PALO ALTO, California — Molly Antopol doesn’t exactly go by the book when it comes to following the usual advice for young writers. With her debut short story collection, “The UnAmericans,” published this month by W.W. Norton & Company, she shows that writing what you know is not always the way to go.
Judging by the insight with which she portrays the inner lives of characters ranging from a Czech dissident writer to an Israeli soldier to a teenage Holocaust-era partisan, it’s clear Antopol is interested in exploring worlds far away in time and space from Stanford University, where she teaches creative writing to undergraduates.
“I like imagining lives that are very different from my own,” she tells The Times of Israel over lunch on a recent afternoon at a café across from campus.
Antopol, who is 35 and grew up in Los Angeles, has been at Stanford since 2006, when she was appointed the Wallace Stegner Fellow after receiving her MFA from Columbia University. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, writer and San Francisco State University assistant professor Chanan Tigay.
The couple spends part of every year in Israel, which accounts for the accurate knowledge of Israeli geography, history and society she displays in her stories set there.
This is true for “Minor Heroics,” a tale of two brothers (one recently discharged from the army and the other still serving) who live on a moshav in the Galilee, as much as it is for “A Difficult Phase,” in which a young female journalist enters the lives of a middle-aged widower and his teenage daughter in Tel Aviv. It is also true of the other Israel-focused story in the collection, “Retrospective,” which takes place, in part, in Jerusalem’s Talbieh and German Colony neighborhoods.
Antopol has become especially familiar with Jerusalem in recent years.
“Tel Aviv used to be our base, but for the past four to five years, we’ve been staying in Jerusalem because of my husband’s research,” she says, referring to Tigay’s forthcoming book, “Unholy Scriptures: Fraud, Suicide, Scandal — and the Bible that Rocked the Holy City” (Ecco/HarperCollins), and an essay he wrote for McSweeney’s called, “The Special Populations Unit: Arab Soldiers in Israel’s Army.”
Every time they stay in the city, they rent the same apartment on Gaza Street in the Rehavia neighborhood. Antopol’s usual work spot is Café Yehoshua, the trendy hangout just down the block.
‘I like imagining lives that are very different from my own’
It was an encounter Antopol had in 2000 in another Israeli city, however, that sparked the journey that would eventually lead more than a decade later to the publication of “The UnAmericans.”
Antopol was spending the year after she graduated from college in Israel. She ended up at a Hanukkah party thrown by a friend of a friend in Haifa.
“I knew no one but the girl who had brought me, and, after a few minutes skulking alone by the dessert table, I ducked into the kitchen and asked an elderly woman at the sink if I could help, just to have something to do,” she recounts in a piece she wrote about the genesis of her book for The New Yorker.
“She handed me a dish towel. She was short and wiry, with dyed red hair and skin so pale you could see the whole veiny design of her interior. It took less than a minute of chatting in Hebrew for her to tell that I wasn’t Israeli, and she asked where I was from. I told her America. ‘No,’ she said, eying me more closely. “Where are you from?’”
Antopol told her that, true to her last name, her family came from Antopol, a shtetl located a few hours from Minsk in Belarus. As fate would have it, the woman herself was from Antopol. She had vague memories of the writer’s great-grandmother Molly, who left the village for America as a teenager and ended up living in a boarding house in Queens and working in a sweatshop.
The woman pointed her to the Yizkor book for Antopol, a compilation of information commemorating the village’s destroyed Jewish community. Antopol immersed herself in the personal accounts included in the book, which in turn led her to research more and more about the place, especially about the partisans who emerged from there.
“The partisan story was the hardest to research, because I didn’t want to base it on any particular person,” the author says of “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story.” Readers who have seen the Hollywood film, “Defiance” about the partisan brigade led by the Bielski brothers will recognize the story’s setting. However, Antopol moves beyond the known narrative by putting the reader inside the mind of a young female partisan.
“The small things are important,” she notes. “I wanted to isolate a small psychological moment in the partisan experience.”
“I’m admittedly a big history nerd,” Antopol shares. “But every step of the way, I ask psychological questions about historical settings.”
This is clearly her modus operandi with all eight stories in the collection, no matter whether the history was new to her, as in the case of the Antopol partisans, or whether it was familiar family lore, like her grandfather’s imprisonment for union organizing and Communist activities in 1950s America. The latter inspired the stories, “Duck and Cover” about a girl growing up in the Party, and “The Unknown Soldier,” told from the point of view of a blacklisted actor.
‘The emotions come from some unknown place, somewhere in my own life’
We can credit the historical accuracy of Antopol’s stories to her being a “history nerd” and her love for research. But what makes her writing so noteworthy is an understanding of the human condition that belies her age.
An American, she is somehow able to perceive what it is like to be a quintessential un-American — to be an immigrant, or to be a single person powerless against the tide of historical or ideological movements. She knows in a very deep way what it is like to suffer deep disappointment, to lose control of yourself and your own destiny in a storm caused by the emotions and actions of others.
On the outside, Antopol may be a college professor in a fashionable wrap dress and suede boots eating lunch outside on a warm California winter day, but inside — as her mother has always told her — she is really an old soul. That’s what make’s her so talented and poises her to join the ranks of the best American Jewish writers of her generation, like Nathan Englander, Nicole Krauss and Dara Horn.
“The emotions come from some unknown place, somewhere in my own life,” she says.