Kim Brooks’s debut novel, The Houseguest, takes place in America in 1941 and explores how some Jewish Americans respond to the news and knowledge of the genocide happening in Europe. It is a story of the Holocaust told from an insightful and new perspective—a perspective all of us can relate to—that of being an observer of horrible and tragic events, while not being directly involved.
TQ sat down with Brooks over cheese and wine in Andersonville to discuss the novel, what we owe one another as humans, and the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction.
Brooks’s forthcoming nonfiction book, Small Animals: A Memoir of Parenthood and Fear, will be published in 2017 by Flatiron Books/Macmillan. Her short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, One Story, Five Chapters, and other journals, and her essays have been published in Salon, New York, and Buzzfeed. She lives in Chicago with her husband and children.
TQ: Your novel, The Houseguest, tells the stories of a few different Jewish Americans in 1941, while World War II was under way but before the United States had become involved. These characters are aware of Hitler and the atrocities, but they all react in varying ways to this news of what is happening to Jews in Europe. How did you become interested in this story initially? I know it grew out of a short story, but what inspired that short story?
KB: Back in 2007 I was pregnant with my first child, and my husband and I had just moved to Chicago. I was very underemployed and casting about as to what to do with my life, and I spent a lot of time lying on the couch reading the news on the Internet. I felt this tension between wanting to be engaged with the world, but also finding it so demoralizing to read about terrible things that were happening.
About a year before this, my grandmother had passed away. I started thinking about how she would have been my age in 1941. She was the youngest of five and the only one of her siblings born in the United States; the rest had been born in what is now the Ukraine. So I started looking at the news from 1941 and what she might have been reading then. And I was surprised, because I had this misconception that a lot of Jewish Americans have—that maybe a lot of Americans have—that we really didn’t know what was happening in Europe. I always thought it wasn’t until afterward that we realized these horrible things were happening. But when I did some very basic research, like looking at archives of newspapers, I realized that wasn’t really the case. Certainly in 1941 there wasn’t a full grasping of what was going on—there weren’t pictures of Auschwitz—but all through the 1930s and into the early 1940s there were news reports of atrocities, of widespread persecutions, arrests, deportations, killings. I felt so ignorant because I hadn’t known that anyone who read the papers, and particularly anyone who read the Yiddish papers, would have known what was going on. So I started thinking about how eerie it would have been to be a Jew in America—and particularly to be a Jew like my grandmother and her family who had come from Europe fifteen or twenty or twenty-five years before and were sort of established in America—to be fairly safe here, but to be reading about these things that are happening throughout this world that you left behind. And so I started thinking that this was an experience worth writing about—this idea of the space between those who are safe and those who aren’t, and the alienation we feel as bystanders. We’ve all read narratives from the victim’s perspective, or even from the victimizer’s perspective. But there haven’t been as many narratives from the witness’s perspective, from the people who were not directly involved but who knew what was happening. And that interested me because we are all witnesses in one way or another.
TQ: So this idea of being a witness and how your characters connect to the Jews across the Atlantic brings me to another question: about how religion and the fact of being Jewish function in this story. The synagogue in Utica isn’t really “religious,” it’s more of a social place for people to get together. There isn’t much of “God” present. Max, the rabbi, is the closest to “God”: he is the most compassionate one and probably the one who loves most deeply. But in the end, he can’t take the pain of the world.
KB: Well I’m an atheist, and I’m a pretty bad Jew. I’m not observant, and I don’t believe in God in any traditional sense. My experience has always been this feeling of the historical accident of our existence. I think, well, if my family hadn’t come over in 1910 or 1920, then I wouldn’t exist. They would have been wiped out, most likely, like millions of others. So there’s this feeling of the accident of my life. And I think that for people who are very religious or who believe in God or have that sort of orientation, their answer is that “it’s God’s will; that’s why I’m here.” I’ve never been able to think that way. I think it’s an accident; it’s luck. And since I think that way, I feel compelled to interrogate our obligations to each other.
TQ: Right, so the question becomes, what do we really owe one another as human beings? Do we owe someone more because we were both born into a particular “tribe” or “group”?
