by Martha Anne Toll
In a lyrical, sensory feast, Amy Gottlieb’s The Beautiful Possible crosses decades, continents, and religious traditions. The novel opens with the murder of Walter Westhaus’ fiancée and her father in 1938 Germany. Walter escapes on a boat bound for Shanghai but disembarks in Bombay, where he spends the war years in the famed Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s ashram—sparking a life spent between Judaism and Indian spirituality and where “during the monsoon season, he will place a shawl over his head and cry for all he has lost.”
Arriving at rabbinical seminary in New York in 1946, Walter meets Rosalie Wachs, soon to be married to rabbinical student Sol Kerem. The intertwining, contradictory lives of this trio frame the story, each character with good intentions to protect the others, but each with secrets and betrayals that complicate their lives. Against a tapestry of ritual and mysticism, Gottlieb elegantly plumbs the insoluble nuances of family, tradition, and subversion.
The Beautiful Possible had a long gestation, and an even longer period before conception, where Gottlieb honed her reading and writing skills, and found her fictional voice. It was a pleasure catching up with her for this interview.
Martha Anne Toll: Can you tell us about your process and what inspired you to write The Beautiful Possible?
Amy Gottlieb: The seed for the novel began with a single image: Walter Westhaus standing on his head in his Berkeley studio. I was intrigued by this character who was caught between worlds, but I had to write to uncover his journey. As I drafted, I stumbled upon the characters of Sol and Rosalie, who have their own struggles as a rabbinic couple in a suburban synagogue.
Several influences were alive in my imagination. Many years ago, Anita Desai’s novel Baumgartner’s Bombay piqued my interest to learn more about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and emigrated to India. My research brought me to Alex Aronson, who had found sanctuary during the war years in Shantiniketan, Tagore’s ashram. Once I determined that Walter would spend time in the ashram, I wove Tagore’s poetry into my novel, and found convergences between Tagore, Heschel, and Hasidic thought, all of which resonated with my characters’ obsessions, as well as the novel’s motifs.
MAT: How did you hone your writing skills?
AG: I became a writer through a lifetime of reading. In college I fell in love with literature, and began to study my favorite books to figure out how they were made. My passion for Latin American fiction prompted me to pursue a Masters in Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago. After graduation, I worked a variety of jobs and began an idiosyncratic apprenticeship during which I read and wrote voraciously. I’d analyze beloved books, copy key passages, pore over Paris Review interviews, and fill countless notebooks with notes and inspirational jottings. Along the way, I began to publish short stories in literary journals, and wrote a first novel. In retrospect, it was a somewhat old-fashioned writer’s path. I took one workshop during those years and made a dear friend who would become my long-time critique partner. Her high standards and musical ear challenged and sustained me through years of writing both fiction and poetry.
MAT: Do you have particular authors who influenced or inspired your writing?
AG: Gabriel García Márquez, Michael Ondaatje, Marilynne Robinson, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, Isabel Allende, Grace Paley, and an endless list of poets, which grows daily. Most recently, I’ve been swooning over the work of Ali Smith. I’m always passionate about finding work that teaches me about the possibilities of the novel, challenging me to try something new.
MAT: In his sudden bereavement, your character Walter laments his murdered father and lover— “As if poetry would save them.” There is irony in that line, especially given that you are a poet, as well as working in other literary forms. How do you think of yourself as a writer and how do you choose to work in which forms?
AG: The work dictates the form. When I have an idea for an essay, I often end up writing a poem. When I’m writing an essay, I gravitate toward the mosaic or lyric form, inspired by poetry. I find the craft of poetry incredibly liberating, as it allows me to explore the nuances, juxtapositions, music, and precision of language, while working on a small canvas. Yet I love how the elasticity of the novel allows me to bring characters to life, and inspires experimentation with the expansiveness of time. The novel may be the ultimate playground for indulging a capacious imagination.
MAT: Your book is filled with Jewish and spiritual themes, rooted in daily observance but also in different mystical traditions. How did you come to these themes and what do they mean to you?
AG: I was raised in a somewhat traditional Jewish home in a community similar to the suburb portrayed in my novel. As a girl I was drawn to studying Jewish texts, but there wasn’t a suitable place for me to pursue this, at least not on Long Island in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Hebrew School had to suffice. In graduate school, I was dissecting One Hundred Years of Solitude during a particularly frigid winter and craved a diversion from the rigors of translation and critical theory. I wandered over to the Divinity School and was introduced to discussions about ancient fertility cults, everyday mysticism, and the eroticism of the Song of Songs. (My Hebrew school had left out the good parts.) I took classes with religious historians Mircea Eliade and Paul Ricoeur, and became smitten with the world of religious ideas.
During the years of my writing apprenticeship, I began studying Jewish philosophy and theology. I grew curious about how synagogue life had changed since my childhood, so I gave up my Saturday morning dance classes and became first a Shabbat voyeur, then a Shabbat observer, and then a practicing Jew. Synagogues led to study halls, classrooms, books and conversations, and eventually paved the way for my career as a Judaica editor. My fourteen-year day job as an editor for a rabbinic organization immersed me in liturgy, theology, Biblical scholarship, spiritual writing, and gave me a window into the complex lives of rabbis and their families. In 2008, I was awarded an arts fellowship at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. I became part of a community of amazing women artists (poets, musicians, dancers, visual artists) studying traditional Jewish texts in Hebrew, and exploring ways in which these texts could inform our work.
Today, my immersion in Judaism and my literary work feed each other. I teach English literature and writing to college students, Jewish texts to adult learners, and creative non-fiction to clergy. I inhabit a liminal space between these overlapping worlds and find this convergent space ripe with possibility. Most of my work draws from this well in some way; I’m consistently energized by these intersections and frictions.
