“Written across histories as seemingly varied as Lithuania’s Jewish Kovno Ghetto and Queer Nation San Francisco, Paper Is White connects them in a very different sort of adventure novel, where remembering someone you love becomes one of the most radical things you can do. Zaid is fierce, a rebel with a cause, and her breathtaking leaps of imagination make new worlds possible.” –Alexander Chee, author of Queen of the Night and How to Write and Autobiographical Novel
An Interview with Hilary Zaid
HIlary Zaid's debut novel, PAPER IS WHITE was published on March 13, 2018 by Bywater Books. Since the publication of her novel, I have been able to interview Hilary about her novel and her writing process.
Question - Please describe what the book is about.
Hillary Zaid - When Holocaust oral historian Ellen Margolis and her girlfriend decide to get married, Ellen's search for a blessing leads her into a complicated relationship with a wily survivor of the Kaunas Ghetto, a woman in search of a blessing of her own. Set in ebullient, 1990s Dot-com era San Francisco, PAPER IS WHITE is a novel about the gravitational pull of the past and the words we must find to make ourselves whole.
Q - What’s the story behind the title?
HZ - The title of the novel, PAPER IS WHITE, comes from a traditional Yiddish lullaby sung by Tanja Solnik on her album Lullabies and Love Songs. The first time I heard that song, which was many years into writing the book, I knew I had found the perfect title for a novel that is so fundamentally about the silences that define so many of our relationships with each other and with the past. Silence is one of the most profound responses to the Holocaust, to American Jewish mid-century assimilation and, I think, to the experience of many immigrant families in America.
Q - No spoiler, but tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket.
HZ - A book that’s in part about the legacy of the Holocaust sounds like it would be depressing. But, in fact, there’s a lot of humor here. As Nayomi Munaweera noted: “An important book. Also, a very funny book.”
Q - Are your character based on real people, or do they come from your imaginations?
HZ - Strange but true: I like to use real people as “character actors” sometimes. I might have a certain person in mind when I create a character, but the character is not biographically the same in any way as the real person. But I think: “How would this person act in this situation?” or “How would this person say this?” For me, thinking about the mannerisms and speech patterns of a specific person can help me give life and consistency to a character.
Q - How long did you take to write this book?
HZ - I started taking notes for this novel in 1997 when I finished graduate school in 1997. But I didn’t start writing in earnest, with a fire burning under me, until my youngest child turned one. One day early that year, the characters who had been sleeping for almost a decade just woke up and demanded to be heard. That child just turned 14. So, yeah. Novels take time.
Q - What did you remove from this book during the editing process?
HZ - During the editing process, I removed 75% of this book, a number of sub plots and quite a few characters! I think it’s better for the cuts, but they weren’t always easy to see at the time. For a novel about what is not spoken, the fact that more than half of it is no longer visible to the reader strikes me as particularly fitting.
Q - Are you a plotter or a pantser?
HZ - For this novel, I was an absolute pantser. I was writing at first with a napping child and my goal was to sit down the minute his head hit the pillow and keep writing until he got up. At that point, I couldn’t put any other constraints on myself. I wrote everything long hand in notebooks upon notebooks. Eventually, an elaborate system of index cards helped me fit scenes together.
Q - What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?
HZ - Discovery. Starting off in a scene and watching where my unconscious mind takes me, peeling back layers, discovering what feels necessary.
Q - What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?
HZ - Juggling writing with the commitments of family and earning a living is a huge challenge. Always.
Q - Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?
HZ - I had “writer’s block” for 20 years or so. Now I have no patience for that. There are good writing days and not so good writing days, but there have to be writing days. Period.
Q - If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
HZ - Just write. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks about it.
Q - How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
HZ - I am currently working on another novel—my Work in Progress. Before really tackling it, I put aside another novel on which I had worked for years. It took a long time to discover that it was missing a critical plot engine and just didn’t have the infrastructure necessary to get going. I also have a YA project that I shelved for a while, but I think I’ll come back to it. It’s completed, in need of review and still timely.
Q - How did you get into writing?
HZ - I think writing is a congenital situation. Writers are born with that need to compose the world in language, the pleasure that comes from the internal generation of words. At least, that’s how it is for me.
Q – What are you currently reading?
HZ - Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which I liked a lot, and which reminded me of Karl Ove Knauusgaard. I’m about to start Liz Rosner’s Survivor Café. Liz and I will be reading together with Rachel Hall (Heirlooms) at Oakland Library’s Main Branch on June 7.
Hilary Zaid’s Biography
A 2017 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Hilary Zaid is also an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Tin House Writers' Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in print and online venues including Lilith Magazine, The Southwest Review, The Utne Reader, CALYX, The Santa Monica Review, and The Tahoma Literary Review and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. An alumna of Harvard and Radcliffe, she holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and works as a freelance editor. Hilary lives in the Bay Area with her family.
Links to Hilary Zaid