As a self-identified agnostic atheistic Jew who probably doesn’t believe in God, I’ve long been fascinated by Orthodox Jews. The commitment. The devotion. The, well, craziness.
I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s a pretty bonkers existence. You follow the Torah to the word. You seclude yourself from the outside world. You raise your children to live the same way and if, ultimately, they reject it, you tear a swath of fabric and act as if they are dead to you (not always, but often).
Hence, I am riveted by today’s Quaz. Author Tova Mirvis was, for the first 40 years of her life, an Orthodox Jew. She walked the walk, talked the talk, followed the laws and expectations. Then, as I learned in her fantastic New York Times Magazine essay of several weeks ago, she bolted. She simply wanted a different life, and had the guts to leave—divorced, mother of three. Largely alone.
The one thing Tova took with her, however, was her talent. She is the author of three books, including The Ladies Auxiliary, a national bestseller. Her newest work, which came out last week, is Visible City, which chronicles three couples whose paths cross in their New York City neighborhood.
Tova Mirvis, woman of words and strength, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Tova, I learned of you from your magnificent New York Times essay about your past life as a member of the Orthodox Jewish world—and I was absolutely riveted. I know a few Orthodox Jews quite well, and while I like them as individuals, I feel like they’re actually members of a cult that, for some reason, isn’t labeled a “cult.” Am I way off on this?
TOVA MIRVIS: I don’t think it’s a cult, but I do think that it’s a very tightly ordered community with an immense number of rules and a overwhelmingly strong sense of norms and expectations for its members. As you go further rightward into the Orthodox world, those rules intensify, connections to the outside world decrease, and the ability to leave the Orthodox world shrinks too. In that further-extreme right wing world, I think you see characteristics that are cult-like, in order to keep people inside and to ensure uniformity of behavior and belief.
J.P.: I’ve always felt bad for the daughters of Orthodox Jews, because it seems like they have, literally, no say in their futures. This is what you’ll do, this will be your role, this is who you’ll marry. And, mostly, they go along. I was wondering—beneath their breaths, are the young girls/women ever saying, “To hell with this bullshit—I’m out.” Is there resistance? Backlash? Or are they reduced to mere lemmings, coerced into thinking this is the only way?
T.M.: There’s a range of practice in the Orthodox world, of course, but I think being a girl in the Orthodox world is very challenging. So much expectation, such a sense that you are supposed to be a “good girl.” Some people are happy with this, I know, but for those of us who are not, it can feel like you are bursting out of the walls of your world, erupting inside your own body. Some of these girls act on this and leave the world, and some stay and try to make changes from within, and some live in a state of conflict, as I did, where your outsides don’t match your insides. There are lots of ways to rebel, including the quiet spaces inside where people rise up, resist, yet continue to remain inside. I love writing about those moments when characters are perched on the line, both inside and outside at the same time. Those can be hard places to live, but they are great to write about.
J.P.: I’m not sure how observant you are these days, so, well, how observant are you these days? And if there’s no God, is all this religion stuff just a big waste of time?
T.M.: I’m not sure how observant I am these days either. I’ve spent the first 40 years of my life strictly observing Jewish law, and even as I struggled and doubted over the years, it was important to me to remain inside. I am finding my way now when all of a sudden there are no givens, no precedents for me. I still value tradition very much—this is not an uncomplicated leave taking.
One of the things I think about a lot is the way people derive benefits from religion regardless of its truth value. I think people believe in community as much as, maybe more than, they believe in God. But is that enough? Is community a good enough answer for the problem of belief and doubt?
J.P.: Your debut novel, The Ladies Auxiliary, debuted in 1999 and became a best seller. This might sound sort of silly, but how did you actually know how to write a book? I mean–you’re a writer, and you surely love the written word. But your book is 336 pages. How did you figure it out?
T.M.: I figured out how to write the book as I went along—I started out with one small piece of the book and went from there. I think writing is something you can only learn how to do by actually doing it—by making mistakes and learning how to fix them. It can be a nerve-wracking way to write, with no clear plan, but it’s the only way I know how. Now, a few books later, I still write that way, but have a little more trust that eventually this unclear path will take me somewhere.
J.P.: What’s your writing process? Where do you write? When? How do you develop ideas? And how do you not lose your mind (like I do) is a sea of loneliness and despair that every word you jot down absolutely sucks?
T.M.: I swim in the writerly sea of loneliness and despair just about every day. My writing process is basically think, mope, worry, have an idea, get excited, furiously pound a few sentences onto my laptop, rest, think, repeat.
J.P.: I know you’re from Memphis, I know you’re Jewish, I know you write, I know you’re divorced and live in Boston with your three kids. But what has been your life path? Like, when did you first realize, “Writing! I’m good at this!” How did you come to that realization?
