Not Our Kind by Kitty Zeldis. HarperCollins, September 2018.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this book?
Kitty Zeldis (KZ): This book began in the 1970s, when I was student at Vassar, although I didn’t know that the story was taking shape then—I was too busy living it. Though there certainly were Jews at Vassar, both students and professors, even as a 17 year-old freshman I was keenly aware that it was an institution built on excluding people like me—I was the not our kind of the book’s title. And yet it was also a place I loved, and where I thrived. I’d long wanted to write a book with a larger canvas and broader scope than any I’d attempted before and this, I realized, was the way to do it. I was writing not so much about anti-Semitism, though that was certainly a part of it, but more about the intersection of two cultures. How do Jews make their way in the wider world? And how does that wider world bend and stretch to accommodate them? These were the questions that interested me before I began work on this book and they are questions that interest me still.
TWM: How did you decide on alternating point of view characters?
KZ: I’ve always liked novels that offered differing perspectives; I find it enriches and deepens the experience as a reader, and so I was striving for that effect in my own work. And in this particular story, I wanted Eleanor and Patricia to be equals, and for each to have the authority that comes with having her own point of view. I wanted a book that allowed for a subject-subject relationship, not a subject-object one.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this novel? Your greatest satisfaction?
KZ: In an early version, Wynn went so far as to rape Eleanor and is ultimately put on trial for his crime. But I came to feel that once that happened, the book veered off in a different direction; it became less about the two women, and more about a woman and a man. So I basically scrapped the entire second half and started over. It was the hardest thing I had done as a novelist, but when I felt I had pulled it off, also the most satisfying.
TWM: What do you want readers to take away from it?
KZ: I didn’t want to blame my Gentile characters and I don’t want my reader to blame them either. Instead, I hope the reader will see the characters—and the world they inhabit—as comprised of many shades of gray, all of them subtle and nuanced.
TWM: Was any of the novel based on your own family’s experience?
KZ: Only bits and pieces. I rarely create a story or character from whole cloth; it’s always more of patchwork.
TWM: How did you conduct your research?
KZ: I already had an affinity for the period—I love the films and fashions of the 1940s—so I was drawing on material that was already familiar to me. But I consulted many photographic books to get a crisper picture of the period details and character. I also read Gentlemen’s Agreement, which mined a similar vein, and read other books of the period, just to soak up the small details that would help bring the story to life.
TWM: Did you ever consider a DP [Displaced Persons] refugee camp character? Why/why not?
KZ: No, I never considered such a character, though now that you have suggested it, you’ve sparked my interest—maybe I’ll write such a character one day!
TWM: How did a critique group/beta readers help you?
KZ: I’m no longer part of a writing group but I do have a few trusted readers with whom I shared the manuscript. Their insights were invaluable. I don’t believe it’s possible for a writer to edit her own work because she always knows her own intentions, and can never not know them. Whereas the reader doesn’t know anything about intention; she only knows what’s on the page.
TWM: Whose writing inspires you?
KZ: Where to begin? Pointing to books from way back in my childhood, the ones that I re-read over and over (and who has the luxury to do that as an adult?) I would have to say Betty Smith, L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodges Burnett, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher were some early favorites, along with Tennessee Williams and John Steinbeck as I grew a little older; these were authors that came to define me as both as reader and future writer. Novelists who delve into the past and use historical settings have had a lot to teach me, and among them I number Kathryn Harrison, Jennie Fields, and Sarah McCoy. For creating fully rounded, flawed but wholly sympathetic characters I’d have to say Elizabeth Strout. And finally, for old fashioned-can’t-put-it-down-story telling, nobody does it better than Donna Tartt.
TWM: What’s next for Kitty Zeldis?
KZ: I’m working on another book with a historical setting but I don’t want to say any more about it—can’t risk a kina hora!