By Simone Shapiro
Bestselling author Tova Mirvis is making her first visit to Pittsburgh Jan. 7 as the featured speaker for the Rodef Shalom Congregation Sisterhood’s Solomon B. Freehof Book Review Series.
Her first novel, “The Ladies Auxiliary,” set in the Jewish community of Memphis, Tenn., was a bestseller. Five years later she published “The Outside World,” a novel about family dynamics, marriage, choice and authenticity. Her third novel, “Visible City,” just published, is the story of a young wife on New York City’s Upper West Side who spies on people in the apartment window across from her.
Mirvis was born and raised in an
observant Jewish family in Memphis,
received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University and lives in Newton, Mass., with her three children, ages 15, 11 and 6.
During a recent conversation, excerpted below, she spoke about her books, writing projects and her future work.
Your first two novels were clearly and firmly within the world of Judaism, about people defining their place within the Jewish world. “Visible City” does not take place within that context. What changed?
“When I first started writing, I wrote about the world I knew, the world around me. When I started writing
‘Visible City,’ I thought it would become more Jewish. But then I realized that I didn’t relate to those themes in the same way. I no longer was writing about community, belief and doubt. But ‘Visible City’ is similar to my first novel around the theme of people watching each other. We say, ‘What do other people think of me?’ We use other people to determine who we are. That is very central to me as a writer.
“The characters in ‘Visible City’ are an academic, a lawyer and a therapist on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They are Jewish in the way that Seinfeld is Jewish. It’s just that my focus was different here.
“I was writing about a voyeur, someone who is watching. But so much of writing is about imagining: Can I imagine myself outside the walls of my own body into someone else’s. Being a novelist is a lot like being a voyeur.”
“The Outside World” seems to have a more hopeful tone than “Visible City,” which felt a little darker.
“With each book we grow. ‘Visible City’ took 10 years. During that time, it was a coming of age, a growing up. I was more comfortable writing about sorrow and sadness and discontent. We all feel different things at different points in our lives: you do a lot of growing along with the book.
“For me, you have to allow the characters, their lives to unravel; to be willing to push people to the edge. It doesn’t always work out happy at the end. It’s about the messiness of life.”
Anti-Semitism is rapidly rising in the world. Do you, as a Jewish artist, feel a responsibility in your work to portray Jews and Judaism in a certain light?
“While I do have some internal anxiety about that, I am not willing to cede the freedom, to surrender creativity, in order to appease anti-Semites. To ask Jewish art to blanch itself of complexity or complications is to lose [freedom] altogether.
“I don’t think we create understanding or empathy by [presenting] fantasy versions of ourselves. I feel closer to other cultures when
I read novels that are real. I feel that they struggle like I do; they
have the same set of complex questions about faith, about family: that is
where we really connect and where we transcend prejudices.”
Your books deal with finding your authentic self, knowing another person — the person you are married to — and how that changes over time and with experience.
“I think a lot about those questions: How do we know ourselves? I’m definitely interested, as a writer, in the inward focus, the internal working of someone’s mind. It provides great sources of material for a writer: the problem of other people, how do we live with other people — in a marriage, in a family? You put two people in a room together and that’s where interesting things, complicated things happen. Fiction begins in those moments.
“In ‘Visible City,’ it was about each character arriving at a moment where they have to make a decision. I was writing a novel about change, the character and nature of change. There are those moments where we stand at that crossroads — do we go one way or do we go the other way? I wanted each of the characters to end up at that decision making place.
“What do we owe to other people? What do we owe to ourselves? ‘Visible City’ is about that question, the obligations to others as a parent, or as a child, or as a spouse. But what happens to yourself? Your sense of who you imagined you were going to be or who you wanted to be or who you might still be.”
What are your plans for future work?
“I’m writing a non-fiction book, a memoir, about my own religious change, what happens when you make a change in your life. I’m supposed to turn it in to my publisher a year from now, so a 10-year project is not going to happen again.
“I wrote an essay that was in The New York Times last February that was the first piece of this. It was very nerve-racking. In fiction, there are always places to hide; in non-fiction, there is nowhere to hide. I was very nervous. Then a day later, I received hundreds of emails in response from strangers. It was one of those moments when I really understood that people connect with writing that is honest, that says what it is without trying to sugar coat. For me as a writer, that was probably the most gratifying experience that I’ve had.
“Every day I say to myself, ‘Write honest. Write free.’ ”
>> The Rodef Shalom Sisterhood book review featuring Tova Mirvis will take place Wednesday, Jan. 7 at 7:30 p.m. in the Aaron Court of Rodef Shalom Congregation. Refreshments will be served. No RSVP is necessary for the free event. Child care is available by reservation three days ahead of time by calling Anna Baird at 412-621-6566, ext. 183.
Simone Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.