May 18, 2003 - Book Reporter: In the early 1990s, Simone Zelitch joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Hungary, which she already knew would be the setting of a novel-in-progress about a Holocaust survivor and her gentile daughter-in-law

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Hungary: Peace Corps Hungary : The Peace Corps in Hungary: May 18, 2003 - Book Reporter: In the early 1990s, Simone Zelitch joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Hungary, which she already knew would be the setting of a novel-in-progress about a Holocaust survivor and her gentile daughter-in-law

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In the early 1990s, Simone Zelitch joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Hungary, which she already knew would be the setting of a novel-in-progress about a Holocaust survivor and her gentile daughter-in-law

In the early 1990s, Simone Zelitch joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Hungary, which she already knew would be the setting of a novel-in-progress about a Holocaust survivor and her gentile daughter-in-law

Simone Zelitch

Peace Corps volunteers, by definition, are too isolated and vulnerable to be true cultural imperialists.


Simone Zelitch, 37, was born in Philadelphia. She started writing seriously as a teenager, and at fifteen, she won a scholarship to a state-sponsored program for young artists, The Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts. She attended Wesleyan University where she wrote an early draft of her first book, THE CONFESSION OF JACK STRAW (1991), a novel that combines original folk-tales with the story of a medieval peasant revolt. The novel won a Hopwood Award, and was published by Black Heron Press. After receiving her MFA at University of Michigan, she taught Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University.

In the early 1990s, Zelitch joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Hungary, which she already knew would be the setting of a novel-in-progress about a Holocaust survivor and her gentile daughter-in-law. Posted at the University of Veszprem in western Hungary for two years, she taught teachers-in-training, including former teachers of Russian, who were being retrained to teach English and whose toughness and indelible sense of humor helped shape the voice and attitude of the Hungarian characters in Louisa. A grant from the University of the Arts Venture Fund allowed her to make a final research trip to Hungary and Israel in 1998. She completed the novel with the help of a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts.

Currently an instructor at Community College of Philadelphia, where she co-directs the college's Poets and Writer's Series and coordinates a faculty and staff fiction writing circle, Zelitch recently moved into a century-old house in Mount Airy with her partner, Doug Buchholz, and his daughter, Jane. She is working on a novel about Blacks, Jews and the Civil Rights movement.


October 13, 2000

Author Simone Zelitch has a yen for weaving fiction around history --- her first book, CONFESSION OF JACK STRAW, was about the English Peasant Revolt of 1381, and in her most recent novel, LOUISA, she puts her own spin on the Bible's Book of Ruth. Find out what inspired her biblical twist, what happened when she went on site to research, the Biblical protagonist of her next novel, and much more in this interview, masterminded by Writer Martha Hostetter.

TBR: What led you to the BOOK OF RUTH, which is a big part of your novel, LOUISA?

SZ: Back in the '70s, I went to a pluralistic Jewish high school where a critical reading of the bible was built into my education. One particularly hip and soulful teacher --- a rabbinical student in a fringed vest --- encouraged us to write our own versions of the story of Moses. In some ways, this sort of invention is built into the Jewish tradition. The Torah is, traditionally, a sacred text, but it's also a jumble of family dysfunction, tangled interpersonal relationships, and contradictions, and for thousands of years, people have been trying to make sense of it one way or another.

When I began to write LOUISA, I didn't know I was going to rewrite the BOOK OF RUTH. Like many writers, I began with a character rather than a story, the character of Nora. Yet when I began to piece together Nora's relationship with Louisa, the story of Ruth came back to me, because it seemed, in essence, a story about the power of devotion. When I began to see certain connections, I went back to the text of THE BOOK OF RUTH and a central question rose: Why did Ruth cleave to Naomi? In fact, what ties two people (in this particular case, not unimportantly, two women) together? LOUISA is, foremost, about its characters, but by making use of the deceptively simple story of Ruth and Naomi, I was able to try to unravel that question. To be honest, I've scoured my notes, trying to figure out when I first hit on using THE BOOK OF RUTH, and I haven't found a particular moment when I made that choice. In some ways, the story, like many stories from the bible, is embedded. For that, I am grateful.

TBR: Both of your novels are based on historical events --- CONFESSIONS OF JACK STRAW (1996) on a 14th-century peasant rebellion, and LOUISA (2000) on 20th-century events before, during, and after the Holocaust. What are the challenges of combining history and fiction in this way?

