The Day Begins with “Evening”: A Conversation with Nessa Rapoport

Until then, I hadn’t written that kind of plot. I don’t usually reread my work, but if I do, I’m content. And I can say that’s not been true for me about anything I’ve written. But I don’t think they were up against the same obstacles as these women, who were really meant only to marry. Women had no rights — not to their money, not to financial credit, not to vote. There are people born on the sunny side of the street. But again, Tom, that’s what happened. But I have to point out that, in Evening, the Shoah does make an appearance, and it plays a very important role in that the characters are transformed by certain realizations. Nana, the grandmother, is a very WASPy but also very Jewish person, which, coincidentally, my grandmother was. There’s a lot of dialogue in the book — and I wanted to be sure that only one character would say, “Oh…” What’s great about computers is that you can check where “Oh comma” appears in the text. My own grandmother was an astonishingly accomplished person, but she was born in an era when women couldn’t show their ankles. You mentioned that you spent almost 30 years writing this novel. I’m wondering if you had that phrase from the start, or whether it came to you later. What doesn’t it earn you? But speaking of beauty, I also want to talk about the beauty of your sentences. With siblings, what it looks like on the outside isn’t the same as what it is on the inside. I wrote two books while I was writing — or not writing — this one. I became intrigued by the difference between the two parents and the ways tradition did or didn’t manifest itself in this family. So there were a lot of women who couldn’t take the marital path because their future husbands weren’t there. That’s who these people turned out to be. So it’s a complex relationship. I was telling him that I was really struggling with how to make this plot sing. Did you have a specific idea in mind when writing about these sort-of Jewish characters, or was it more a case of writing about what you know? They did my hair. Evening begins with the declaration: “One loves, the other is loved.” As we read the novel, that sentence foreshadows some of the relationships, but it’s also an act of misdirection. That’s true. It’s a work of fiction. I knew it wasn’t where it needed to be. But in writing this book, I was free. Still, it’s very satisfying to me to know that I gave this book absolutely everything. It was very liberating to hold myself to the most exacting standards. Can you tell us a bit about what it’s about? When you know your characters, you’ll know what to do.” So I just kept working at it, finding the scenes that lead you forward — even if they were going back in the past. The whole first chapter came to me in an instant, a writing experience I had not had before. And when I finished it, I knew I had done what I set out to do. But would you still be playing with it or fixing it now, if you could? Or in the text? I wanted names that could stand in Canadian Anglo-Saxon culture, but also represented the not-incidental Jewishness of this family. In families where there is one beauty, an allure and a mystique grows up around it. Evening opens in a shiva house. I once edited a book by Francine Klagsbrun, a friend and a wonderful writer, who made an obvious point I hadn’t considered, which is that no one knows you for as long as your siblings do. The era in which we came of age was a real shock to them. So talk to me about that desire for perfection, for the right word, in your writing. How does the secret Eve discovers the day after the funeral thread its way through the rest of the novel, upending her idea of her future and her family? I remember thinking: This is crazy — magazine poses? A rapture of Rapoports is what I call it. That was considered very rare. She said to me, “Mom, don’t you think it’s the least we can do for them.” In truth, not a day goes by when I do not think of the Shoah. These are women who walked out of their marriages and “found themselves,” to use your excellent term. Eve doesn’t think she is, and the story goes on to prove that she’s not. I feel very graced that I was able to write a book that I wanted to write. There are many other women, wonderful novelists between the wars, whose lives were so constrained. Because, to some extent, your novel is about someone deciding to no longer be in stasis. The novel is not autobiographical. Me, too. So let’s turn to your novel, Evening. I was both bemused and horrified, like: What’s going to happen with these images? Once, when my daughter was quite young, she said to me: “Mom, you and your morose childhood.” Very accurate. People today would not show 10-year-olds documentaries with piles of starved dead bodies. In my Jewish school, half my class were children of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. I was busily reading through Publishers Weekly, and I came across a profile of you. You spent a long time working on those sentences. The challenge was that I’d thought up a real story in that first chapter, and the story made its demands on me. I arranged to interview you and went to your office, which was in a large New York building on Fifth Avenue. And there are some very funny moments indeed. It’s a satisfaction no one can take away from you. And the book is about an evening out between the two sisters. I was also showing Canadian Jewry of a certain moment. But editors are, for the