The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing


This is your second novel that addresses the inheritance of a post-war generation. Why do you think it's important to keep considering the aftereffects of World War II?
I believe that we are all products of our history, not only that of our families and ancestors but in a collective sense. It's tempting sometimes to think that once events have receded far enough into the past, we can imagine they no longer affect who we are or what we believe. Yet with tragedies as big as war, with that scale of loss and trauma, we carry all of that with us, even across borders, across generations. I don't think we have much choice about it. But when we express our feelings about war and its aftermath, I think there is a possibility for transforming those effects in the direction of healing. Writing, for me, is one way of mapping that terrain. 

What was it like for you, as a daughter of Holocaust survivors, to write from the point of view of a German whose family members were Nazis? 
Once I became aware of individual stories told to me by German descendants of Nazis, I was both shocked and profoundly moved by the ways we shared a certain legacy. It opened me up to a dramatically shifted perspective about who I thought might be my "enemies" or my "opposites." At the same time, it was terrifying for me to explore the inner life of a family that represented those so-called enemies, and to imagine my way inside the mind of a young woman who, at least for a while, believed in the very ideas that inspired and justified mass murder. I would like to believe that my own capacity for compassion and empathy has widened in the process. 

How did you decide to use a German artist and an Israeli model to tell this story? Why set the novel in the U.S., specifically, why California? 
Certainly, the inherent tension that is implied by a German/Israeli collision is ripe for fiction. But these characters basically insisted on being themselves, despite many of my anxieties about how to handle their nationalities. I worried about attempting to "take on" stories that lie outside of my immediate experience, and yet the truth for me is that these two characters aren't intended to represent their countries or cultures. They are individuals with their own stories. As the daughter of immigrants myself, as well as a transplant to California from New York, I can identify with the desire to reinvent oneself in a new place. Art is a perfect metaphor for that process. Also, I was and still am fascinated by the mysterious process of creating---whether it's a painting or sculpture or composition or book. I wanted to spend time examining the impulses that motivate creation as well as the obstacles that can impede it. 

You seem knowledgeable about the world of art studios and figure drawing: Are you an artist? Have you ever worked as an artist's model? 
When I was young, I really wanted to be a painter. In fact, I studied many different art forms for a while---drawing, dancing, acting, music. I think I decided at some point that I wasn't quite good enough at any of them---but that writing was the means of expression that felt the most natural to me, the most true voice of my mind and heart. I used to believe it was necessary to choose one form in order to pursue it fully, but now I try to give myself permission to sing and dance whenever I feel like it. 

Years ago, when I was in college, I modeled for an artist in his studio. It was in many ways an attempt to explore my relationship to my own body, and to see if I could get past the agonizing over imperfections. I realized too that I wanted to learn something about what it might feel like to be someone's muse. It was a complicated experience, something that I have been trying to write about ever since. 

What sources of inspiration have you found that led you to believe in the healing power of art? 
There is of course plenty of evidence out in the world for believing in art as therapeutic and transformative. In my own life, writing has taught me so much about reconciling with my demons and illuminating my darkest shadows. There is something truly liberating about naming my fears, giving them voices and shape. It's not necessarily a deliberately cathartic approach, but writing can have that result. I feel similarly about dancing nowadays too---that movement can release us and change us. 

Do you consider yourself writing mainly as a poet or a novelist? Can you describe your writing process and the relationship you have with language? 
I have begun to think that mostly I write somewhere in the blurry realm between poetry and prose. The practice of poetry is invaluable in its insistence on compression and precision and coherence. I want all of those poetic qualities to be present in my prose, and novels offer me a chance to sustain that kind of concentration, while at the same time giving me a place to study the inside of a character's mind. I am really just trying to be as clear as possible, to use the most specific words I can find, and to feel for the rhythms that work in my head. Then I find my way through a story by following my characters' inner lives, trusting them to lead me along. 

Did the responses to your first novel have a significant impact on the writing of your second? 
Absolutely, and in ways that have been beneficial as well as horrific. I often found myself wondering what readers of The Speed of Light would like or dislike about this new book, its characters, its story, its language. I worried about everything. I had to struggle with bringing myself back to the page right in front me, knowing that I have to allow readers to react in whatever ways they choose. I also worried about repeating myself, or getting stuck in some kind of pattern that would pigeonhole me forever. There were plenty of times I wasn't sure I would ever finish the book. But the positive effects were feeling comforted by the idea that at least a few people would be willing to give me a chance, and that maybe I could keep getting better. Maybe I could say something new.