Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Currently opinion editor at the Forward, she has also published work in the Daily Beast, the Rumpus, BuzzFeed, and Electric Literature. She has appeared on NPR, BBC, and Huffington Post Live. Her six plays have been produced in theaters from Vancouver to New York. Sigal earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Originally from Montreal, she now lives and writes in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.
Rachel Cordasco: Favorite writers? Favorite books?
Sigal Samuel: My favorite dead writer is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who wrote Brothers Karamazov. My favorite living writer is Nicole Krauss, who wrote The History of Love.
Which sometimes leads me to wonder: What sort of person would you get
if you combined the two? And what sort of book would that person write? I
don’t know, but it would probably be depressing as hell, in the most
beautiful way possible.
RC: How has growing up in Canada and living in the U.S. informed your writing/general worldview?
SS: I grew up in Canada reading a lot of American
books, and they always made it seem like the entire universe consisted
of a few blocks in Brooklyn’s Park Slope plus a few blocks in
Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When I wrote the first draft of my novel, I
unselfconsciously set it in Montreal. By the time I sat down to write
the second draft, I had moved to Brooklyn and was wondering whether I
should move the whole story down here, too. Would that make my novel
more marketable? Easier for American readers to relate to? Ultimately I
decided that the world has enough Brooklyn books, and that I would trust
readers to take an interest in something beyond their immediate
surroundings. They haven’t let me down.
RC: I’m loving your debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End. What was the genesis of the book and how did that change as you wrote?
SS: My dad was a professor of Jewish mysticism and
he taught me Kabbalah starting at a very young age. So I always knew I
wanted to make use of those texts and ideas in a novel. (Or, to put it
more accurately, I couldn’t not use them — telling me not to
write about mystics would’ve been like telling me not to breathe
oxygen.) I wanted to take these medieval religious ideas and bring them
into a contemporary, secular, urban setting, so that I could explore the
question: What would happen if someone like you or me tried to climb
the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life as a way to reach God, right now, in 2015?
I turned to J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey often while
writing, because I think he’s asking a similar question in that book,
which is one of my favorites. But whereas Salinger uses two voices to
tell his story, I found I needed a few more. I wanted to show a
dysfunctional Jewish family falling under the sway of a dangerous
mystical obsession, with each person getting the chance to tell their
side of the story. Here are the four perspectives I ended up with: an
endearingly nerdy little boy, an atheist middle-aged professor, a female
college student who’s losing her mind, and the Montreal neighborhood
they all live in — Mile End — which is home to hipsters and Hasidic
RC: How does working as an editor and writer at the Forward influence your fiction-writing and vice versa (or at all)?
SS: Working as a newspaper editor has cured me of
the tendency to get too attached to my own passages, even (or
especially) when they’re long meandering paragraphs full of very pretty
sentences that don’t advance the plot. I used to find it impossible to
cut those paragraphs. Now I’m so practiced at hacking away at other
writers’ work that I know better than to protest “but I couldn’t
possibly shorten that, this part simply can’t be cut!” An editor needs
me to chop 10,000 words out of my book? I say, sure, no problem.
Caveat: In every book there will be at least one passage that you
will fight to the death to keep. That’s good. Mine is on page 130.
RC: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
SS: If you don’t see characters like yourself or
your relatives represented in books, don’t assume that means you can’t
write about such people. Assume the opposite! Why not write exactly those
kinds of people? Instead of aiming for some mythic “neutral universal”
(to borrow a phrase from Zadie Smith), trust that you will get at the
universal through the particular.
RC: What’s your favorite Yiddish-ism?
SS: My favorite Yiddish-ism is “Verter zol men vegn un nit tseyln,”
which means: Words should be weighted, not counted. The characters in
my novel are all terrible communicators, and they’re constantly hoarding
language, counting out each precious phrase they expend, as if they
believe we’re each born with a finite stash of words inside us and as
soon as we use them all up we’ll die. Actually, one of my characters
believes that literally. I always want to tell him: Yes, by all means,
weigh your words, consider them carefully, but don’t be so goddamn
Since my own Jewish family doesn’t actually come from
Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe — instead, we’re from India, Iraq and
Morocco — I can’t leave without also giving you one of my favorite
Arabic-isms. “Bukra fil mishmish” is an expression that
literally translates to “tomorrow morning, you can have apricots.” Thing
is, you can never really enjoy apricots the day after you pick them,
because they turn to mush too fast. So when you say this phrase to
someone, you’re sarcastically telling them: It ain’t gonna happen. Or,
as a Brooklynite might say: Fuhgeddaboutit.
(first posted on Book Riot 12/13/15)