Author Interview

A Conversation with Jennifer Gilmore, Author of Something Red

1. Where did you come up with the idea for Something Red? Was there a character or a scene that you envisioned first?


I grew up in Washington and have always been fascinated about how close I was to the “center” of things, and yet how far I was from affecting any real kind of change. I was always very aware of how Washington operated —many of our friends were the children of senators or lobbyists kids or government officials—and it seemed distinctly different than how “inside the beltway” was portrayed in the media.

My father works in foreign food policy and my mother worked her whole career for the state department, involved in food aid. (When my sister was young, she thought my mother was a waitress!) I became interested in food as a “global” issue, as well as how it plays out in a family. Food is “used” in so many ways—especially now with the rise of “foodies” and issues of sustainability—and I wanted to explore it as identity, disease, power, the way it brings families together, and drives nations apart.

The era was informed by the Cold War, and so I wanted to deal with Russia in some way, largely, because, as in my last book, I am very interested in the way history affects families. Russia was the “mother country” for so many immigrants, but what was really happening there? What was left behind and what was taken? I became fascinated by the politics of the era—which stemmed from the Soviet Union as well—and how progressivism evolved into 60’s activism and then into post-sixties radicalism, which seemed to be less about real causes and more about music and lifestyle. I wanted to investigate how being a radical is defined differently for and by each generation.

These are all just ideas that started me going, but I wanted to be sure I had real characters the reader could relate to intimately so it did not seem like it was just loaded with ideas. Hopefully that’s what I ended up with.

2. The political backdrop of the novel is incredibly vivid in the minds of your characters. Why did you choose this era?

1979, a year I was too young to remember clearly, mind you, seemed like a seminal moment in history, fraught with endless fictional possibilities. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Iranian hostage crisis was in full bloom, there had been a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Disco was dying, and so was punk rock in its hardcore form, culminating with the death of Sid Vicious. And yet, punk’s more popularized version had reached our shores with the release of the Clash’s London Calling. Women’s oppression seemed to be waning, made concrete by Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” shown that year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Culturally, the world was thriving: Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song were released in 1979. So was Manhattan, The Rose, Apocalypse Now and Breaking Away. Then, on Christmas Day, Soviet deployment of its army into Afghanistan began. And on January 4, 1980, Carter announced the US grain embargo against the Soviet Union. Which is when my novel begins.

3. How did you go about your research for the novel? What were your preferred sources?

History releases me from my own experience and jogs my fictional imagination. For instance, I read a great biography on Ethel Rosenberg, and in addition to her chronicling her life with Julius and in their political beliefs, it mentioned she was a singer. An alto. For some reason this let me see her clearly, and it became a small plot point in the book. So I read a lot of biographies, a lot of Irving Howe to better understand how movements emerged from movements. I read pop culture stuff too, books about punk rock in DC, and Joni Mitchell, and I looked up a zillion Grateful Dead set lists on-line, to be sure that played this song at this particular concert. I read a lot of cookbooks from the era, like Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie, the blue New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. And I also looked on line all the time, at old newspapers and Time Magazine articles, pieces on the Soviet Union. As much as I can read about it now, reading what happened in that time, with journalists reacting immediately, without hindsight, is invaluable. Really, I read anything that could put me in that time, including fiction, which is often the most reliable source of real, felt information. E.L. Doctorow’s, The Book of Daniel, was a revelation to me, because it was a fiction writer reacting, not immediately per se, but certainly a lot closer to the Rosenberg’s execution and the rise of the 60’s than I am now. His characters in that book were like the ones mine might have been haunted by.

4. How would you compare the public opinion of the U.S. government in 1980 with that of modern day? Do you think the particular issues that the Goldstein family copes with transfer? Why or why not?

Writing my way into that era, I was really struck by how little had changed and really, how little we look at the past, as a nation, to make decisions. The Afghanistan issue has hardly diminished. Food prices spiked right when I finished the book, just as they had in anticipation of that first grain embargo, and this was all related to ethanol and oil. And of course our dependence on oil has not diminished either. Even footage of the fashion of the era is startling in how similar it was to what might be fashionable now.

On a domestic level though that’s an easier question, largely because an inner-life is timeless. So what Vanessa and Ben, the kids, experience in 1979, is not that different than now, though they are not texting or listening to iPods. And issues of keeping a stressed marriage together, and how we manage our work lives and our home lives, who we are in the world versus who believe we should be in the world, well, these conflicts endure.

4. It has been said that you are part of a new generation of Jewish-American novelists. How do you think Judaism figures in the lives of your characters?

