‘Almost Perfect Symmetry’: An Interview with Nora Gold

Interviews

noragoldBy Trevor Corkum

Dr. Nora Gold is a prize-winning writer and the author of three books: The Dead ManFields of Exile (winner of the 2015 Canadian Jewish Literary Award and praise from Cynthia Ozick), and Marrow and Other Stories (winner of a Canadian Jewish Book Award and praise from Alice Munro). In addition, Gold is the founder and editor of the prestigious online literary journal Jewish Fiction .net, and the Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education (CWSE) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) – University of Toronto, where she started and hosts The Wonderful Women Writers Series.

Nora Gold’s new novel The Dead Man explores the shadowy terrain of emotional obsession. Eve, a composer of sacred music and a music therapist, returns to Israel for a professional workshop only to find herself haunted by memories of a profound and devastating relationship. While Eve wanders the bustling streets of Jerusalem, she struggles to make sense of her tumultuous connection to Jake. It’s a book that asks important questions about the difficult roots of attachment and the complex work involved in healing our emotional wounds.


The Dead Man explores the emotional torment of a music therapist named Eve, as she attempts to put the memories of a powerful relationship behind her. How did the novel first announce itself to you?

The idea for this novel first came to me thanks to a night of insomnia. One night I couldn’t sleep, so at three a.m. I started channel surfing, and soon found myself watching the middle of a compelling movie that I subsequently discovered was called Play Misty For Me. In case you don’t know it, this is a 1971 film directed by, and featuring, Clint Eastwood, about a disc jockey who’s being stalked by a female fan who is obsessed with him. I don’t remember much more than that about it, but I do recall my reaction at the time. I watched this young woman stalking this man, and I wondered, What does she think this man—or his love, or admiration—can do for her? What does she think he can give her, or make her into? What belief is underlying this desperate behaviour?

Being a feminist, of course the answer I came up with was that this young woman lacked feminist consciousness. She doesn’t understand, I thought, that her well-being does not (and cannot) depend upon a man, or on any other human being. If she knew that, I thought back then, then she wouldn’t, couldn’t, be obsessed like this with a man. In other words, I understood her obsession to be a failure of feminist consciousness—of not having the correct understanding of the world and her place in it.

Before encountering this film, I had never really thought about obsession, and it had never particularly interested me. But now it started percolating at the back of my mind while I did, and wrote, other things. And as time passed, I revisited my assessment of the young woman in that movie, and decided that my conclusion had been too simple, maybe even simplistic. I realized, from looking around me and from reading a bit about it, that obsessiveness, as a phenomenon, can strike anyone. Even a feminist—someone with a crystal clear understanding of sexism in the world—could become obsessed with a man. And I found this intriguing: the complexity of the relationship between the mind (with its ideologies) and the heart (with its own set of beliefs). So that was the genesis of this novel.

I was very drawn to your exploration of Eve’s intense, many-years-long obsession with her ex-lover, Jake. You describe the powerful hold unrequited love can claim in our private minds and psyches. As a writer, what were the most challenging aspects of developing Eve’s character?

The most challenging aspects of developing Eve’s character were having to enter into, and inhabit, the inner life of an obsessed person, and try and understand why, and how, someone becomes—and then remains—obsessed. Obsession exacts enormous costs from an individual (emotionally, psychologically, creatively and in terms of wasting whole years of one’s life), so it was a challenge for me to fathom why anyone would hold on to an obsession rather than finding a way to let it go.

Initially, like some of Eve’s friends, I was quite impatient with her, wanting her to just get over Jake and move on with her life. But once I imagined my way into Eve’s inner world—a torturous world that was not easy to inhabit for the duration of writing this novel—I found that Eve made sense to me, and I could see her on her own terms and accept her as a full character worthy of my respect and compassion. Only at that point did I start to feel that perhaps I could do justice to the depth of this character, in all her complexity and integrity.

Speaking of Eve’s inner world, she’s an artist, and like any artist, this terrain comes with its own triumphs and self-doubts. Shes a composer, and deeply immersed in the world of Jewish music. Throughout the novel, music—in particular, sacred music—plays an important role in how we learn about Eve and her changing relationship with Jake. How much research was involved in creating and exploring this particular musical world? Were there any personal highlights for you from that research?

