Insider/Outsider: Novelist Eileen Pollack

Eileen Pollack
© Nina Hauser

EILEEN POLLACK was born and grew up in Liberty, New York, the heart of the Jewish Catskills, where her grandparents owned and operated a small hotel and her father was the town dentist. A graduate of Yale University with a degree in physics, she later earned an MFA from the University of Iowa.

She is the author of a collection of short fiction, The Rabbi in the Attic And Other Stories (Delphinium Books, 1995); a novel, Paradise, New York (Temple University Press, 2000); a work of creative nonfiction, Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull (University of New Mexico Press, 2002); a collection of stories and novellas, In the Mouth (Four Way Books, 2008), which won the 2008 Edward Lewis Wallant Award and a silver medal in ForeWord Magazine‘s 2008 Book of the Year Awards; a textbook and anthology, Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style, with Readings (Wadsworth/Cengage, 2009); and a second novel, Breaking and Entering (Four Way Books, 2012), which was awarded the 2012 Grub Street National Book Prize and named a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection.

Pollack lives in Ann Arbor and is a member of the faculty of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. Her website is www.eileenpollack.com.

Both of your novels, Paradise, New York (1998) and Breaking and Entering (2012), are very much embedded in a particular place at a specific time, the Catskill Borscht Belt during its last gasp and small-town Michigan in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. How do you balance the political, cultural and sociological issues invoked by these settings against the novel’s demands for plot and character development?

For me, setting is never divorced from character or plot. I don’t think of plot and character development as separate from the political, cultural or sociological forces that would be shaping a novel or story. Basically, when I create a character, I’m thinking of the world in which that person is at home, an insider, someone who belongs. What are the rituals that make up that character’s daily life? What does she wear? Eat? Watch on TV? Does he use slang? Profanity? Contractions? Wear a chai around his neck, or a WWJD bracelet around his wrist? Of course, most of us inhabit many worlds — we’re insiders, or insider/outsiders, in many communities and cultures. But for the purposes of a given short story or novel, I’m usually focusing on one particular world for each character. The conflict/plot then comes from something that acts to disrupt the main character’s equilibrium in his or her world.

So in your work?

In Paradise, New York, Lucy is an insider in the world of the Catskills, but that world is literally crumbling around her. How will she react? In Breaking and Entering, a family of outsiders, the Shapiros, move into a community that doesn’t share their religious or political beliefs (and vice versa), and their arrival sets off a chain of mutual paranoia. In such cases, when someone’s world is disrupted, the underlying values hidden by the choices that person makes in an unthinking way on a day to day basis become exposed, called into question. That’s what interests me thematically. I’m also interested in the way people can be insiders in worlds where we wouldn’t ordinarily think they would be found. I’m also interested in the way people can be insiders in worlds where we wouldn’t ordinarily think they would be found. Mr. Jefferson is an insider in the world of Catskill hotels — and Jewish theology — even though he’s an African-American handyman, which in fact was true of many nonJews I knew growing up in the Catskills. And in the conservative Christian world of western Michigan, we have Em, who is a Wiccan, and Matt Banks, who very much thinks for himself and whose good-heartedness transcends such easy classifications. Richard desperately longs to test his survival skills in the woods with the militia guys because he grew up hearing his father’s and uncle’s tales of surviving the Nazis in the woods of Poland. So these matters of politics/history/sociology/religion aren’t at all divorced from character and plot; they’re intimately intertwined.


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