Jennifer Gilmore on "Something Red"

It’s the summer of 1979 and Sharon­ Goldstein, a professional caterer, is in her Washington, DC kitchen making dinner for her extended family. Her eldest child—Ben—is about to leave for his freshman year at Brandeis and his departure will no doubt reshape and reconfigure this family group.  Sharon feels a mixture of excitement, nervousness and sorrow as she contemplates her son’s imminent departure.  She takes great care in preparing the meal, thinking, “…it would be perfect to have the family sitting together in the backyard, all along the large communal table, the scuffed wood illuminated by lit candles and flickering torches, before Ben became a dot on the horizon and left the all behind.”

So begins Jennifer Gilmore’s second novel, Something Red (Scribner, $25), a provocative blending of the personal and the political.  Lilith’s Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough interviewed Gilmore to get her take on, among other topics, life in the late 1970s, political ideologies as seen through the lens of character, Jews and food, Jews and weight and the execution of the Rosenbergs.  Their conversation is below:

What drew you to the time period 1979-1980? Why did it feel essential to set the story at this particular moment?  What is your own connection to that time?

A lot of people have asked me why I chose 1979, as I was alive, but quite young.  There were lots of reasons I was drawn to it. I wanted to carry on the story of Jewish immigrants in this country (my last novel ends in the sixties), and what life was like for the subsequent generations whose issues were quite different than their parents and grandparents who came here.  I was also very interested in the era for thematic reasons.  It was the first time one country used food to starve another and I wanted to write about the way food played out in the family and then the way it played out it in the world.  My father is an economist and foreign food policy was talked about a lot in our home–mostly at the dinner table–and the conflation of the personal and political struck me even then, though I wouldn’t have described it that way at the time.

And though it was a year I was too young to remember clearly, it was a seminal moment in history, fraught with endless fictional possibilities.  Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Iranian hostage crisis was in full bloom, there had been a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Disco was dying, (everyone but my grandfather was happy about this) and so was punk rock in its hardcore form, culminating with the death of Sid Vicious.  Women’s oppression seemed to be waning, made concrete by Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” shown that year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Culturally, the world was thriving: Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song were released in 1979. So was Manhattan, The Rose, Apocalypse Now and Breaking Away.  Then, on Christmas Day, Soviet deployment of its army into Afghanistan began.  And on January 4, 1980, Carter announced the US grain embargo against the Soviet Union, which figures prominently in the book, and is when the novel begins.

Can you talk about the role of research in the writing of this novel? How you did it, and more importantly, how you kept it from showing? 

Ahh, research. I could go on and on.  For me, history releases me from my own experience and jogs my fictional imagination.  For instance, I read a great biography on Ethel Rosenberg, and in addition to her chronicling her life with Julius and in their political beliefs, it mentioned she was a singer.  An alto.  For some reason this let me see her clearly, and it became a plot point in the book.  So I read a lot of biographies, a lot of Irving Howe, to better understand how movements emerged from movements.  I read pop culture stuff too, books about punk rock in DC, and Joni Mitchell, and the Grateful Dead.

I read a lot of cookbooks from the era, like Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie, the blue New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. And I also looked on line at old newspapers and Time Magazine articles, pieces on the Soviet Union.  As much as I can read about it now, reading what happened in that actual time, with journalists reacting immediately, without hindsight, is invaluable.

I also watched many movies from the seventies, and read novels from that time. It’s interesting to see how artists react in a moment of time, without decades to process.  Contemporary novels and movies are often products–or a reflection–of the times, so seeing things through the filter of art was crucial.  Which is also why I listened to a lot of music.  Music has a critical function in the book because every generation expresses itself in some way through music–it is so often how we air our dissent and also our assent. I really wanted to get the era right, but I knew I needed to balance the kitch of the time—platform shoes, rubiks cubes, pet rocks, all the stuff we have come to expect from the seventies—with real texture and lives lived. That’s I think what you mean about the research showing.  I had to throw a lot away to serve the book.

How central was the Jewishness of this particular family to your way of understanding them?

These characters are one hundred percent Jewish. We’re not going to resolve here how complicated that is, or what it means, but they were always a Jewish family in my mind, grappling with issues of assimilation and learning and idealism.  Jewishness was in no way the only lens through which I saw these characters or with which the reader sees them, and their issues are universal to families and individuals everywhere, but where they come from–their varied experiences of arriving in this country and living here and struggling here and becoming American (and all that that can mean)–is a fundamentally Jewish American experience.