most part, behind-the-scenes, introverted people. My father was one of three brothers. Having a certain disposition — a dark, dark disposition — and growing up with so much knowledge of the Shoah, as I did, unfiltered by child psychology, had an impact. I do feel sorry for them, having four daughters coming of age in the late 1960s/early 1970s, when youth culture was at its peak and adulation of the young was everything. I was surprised, first of all, that you even knew Interview magazine. If you go to the same school, the sister who comes after you hears about you, or vice versa. The characters are named Eve and Tamara, biblical names. And I’m a big believer that one should finish. I really think they did it because we were, as a category, so uptight that we just couldn’t relax in front of the camera. One of the other themes in the novel, which I thought was really interesting, is beauty. I now have to quote my youngest daughter, who was a teenager when I was telling her my theory about not remembering the Shoah at the expense of a rich Jewish life. There are deadlines and all kinds of laws in the natural world. I heard stories of beauties of previous generations and the cost of beauty. ¤ 
TOM TEICHOLZ: I thought we’d start with the story of how we originally met …
NESSA RAPOPORT: Great idea! I reported to no one but myself. The world around them expects that Eve must be terribly jealous of Tam. Evening is not a mystery. So I spent a year checking only the words in Evening, to make sure they did not occur in too close proximity. Again, why was that a topic that so captivated you? Eve’s name is in the book’s title. I don’t want to give away anything, but can you talk a little bit about the decision to include that, or was it something that insisted on being in the novel? They are more small-c conservative, just as Canadian culture generally is. So they decided to blur us all. Eve is in the middle of her life, can’t get it together to finish her dissertation, lives in small, rented apartments, and teaches at community colleges in continuing education. Working that out, with plenty of twists and turns, takes the length of the novel. I think very carefully about the names of my characters. Was there a moment when you turned the corner and saw the end in sight? And then they wanted me to do all these elaborate poses. Now I’m much more empathic, because I do feel my characters became the kind of Jews they were in spite of whatever intentions I may have had. This must have also happened to you with regard to this novel? For sure. ¤
Tom Teicholz is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author — just Google him. The other was the memoir, House on the River. One of them was the opening aphorism, which had been said in my family (but not about me). That’s something I stole from listening at many, many kitchen tables, as one does as a porous child. Although, interestingly, my mother is one of five and the only girl. Knowing that sense of darkness and fear, I was drawn to try to figure it out. They chose my outfit and put on makeup for hours. Guess what? But it has propulsion. I was very surprised. And I became very interested in this family where the father, by being a first-generation Canadian, was much more traditional. Before the end of the Tam’s life, the sisters had a stupendous fight and did not reconcile. And I know you are one of a gaggle of sisters. One of the tragic elements of those women writers’ lives is that an entire generation of men were killed in World War I. I started out as a poet, for which I won some prizes when I was young. It took a long time for me to learn what I needed to know about the story in order to tell it. I, emphatically, am not. But the interesting thing was that somehow in that short meeting, which couldn’t have been longer than a half hour, we clicked enough that we became friends and our lives began to intersect. I see you as writing out of a wellspring of tradition, which includes a great and deep knowledge of Jewish text and liturgy. But to answer your question: I didn’t expect it to come up in this novel because I felt there has been a tremendous amount of Jewish fiction about the Shoah. By being closer to the immigrant generation, they had a greater sense of … let’s call it tradition, at least in my generation. You’re one of them. I thought I would write the rest in a year, but no. I didn’t have a contract. In Evening, you write of the British women novelists between the two World Wars about whom Eve is writing her dissertation, that “these were my women, as I think of them, striving to escape their Victorian upbringing.” I think that’s also true of Eve and Tam, who are each striving to break free of others’ definitions of themselves. I can tell you from the other side, Interview magazine was a very hip place to appear. Sadly, I have not had it since — including for the rest of the book. They’re quite British in a way. Your parents know you earlier, but they leave the stage sooner (ideally, before you do). These are not the Jews we see on Seinfeld, or even in the Canadian Montreal of Mordecai Richler. I feel strongly that being Jewish is meant to be festive and joyful. It’s not something I was conscious of when I was growing up, because that’s all I knew. What were these two sisters fighting, enough to stop talking before Tam dies? As author Daphne Merkin says, it is “a novel that adroitly touches on everything we’ve ever wanted to know about the inner lives of women.” 
