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Elinor Lipman

This is an excerpt from an interview I did with author Elinor Lipman. It first appeared in the September, 1999 issue of The Writer.

Susan Kelly: You started as a short story writer and abandoned that form for the novel. Was there any special reason for that?

Elinor Lipman: For me, short stories were developmental. I had to start somewhere, and the idea of writing a novel was just too daunting. My next step was my book of seven connected short stories--Into Love and Out Again. Then I said to my agent, "I really want to write a novel. Do you think I can?" She replied, "Anyone who can write seven connected stories can certainly write a novel." I never looked back. I found it easier to write a novel, despite the time involved. It takes me thirteen to eighteen months to do a novel. I feel very comfortable getting up in the morning and continuing with what I did the day before and not having to think up a brand-new idea and brand-new characters.

SK: So you always know what you have to do on a given day?

EL: Yes. Each new chapter presents a bit of an obstacle, but nothing like having to come up with a new short story. There was also a pragmatic side to my decision to become a novelist. It was a year between the time I finished the short story collection and its publication. That year I wrote eight stories and sold only three of them. I thought, "What kind of odds are these?"

SK: Was Then She Found Me inspired by a real-life incident?

EL: When I did readings from that book, there was always someone at the end of the line waiting to talk to me, either an adoptee looking for her birth mother, or a birth mother looking for her daughter, or an adoptive mother. My answer to whether I was impelled to write about the adoption theme from something in my own background is, "Yes and no." My original intent was to have the novel that became Then She Found Me involve the protagonist's discovery that the woman she thought was her aunt was in fact her mother.

SK: How did you resolve this in your novel?

EL: I heard that a friend of mine had married a man who'd been born in this country in 1948. When he was about twenty-five, he did some research and found out that his biological mother had been a Holocaust survivor who had come to this country, become pregnant, and had given her baby away. I was so stunned by this story that I had to create my own characters. I could NOT, however, make [my Holocaust survivors] Trude and Julius Epner give up a baby, so I made them the adoptive parents.

I didn't come to the theme because of anything in my own life, but it had always seemed to me an exceedingly dramatic and emotional topic. I had no agenda. I wasn't setting out to be the spokesperson either for or against adoption.

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SK: Your novel The Inn at Lake Devine is about anti-Semitism. It strikes me as absolutely breathtaking that you could write a comic novel about such a subject. Was it inspired by an incident in your own childhood?

EL: Well, that is certainly the case. In 1961, my mother wrote to a hotel in Vermont requesting information about room rates and the availability of rooms. She received a prompt reply: "Our guests who feel most comfortable here and return year after year are Gentiles." I've never forgotten that letter. Restricting Jews from hotels was not illegal then, but I remember the look on my mother's face; I even remember the stationery the letter was written on.

When I sent the idea for The Inn at Lake Devine to my editor, she responded enthusiastically. "This is it. This is your new novel." When I said I wasn't sure I could sustain the idea and turn it into a novel, she replied, "You have to." When I asked why, she said, "Because no one has ever written a novel about anti-Semitism in a comedic fashion." I took that as my charge.

SK: You're Jewish. Was it painful for you to write this book, living every day with anti-Semitism, in your head and on the page?

EL: I hate to sound shallow, but it wasn't painful. It's not the same as facing it every day of your life--which doesn't happen. You hear the occasional comment from a person who doesn't know you're Jewish--most Jews have experienced that sort of thing--but for the most part, people are too polite to say anything like that to your face.


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