Let me start by saying I’m really proud to be part of this incredible and long literary tradition. Judaism as a religion has less of an effect on these characters, though, than Judaism as a culture. There has been much talk about what it means to be culturally Jewish in this country, but in this book, I think my characters are more concerned by what that means politically. And of course, it’s hard to separate the Jewish American experience from an American Immigrant experience, and my characters are grappling with issues that all immigrants deal with, depending on how long they’ve been in this country. This is why I like to see characters of a family, developing over generations. We can see what is passed down and what’s lost. And what’s gained. This family is Jewish, and so where they come from—Eastern Europe—and how they left, why they left, figures into each generation’s stories significantly.

5. Your novel incorporates three very distinct generations of Americans. And yet, often they seem more similar than they are different. For instance, at one point a character states that, “I’ve got the same problems my mother did. Only she got to take Valium” (51). Do you think that some things are inevitably passed on from one generation to the next?

I think the way things traits, tragedies, flaws, joys are passed down over the generations is fascinating. In Something Red, the Goldstein’s activism is something that every generation—grandparent, parent, child—deals with, but what that term means gets transformed by time. The difference comes from how long they’ve been in this country, the way the world changes over time, the development of technology, the change in popular culture. But at the crux of it, these characters’ urges to believe they are effecting change is what drives them, however futile or wrong-headed, or pure that impulse might be.

6. Who were the most influential authors in your development as a writer? Do you have any current favorites?

When I think of who I’ve looked to over time, it doesn’t always match with what my work looks like on the surface. But there are some writers who give you permission when you are young and casting your net. I admire Mary Gaitskill a lot—she takes incredible risks, the same way Jayne Anne Phillips can. So those writers gave me permission to be brave in my characters’ emotional lives. I would put Leonard Michaels and some Saul Bellow in that category as well. Grace Paley, who I quote in the epilogue, let me hear dialogue for what seemed like the first time. The way her characters speak to one another was revelatory to me in regards to audience. Characters don’t always have to be telling the reader a story; just like in life, eavesdropping can be much more fun. The use of scope—of looking outside the self and daily life—it goes to the men, though the reason for this is many-fold. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Plot Against America, and the way he uses history to create plot and illuminate his characters, was thrilling. But as a writer, I was raised on short stories, and for good sentences and stories, Raymond Carver and Harold Brodkey and Tim O’Brien, they’re who I look at over and over again.

7. Are you working on anything new? Do you think you will ever return to 1980?

1980 was a weird and wonderful moment in time—what came after was a whole new era. The 60’s and 70’s seem so distant when we get into the 80’s and 90’s in America. Never say never, but were I to revisit that year, I would have to come at it from a new angle. From where I sit now, I can’t imagine what that would be. I am working on something new, and it moves back and forth in time between the more current day and the far past, but it’s in the early stages and this could change. I am not a writer who has a structure in place that stays—it shifts as the characters move and grow. I tell my students that every novel is historical. One can never write about the moment we’re in, because, of course, it is instantly the past. It’s impossible to keep up with right this moment. I think about this when considering when to set a book; how present is the present and when does it become the characters’—or my own—past?
Something Red

A Novel

By Jennifer Gilmore

Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster

An interview with Jennifer Gilmore



Where did you come up with the idea for Something Red? Was there a character or a scene that you envisioned first?

I grew up in Washington and have always been fascinated about how close I was to the “center” of things, and yet how far I was from affecting any real kind of change. I was always very aware of how Washington operated —many of our friends were the children of senators or lobbyists kids or government officials—and it seemed distinctly different than how “inside the beltway” was portrayed in the media.

My father works in foreign food policy and my mother worked her whole career for the state department, involved in food aid. I became interested in food as a “global” issue, as well as how it plays out in a family. Food is “used” in so many ways—especially now with the rise of “foodies” and issues of sustainability—and I wanted to explore it as identity, disease, power, the way it brings families together, and drives nations apart.

The era was informed by the Cold War, and so I wanted to deal with Russia in some way, largely, because, as in my last book, I am very interested in the way history affects families. Russia was the “mother country” for so many immigrants, but what was really happening there? What was left behind and what was taken? I became fascinated by the politics of the era—which stemmed from the Soviet Union as well—and how progressivism evolved into 60’s activism and then into post-sixties radicalism, which seemed to be less about real causes and more about music and lifestyle. I wanted to investigate how being a radical is defined differently for and by each generation.

These are all just ideas that started me going, but I wanted to be sure I had real characters the reader could relate to intimately so it did not seem like it was just loaded with ideas. Hopefully that’s what I ended up with.



The political backdrop of the novel is incredibly vivid in the minds of your characters. Why did you choose this era?

