Novelist Ayelet Waldman takes a detour from contemporary fiction in her latest book, Love & Treasure. The novel is something of a triptych, weaving three disparate stories together through their shared connection to one of history’s darkest moments: the Holocaust. We asked Waldman a few questions about this compelling story.
This novel is a treasure trove of information about the early suffragette movement, the Gold Train and the art appraisal process. How much time did you spend researching, and where did you draw the line between research enriching your novel and distracting you from writing it?
Research is so much more fun than writing that it can be a delicious trap. I began this novel with research. I found the story of the Gold Train, and then began reading about Budapest. Very quickly I realized I wanted to set some part of the story during the period immediately before World War I, a period of great security for the Jews of Budapest. That’s pretty much all I knew when I packed my bags for Budapest and Salzburg.
"When writing historical fiction—really, all fiction—research must deepen and contextualize without distracting."
It was in Budapest that I learned about the International Women’s Suffrage Conference, which inspired the third section of the novel. In Salzburg I learned about the DP camps, and then visiting Dachau I found out more about the fate of Hungary’s Jews. That was enough for me to begin the novel. I kept researching throughout, but I forced myself to write at the same time, both because then my research could be more focused, and because otherwise I knew I could luxuriate in research for decades and never begin the hard work of writing the novel.
When writing historical fiction—really, all fiction—research must deepen and contextualize without distracting. I didn’t want the detail to overwhelm the story, but I also know that historical verisimilitude is one of the great pleasures of reading historical fiction.
With its three very disparate points of view, the novel at times feels like three interconnected novellas. Did you write them in order? Which one was the easiest for you to write? The most challenging?
I wrote them in order, though there was a time when I wondered if I should break them up and intersperse them. I quickly decided that that would be confusing, and it would rob the novel of one of its primary pleasures, the suspense in the search for and ultimate discovery of to whom the necklace belonged.
The 1913 section just spilled out of me in a frantic rush. I have no idea where the voice of the psychoanalyst came from. It was like he was lying in wait for me for years, hovering anxiously, looking for a chance to be brought to life.
The hardest part was definitely the contemporary section. It needed to stand up to the other two, both of which had the benefit of being historical. The unfamiliar is inherently fascinating. It takes work to make the familiar interesting.
Amitai discusses his parents growing up on a Kibbutz and how important it was for his parents (and family) to continue their bloodline and only date Syrian Jews. Having lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year, was that something you witnessed or felt firsthand?
I lived in Israel for much longer than a year. I started going to the kibbutz on which I based Amitai’s when I was in sixth grade, ultimately spending my summers there in high school, a year there in college, and another (almost) year when I graduated. For six years I dated a boy from the kibbutz whose family history I borrowed for Amitai’s. The complex covenants of the Syrian Jewish community in the United States was something I read about in a terrific New York Times article in 2007.
Recently, there have been several popular novels that were inspired by real-life paintings (The Goldfinch, The Art Thief). Does the peacock necklace or portrait in the novel exist in real life?
Nope. I made that all up!
In one passage in the first section, Ilona stated, “But now I study Hebrew. . . . It took Hitler to make me a good Jew.” You later continue with, “could a religious identity be crafted from anger and disgust?” Could you expand this a bit?
One of the ironies of having experienced as a people a near (but not total) genocide, is that it engenders a feeling of responsibility and of identification. Had the Holocaust never happened, my Jewish identity would probably not be so important to me. But even 70 years later, the idea of being part of the “remnant” influences how I think about and define myself. Because Hitler and his hundreds of thousands of willing compatriots worked so hard to murder us, I feel like I must take a public stand, no matter that I was also raised to be an atheistic, deeply suspicious of religion.
"Had the Holocaust never happened, my Jewish identity would probably not be so important to me."
Amitai states, “one theft does not make a man a thief.” Do you believe this to be true?
I think it can be true (we aren’t necessarily defined by our worst deeds), but it can also be a convenient thing one tells oneself if one is seeking to avoid responsibility for one’s actions. In the case of Jack, it seems his crime was a minor one, given the historical context. But all minor crimes do, in the end, add up.
This is your second book with the word “love” in the title. Was this a conscious choice? If not (or even if so), what is the inspiration behind the title?
I actually sort of hate the idea that the two titles share the word “love.” But Love & Treasure was just the perfect title. I couldn’t resist it. I’ve never been a huge fan of the title Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (I didn’t choose it), and I couldn’t bear to sacrifice a really apt and pithy title because of one I wasn’t fond of.
What are you working on next?
Since finishing the novel, I’ve written no fewer than six TV pilots (none of them picked up), but I have only just recently begun a new novel. It’s too soon really to know what it’s about, but I can say that it, like Love & Treasure, will have both historical and contemporary elements. If things go as planned, there will be sections in the French Riviera immediately before World War II, in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, and in New England in the 1960s.