SZ: One thing I love about using history and mythology is it helps give fiction a structure. When I write about, say, a peasant revolt in 1381, I know certain things in advance. I know that the revolt began in midsummer, that the peasants marched on London, and that most of the leaders ended up with their severed heads displayed on London Bridge. Having these plot-points set in advance frees me to deal with the more interesting question of who marched on London, personal relationships, long standing betrayals, and the way someone might feel when he knows he is about to die. You can compare writing historical fiction to writing formal poetry. The structure is in place, and that grants you enormous freedom to figure out how you get from point A to point B.

Still, obviously, there are challenges. I love research, but it can get overwhelming. In the case of LOUISA in particular, I felt real anxiety about getting the details right because so many people were still alive who would read this and notice careless errors. Most historical novelists I've talked to agree that, at some point, you need to stop researching and start writing, if only to begin to limit the scope of your research. I do my best research after the second or third draft. That's when I really know what's necessary.You need to resist the temptation to put in everything you know, because you don't want to overwhelm the story itself.

In LOUISA, I assume readers have some background, but I also have to sketch in quite a bit of history, particularly about Hungary between the First and Second World Wars. I ended up taking most of the expository sections out, holding my breath, and hoping for the best; because, ultimately, this isn't a history textbook. It's a novel. In the end, I hope, readers will either understand events from context or be too caught up in the story to worry much, or, better yet, will do a little reading and fill in the gaps on their own.

TBR: A related question: LOUISA takes on what you've called the "impossible subjects" of the Holocaust and Zionism, often filling in historical perspectives --- events in Hungary late in the war, or in Israel immediately after --- that are not as well known as, for example, the stories of the concentration camps. Was your intention to fill in the historical record?

SZ: Quite a bit of excellent scholarship has been done on the Holocaust in Hungary (I think, in particular, of Randolph Braham's excellent THE POLITICS OF GENOCIDE) and on Israel just after its independence (Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, has a book called 1949, THE FIRST ISRAELIS). I can't pretend to fill in a historical gap when people who are, in fact, historians, are working so diligently to do just that. At the same time, when I began to tell the story of Nora and Louisa, I did know that I was less interested in how people suffered than the terms on which they survived. That was probably what drew me to Israel in 1949 --- that and a general interest in the history of Zionism and what becomes of an idea once it turns into a political reality.

TBR: How did your experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Hungary shape the story?

SZ: I joined the Peace Corps in 1991 with the idea for LOUISA already brewing, and my posting in Hungary confirmed my suspicion that the novel would take place there. Not so surprisingly, I got very little writing done in Hungary. I felt completely thrown off balance. Peace Corps volunteers, by definition, are too isolated and vulnerable to be true cultural imperialists. I met some wonderful people in Hungary, and I learned a lot from my students and colleagues, but the whole experience taught me that I'm not meant to be an expatriate. My sense of displacement, as minor as it was, had a real impact on the characters of Nora and Louisa. Nora, in particular, found her voice in Hungary. Her weariness, her sense of humor, and her strength were modeled on the qualities I found in many of my older students, particularly the former teachers of Russian who had to be retrained to teach English.

TBR: Nora is such a fascinating creation --- at times prickly and inscrutable, at other times vulnerable and even girlish, particularly in respect to her lifelong love for Bela. She's "difficult" in the way that Jane Austen's heroines are; hard to love but at the same time immensely lovable. Where did she come from?

SZ: Nora appeared before the story itself took shape. Looking at notes for older stories and unfinished novels, I see aspects of her appearing over and over, always small, dark and impatient, always tactless and at the same time afraid to really speak from the heart. Nora, in her present form, appeared when I made myself a challenge. I'd heard an anecdote about Chekov explaining how he wrote fiction. He picked up an ashtray and said, "Today, I will write a story called, 'The Ashtray.'" I tried the same thing --- typed the word ASHTRAY on the top of my computer screen, and continued: "I started smoking when I was six years old..." This confessional, braggy tone, followed by a complaint, ("Now where the hell can I get a cigarette?") began to help the character take shape. A close reading of THE BOOK OF RUTH confirmed a few things I'd suspected: that, Naomi/Nora has lost everyone she loves, and that she doesn't know what to do with Ruth/Louisa's devotion. I'm glad you find Nora lovable. I do too. But it's true that she's hard to love. She doesn't let herself be loved. The image of the cigarette remains an important one for me, the idea of hiding behind a cloud of smoke.

TBR: So much of the book is told retrospectively, through flashback, letter, or memory, and many of the story's details don't become clear until the end. There are surprising turns and emotional puzzles. How did you balance this complex structure? How did you decide what to tell when?

