'Writing Almost Feels Like Method Acting'

The UnAmericans author Molly Antopol learned from Grace Paley how to inhabit characters that represent political sentiments but don't preach to readers.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

How might successful literary fiction contain a sense of political purpose? For Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans, Grace Paley’s short, generous stories manage to concern politics, and achieve a broadly activist spirit, without ever preaching. By reading Paley—especially her classic story, “Wants”—Antopol learned how to write about political people without isolating the reader, and she fell in love with the imaginative generosity Paley grants opposing points of view.

This ability to imagine others—across language, generations, and culture—was crucial for The UnAmericans, Antopol’s debut. In eight stories with settings that range from Israel to Belarus, Kiev to Brooklyn, the author explores elements of her Jewish and Eastern European Heritage, absorbing foreign settings so completely that the book achieves the authentic feel of oral history. As she explained in our conversation for this series, it was Paley’s ability to fully imagine other people—and her subversion of the advice she'd heard early on, “write what you know”—that gave Antopol the courage and creative license to try inhabiting a series of voices so radically different from her own.

Molly Antopol teaches creative writing at Stanford University, where she was recently a Wallace Stegner Fellow. She received the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Award, and her writing has appeared on NPR’s This American Life, as well as magazines like One Story, Ecotone, and Esquire. She spoke to me by phone from her home in San Francisco.

Molly Antopol: I first read Grace Paley in a college American Literature seminar. By then, I already knew that I loved short stories, and that I wanted to write fiction—but I’d never encountered anything like her work. Her stories are so funny, so smart, and just incredibly compassionate; I was blown away by the emotional generosity she demonstrates towards all her characters, even the ones who behave badly. As much as anything, though, I was amazed to encounter her people on the page. These were characters I knew from life: a certain type of Old-World, lefty Jew whose family talks politics around the dinner table. I’d never seen anyone write so intimately about the background I come from. She captured the voices I’d grown up hearing, but had never before read.

Paley's voice made me think of my grandparents' generation: their idealism, their contradictions, and especially their politics.  I know the world she chronicled—my grandfather, who was very active in the Communist Party, might have been one of her characters. Politics was a central part of his life, something his children inherited, in part, because the political arena entered his home—their house was always being monitored by the government. Even before I started writing, I used to try to imagine what it had been like for my mom and for her siblings to grow up under surveillance, to know that all her most peaceful and private moments were being recorded and catalogued.

Paley herself devoted a great deal of time to activism. She was involved in many political groups, traveling often to advocate for issues she cared about, at the same time she was writing stories, poetry, and political essays. In interviews, you can sense how frayed she sometimes was: as if, with politics, and being a mom, and writing, her life was cluttered with too many good things. She seemed tired in the way you might feel exhausted after a day that’s incredibly full. But the political world she portrays so vividly is one of the things that, for me, greatly enhances her fiction.

“Wants,” a story I love for its power and compassion and brevity, is a great example of the subtle ways Paley’s political orientation manifests in her fiction. The narrator, a woman who owes an insane amount of overdue fines for library books, is finally going to return them—when she runs into her ex-husband on the steps of the library. I love how she greets him:

Hello my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.

They have an incredibly intense and heartbreaking conversation about what he’d wanted out of life and marriage versus what she’d wanted. The man wanted the trappings of success—good meals, nice things, a sailboat (which he claims he might still one day buy). “I’m doing well this year and can look forward to better,” he says, “but you always wanted nothing.” The accusation knocks her flat. As he walks away, she defends herself against his charge by detailing her own set of wants, totally different from her ex-husband’s:

I want, for instance, to be a different person. I want to be the woman who brings these two books back in two weeks. I want to be the effective citizen who changes the school system and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of this dear urban center. I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.

So “Wants” juxtaposes two contradictory measures of success—civic and material—and though it’s clear why these two grew apart, Paley treats both points of view with understanding and respect. In a page and a half, we get the full lives of these two people, a penetrating sense of who they were and what they want to be, and maybe a sense of the irreconcilability of humanitarian engagement and financial comfort.

I love how Paley’s stories, in this way, start off with intimate domestic situations that spin out effortlessly into a more global arena. In her work, it all begins with kitchen-table politics, or living-room politics, and moves from there out into the world. And because politics feel like an essential part of the makeup of her characters, I never feel like Paley’s being preachy; in “Wants,” the narrator wants to do all this organizing, and she’s upset with the gentrification in the neighborhood, but it never feels didactic because the political identity is so deeply embedded within the character. It’s the difference between writing about people who live political lives, and writing “Political Fiction” with a capital “P.” That’s an important distinction. Politics are as important to Paley’s characters as family, as ingrained in their personalities—and so their politics inform how they act and how they speak and what they care about. But these characters feel like complex, lifelike people, and so their views—and Paley’s own concerns—never feel message-y or heavy-handed.

Because my characters also grew up in that world, and are also engaged in lot of the same activities, it was incredibly useful for me to see how to include political aspects without writing capital “P” “Political Fiction.” There are writers that do take political issues head-on whom I admire very much—writers like James Baldwin, or Nadine Gordimer—but Paley is the model for what I tried to do in this book.

