Shalom Auslander, a 41-year-old fiction writer and essayist, lives in upstate New York and grew up in the Orthodox enclave of Monsey, N.Y. Much of his profanity-laced writing — including his 2007 memoir, Foreskin's Lament — focuses on his break from his religious upbringing and could be described as darkly comic. The married father of two young sons recently published his first novel, Hope, a Tragedy. It focuses on a young family that moves from the city to the country and discovers not only that Anne Frank is alive — though not necessarily well — but she has spent decades hiding in the attic of their new home, working on a second book.
Auslander will be appearing at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Tuesday, Jan. 17. He recently spoke to the Jewish Exponent. Here are excerpts from the interview.
How is the process of writing a novel different from that of writing short stories, a memoir or journalism, all of which you've done?
The reality is, it's the same f—ing pain in the ass. It's all the same process. My son is crazy about these Lego sets that they sell and there are like 800 pieces, 1,200 pieces, 1,400 pieces. It's still the same pain in the ass. That's what writing is like. You finish it, he picks it up, drops it, and then it falls into 1,000 pieces.
Your new book seems to focus on parental fears. How has being a parent affected your writing?
I'm a big [Samuel] Beckett fan. It's very realistic about the awfulness of existence. And that was all well and good, and I was happy just having company and then you have the kid. I would be very happy being a dark pessimist — and I am –but I've got to somehow answer these two little boys' questions. I can't sit there with the Millennium Falcon Lego set and say, 'You know, son, this is just bull—- because we are going to build it and it is going to fall apart, just like life.' I wish Beckett had had a kid. I'd love to read Waiting for Godot with kids. Were you at all hesitant to fictionalize a living Anne Frank since Philip Roth did it in his novel The Ghost Writer?
I didn't know that. I don't read very much of anybody living. All I've read of him was part of Portnoy's Complaint. I was having lunch with Alana Newhouse over at Tablet, telling her about it. It was already written and she said, 'Oh yeah, it's different, but Philip Roth already did that.' And I was like, 'You've got to be f—ing kidding me.' Some people have long shadows, and you don't even know that you are in them, which is fine.
What's going on? Nathan Englander, another fiction writer who grew up Orthodox, is about to publish a story collection called What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.
That in itself is a coincidence. This book uses Anne Frank, but it is not about Anne Frank at all. It is about the weight of history. It is about human beings. It is about what we do knowing what we know.
As a human being, I've got these little, beautiful kids, utterly innocent. There is a steamroller right behind them, covered in blood, bearing down on them. That's not Nazism, that's humans, that's history. What do I tell them? Do I tell them to ignore it? That's a little risky. Do I tell them to turn around and focus on it? Well, that's a little stupid. What do you do? It really has almost nothing to do with Anne Frank. Anne Frank is a device and a character.
I've got no love for the Holocaust as a story. I was sick of it by the time I was 18 because I was force-fed it from the time I was 6. The reality is that if there was anything about Anne Frank that I didn't want to do, it was write about f—ing Anne Frank.
Your memoir dealt with the question of whether or not you would circumcise your first son. (He did.) Howard Jacobson's Mann-Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question, features a gentile protagonist who considers becoming Jewish but can't get past the idea of circumcision. Why does the male anatomy preoccupy male Jewish novelists?
It's kind of hard to get over something that brutal and drastic. If you are looking at yourself and your people and you are raising questions, that would be a very big place to start. You can talk if you want that there are some medical benefits, but come on, it's harsh. But you can also ask, 'Why are we doing this and where the f— has God been? And who says we are chosen and why that land?' That's where it starts. And you ask questions about the country you are in and the world you in and the existence you are in and they put you in a shower and tell you that it's water and it's gas — the end.