Elisa Albert's debut story collection, How This Night Is Different, features a bris, a visit to Kraków, a Passover seder and a bat mitzvah. But is it Jewish?
You're Jewish. You're a fiction writer. Do you write Jewish fiction?
Well, I'm Jewish. I'm a writer, and the stories in this collection all revolve around Jewish life-cycle events, so even if I wanted to do battle with that Jewish-fiction-writer label—which I don't—my case is weak. But it's somewhat reductive, so lots of subtle but really important distinctions get lost under that umbrella. You could just as well call my stories "child-of-divorce fiction" or "thwarted-desire fiction" or "marijuana-aficionado fiction," too. But you're still not any closer to a real interaction with the lives chronicled therein, you know. Can't catch the wind, man. Incidentally, I prefer the term "shtetl-ized."
Your characters are skeptical and dismissive of the Jewish identities they cling to.
Gravitational pull, brainwashing, the desire to go home again, who knows. I was raised in a very insular and infuriating Jewish community, and one that proved endlessly dissatisfying to me as I grew up, but it's impossible for me to shake its influence. There's the desire to reclaim it somehow, make it my own and reinvent it in a way that's meaningful. There's a good deal of sentimentalism inherent in that urge, and one I think I share with the population of my stories.
Your closing story at once apes and purports to address Philip Roth.
It's designed to pretty much dynamite everything that precedes it. I was aiming to level my own shtick, to poke fun at myself and my own obsessions. I'm most enamored of writers who seem self-aware and are willing to stand back and take aim at their own narrative patterns from time to time, like, say, Mr. Roth. I think I needed to do that in order to put this collection to bed and move on, narratively speaking. That it's fake-autobiographical and mock-revealing made the writing process hugely amusing, if only to me. And a great teacher of mine once said that as long as you're amusing yourself, you're onto something.
You're working on a novel. How's it going?
It's like Lorrie Moore said: Do writers often get discouraged?
Sometimes they do and sometimes they do.
It's about a young woman who dies of cancer and it's full of lighthearted hilarity. I'm really looking forward to being asked if it's autobiographical.