreed to work together – summer of 2005 – four years passed before she went out with the book and sold it to Riverhead in the fall of 2009. I think that patience comes from Ellen’s decades of experience, and I’m grateful for it: There was never any pressure to write faster, or figure things out more quickly. I put that on myself, of course, but Ellen would say, Take your time. There’s no rush. Make it as good as you can.
ED: I’m not going to give too much away, but as I’ve told you in our own correspondence, I loved the way that The Little Bride ends. Did you know, when you began writing the book, how Minna’s story would end?
AS: I had a sense of how it would end, but when I think back on how much I still didn’t know – about the characters, and what would happen between them – it seems amazing that it wound up anything like I thought it would. Readers have had pretty strong reactions to the ending, I think because it resists their expectations. It’s certainly not the “happily ever after” ending people are used to – probably because that’s just not my tendency, and, in my opinion, because it’s never true.
But I actually think we leave Minna in a quite happy, hopeful situation. It’s just not the particular situation readers might have expected to leave her. There might be a statement in that subversion. I think there is. But I’ll let readers decide for themselves.
ED: Anything else you’d like to share with us?
AS: For the writers out there slogging away on their first – or fifth – book, I guess I’d say, Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Getting the first draft out there is largely an act of artistic impulse and courage; don’t turn it into an editorial exercise. That’s what revision is for. Half the time you spend on the book – probably more than that – will be revising it. Once you get there, take time between drafts to get up your energy again. I often like to work on a short story during that period, to keep myself occupied and distracted. Other people need to stop writing altogether for a while. But I think it’s an important phase, and that figuring out what works best for each of us can help us make it through the long process of writing a book.
(P.S. If you’re one of those people who figures out every plot turn and phrase before setting pen to paper – like Ann Patchett or Marilynne Robinson – then please just discard what I’ve said. You are amazing!)
ED: Thank you so much, Anna, and best wishes for the success of The Little Bride!
To learn more about Anna Solomon and The Little Bride, please visit www.annasolomon.com. My thanks to the publisher for an advance review copy.