I am thrilled to welcome Ellen Litman as my guest on The Debutante Ball today. Ellen is the author of the glowingly reviewed The Last Chicken in America. In the The New York Times Book Review, Maud Newton said, “Ellen Litman’s elegantly constructed web of stories about Russian-Jewish immigrants living in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh… is warm, true and original, and packed with incisive one-liners.” George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill and Steve Almond have also all lavishly praised her work. Ellen grew up in Moscow, where she lived until 1992 when her family immigrated to the United States. She earned her MFA at Syracuse, won first prize in the Atlantic Monthly 2003 Fiction Contest, was awarded the 2006 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, as well as a fiction fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (that’s our connection. I met her at the Wisconsin Book Festival the year she was a fellow over a great dinner with Charles Baxter and Richard Bausch). Her stories have appeared in Best New American Voices 2007, Best of Tin House, Triquarterly, Ploughshares and elsewhere. She is now an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut.
In her post today, she shares a fascinating inside look at what happens when you read your work close to home.
When the Neighbors Don’t Love You by Ellen Litman
October is the month of spooky activities: haunted houses, haunted hayrides, trick-or-treating, playing with a display of battery-operated skeletons at your local Home Depot. Or, if you are a writer, doing a reading in your hometown.
In my case, the hometown was Pittsburgh — not my real hometown (that would be Moscow), but an adoptive one, where my family immigrated to in 1992. My parents have lived there ever since, and now I was going “home” to read from my first book, The Last Chicken in America, a novel in stories about Russian immigrants. I had set the book in Pittsburgh, in the neighborhood called Squirrel Hill, and it seemed like a good idea to do a reading there. Didn’t all writers read in their hometowns?
The early reviews had been positive, and in my pre-publication euphoria, I somehow imagined the real Squirrel Hill falling in love with its fictional image – or at least showing up for the reading. Never mind that I myself haven’t lived in Pittsburgh in 12 years. Never mind that I rarely visited, or that when I did, I felt ambivalent at best. None of that occurred to me at the time. A reading was arranged at the Squirrel Hill branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, in the heart of the neighborhood I fictionalized. It was scheduled on a weekday, at 1 o’clock, and I kvetched to my publicist about this unfortunate timing, not seeing yet how this was maybe a blessing in disguise.
What happened next was, some angry former neighbors came out of the woodwork. They had read the book (or so they claimed) and decided they were in it. Therefore, they hated it. They hated me, they hated every character, and they hated the fictional Squirrel Hill. So much hatred! Really, it was just one Russian family — and most of them hadn’t lived in Pittsburgh in many years — but for a while they made so much noise with their semi-anonymous messages and threats, that it seemed like a lot more. Suddenly Squirrel Hill didn’t seem like such a welcoming place. My father said I should expect some angry people at my reading. (Did he know for sure? No, he said, he was just speculating.) My mother said they were just jealous.
Normally, writers want readers to identify with their characters. But it’s a little strange (and creepy) when the readers begin insisting they are the characters. True, when some of the stories were first published in magazines, my parents would play the game of trying to guess who inspired which character. And occasionally they would forget that it was fiction and say, “Wait a minute, you never mentioned that you didn’t like our house” or “You didn’t tell us about that boyfriend you had in Boston.” Then they would remember: Fiction!
I think all fiction, even the most fantastical, is inspired by reality. It’s inevitable. And in some cases it’s more obvious than in others. Were some of Jane Austen’s neighbors angry at her? I imagine so. Was there an actual woman that inspired Anna Karenina? Possibly. Does it matter? Probably not. Would we think any less of the novel if we discovered that in fact there was a woman Tolstoy based his novel on? That she lived and loved and in the end committed suicide? Perhaps there was more than one?
The point, I think, is that our experiences are kind of universal. People come to America and struggle to assimilate. Immigrants and Americans alike experience loss, sickness, disintegration of their families. Heartbreak isn’t unique to Squirrel Hill. Perhaps the most rewarding thing about publishing The Last Chicken has been the e-mails I got from some fellow Russian immigrants — people I’ve never met, people who’ve read the book and liked it and for whom it felt true.
But not everyone will feel that way. And that’s normal too. I knew, when I was writing it, that I could never accurately depict Squirrel Hill and the immigrant experience. (Besides, what does it mean to be accurate in fiction?) I knew I could only express what it had been like for me. On the day before the reading, as my father drove me from the airport, he said that while he read the book with interest, it didn’t represent the way he’d felt during our early years in Pittsburgh. Fair enough, I said. Maybe one day a book will appear that will represent his experience. Who knows, it might be already written.
As for the reading itself, none of the angry neighbors materialized. It could be because of the timing (1 o’clock, remember?), or because it’s much easier to send anonymous messages than to stand up in a room full of people. Or maybe – more likely – because no one actually cared enough. Which was all right with me. The reading went fine. People came (some Russian, some American); they listened; they asked good questions. They even figured out that my mother was in the audience, and she got to stand up and answer some questions as well. They made me feel at home. At one point, a cell phone rang and a woman proceeded to answer it and carry a brief conversation. For some reason she walked to the front of the room as she did it – I guess, she figured the sound quality was better there. Sure, it was a bit distracting and, um, weird. But hey, homes are supposed to be a little dysfunctional.