interviewed Simone Zelitch in the January 2000 issue.
     by Simone Zelitch (Hungary 1991–93)

(Buy this book)

Learn about Hungary.

SOMEONE ONCE ASKED CHEKHOV how he wrote. Chekhov replied by picking up an ashtray and saying, “Tomorrow, I will write a story called 'The Ashtray.'” Of course it should be that easy. We find stories everywhere, and we simply need the courage to tell them. I began Louisa in just that spirit. After completing two dense, ambitious, novels, I longed for a way to shrug off all pretensions and simply write. Why couldn’t I just start something simple, something called, say, The Ashtray? I typed that title on top of the first page, and then began: “I started smoking when I was six years old..”

The process begins
Who started smoking? A woman who was not so young, not terribly attractive and — this came to me slowly — in a perpetual foul temper. Why was she in a foul temper? Because she couldn’t get any cigarettes. Why couldn’t she get any cigarettes? Because, I thought, she is dependent on someone, and can not bring herself to ask for a favor.
     So began a stream of emotionally charged questions, and I realized that I had entered deep waters. It would take a long time to do justice to this story about a prickly, strong-willed woman who is in somebody else’s power. She was a survivor, a — it came to me — Holocaust survivor named Nora, who arrived in Israel after the war with her German daughter-in-law, Louisa.
     According to the Bible, another survivor once appeared in Israel with her daughter-in-law. The survivor’s name was Naomi, and the daughter-in-law was Ruth, a non-Jew who clung to Naomi and took on her people and her God. I had received at least a skeletal religious education, and knew the story of Ruth and Naomi well enough to be aware that Ruth was a model of selfless devotion. However, as I re-read the story, I found myself struck by Naomi’s consistent bitterness, the way she never expressed affection, or even gratitude, towards Ruth. Is it possible that not everyone wants to be loved as much as Ruth loved Naomi? In my novel, Louisa saves Nora’s life by hiding her in her family cellar. Now, Louisa refuses to leave Nora. Can any such relationship be simple?

Research and the story
Once I began to do some research, matters became even more complicated. After all, in choosing Nora, I had taken on two impossible subjects, the Holocaust and Zionism. One of the most difficult parts of writing historically based fiction is knowing when to stop doing research. At some point, I would have to reign myself in and focus on the story at hand. Unfortunately, given the material, I could take Nora’s story in so many directions that the most likely final outcome would be complete paralysis. I managed to figure out that Nora is Hungarian and that she is in Israel searching to for a Kibbutznik cousin. However, those two facts alone could have kept me in the library for the rest of my life.
     Then I got lucky.
     I joined the Peace Corps and they sent me to Hungary. There, I taught for two years in Veszprem, a town just west of Budapest, and I went through a period when I didn’t read or write a word. My full-time job was trying to make sense of where I’d landed. Veszprem has a famous zoo, a castle, a scenic overlook, an enormous Jewish cemetery, and no live Jews.

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