Nessa is the author of a previous novel, Preparing for Sabbath (1981); a book of poetry, A Woman’s Book of Grieving (1994); and a travel memoir, House on The River (2004). In Evening, I didn’t write a story I knew, but I wrote of what I knew. And then, when the article came out, you may recall, all of us were shot in a gauzy haze. I still am. But you first. And, as I’ve often joked with you, that’s not so surprising, since you live beside Riverside Memorial Chapel, which, as noted in the film Network, is where all Jews go when they die. As I recall, I was writing a piece for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine about young editors in book publishing. That plays out in the novel among many of the characters in many generations. This novel tells about Eve and Tam, but also about Nana, Eve’s grandmother, and her sister, Nell. Rather, it’s inevitable that you measure yourself against your sisters. Your memory is better than mine.   For Tam, I needed a name that could have a good nickname, which is how I got to Tamara, used only once in the novel. At one point, I went out for a coffee with Ted Solotaroff, my mentor, of blessed memory, a plumb-true, brilliant editor. Sisters are a thing. It was not an event of memory; it was the recent experience of so many people in Toronto. I’m fascinated by these writers who set their novels in a far corner of Russia and seem to have all the verisimilitude. You have a culture that you create, a set of jokes you tell; there’s a vocabulary. And there’s no question that, whether you’re sunny or not, grief is coming your way. It is really different, if you’ve read memoirs by these women, especially Virginia Woolf, the most famous among them. That is a coincidence! The uses of beauty, the impact of beauty. I was probably smaller than you expected as well. So I wondered: Are there Jewish textual liturgical references in Evening? Great Britain lost 750,000 men, many of them husbands. There’s an intimacy about sisters: you know each other’s bodies; you know each other’s scent. At least this novel has the virtue of being funny. Many Canadian Jews were more recent immigrants, a generation or two later than American Jews. In addition, I am a perfectionist, which doesn’t work very well when applied to your children or your life. It wasn’t quite the same as being observant, but there were norms. Talk a little bit about the power of sisters and why you chose to explore that theme in this novel. When I started out, the characters were more Jewishly observant. Again, I didn’t plot it out, I didn’t have a map. There are not many realms in life that allow one to do that. There were some people that Andy wanted in the article, and my editor also wanted more women editors in the mix. I’m not talking about the classic, pre-feminist portrait of sisters. That’s funny. In my family of origin, reading was everybody’s hobby. I was that child who read as I was walking down the stairs and had a novel on my lap at my desk in school. I was also surprised that your office was smaller than I had expected for such a powerful editor. But I never forget the impact of second-wave feminism on the life of my generation. So, when I showed up [at Andy Warhol’s Union Square Factory, where Interview was then housed], they styled me as if I were a supermodel. Whenever I would read interviews with writers where they said, “the characters just chose to do X” or “the character got away from me,” I thought it was a little pretentious. Then, after the funeral, Eve, the narrator, discovers a secret about Tam that throws into question her idea of her sister, herself, and her family. I don’t think I could be the kind of writer who wrote about a world I’d not heard of. I needed to figure out how to resolve what I set up. I always knew, growing up in the ’50s, that something was awry. That’s very meta. It’s about two sisters in their 30s, one of whom is grieving for the other. That’s a good question. Very lucky. My son has said, “Mom’s family’s idea of fun is to sit around the table comparing their favorite grammatical errors.”