1979, a year I was too young to remember clearly, mind you, seemed like a seminal moment in history, fraught with endless fictional possibilities. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Iranian hostage crisis was in full bloom, there had been a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Disco was dying, and so was punk rock in its hardcore form, culminating with the death of Sid Vicious. And yet, punk’s more popularized version had reached our shores with the release of the Clash’s London Calling. Women’s oppression seemed to be waning, made concrete by Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” shown that year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Culturally, the world was thriving: Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song were released in 1979. So was Manhattan, The Rose, Apocalypse Now and Breaking Away. Then, on Christmas Day, Soviet deployment of its army into Afghanistan began. And on January 4, 1980, Carter announced the US grain embargo against the Soviet Union. Which is when my novel begins.






How did you go about your research for the novel? What were your preferred sources?

History releases me from my own experience and jogs my fictional imagination. For instance, I read a great biography on Ethel Rosenberg, and in addition to her chronicling her life with Julius and in their political beliefs, it mentioned she was a singer. An alto. For some reason this let me see her clearly, and it became a small plot point in the book. So I read a lot of biographies, a lot of Irving Howe to better understand how movements emerged from movements. I read pop culture stuff too, books about punk rock in DC, and Joni Mitchell, and I looked up a zillion Grateful Dead set lists on-line, to be sure that played this song at this particular concert. I read a lot of cookbooks from the era, like Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie, the blue New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. And I also looked on line at old Time Magazine articles, pieces on the Soviet Union. As much as I can read about it now, reading what happened in that time, with journalists reacting immediately, without hindsight, is invaluable. Really, I read anything that could put me in that time, which includes fiction, which often is the most reliable source of real, felt information. E.L. Doctorow’s, The Book of Daniel, was a revelation to me, because it was a fiction writer reacting, not immediately per se, but certainly a lot closer to the Rosenberg’s execution and the rise of the 60’s than I am now. His characters in that book were like the ones mine might have been haunted by.





How would you compare the public opinion of the U.S. government in 1980 with that of modern day? Do you think the particular issues that the Goldstein family copes with transfer? Why or why not?

Writing my way into that era, I was really struck by how little had changed and really, how little we look at the past, as a nation, to make decisions. The Afghanistan issue has hardly diminished. Food prices spiked right when I finished the book, just as they had in anticipation of that first grain embargo, and this was all related to ethanol and oil. And of course our dependence on oil has not diminished either. Even footage of the fashion of the era is startling in how similar it was to what might be fashionable now.

On a domestic level though that’s an easier question, largely because an inner-life is timeless. So what Vanessa and Ben, the kids, experience in 1979, is not that different than now, though they are not texting or listening to iPods. And issues of keeping a stressed marriage together, and how we manage our work lives and our home lives, who we are in the world versus who believe we should be in the world, well, these conflicts endure.

It has been said that you are part of a new generation of Jewish-American novelists. How do you think Judaism figures in the lives of your characters?

Judaism as a religion has less of an effect on these characters than Judaism as a culture. There has been much talk about what it means to be culturally Jewish in this country, but in this book, I think my characters are more concerned by what that means politically. And of course, it’s hard to separate the Jewish American experience from an American Immigrant experience, and my characters are grappling with issues that all immigrants deal with, depending on how long they’ve been in this country. This is why I like to see characters of a family, developing over generations. We can see what is passed down and what’s lost. And what’s gained. This family is Jewish, and so where they come from—Eastern Europe—and how they left, why they left, figures into each generation’s stories significantly.




You are in the unique position of being a former Director of Publicity (Harcourt) and a published author. How do you think publishing has changed since you left to pursue a career as a fulltime writer?

I know publishing now more as an author than with occasional peaks inside those elite offices than as an industry insider. It was difficult publishing a novel the first time around, while working behind the scenes, knowing all that has to happen to make a book a success and to still make the leap as an author. I knew the pitfalls of fiction, which are laughable when I remember how we used to bemoan the way fiction doesn’t sell; those numbers have dropped significantly.

We all know publishing has changed because the notion of what text is and how it will be distributed, as well as the value of content, has been forever altered by technology, and, of course, by the economy. I wasn’t exactly in publishing in its two martini lunch heyday (although I can say I have indulged in one or two of those lunches), but three years ago, just before I left, Amazon brought Kindle demos in under the cloak of secrecy. Seriously, no one had even seen them yet. We were like, huh, cool, but sure is big. We shall see…

I think publishing’s strength is also its weakness. It’s got such a rich and celebrated history as an industry. For the most part, publishing people are incredibly creative, business is done based on the strength of relationships, and the product being peddled is books. That the industry is slow to change I think is in part because who wants to give up that dialogue with such a magical and unique past? And I think many people are feeling that loss acutely.

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