T.M.: I always liked to read and write—I was one of those kids whose head was always in a book, and liked to make up stories. In high school I was that anomalous teenager who enjoyed writing her college essays. And then in college, I started writing fiction and fell in love with it. I started writing what I thought would be a novel about the Memphis Jewish community where I grew up. I also wrote for the Columbia newspaper and toyed with a career in journalism but decided to apply to the Columbia MFA program in fiction writing. I started writing an early version of what became my first novel while in grad school—a different novel about the Memphis Jewish community. I also interned for a literary agent and when I was done with that novel, I gave it to her to read and she liked it and sold it.
J.P.: You and I both recently released new projects. I’ve just spent the past 2 ½ weeks whoring my book like no other book whore. I probably did 130 TV and radio interviews, I had myriad sports websites run excerpts, etc. Literally, I can’t think of anything more to do. But how does a fiction author promote? It seems like the outlets—especially compared to sports—are very limited, no?
T.M.: Promoting a novel is harder—people often want the real-life angle in order to give it media attention. But after spending almost ten years writing this book in a sort of hibernation, I’ve come out of my dark cave and discovered the very active and vibrant online book world. I’ve been doing a lot of guest blogging and have discovered that I can write a piece without spending five years on it. There are so many wonderful book bloggers who are interested in writing about novels. I’m late to Twitter and there too have discovered a wonderful book-loving community. These days, I suppose there an endless number of ways to be a book whore.
J.P.: How difficult was it, leaving the cocoon of the Orthodox world? I mean, I’m sure it was hard. But was it h-a-r-d? Did you ever feel like a traitor? Do you ever have pangs of guilt? Regret? Doubt?
T.M.: The past few years have been immensely hard. Divorce—from a spouse or a religion—is not for the faint of heart. Regret, guilt, doubt, fear—these have paved the last few years, but also, exhilaration, adventure, growth. I think the religious leave-taking was as hard, if not harder, than the divorce itself. The word unmoored is one that comes to mind a lot. I have felt like an exile, aware of the sense of rootedness I’ve lost, aware of the many friends from the Orthodox world who disappeared from my life when I got divorced. I think there is no way around this tradeoff: loneliness for freedom.
J.P.: How do you come up with the end? The final chapter? The final line? Do you have it planned far in advance? Does it happen as it happens? Do you change it frequently?
T.M.: I don’t have it planned at all. I don’t have the final line, the final idea, none of it until very late in the game. I don’t know where a novel is going until I get to know the characters very well and I can’t get to know the characters until I write my way into the book. With Visible City, I revised constantly, most of all the ending. I am a chronic reviser and tinkerer. Even now, when it’s already published, I could probably go back and revise a little more.
J.P.: I often feel like we writers think ourselves to be important, when really we’re sorta disposable and useless. Agree? Disagree?
T.M.: To be a fiction writer is to hope that complete strangers will want to live inside a fictional universe that I created in my head. That’s a pretty bold expectation, and maybe you have to believe that what you say will be important to people in order to spend so many years at it. Individually we might be disposable, but I’d argue that fiction itself is indispensable. It’s a way of illuminating the world of human interaction. It’s the best place to understand what it means to be a human being.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TOVA MIRVIS:
• Would you rather return to your past Orthodox life or convert to Catholicism and attend mass, oh, six times per year?: I’ve spent too many years with black and white either/or propositions to have to make that choice. I’m going to rebel against the question and go for Buddhism.
• Rank in order (favorite to least)—Dunkin’ Donuts, Candyland, the Shema, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Oklahoma City, Frozen, Leonard Nimoy, Dan Quayle, tweed, Tina Turner, Holiday Inn Express, Anthony Bourdain: Frozen, Candyland, the Shema, Leonard Nimoy, the number 24, Tina Turner, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Anthony Bourdain, Oklahoma City, Dunkin’ Donuts, tweed, Holiday Inn Express, Dan Quayle.
• Celine Dion calls—she offers you $30 million to spend the next year writing her memoir. However, you have to move to Las Vegas, live in her guest house, change her dog’s dog diaper once per day and live on a simultaneous-and-limited diet of bacon burgers, chicken sausages and chocolate shakes. You in?: I can do Las Vegas for a year, I have 3 kids so there’s no diaper that daunts me, but I’m a diehard vegetarian, so that’s a deal breaker for me.
• Five reasons to make Newton, Mass. one’s next vacation destination: Crystal Lake, the walking trail at Cold Spring Park, Bullough’s Pond, the Newton Library, and Crystal Lake.
• Give me your worst book event/signing story: At a reading in Florida right after my first book came out, the bookstore owner said to me, “we have a “non-attendance issue”—meaning no one was there.
• Five greatest novelists of your lifetime?: Philip Roth, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison.
• You’re from Memphis, but you were raised Orthodox. Number of times you took the Graceland guided tour?: Believe it or not, just once, and that was when I was 18, to take a friend from out of town.
• The word you use waaaaay too often in your writing is …: Seem
• How concerned are you with the potential eternal nothingness of death?: It’s on the list of things to worry about at four in the morning, but luckily (or unluckily) there are always more pressing concerns.
• I’m thinking of writing a book about a reform Jew from New York who sits in coffee shops all day checking his Twitter account while he’s supposed to be writing about the Showtime-era Lakers. Think you can help me land a deal?: Pure fiction, right?