SZ: LOUISA's structure is what made the book take so long to write. I knew, almost from the outset, that the novel could not be linear, and I did quite a bit of initial shifting, trying to find a set pattern that would be easy to follow. Then, slowly, I realized that shifting, uniformly, from 1949 to 1910 to 1944 was actually more disjointed and confusing than letting the novel find its own natural shape. How did I find that shape? In part, it was a matter of writing like a reader. When I finished a chapter, I would just ask myself what I would want to know next, or if I had enough information about a particular part of the plot. Perhaps more mysteriously, but also more importantly, I let Nora's own flow of memory define what chapter would follow the next. Would something that happened in Israel remind her of a memory of her childhood in Hungary, or perhaps of the moment when her son first kissed Louisa? The shifting and associations of memory felt like the most honest way to figure out how to tell the story, and some of my most difficult writing tasks were creating transitions between those shifts.

TBR: Finally, a question about the ending. Even though I was familiar with the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi, I still found myself startled by Louisa's development into a Ruth-like figure --- her unexpected emergence as a symbol of hope. Your ending, like so much of the Old Testament, has an air of ambivalence, a complexity that doesn't settle. Do you want to leave it that way, or --- without giving anything away to readers who haven't yet finished --- would you like to talk a little bit about the conclusion?

SZ: As I said earlier, one advantage of using a prewritten (or borrowed/stolen) story is that you already know what happened, and you can settle into the more interesting business of figuring out how and why it happened. Anyone familiar with the story of Ruth and Naomi knows that it has a happy ending. Ruth, who is a Moabite and therefore springs from a people cursed by God, finds acceptance among Naomi's people and is, in fact, the foremother of King David and the eventual Messiah. In my own novel, the story of Ruth is told from the point of view of the mother-in-law, who, it is implied, should feel gratified that her devoted daughter-in-law will carry on her family line. The biblical story tells us what everyone says to Naomi, that Ruth is better than a daughter, and that the child she bears is Naomi's child, a way to redeem what is lost. Naomi herself is silent. Frankly, I suspect the loss of her family has made her incapable of sharing all the general joy, and that she doesn't accept the happy ending. My novel, LOUISA, leaves Nora in much of a similar situation. Louisa, her daughter-in-law, has always had something Nora has lacked, emotional courage. She recklessly declares love. This quality was always part of Louisa and it could be read as a redemptive quality, or as a selfish quality, or both. I don't want to give away the ending either, but I will say that Nora, like Naomi, isn't completely satisfied with how things stand; but, I hope, she also is able to see some justice in the conclusion. She can't bring back the dead, and she can't be someone she is not, but she can share a cigarette with a friend, continue life on limited terms but let that life be enriched by friendship.

TBR: I know many readers will be looking forward to your next novel, MOSES IN SINAI (2001). What is it about?

SZ: As you might have guessed, it's about Moses, and a lot of it takes place in the Sinai. In other words, it's a more straightforward sort of biblical retelling. As with LOUISA, my interest is in the contradictions and holes in the story. The Pharaoh's daughter, for example, is a central character. So is Korah, who leads a rebellion against Moses. The ten plagues are recounted from the Pharaoh's point of view. One of my favorite books is THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, and I like to think of MOSES IN SINAI as continuing that tradition.

TBR: What authors were your inspirations growing up? What about now?

SZ: As a teenager, I read a lot of Vonnegut. Although my writing bears little resemblance to his these days, his novels, particularly SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, gave me a sense that fiction could do anything it wanted to do. Later, I discovered Ursula LeGuin. As a stylist, she was far more transparent than Vonnegut, and she used science and anthropology as a metaphor for interpersonal concerns, much the way I try to use history. At some point in college, I discovered the Russians, and Tolstoy in particular became my standard. In short, I like a big canvas, a lot of characters, and room enough for those characters to transform. While I was writing LOUISA, a friend pulled me through Proust, and in some subtle ways it had its impact on the voice of the novel, a kind of all-knowing and self-deluding voice that owes something to Marcel's. I do read contemporary fiction as well and notice that the stuff I like best tends to be ambitious and, not so surprisingly, conscious of history. Banks' novel, CLOUDSPLITTER was not only a big, well-researched novel, but even more impressively, a startling portrait of John Brown.

TBR: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

SZ: Read. It's as simple as that. The more you read, the more you will have a sense of the books you like. Then, write them. Make friends with other writers and serious readers, and ask them what they read. Then read it. Let yourself be influenced, and let yourself grow out of each influence. One good way to develop your own style is to keep a journal. I've been keeping one for 25 years. By looking at my style there, I could often tell what I was reading, but slowly I began to write in a way that was completely my own and that, without a doubt, sharpened my public writing --- my fiction. If you keep reading and writing and make contact with other writers, you will have both a vocation and an audience. Publication is another story; it's a crap-shoot. Persistence pays off, but don't sweat it too much. A writer is not someone who publishes; she's someone who writes. Keep writing.

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