Getting to Know Jonathan Rabb

This Thursday we have a shelf talk and signing with author Jonathan Rabb. He will be discussing his newest novel, Among the Living, a post-war novel about identity, belonging, faith, and the South. He has also written award-winning historical thrillers, such as Rosa and Shadow and Light. There will be copies of Among the Living available for purchase. 

1. Among the Living, a novel set in the American Post-War South in 1947 follows the experience of Yitzhak Goldah, a camp survivor, navigating his way in Savannah, Georgia. This novel explores identity and a sense of "home" and belonging. This is unique setting and perspective for a Post-War novel. What led you to this story and these characters?

JR: I’ve always situated my historical fiction in Europe between the wars, but when we moved to Savannah about 8 years ago, I found many of the same qualities here that I had always looked for in, say, Berlin or Barcelona – a decorum with a quiet despair just beneath the surface, a sense of uncertainty. It was wonderful. And even though we were embraced by many of the various communities here, I knew I would always be seen as an outsider of sorts. So, if I were to write about Savannah, I needed a character who was also an outsider. Add to that the startling discovery (given my own northeastern parochialism) that there were actually Jews below the Mason/Dixon Line. It made perfect sense to bring a Czech Jew (my background) to Savannah: as he would come to understand the world, so, too, would I.

Years earlier I’d spent a good deal of time with a cousin of mine, Edi Goldah, (a few years older than my father) who, at the age of 9, had been sent to a concentration camp along with his mother. His father had been sent to a different camp and, miraculously, all three survived and were reunited after the war. When I moved to New York after college, I found myself living across the street from my cousin. We would meet for breakfast from time to time and, while he was leading a very normal life – he was an accountant – it was clear that something remained shattered inside of him. How could it not be? I wanted to create a character who could find hope after that experience, but I knew placing that story in NY would be too obvious. So I put the idea in the back of my mind. When we moved to Savannah, it all came together.

2. Your previous novels were historical thrillers and mysteries, was your experience writing Among the Living any different? 

JR: Very different. I’ve always loved the books of Graham Greene, both his entertainments and, what he called, his more serious novels. The thrillers, set in Germany and Spain  (much like Greene’s Third Man or This Gun for Hire), allowed me to play with some rich moments in history, while still having the fun of a thriller and mystery.

Among the Living was my move to a different kind of book – something more intimate, something where the backdrop of history simply situates the characters in a time and place; history doesn’t dictate the central narrative shifts in the book. Plus, there really isn’t a mystery at the heart of this one. It’s just a man, trying to navigate his way through a world that doesn’t make much sense to him, and not simply because of his recent experiences. The issues seem smaller – maybe even more manageable – but, of course, they’re not.

3. Among the Living, explores a lot of issues, in particular, identity, what is your notion of identity? What is attached to one's identity? 

JR: You’re asking very tough questions. I’m not sure a writer goes into a book thinking, “Gosh, I’d like to write about identity and alienation and….” Those ideas are just too big. You move from one situation to the next, from moment to moment – sometimes even beat to beat – and, if the bigger ideas come through, then you’ve managed something.

When it comes to Goldah, I think I answer part of that question right out of the gate: Within the first five pages of the book, his new family decides that the name Yitzhak will make it tough for him to fit in. They just want to make things easier for him (but, of course, it’s for themselves that it will be easier). So, he goes from Yitzhak to Ike – “good and strong, like the General.” Ten minutes into his time in Savannah, and he’s no longer who he was. But that, in some sense, is the immigrant experience – and I wanted to hit that right from the start. How it makes him rethink who he is beyond the name (and how a number of characters also have to rethink who they are because of his arrival) becomes a driving force in the book.

I suppose, having given you a very long answer to your very short question, identity is fluid, and it’s up to us to define it, so that we can live with the new – and constantly shifting – iterations. Are there certain fundamental things that make us who we are? Sure. But, sometimes, it’s hard to define them.

4. The dialogue in this book is wonderful. How do you capture such genuine interactions and relationships through your dialogue? 

JR: What a very nice thing to say. Thanks. Dialogue to me is all about what’s not being said. I have a tendency to leave a lot off the page (both in prose and in dialogue – Hemingway’s nod to the iceberg comes to mind). I also think that dialogue needs to be jagged – people don’t always respond to the moment when someone else has stopped talking. They backtrack or jump ahead. Plus, if they know each other well, they can speak in a kind of shorthand. The better they begin to know each other – Ike and Eva, for instance – the easier that shorthand becomes. And the reader is aware of that, even if only subconsciously. That also saves dialogue from becoming an excuse for an info dump, which is….not good.

And, of course, it’s always about knowing what each character wants. In any given scene, that’s usually one thing – maybe two, if you juggle well. And they never want the same thing. It might seem that they do….but they don’t.

5. Have you read any books that have completely changed the way you viewed fiction? 

JR: I hope so. I hope I continue to read them. The first one was probably Greene’s The Power and the Glory, or maybe his The Heart of the Matter. I think I was 14. I’d never read anything that made me feel so deeply for a character on the page. And, before then, I’d never stopped to read a line again and again, just to hear it in my head. Plus, Greene has this uncanny way of giving a character a choice that you, as the reader, think nothing of at the time. So you let it go. Then, 50 or 100 pages later, that simple choice comes back to change everything, and you can’t quite believe it. Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina changed the way I looked at characters. The book starts in 1588 and ends in 1914, and the main character throughout is….the bridge. I’d have to include all of Kafka, and…..The list goes on.

6. As a writing professor at Savannah College of Art and Design, what is a piece of writing advice you would give to aspiring writers? 

JR: Writing is hard and solitary, and forces you to spend a lot of time inside your own head, which can be a dangerous place to be. And when you finish something, it goes out into the world, and everyone stakes a claim to what was yours for such a long time.

So while you’re writing, make sure you find the absolute joy in the process. It won’t be joyous all the time. Sometimes, it won’t be joyous at all. But if you don’t experience – from time to time – those exquisite moments, then the rest will become too overwhelming.

Oh, and write every day. There’s an old story about a journalist who went to a writer to do an interview. He asked the writer, “Do you write by inspiration or do you just slog your way through?”

The writer said, “Oh, I write purely by inspiration.”

“Really,” said the interviewer. “Then, why is it that you go out to that little shack behind your house every day, and sit at that desk from10 AM to 4 PM?”

The writer thought a moment, and said, “Oh, I write purely by inspiration. I’m just not willing to wait for it.”

And that’s how you write a novel.

Come visit Jonathan Rabb this Thursday (1/19) at 7pm for a shelf talk and book signing.