This is a question I am often asked about The Dead Man. In fact, though, I didn’t do any research at all for this novel. I am a music lover and always have been. I love almost every kind of music and have been listening to, and learning about, music ever since I can remember. So when I wrote the musical aspects of this novel, I just drew on knowledge that I already had.

Staying with the topic of art and creative communities, your portrayal of the dynamics within the Jewish music community may ring familiar to many other creative communities: there are rivalries, jealousies, shifting allegiances, ongoing competition and struggle for recognition. Powerful positions are occupied mainly by older men (like Jake), and it’s within this web of power that Eve struggles to advance her own career. In addition to writing, youre also currently Writer in Residence at the Centre for Womens Studies in Education (CWSE) within OISE at the University of Toronto. I know its a large and complicated question, but how far do you feel weve come in terms of achieving equality and true equity within the Canadian literary community, and what work remains to be done?

This is a large and complicated question, so in the space available here, I can only touch the tip of the iceberg. Not just in our literary community but in Canadian society as a whole, power has historically resided with white, Christian males, and vestiges of this still remain. I believe, though, that we now live in a much more diverse and equitable world than previously, thanks in large part to the enormous efforts of many Canadians over the past three or four decades. If we look at who is writing the books published in Canada today, the rich diversity of Canadian writers is undeniable, and this diversity is the direct result of increased equity. I have spent much of my adult life fighting oppression in various forms, so I am delighted by this change, and think it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate it.

At the same time, of course, there is always more work to be done. One area that’s rarely discussed and that I think could use more attention is ageism. This is obviously not unique to the literary community; Canadian society as a whole (like many other societies) is youth-worshipping and ageist. But I see this as a problem for our community specifically because ageism sometimes results in the marginalization of our older writers in ways that are subtle but real.

Finally, speaking more conceptually, I think the dynamics of power and powerlessness are much deeper and more complex than many people realize. In my view, focusing only on the “isms” (important as they are) is an incomplete approach to fostering equity and inclusiveness. For example, I recently heard from a number of white, Christian male writers that in our current climate, they not only feel, but sometimes are (by any objective standard) excluded. In a way, this situation is not surprising: the pendulum always swings back and forth, and the pendulum right now is where it is. But I think if we really want to promote the health and vibrancy of our literary community, we need to be very vigilant, thoughtful and nuanced in our strategies. Only if we are will we be able to build a community that is genuinely inclusive, and that doesn’t inadvertently just replace one set of exclusions with another.

I’m intrigued by the structure of The Dead Man. The book is divided into three sections and feels itself much like a music composition. How intentional was this structure, and were there technical challenges over the course of its execution?

The musical structure of The Dead Man was definitely intentional. I wanted to infuse music into this novel as much as possible, and I realized that one way to accomplish this would be to actually build this novel in the structure of a musical composition. One of my favourite musical forms is the sonata, so this was a logical choice to use. Sonatas typically consist of three main sections: an exposition, a development and a recapitulation, and I loved the idea of opening my novel with a specific theme, in the second section developing this theme further, and ending the work with a return to the original theme (though in a modified way). This structure really resonates with me because it underscores how, when we revisit something in life—a place, a person, whatever—the experience may be similar in certain ways to the original one, but it is never exactly the same. Over time the original theme has been developed, and therefore altered. So in the act of revisiting, the form is not a circle but a spiral. Still, it is a kind of “coming home” to return, at the end of a book, to the place where we started. It is satisfying. So this is how I arrived at the titles of the three main sections of The Dead Man: Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation.

In terms of technical challenges, something that wasn’t exactly a technical challenge but did worry me at one point was that these three main sections seemed quite unequal in length. The exposition was 113 pages, the development thirty-three, and the recapitulation 110. In a sonata, the three movements do not have to be exactly the same length, but the numbers of these pages struck me as rather unbalanced. When I examined this more closely, though, I realized that there was balance in this “composition”—in fact, almost perfect symmetry. The first and last sections are virtually identical in length (113 pages and 110). It was only the middle section (thirty-three pages), that seemed disproportionate. So this got me thinking about time, and how sometimes, in a very small space of time, enormous changes can occur within a person. For example, Eve’s entire life is transformed in just a few days in Israel—and in fact this happens during the Development section of The Dead Man, the shortest part of this novel. So it is possible to experience something so meaningful or intense that it changes your whole life, even though it happened in just a day, an hour, or a moment. The Greeks acknowledged linguistically that the significance of an experience doesn’t necessarily correspond to how long it takes, by using two different words for “time”: chronos and kairos. Chronos is chronological time, whereas kairos is the kind of time when something of significance occurs. So in retrospect, I think that when writing The Dead Man (though I wasn’t conscious of it then), I made use of both of these kinds of time (chronos and kairos), and in this way provided symmetry to my novel, and also varied the rhythm of its music.