It seems like the different characters experience being Jewish very differently:  after a lifetime of assimilation, Sharon’s parents have become religious again, while Dennis’s parents seems to express their Jewish identity in a politicized way. Was this intentional and can you elaborate?

We talk a lot in this country what it means to be Jewish.  And we investigate that in regards to religion, how observant we are now, how we were raised, and we talk a lot about what it means to be Jewish culturally.  I wanted to think about it more politically. Just as we lose–as families–connection to the experience of the previous generations, we often lose whatever it was they “stood for.”  We lose the essence of who we once were, if we see ourselves through our legacies.  I wanted to deal with the decline of radicalization in a family. I recognize–believe me–that not all Jews are liberals.  But this family is, and each generation is defining for itself what that means, what being an activist means.

It has been said that the personal is the political, an axiom that plays out beautifully in this novel.  Can you talk about the ways in which each of the central characters fashion a political position or ideology from their personal agendas, and how those respective agendas inform their sense of themselves as political beings or agents?

This is a hard question.  The “personal is political” comes from sixties ideology–that what we do in our own lives informs the world.  I think this is the tenet for most of my fiction, as well as the reverse: history makes its mark on us as people and characters every day.  That Vanessa finds the straight edge movement allows her to find a way out of a popularity contest in high school. But it is also an excuse for her to diet.  It’s not really doing much in the world in the way she practices it.

Her father, Dennis, who works at the Department of Agriculture, believes that working within the system is the best way to change it. He’s dealing with the legacy of his father, a Lower East Side union organizer and socialist.  He’s both reacting to his father and rebelling against him, as well as internalizing his beliefs.  It is a combination of a typical parent/child relationship, and also an authentic relationship to politics.  Similarly, Sharon rejects her father, who has become a conservative, someone who might have named names in the McCarthy era. Would she have tried to jump on the Freedom Riders bus down south to fight for civil rights had her father been a different man?  One can’t say.  But she is both rebelling against him and embracing an ideology she believes in, one that could in some way affect good change.

All of these characters are believers even if we as readers can see their psychological motivations. They doubt themselves often, and with hindsight, but they are all living as they believe a right person should live.  Some fall off course more than others, but they are struggling.

Food plays a central role in this novel: both Sharon and Dennis’s work revolves around food, and Vanessa is obsessed with food, especially not eating it or purging herself of it.  Can you say more about this theme, and does Sharon’s involvement with food have any connection to the stereotypical image of the Jewish mother and her need to feed?

This is interesting to me, as when I just started this book I thought: Roth’s Portnoy pretty much has it down on what the worse thing a Jewish boy can do but what is the worst thing a Jewish girl can do?  Well: it is most likely throwing up her mother’s cooking.  Food is identity, it’s love, it’s politics, it’s family. To reject that, and in such a self-destructive manner, is something I wanted to investigate. It also implicitly brings up the notion of privilege, which is also a stereotype many young Jewish women are saddled with.  I wanted Vanessa to be dealing with all that. Sharon is not a typical Jewish mother–she’s feeding other people’s families.  She’s not noticing what’s going on with her daughter.

Did you mean to contrast Vanessa, desperate to be thin, with her brother Ben’s girlfriend Rachel, who is apologetically plump?

In many ways Rachel, who like Vanessa, is an idealist, is meant to be a foil for Vanessa as well. She has beliefs, which as the author I think I both celebrate and skewer–but she is pretty comfortable with herself.  That manifests in her comfort with her body and her sexuality. Whereas Vanessa, who is younger, is still flailing about trying to figure out who she is. As comfortable as Rachel is, though, and as confident as she seems in navigating the world of college, which is a small little gilded world in relationship to reality, she does have her own vulnerabilities.  But yes, absolutely, I was trying to play with that notion in young women.

This is a novel of a family coming apart, but also coming together. Can you say more about those two opposing narrative forces?

That’s what families do.  Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, siblings, children and grandparents, we are always connecting and disconnecting.  Hurting and protecting who we love.  The mechanisms of family–and it obviously doesn’t take two parents and two children to constitute a family– is as primitive as anything I can imagine.  What we do to embrace our families–the ones we are born with and the ones we have chosen–and run away from them, physically or psychically, is the ongoing narrative of our lives.