We caught up with Molly Antopol—author of short story collection The UnAmericans and whose eulogy for John L’Heureux appeared in the Fall 2019 issue—to talk about intersection between writer and mentor, and the duty they share in gleaning the extraordinarily universal from the ordinary.
SR: “Remembering John L’Heuruex” recalls John as an imaginative mentor: “John couldn’t help but show his students what they might become,” and though you write “life is quieter without him,” your memory is dynamic. What lessons do you carry that are applied in your work? What of the memory of his influence continues to quiet “imposter feelings”?
Antopol: I never articulated those imposter feelings to John because I knew how exactly he’d respond: he’d say everyone feels that way, and the only cure is to sit down and get to work. That’s why I think about John all the time when I write—and maybe more so when I consider not writing. John often talked about how the only thing that mattered was what you put down on the page. And once the pages started filling up and the story’s shape had begun to emerge, how to make that story as clear as possible.
SR: Your re-encounter of Grace Paley through John emphasizes her technical dexterity; Paley is funny without being cruel much in the same way she manages the political without didacticism. You suggest that extracting the universal is the imperative technical task of any writer—is it also of any mentor?
Antopol: Absolutely. John had a very specific aesthetic in his own writing, but when he was teaching, he never favored any mode or style over another. One of the things I often think about when I’m teaching was how John was so brilliant at identifying what each writer in the room was trying to achieve in their work. His advice managed to be both universal and intensely specific, helping each of us strengthen our pieces in whatever direction the work was taking us.
SR: Your debut story collection “The UnAmericans” contracts the universal in a literal sense—the stories take us across continents and carry intimately into international narratives. In “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” the grandmother, ,makes this admission: “when your grandfather climbed in one night and lay beneath my blanket, his hands roaming up my shirt and into my pants long before he thought to kiss me, it didn’t feel romantic—more like a basic physical need that had little to do with me,” that transports the reader to a pivotal moment in her life made possible by political turmoil and war. What was it like to write these stories?
Antopol: Thank you! I wrote those stories over the course of a decade. I’ve heard writers say that every now and again a story arrives fully-formed in their minds and writing it comes so easily that it feels like transcription. That’s never happened for me. Every time I finished a story in the collection and began another one, I felt as if I were learning how to write all over again. Each story took more than a year to write—and oftentimes the shape of it only became clear to me after ten or twelve or fifteen drafts.