I love the distinction you make here with time. That’s a helpful lens through which to consider the novel. I wanted to turn now to your other activities. In addition to your own writing, you’re also the editor of the online fiction journal Jewish Fiction. net, a journal devoted to the work of Jewish writers from around the world. How did the project come into being? Can you talk more about your vision for the journal?

The initial impetus, six years ago, for Jewish Fiction. net came from my realization that the crisis in the publishing industry, caused by the advent of digital technology, was having a particularly adverse effect on writers of Jewish fiction. Of course, all writers were affected by this crisis, but its implications were even more severe for authors (like those writing Jewish fiction) whose work was considered to have a niche market. Very quickly there was a dramatic reduction in the number of houses willing to publish this kind of work, unless the author was already very well-established. I became concerned about what was going to happen to all the great fiction sitting in the drawers of talented emerging writers, and the possibility that these stories might get lost. So I created Jewish Fiction.net, an online literary journal where first-rate Jewish-themed fiction from around the world could find a home and receive the kind of attention and visibility it deserved.

When I founded Jewish Fiction .net, it was the only English-language journal in the world, either in print or online, devoted exclusively to the publishing of Jewish fiction. It still is. We are proud of that, and also of having published, in our first eighteen issues, 300 first-rate stories or novel excerpts on Jewish themes (either written in, or translated into, English, but never before published in English). These works were originally written in fourteen languages (Italian, Spanish, French, English, Hungarian, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, Turkish, Polish, Croatian, Hebrew, Ladino and Yiddish) and we have readers in 140 countries.

We are also honoured that Jewish Fiction .net has published fiction by some of the most eminent Jewish writers of our time, such as Elie Wiesel, Aharon Appelfeld, and Savyon Liebrecht (to name just a few), as well as many fine writers not yet well-known. In both groups of writers, Canadians are represented, including George Jonas, Morley Torgov and Chava Rosenfarb. It is a source of pride to us that our internationally respected journal is based in Toronto, and is Canadian.

In terms of my vision for Jewish Fiction .net, this journal, since its inception, has always had a social vision alongside its literary one. For years I have been deeply concerned about the divisions, divisiveness, and polarizations within the Jewish world, so a prominent feature of Jewish Fiction .net is its diversity and inclusiveness. We have made a point of publishing fiction by authors who are secular and religious (“religious” encompassing all the streams of Judaism), Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, right-wing and left-wing, old and young, female and male, economically privileged and disadvantaged, community-affiliated and community-alienated, LGBTI and straight, and from Israel and the Diaspora. We have even published fiction by non-Jewish authors who have written excellent Jewish-themed stories. So Jewish Fiction .net is a place where all voices can be heard.

In another expression of our commitment to inclusiveness, Jewish Fiction .net subsists entirely on donations so has always been free of charge for its readers, therefore accessible to all. Our journal is run entirely by volunteers (myself included), and I feel lucky to be working on Jewish Fiction .net with an amazing team of volunteers. Recently one of them told me that she thinks of Jewish Fiction .net as a gift to the world, and I realized I feel this way, too, as do many other people. I am frequently surprised and gratified by the outpourings of appreciation and affection that Jewish Fiction .net receives. This journal happens to be a very labour-intensive project for me, but it is truly a labour of love.

Finally, what are you working on currently? Any new projects we can look forward to reading? 

I am currently working on something new, which until recently I thought was going to be a collection of linked stories, but which now seems to be telling me it wants to be a novella, or maybe even a novel. It keeps changing under my hand, yet the mood of it and the issues it deals with remain constant, so I do know what it is “about.” Very, very broadly: solitude, community and the interaction of these two things.

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Contributor

Trevor Corkum


Trevor Corkum's fiction and non-fiction have been published widely. Among other awards, his work has been nominated for the Journey Prize, the CBC Prizes for Fiction and Nonfiction, and the National Magazine Award for Fiction. His novel The Electric Boy is forthcoming with Doubleday Canada.