Paley’s political fiction works, too, because of the way she maintains an open and inquiring stance toward her characters, aware that every person is complex and full of contradictions. When political fiction fails, it can be because it manifests a kind of moral certitude, an assured sense that one worldview is better or truer than another. Paley never falls prey to this kind of arrogance. Her work is rooted in the assumption that other people’s opinions—no matter how different they may seem, or how similar—warrant open consideration. The narrator of “Wants” describes wishing she’d stayed married to either of her two husbands—her ex-husband or her current one—because both men deserve a longer look. “Either has enough character for a whole life,” she says. “You couldn't exhaust either man's qualities or get under the rock of his reasons in one short life.” Paley’s character is convinced that a single lifetime is not enough to fully excavate all the reasons another person has for being who they are—and yet, she wants to, she tries.

There’s a line Paley sometimes used in talks and lectures that demonstrates the way her work was grounded in this kind of humility: “Don’t write what you know, write what you don’t know about what you know.” The idea that we should write towards the unknown aspects of our experience was totally groundbreaking for me. It gave me the license I needed to try to write outside myself. This attitude has deeply informed my approach to fiction, emboldening me to write characters with voices or situations that are vastly different from my own.

Fiction workshops hear “write what you know” all the time, but that advice can be so confining if taken literally. In a sense, any story that anyone writes is going to be autobiographical—whether it deals directly with the author’s experience or not—because it captures what we’re obsessed with while working on that particular piece. From the beginning, I knew I wasn’t interested in writing a book where every narrator was a 30-something fiction writer living in California. I wanted to be able to write from the points of view of men and women, young and old, as well as other nationalities—American, Israeli, and Eastern European, in this book. There were so many places and people I felt close to, so many stories inspired by my family, that extended far beyond my own limited experience. Paley’s advice was necessary for me to think about how I could start to think outside of myself—and, by doing so, how I could write about things that really mattered to me.

One of the main reasons I read—and definitely why I write—is to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. To try to imagine what life is like for someone who’s different from myself. And because writing entails a great deal of imaginative generosity, I almost think I’m a better person when I’m writing than I am in life. I’m forced into having empathy for everyone—even someone who I’d normally be upset with, or feel wronged by. I don’t feel like I’m allowed to dismiss any character as a writer, almost no matter what they do. All the energy goes towards trying to understand them. And the moment a character becomes real to me, and their experience becomes real to me, the writing itself almost feels like method acting. When I’m writing a story, which takes me a year or more, I can feel my character living with me—they’re responding to whatever funny, familial, or social situation I’m in, and I think about their responses constantly. This feeling of living alongside a character is one of the most gratifying things about writing, and definitely one of the reasons I do it.

It comes with a lot of research, of course. All the stories in The UnAmericans required interviews, travel, hours and hours in the archives. All of that stuff is so important in the beginning, but I reach a point where I have to shuck it away. Once I can figure out how the politics and history I’m learning about inform my narrator’s point of view, all the legwork goes away and it’s just about having this voice. I think that’s why my stories take so long—I have to absorb a huge amount of information before I can authentically inhabit a character’s voice. But probably the most important thing about writing fiction is thinking about what it’s like for other people. I don’t know if this will always be my approach—there are so many autobiographical fiction writers whose work I love and respect. For now, though, having to step outside my life is what works best for me. I feel like I’m able to access much deeper truths about my own life by exploring what I know from different angles, through the lens of character. Writing across boundaries—of gender, of generation, of country—helps me locate what I don’t know in what I know, and try to bring it out onto the page.

In Paley’s fiction, I see how this kind of imaginative work can itself be a political act. It begins with her characters, who, no matter how troubled they are, or how flawed, always have dignity—as though Paley has done the work of getting to know them as they see themselves. But her characters—they tend to be smart, proud, and self-protective—also have such humility, a desire to understand others and see beyond their own perspective. This quality extends so naturally into the political arena. When I read a book that asks me to live in the head of another person and see things from their side—or when I see characters consider one another’s complexities in a generous way—I feel how that experience makes us more humane and compassionate. Great literature puts us in someone else’s shoes, asks us to reckon fully with what we may not have lived first-hand. There’s incredible power in this. I teach a lot of international fiction, and books in translation—and I’m continually awed by how literature enables my students to consider the predicaments of people who live where they have never been, and may never go. The way literature allows us to think about someone else’s circumstances feels political and important.

A couple years ago, as I was trying to figure out a way to put all my stories together, I hit a wall with my book. Whenever I’m feeling stressed out I always read author interviews with writers I love—always hoping to find that nugget of advice. I turned to Alice Munro and Natalia Ginsberg, Deborah Eisenberg and Edward P. Jones,  Edith Pearlman and Grace Paley, reading their author interviews the way I might seek out a wise relative for advice. Then I read Paley’s life-changing interview in The Paris Review. It was right when her stories were just being published, during a time when Hemingway was really big, and everyone was excited about male writers who’d come back from combat and were writing big, political war books. She describes being nervous that no one would find her stories—she called them “kitchen-table stories”—important or interesting enough. It was amazing to read about the anxieties of a person at the beginning of their career, someone who went on to be so revered. Because now, if I were to list our important political writers, I would have to include Grace Paley. How fascinating that she feared her stories were small when everyone else embraced them as so important. That was a revelation for me. She thought she was writing “kitchen-table stories”—but those kitchen-table stories extend from the kitchen into the street, from the streets into the neighborhood, and from there out into the world, all in a page and a half.