MAT: Tell us about your decision to write your book in the present tense.
AG: It took me a long time to figure out the best way to narrate this book; earlier drafts are marked by trial and error, along with reams of backstory. Once I realized the narrative belonged to Maya, I rewrote the book to reflect her sensibility. The present tense seemed natural for this kind of anti-memoir about her parents. Ultimately, I wanted every choice of aphorism, poem, rabbinic Q & A, and fictionalized telling to befit this young rabbi who had inherited something of her parents’ mingled imaginations. I had to honor this as her book before I could claim it as mine.
MAT: The character of Rosalie in your book is unshackled from convention. How did you come to develop her and what does she mean to you?
AG: Rosalie was influenced by the women of my childhood. Almost every night, my mother and her friends shared intimate secrets around our kitchen table. Remarkably, they invited me to listen in, an incredible apprenticeship for a young writer. These women were filled with contradictions—they were wise yet skeptical, seductive yet sad, and they had outrageous senses of humor. In many ways, they were struggling with the same issues as Rosalie: what are the boundaries between motherhood and unfulfilled longings, and what are the boundaries of religious belief?
Rosalie’s situation as a rabbi’s wife was a reality of her historical moment: many learned Jewish women of her time married rabbis instead of pursing that path themselves; there was no other choice. In many ways, the rabbi’s wife was the one better equipped to deal with the community and deliver pastoral care, which Rosalie certainly does, and she has the fluidity that would have made her an amazing rabbi. A generation later, her daughter Maya becomes a rabbi, but a new kind of rabbi, one without borders, free of a pulpit and a congregation. She becomes a novelist-rabbi whose sacred text is the story she inherited and has to uncover.
MAT: There is so much deception and complexity among and between the three main characters, and yet in some ways their relationships with one another are truthful on a metaphysical level. Can you say more about that?
AG: That’s a wonderful insight, and suggests the enigmatic core of my novel. Throughout their braided relationship, Rosalie, Sol, and Walter are enmeshed in a web of deceit and secrecy, and yet that web sustains them through tragic events, crises of faith, and conflicts of the heart. They are not completely conscious of how they conspire to fulfill each other’s needs, and all three of them dance around this central enigma. This tension at the core of the novel was an outgrowth of the characters themselves; the years of living with and revising this book deepened this central motif. At one point during the revision process, I realized the story had resonances beyond what I’d originally imagined. I transcended my original vision for this book, and that kept me going for the long haul.
MAT: Your book spans seventy years, a huge scope for a novel. Would you tell us about the challenges in handling this kind of time period?
AG: There were many hurdles. I created multiple timelines and relied on a calculator to make sure the years were aligned to historical events, birth and death dates, and ages. The entire process was one of trial and error, with significant moments of angst and frustration. At one point I laid out the pages of my manuscript on the living room floor and realized the entire book was burdened with backstory and lacked forward motion. I had no idea how to fix it, until a writer friend advised me to follow the emotional truth of my characters’ storylines, no matter where they led. I rewrote the book based on her advice and found my way through the quagmire.
The process took ten years: I wrote multiple drafts to uncover the shape of the narrative, and revised over the course of many years to realize the potential of the core story and make it work on every level.
MAT: Bloom is particularly interested in writers who publish their debut novels when they are forty or older. What surprised you about your journey to publication?
AG: When I was thirty when I was nominated for a GE Foundation Younger Writers Award, which was a big deal at the time, and now strikes me as slightly ironic and somewhat absurd. I finished a draft of a first novel when I was thirty-five (and a new mother) and put it in a drawer. Meanwhile, my life was telling its own story: My children were young, my day job was consuming, and I was pulled in multiple directions. I was living Zorba’s full catastrophe, and my plate overflowed with countless joys and inevitable hardships. Yet I read and wrote all the time, even (and especially) when my time was disrupted. During years when it was almost impossible to devote myself to fiction, I began writing and studying poetry, which kept me nimble as a writer, and also brought me some much-needed award and fellowship support from the Bronx Council on the Arts.
I was fifty-eight-years-old when The Beautiful Possible was published, and feel my life conspired to make this particular novel a reality. Likewise with my new novel, which is inspired by the long-view perspective of significant life experience. I am no longer that “younger” writer but there’s more ballast in the ship, and much more wind in the sails.
MAT: Your novel was well-received and was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award and Edward Lewis Wallant Award. What did you learn and experience after your novel was published?
AG: While I had a vague sense about what would happen after publication, I didn’t really know how things would unfold. I’m beyond grateful for the award recognition, speaking opportunities, and travel. Thanks to a couple of invitations to literary festivals, the book brought me to Australia this past summer. Above all, I’m deeply touched by emails and notes from readers, many of which have moved me to tears. I’m astonished at how a writer can labor alone in the dark for so long, and through the magic of publication, her novel compels a stranger’s attention for a few hours or days. A book is a brilliant device that bridges one person to another through the intimate act of reading. We often take this for granted, but it’s really a wonder.
Martha Anne Toll’s fiction has appeared in Vol.1 Brooklyn, Yale’s Letters Journal, Slush Pile Magazine, Poetica E Magazine, Referential Magazine, Inkapture Magazine, Wild; her essays, book commentaries, and book reviews on NPR, in The Millions, Cargo Literary, Heck, [PANK], The Nervous Breakdown, Tin House blog, Narrative, and Washington Independent Review of Books. She directs a social justice foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness and abolishing the death penalty. Please visit her at http://www.marthaannetoll.com; and tweet to her @marthaannetoll.
Author photo credit: Nina Subin