KB: I think about it like this: if you were going to be reborn, you could be reborn as anyone at any time. I think that’s what makes me invested in things like social justice and humanitarian work. For me, this question—what do we owe others, what do we owe strangers, what do we owe people in peril whom we don’t have any direct connection to—has always been shaped and intensified by the fact that I don’t believe there’s some guiding force that’s protecting certain people over others.
TQ: Along these lines of searching for connection, I found Ana Beidler to be a fascinating character. She’s a vagabond actress, rather rootless, and homeless.
KB: She’s self-invented.
TQ: Yes. And people use her, and she uses them for her own survival, but she still seems to yearn for real connection and love. How did her character come about?
KB: She was a difficult character for me. Autobiographically, I’ve always found myself between worlds in many ways. I was the child of middle-class Jews from upstate New York, but I was born in Nashville and grew up outside of Richmond in rural/suburban Virginia. I was the only Jew in my neighborhood and in my school. My parents were not religious but were extremely culturally Jewish. However, I didn’t really know what that meant; there was never a Jewish community. I just knew that I was different, that my family was somehow different from everybody else, but I didn’t really know how or why. So I think that throughout my life I’ve always sort of struggled and felt, in varying degrees, outside of things. And in some ways I’ve valued that perspective, but I’ve also longed to fit in, to belong.
TQ: Which Ana yearns for, too
KB: Yes, so I could identify with her because of that. And my life as an adult is very different from my life growing up. My family was not a literary family; there were no books. And now I’ve married a writer, I live in Chicago, I’m in the city. I live a very different life than I did as a child. So I’m interested in self-invention, the malleability of personality, the boundaries of identity.
TQ: In addition to fiction, you write a lot of personal essays and have a memoir coming out next year called Small Animals, about parenting and fear. I’m interested in how you approach the two types of writing—fiction versus personal nonfiction. The novel is very imagistic and language driven. It’s rich and sensual in that sense, and your nonfiction is much more voice driven. When I read the novel, I wouldn’t have thought it was the work of the same person who wrote the essays. So how did these two styles of writing come to be? Do you think about that as you’re writing, or are you just in different modes?
KB: I think fiction for me is much more intuitive. I have less control, which makes it harder for me. It’s more dreamlike, more associative. For me, nonfiction is very much about self-awareness, self-interrogation, and idea. They are just very different processes.
TQ: So the nonfiction is about excavating truth about self?
KB: Yes, psychological probing, exploring identity and my place in the world; it’s more introspective. And the only way I know how to do that is through voice. I’m not trained as a journalist, so I don’t know how to do that kind of distant, neutral nonfiction. The kind of nonfiction I’m interested in is the kind that asks: what do I know? and how do I tell a story about who I am in a particular moment in a particular situation in a particular world?
TQ: So when you were writing the novel, was it a break to do the nonfiction or a break to do the fiction? How did you go back and forth?
KB: I started writing nonfiction out of desperation because the fiction was so hard for me and I struggled so much and for so long in trying to figure out how to write a novel. I’d had some success writing short stories, and I liked writing short stories, but figuring out how to write a novel was so much more difficult, and after I had kids, I just couldn’t do it. There were a couple of years where writing fiction felt impossible. I couldn’t get the mental space or freedom. When I’m writing fiction, I have to check out, and I didn’t know how to do that with a three-month-old or a one-year-old. So I started writing very short, light nonfiction because it felt like something I could do. I wrote for a website called Babble that publishes pieces about parenting, and I thought, “Okay, I can write 1,200 words about breastfeeding.” So it felt more manageable. That’s how it started.
TQ: The memoir you are writing came out of some essays you wrote about an experience you had of leaving your son in your car for a couple of minutes while you quickly ran into a store. Someone saw you, filmed it, and anonymously called the police. You then had to go to court and were sentenced to community service for child endangerment. Can you talk more about that project, the memoir?
KB: The book is about the way that different types of fear and anxiety have impacted my life as a parent, but also how they inform our culture of parenthood in general—everything from the way we think about risks for children, to the competitiveness and social anxiety among parents and children, to the way that we’ve begun to criminalize different types of parenting. So it’s sort of a hybrid of narrative memoir with sociological, journalistic investigation about this particular moment in the culture of parenting.
TQ: So to tie the novel and the nonfiction—does it come back to this issue of how we as humans help each other or don’t help each other or hurt each other? Is there a tie there?
