Your book has been nominated for Beliefnet's list of Best Spiritual Books of the Year. How is your book a spiritual book?
I think it depends on what you mean by spiritual. I would take it to mean that there's something going on in addition to that which can be explained by the laws of physics and biology and chemistry. That can take so many different forms. That could take the form of something emotional, as we think of nurturing things as being spiritual. It could take the form of something magical, in which the laws of science don't' seem to apply. Or it could take the form of what appeared to be designed. I'll discuss those three as they apply to my book.
In terms of design, the book is filled with all kinds of different symmetries and things that recur, such that it almost looks as if the world is organized. But I would dismiss that and say that's not really spiritual, in that it could all be explained by the laws of physics. So if we look at the second part, the magical stuff, yes the book has all sorts of magical scenes that aren't things that would happen in the physical world. But I would also dismiss that as being spiritual because the point I think is to draw one's attention to something in the real world. Those are only analogies. In terms of emotional, it's not a nurturing book. I don't think that's the point of good novels, to nurture anybody. It's to make a case for something.
So what does your book make a case for?
I think the case that's being made is the case for will, to will things. Those are the last words of the book -- "I will." That expression "I will" comes up a dozen or more times in the course of the book. It's funny, in a way it's the least spiritual thing in the world because it's just a physical pronouncement: "I will do this." I am person who exists in this world, and this is what I'm going to do in order to move forward. But it's funny how similar that is to the kinds of things we consider spiritual talk.
Like the kinds of things people hear in synagogues or churches. Or even a lot of the self-help stuff boils down to, "Who are you and what are you going to do with that knowledge?" I think that's the point of the book--all these characters are trying to figure out where they came from, how that influences who they are, and what they're going to do about it. Maybe that's what makes it spiritual.
Was that the point of writing the book for you, to figure out who you are and what you're going to do with it?
Absolutely. No question about it.
It was virtually no part of my identity. It was not something I thought about a lot. In a way, I took it for granted. It had so much to do with how I was raised. It's not like I had to learn about it, I just knew about it. It was always there, but it's like saying, "Is oxygen a big part of your life?" Well, yes in the sense that it's always there and I need it. No in the sense that I never think about it. That's how it was for me.
So what inspired you to go on this trip if it was never such a big deal?
I don't really know. Before I made the trip, if someone had asked me, "Do you consider yourself someone who is interested in Judaism or is interested in the Holocaust or is interested in history or geneaology?" I would have said no. But then after I made the trip and wrote the book, I look at these things as pieces of evidence that regardless of how I would have answered the question, the answer is yes. I think we can be wrong about who we think we are. And we can't really know until we have these encounters. I think we're determined by our actions, not by our feelings.
A major theme of the book is memory, the importance of remembering. Would you say that these are particularly Jewish themes?
Yes, I would say they are particularly Jewish themes, but I would also say they are particularly non-Jewish themes. I was doing a radio show the other day, and somebody called in and said, "I just wanted to thank you for telling my family's story." I said, "That means so much to me." And then he said, "I'm a 35-year-old black man on the outskirts of Philadelphia." That wasn't what I was expecting. I was expecting a 25-year-old Jewish guy.
The thing that I learned is that recognizability doesn't necessarily correspond to how similar the circumstances in your life are. Maybe it shouldn't surprise me that some of my favorite music comes from 17th-century Europe, or some of my favorite art might be tribal African art. The circumstances of my life and the lives of the people who created those things are incredibly different. And yet I recognize something in it.
So some of the things in the book are particularly Jewish, but I think they are also strangely, particularly Italian, or particularly black, and particularly Muslim. I don't think it's in any way a culturally-specific book.
Are you at all surprised by the way the book has been embraced by the Jewish world?
Yes, definitely. But I'm surprised I published a book. We could basically leave it there.
Yes, largely because it's a different culture now. I respond to the Holocaust with a kind of collage approach, because the culture I live in is a kind of collage culture. It's not surprising that my novel has several different voices, because that's how TV shows and movies and music and art are now. It's amazing how much those stylistic things can affect your approach. Just being encouraged to look at something from different perspectives, as opposed to one perspective, of course changes the way you write about something. But it also really changes the way you see something. I think I have a much less definitive understanding of history than does my mother.
Is that because she grew up hearing the stories more than you did?
In part that's definitely true. She grew up in a time when storytelling was more definitive.
Some second-generation writers have claimed that certain movies like "Schindler's List" or "Life Is Beautiful" shouldn't have been made because they feel to recreate what happened in the Holocaust is wrong and does a disservice to the memory of the victims and the survivors. Your book recreates scenes from the Holocaust. How do you respond to this idea?
I think it's preposterous to suggest that something shouldn't be made. You can say, "This is not to my taste and here's why." But anyone is allowed to do anything in the arts. That's what the arts are--it's a place in which you can take chances. Sometimes you shouldn't have taken a chance, in the sense that you fail. But you're still allowed to take that chance.
There are a couple of different ways to address this. One is if it's okay to use humor when it comes to the Holocaust. The other question of recreating it at all seems to me obvious--of course you can. That's not to say it's going to be successful, but of course you can. In fact, only through retelling can something really stay alive. If we agree that it's something we want to say alive, that we don't want to forget, we have to find new ways to retell it.
Can you be funny? It's hard for me to imagine someone successfully being funny with it. I am never funny with it. It's strange for me when people say, "You see the humor in this." I actually don't. By the time the book gets to that subject matter, all of the humor is gone. Yes, there's humor and tragedy in the same book. But there's humor and tragedy in life. If you want a book to reflect life, it's very appropriate and probably even necessary to contain both of those.
Do you have any hopes to go back to the Ukraine?
No. I definitely saw everything that I needed to see.
You've said that you feel that if you'd done more research before the trip you might have actually found the woman you were looking for. I don't know if I would have found her but my chances would have been a lot better. It would have been a very different trip. I went so blindly. But that blindness was what allowed for me to find nothing, which is what allowed for me to invent everything. The more you find, the less you can invent, the more bound you are to what you see. And I was just completely unbound. I would have written a different book.