"The UnAmericans" - In Conversation with Molly Antopol

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans (W.W. Norton, 2014), a smart, engaging, well-written and wide-ranging collection of short stories — a collection that, if you’re anything like me, will have you hooked from the first page until the very last. Read on to see what she had to say about the inspiration for her book, what draws her to the short story as a form, her influences and more.

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): One of the things that I found really intriguing about your book is how wide-ranging it seems to be. Some of it leans toward the somewhat more political, some of it more toward the personal — or personal relationships — though, as I think we sort of see, it isn’t always possible to so neatly compartmentalize things. What was the inspiration for the book? 

Molly Antopol (MA): The book was inspired in a lot of ways by my family history. I definitely come from a big family of storytellers, and so I just grew up hearing a lot of the situations that made it into the book. That was definitely the case with the McCarthy era stories, and that was definitely the case with the one about the village of Antopol. So, that was sort of an early inspiration. I think that it was then carried through just by my own interest in the parts of history that my family was touched by and trying to explore things from different angles.

AD: And as far as the stories themselves go, there really do seem to be some commonalities between them, but at the same time I was sort of wondering where all of these different stories and characters stem from, because their backgrounds and the people themselves just seem to be so varied.

MA: Right. I think that for me that’s one of the joys of writing fiction. To really try to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to try to imagine what it might be like to live in their shoes. So, in a lot of ways I felt like that one of my goals was to try to imagine experiences from different people who are not like myself.

AD: As far as the form itself, what — if anything — in particular drew you to the form? Is there something about short stories in particular? 

MA: You know, I’ve just always loved short stories. Even before I was a writer, when I was just a reader, I loved them. I love them as a form. I love the feeling that I can sit down and read one in one sitting, and then carry it with me after that. When I first started writing, all of my models were story writers. I just never even questioned whether this would be a book of stories. 

AD: And I know that you’re now in the middle of writing your second book, a novel. As a reader, one would imagine that there would be some overlap between the two forms, but I think you’d also imagine that there’d be quite a difference.

MA: Yeah. I also write essays, so I’ve been working on essays recently, as well. They’re all completely different forms. They’re all completely different animals, and they’re all incredibly hard. For me it’s been really wonderful, though, to wake up and to be thinking about the same set of characters every morning when I’m working on a novel. 

AD: Perhaps this is just my interpretation of it, but one of the things that I found particularly interesting about your book is that even though all of these characters are coming from all of these different places, so many of them seem to be people who are disconnected, who are out-of-place, who are just trying to find their way. 

MA: I really like that you said that. I think that what you were just saying was something that I only understood once I was more than halfway done with the book. As you said before, these characters come from really different backgrounds, and I’m writing from different genders and different ages, but I think that the one thing my characters all share is that they’re all kind of lonely. They’re searching for a community, and they’re searching for some kind of connection. That was something I was not aware of at all when I was writing, but I think that is something they all share. I think that a lot of them also feel a sense of regret for how they behaved in the past and are trying to make up for it, so that was something else I was really thinking about.

AD: It’s kind of interesting how it just sort of evolved that way.

MA: Yeah, it is interesting. It was surprising. I really had no sense of how this book was coming together until I was about halfway done with it and began to see the thematic overlaps. I think that was a really good thing for me, because it stopped me from writing any stories just to fit the book. They were all kind of coming from some other place for me. They were all coming from a much more personal place.

AD: Who would you consider to be your influences, and what draws you to their work in particular?

MA: I love Edward P. Jones, particularly his stories. I find his stories so expansive and so novelistic in scope, and they embrace so much history. I just feel like they’re these beautiful stories that encapsulate full lives. I love Deborah Eisenberg’s stories. She was so inspirational to me from the beginning. Again, they're these really long, almost novelistic stories, where I feel like I just know these characters in such a deep sense. I love Edith Pearlman, I love Grace Paley, I love Alice Munro, Natalia Ginzburg. I could just go on and on, but I think that all of these writers are just incredibly compassionate and generous writers, who manage to give us full lives in a really short space. I really love Meg Wolitzer’s writing.

AD: I think it’s so hard to pick just one — or even a handful.

MA: It’s also just kind of what you’re reading at the time. I’m reading this really, really incredible non-fiction book right now called The Good Spy, so I’m just completely swept up in that right now. It’s just kind of whatever you’re reading that you’re really enjoying. I’m reading this collection of stories called Bobcat by Rebecca Lee, and I’m just loving it so much. I’m on summer vacation right now, so I’m able to read these sort of long, thick books. I really, really love reading biographies and I tend to like to read them when I have a lot of time to just sit in a chair and read. So, that’s one of the things that made reading The Good Spy so enjoyable. I also really love Jonathan Franzen, especially his last two novels.

 

Molly Antopol is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She’s a recipient of the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Her debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published by W.W. Norton this February, and in six other countries. The book is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and an Indies Introduce Debut Authors and Indie Next pick. Antopol received her M.F.A. from Columbia University, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming on NPR’s This American Life, online at The New Yorker, and in One Story, Ecotone, Glimmer Train, The Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review Prize Stories, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, The Rumpus, Southern Humanities Review and elsewhere. She is also a writer-in-residence at the Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania. She lives in San Francisco, and is at work on a novel, The After Party, which will also be published by Norton. For more information, visit her website.

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