KB: In terms of how it connects to the novel, I think that I’m very interested in how our ties to one another play out and what we see as our obligations to other people. I think that those issues become more acute when children come into the picture. For example, when people ask how parenthood has changed you, it’s an unanswerable question. Everything changes. But one thing that I always say is that it has made me more sensitive to experiencing the pain of other children and other parents. I get nervous about my child getting hit by a car if I let him walk to the park by himself, but then I read on the news about people in Honduras who know their children are going to be killed if they stay there, and have to decide to put them on a bus by themselves to America, hoping they survive. I feel that being a parent has made me more attuned to stories like that; I have a visceral reaction and feel sick to my stomach because I can imagine what it would be like to be a parent in that situation. So my interest in what we think our responsibility is to other people is probably what connects the two projects.
TQ: Your characters in the novel are all trying to do something to help, with mixed results, at best. And the person who called the police on you probably thought he was helping your child. But, again, with not good results at all.
KB: Right. You see a kid in a car in a parking lot and you’re worried. You’re worried you’re seeing something that’s not right, and on the one hand, you don’t want to be the person who does nothing, the person who just looks away and then hears on the news the next day that something terrible happened, but on the other hand, is the child really and truly endangered? What do you do? Do you call the police? Is that going to help in some way? You don’t know. It might, but in my case and in many other cases, it could be horrible. I think this happens all the time in our lives—when we are confronted with events where of course we want to help but aren’t sure what to actually do.
TQ: In your case it was also done anonymously, where that person had no responsibility for the pain he then caused you and your family.
KB: This happens very often. And I think it goes back to this sense of disconnection we have in our culture. For instance, now we can block one other on our phones. We think, “Oh, I don’t like you, you don’t exist in my universe.” People call the police and then think, “I’m done, you don’t exist to me anymore.” Whereas if we were living in a village, you couldn’t just block someone. You have to deal with them. But I don’t think we feel like we have to deal with people anymore. When someone upsets us or does something we disapprove of, there’s this judging of them, cutting them out, moving on, and you’re done. And maybe some of that is inevitable in how we live, but I think something is lost when we allow this disconnection.
I also think it comes down to a difference between information and insight. We have all this information, but we lack insight into what the information is telling us. It’s the same problem that people in the time period of my book would have dealt with. It’s not that nobody had any information; they had it. But what do you do with this information? How do you effect change? How do you help?
TQ: And as witnesses, we are often at a loss as to how to help. We can talk about things that are happening in the world and feel badly about them, perhaps give money to a cause, participate in a street march, post about it on social media, but the ability to give true aid somehow often eludes us or we get it wrong.
KB: This is why the Committee for a Jewish Army interested me. You can indict their political motivations, certainly, but the person whom Shmuel Spiro was based on was this figure who came out and said, “Action, not Pity will save us.” And he believed strongly that feeling sad or feeling frightened doesn’t really accomplish anything. And I wonder if there’s something there. There’s this fetishization of sentimentality, I think. Everyone wants to feel sad and to show and express their feeling of sympathy, our hearts and prayers, which I guess is okay. I guess it’s better to feel bad than to feel nothing, but action is also essential. Organization, political activism, engagement. I’m hardly an activist, myself, so I feel like a hypocrite saying this, but I do feel it’s easy to allow ourselves to be too comforted by feelings, allowing compassion to skirt action.
TQ: Do you think our culture of victimhood and microaggressions is part of that? Do we think, “I’ve been victimized, too,” so then it stops us from having to deal with things that happen to others? You talk in another interview about being the editor for personal essays for Salon and how most of the articles submitted by women were along the lines of, “This terrible thing happened to me.” Why are we drawn to that?
KB: I think we’re drawn to it because it’s an easy narrative. It’s a readymade, familiar, and self-affirming narrative. Someone or something did something bad to me, but I got though it somehow and I feel better about myself for getting through this victimization. I don’t want to say that’s not a valid story; it certainly can be. But at this point it’s a very familiar story. As a writer, I’m drawn toward what is new rather than what’s familiar, and that’s probably why I wanted to write about the Holocaust from this perspective rather than the victim’s perspective. I like a story where people interrogate their own role in whatever is playing out; that’s what is interesting to me.