Q&A with Molly Antopol

Michelle Boise

Molly Antopol is a Draper Lecturer of Creative Writing at Stanford University, where she was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction. Her writing has appeared in One Story, American Short Fiction, The Mississippi Review Prize Stories of the Year, Nimrod's Prize Stories, Croatia’s Zarez, and on NPR's This American Life. Molly was kind enough to answer a few questions with Switchback Fiction Editor, Michelle Boise.

In an interview with One Story about your story “The Quietest Man,” you mentioned, “I often find that I’m able to access certain emotional truths about my life by exploring things from different angles.” In what ways was this story autobiographical? Or rather, what were you obsessing about, or interested most in exploring when you wrote the piece?

Molly Antopol: Many of the stories in my collection were inspired by my family history, most notably their involvement in the communist party. The question I always seem to be circling back to in my writing is what happens to people once they realize the causes they’ve devoted their lives to have lost relevance in the course of world events. While a lot of these stories take place during big historical moments, I’m interested in exploring the impact those moments have on individual lives, particularly the complicated—and sometimes devastating—effects an individual’s efforts to improve the world can have on the people closest to them. And even though half of the narrators in my collection are men and many of the stories are set abroad or in the past, they all go back to those same themes and are very obviously written by the same person. So I suppose what makes this story -- and all my stories – autobiographical is that they look at all the things I’d been struggling with and thinking about during the period I was writing them.

SB: You mentioned that the protagonist, Tomas, from “The Quietest Man” is a sympathetic character despite being an immoral one. How do you think you evoke sympathy from the reader in your construction of him? What, in the end, is his legacy, really?

MA: I always try to write from the perspective of whomever’s in the most complicated place fictionally, largely because it can be interesting to watch them climb out of whatever hole they’ve dug for themselves. I don’t know if a reader would sympathize with Tomas, but I do—he’s paranoid and narcissistic but also so honest and sincere in his attempt to connect with his family. That’s the legacy he’s ultimately striving for.

SB: You mentioned that you admire Leonard Michaels’ quotation, that “the ability to tell a story, like the ability to carry a tune, is nearly universal—and as mysteriously natural as language.” When did you first feel like you could carry the proverbial tune of writing?

MA: Oh, I’m not sure I feel I do yet. Every time I start a new story I feel like I have to learn the basics all over again, unfortunately.

SB: Who have you read lately that has impressed or inspired you?

MA: I just reread Jean Stafford’s collected stories, which are amazing. She’s so funny and smart and insightful. And all summer I’ve been reading Alan Shapiro’s poems—I can’t remember the last time I loved a writer so much that I wanted to track down everything he’d ever written.

SB: In 2008, you interviewed with Esquire and mentioned that a lot of your stories in your collection have some historical premise. Do you find it difficult to keep tension in both backstory and present action? How do you keep that line taut when editing?

MA: That’s one of the things I struggle with most. In my early drafts, my backstory always overwhelms what’s happening in real time, and then I have to spend months pruning it to make way for present action. It’s tricky—the truth is that I love backstory, I love the moment when I’m reading a story and there’s a space break after a scene and I suddenly get to learn all the dirt on the characters. So I spend many drafts trying to figure out how to incorporate all the backstory I want to use, finding a way for it to complicate and inform whatever’s happening in real time. It takes forever.

SB: Since being a Wallace Stegner fellow, what have you been up to in your writing career? What advice can you give to writers who are looking into fellowships after the MFA? Are there workshops you recommend attending?

MA: Right now I’m finishing the last story in the collection I worked on during my Stegner Fellowship. The Stegner was incredible—having two years devoted entirely to writing was such a gift. I definitely recommend applying for it, and people I know who have done the fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown all seem to love it, so that one seems like a good one to apply for as well. In terms of workshops, I haven’t done too many outside of my M.F.A. and the Stegner, but I did have a great time recently at the Bread Loaf and Sewanee conferences, and I definitely recommend both of those. I was also in Lithuania this past week with some of my Stanford students for the Summer Literary Seminars, and they had a fantastic time and got a lot out of the workshop, so that’s another program to check out. And this sounds cheesy but it really is true: part of being a writer is learning how to weather rejection, so even if rejections start coming in (which certainly happens for me), just keep applying.

SB: You taught creative writing in the M.F.A. program at the University of San Francisco and were a Jones Lecturer as well as Draper Lecturer at Stanford. How has teaching fiction shaped your own writing? What is some of the best advice you received as a student?

MA: I love teaching. I’d do it even if by some miracle I could be a full-time writer, to be honest. In terms of writing advice, there’s this Flannery O’Connor quote I really love that’s stuck with me for years, and that I’m probably about to botch: Someone asked her to describe one of her stories in a sentence. And she told the person that if she were able to sum it up in a sentence, she wouldn’t have a need to write the story in the first place.

SB: What do you do when you’re “stuck” writing a story? An particular ritual or unique tactic?

MA: Honestly, I just make myself sit at my desk and write. If I wait for inspiration to strike, I’ll never get anything done, so I just try to treat it like a job. I write on all the days I don’t teach, and I do it right when I wake up, before my day gets busy or stressful. I don’t have any rituals that help me when I’m stuck on a story (but please do tell me if you learn of any), though I do find that when I’m struggling with one story, suddenly a new one feels infinitely easier and more enticing to work on. So I often find myself cheating on Story A with Story B, and then once I get tired of Story B, I can go back to Story A with newfound appreciation and enthusiasm. That’s basically how I wrote my collection, working on a couple stories at once.

I also go running—I find that I’m able to untangle so many problems in my stories on long runs. And I take my dog on lots of walks, which helps me in the same way. Though I probably look insane, wandering around my neighborhood in my sweats in the middle of the day, mumbling to myself.