My father was a physician, and my mother was a teacher. I say I spent a year, but the truth is, it took me three years. The combination of my temperament and the kind of writer I am causes me to repeat what I’m trying to resolve. You’ve described yourself as “the Jewiest writer ever.” So I thought it would be appropriate to discuss some of the Jewish aspects of this novel, starting with the fact that it takes place in Toronto. Maybe yes, maybe no. Not at all. Born in the early ’50s, I thought the Holocaust happened long ago, but, of course, it had just ended. I found more than one. We should, yes, grieve the tragedies and the losses but not base our entire identity on the Shoah — which, nonetheless, remains the highest indicator of Jewish identity among North American Jews. What does beauty earn you? I wanted to make a book where every word was chosen. Is there a deeper meaning in their chosen names? But I still have a paper copy from a long, long time ago. But in this case, with my 32-page, single-spaced, double-column document of every word in this novel, I felt really good. More important — and it’s not something I realized until after I wrote the book — is that Eve has beauty, to which she does not give much credence, but Tam has “everything”: a glamorous career, a devoted husband, a beautiful old house, and two lovable children. But I never let go of these two sisters. One was A Woman’s Book of Grieving. I’m so exacting that, by the time I’ve finished, I know I’m done. An obsession with language was always part of my work. What happened instead is that all these tidbits and tendrils that had lodged in my unconscious surfaced in ways that I really don’t feel I was in control of. I don’t mean high-minded reading, but any and all reading. They remind me a little bit of Laurie Colwin’s characters, who are Jewish but not very ethnically so. I chose names that were biblical, but not parochial. You have discussed elsewhere how you created this giant document that tracked your use of words and where they appear. And the mother, who was raised with more tradition, rebelled, as many women did who were not born into feminism. The book is called Evening partly because the Jewish calendar starts in the evening; all the holy days begin in the evening. Both of them had stacks of library books on their bedside tables. I would say I’ve devoted most of my adult life to the idea that we should not, as a people, identify with the Shoah as the primary metric of Jewishness. I think you’re right that Tam and Eve are trying to break out of something. And I say to my children all the time, were it not for feminism, I’d be in an insane asylum. Beyond that, Nessa has been one of my closest friends for more than 35 years. And, of course, it’s about grieving, set in a shiva house and structured over the seven days of Jewish mourning. It happens that my grandmother was born in Canada, in 1897. Her essays and stories have been published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and her column, “Inner Life,” appeared in The Jewish Week. So, in that sense, you’re right. Here were these two parents who had grown up in the Depression, with a lot of deference to their own parents and to authority. I didn’t plan it. And I think that’s what you’re perceiving. They continued to fascinate me. It wasn’t such a dramatic situation. There’s also rivalry and competition. The following conversation — conducted live over Zoom for Diesel, a bookstore in Santa Monica, and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple — has been edited for clarity and concision. But between two sisters, when one is strikingly attractive and the other grows up with that sister: I found it a really interesting subject for fiction. But, in fact, it’s not so. And the ’50s weren’t the Victorian era. In the book, I quote Nana, the grandmother, who’s around 90, talking about how, when she was young in Canada, pregnant women wouldn’t leave the house to take a walk except after dark. We are four sisters within six years, and I am the eldest. But to your point, talk a little bit about why in your writing grieving is a subject that so compels you. It’s always intrigued me. My teachers were sometimes survivors, too. I grew up in a house where my mother corrected my friends’ grammar, which I assure you did not endear her to them. You had published your first novel, Preparing for Sabbath, and were also a big deal in publishing because you had edited a book that established the category of business biography category: Iacocca, written by our mutual friend Bill Novak. And he said, “Plot is character. JANUARY 10, 2021

NESSA RAPOPORT’S NEW NOVEL, Evening, has been hailed as “smart, darkly funny” by Publishers Weekly, and Lilith called the novel both “deeply Jewish and (wait for it) deeply Canadian,” adding that “[t]here’s very little feminist fiction worthy of this claim.” Evening is all that, as well as being a beautifully written, masterfully crafted exploration of sisterhood, families, lovers, and love. There were skeptics who thought I would never let go of Evening, but I was not hanging onto it. Was it a decision to treat the Shoah? To attain that accelerated speed, I took 26 years to write it!