PW: The Outside World focuses on the intricacies and nuances of daily life in the Orthodox Jewish community. Did you model your characters on your own experiences growing up?
Tova Mirvis: I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community, so I guess it always leads in to some degree. I'm always interested in the rhythms of daily life, domestic details and small moments that have larger significance. I draw on my own experiences of living in a world that's rich with detail and all sorts of particularities that mean something and convey a lot.
PW: I particularly enjoyed your description of Tzippy's date with Yosef Schachter, of what dating by rote can feel like. How were you able to capture the intensity of her emotions?
TM: I spent weeks, months, years, just trying to become her in my head, trying to imagine what it feels like to be her. And it came in bits and pieces.
PW: In the novel, Baruch and Naomi immerse themselves in religion and strive to become, each in their own way, better Jews, while Tzippy, Ilana and Joel struggle to understand the meaning of faith and religious commitment. What message do you want readers to come away with?
TM: I'm very interested in the larger question of what it means to be religious in a modern world—any kind of religious. I thought a lot about what the role of tradition is in the secular world and the modern world, and how those sometimes work together and how they clash at times. I like to look at the ways that even when there is a prescribed religion, everyone finds her individual path within it.
PW: Did you feel uncomfortable portraying certain aspects of the Orthodox community in an uncomplimentary light?
TM: I don't feel worried about it because I feel like those qualities are universal. The question of why Shayna [a character in the book] has a longing for beautiful [wedding] cakes is not just about materialism. It's about a desire for belonging and for [finding one's] own place in the community, about Shayna's desire to be a certain person. And then I felt that it wasn't so petty after all. The manifestations of it might be, but in Shayna's desires for dresses or cake, she is really expressing this larger wish. And once it becomes that, it's more human than it is unflattering.
PW: How did your community in Memphis take your first novel, The Ladies Auxiliary?
TM: Well, it was interesting [laughs]. Before the book came out, people heard I had written a novel and sold it, and within 24 hours there was this big discussion in the community of what it was about. Some people heard it was flattering, unflattering; people heard they were in the book and were upset about that; people heard they weren't in the book, they were upset about that. I'm known as the person who wrote that book. For years, my mother couldn't go to the grocery store without hearing some comment about the book.
PW: Do you intend to continue writing books about the Orthodox community, or do you plan to move on to different cultures?
TM: I never know in some ways how it's going to end up. After I finished writing this book, I said I need time off, I'm going to take a break. But after two weeks, I started getting very antsy, so I recently started working on another book about Memphis. I'm interested in writing about a Southern Jewish family, drawing on my own family history. I'm a sixth-generation Memphian, and so I'm interested in what that means—to be part of the long-standing Southern families that are so Southern in some sense and yet so Jewish.