An Interview with Joan Leegant – Author of Wherever You Go

Do you ever find yourself unintentionally reading in blocks?  Somehow, without any planning on your part, all the books you pick up seem to have something in common?  Over the Summer I couldn’t get away from Argentinian authors (not that I really wanted to).  Now it seems I’m on a bit of a Jewish literature jag.

Wherever You Go is an engrossing novel, and a much more comfortable read than The Prague Cemetery.  The writing style is contemporary.  The storytelling is solid.  And the prose moves along so gently that you’ll forget you’re even reading a book.  Hours flew by without my noticing.

Wherever You Go follows the emotional journeys of three protagonists.  (More about them in a moment).  Their journeys, all quests for redemption in one form or another, take them to Israel.  And Joan Leegant’s descriptions of that place had me longing to catch the next flight to Tel Aviv!  Through her characters we’re able experience different facets of this amazing and troubled country – West Bank settlements; the Jewish radicalism/extremism at the fringe of Israeli society; the complicated relationship between Jewish Americans & Israelis; the religious and the secular citizens of Jerusalem, desirous of peace.  It’s an engrossing portrait of a country as described by the people who live & visit there.  And when I had the opportunity to ask Joan Leegant a few questions: Israel was at the top of my list.

tolmsted:  All three main characters find a home & solace in Israel, regardless of their level of commitment to religion and not always with good results.  For example –  Mark Greenglass, who spends the majority of the novel in NYC and who I felt was the most centered of your characters, doesn’t fully come into himself until he’s back in Jerusalem.

Which brings me to the title of your novel, Wherever You Go. It’s a famous quote from the Old Testament.  Ruth’s request to her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” .  It made me wonder if Israel is to the characters, in a sense, what Naomi was to Ruth?

Can you talk about the role of Israel in the book and in your character’s lives?  Part of me wants to ask what Israel represents (maybe I am asking that), but the idea and actuality of the country of Israel  is so loaded with meaning and expectations it’s hard to imagine it representing anything other than itself.

Joan Leegant:  You’re correct that Israel itself is almost a character in the book; the
story could not have taken place anywhere else. One major element of the novel
is religious extremism, in particular Jewish religious extremism. This is a huge
issue in Israel today, commanding headlines in fact this week due to some
incidents involving religious extremists.

Israel is also central to each of the three main characters’ lives and quests,
though they are all Americans who find themselves in Jerusalem for different
reasons. Yona Stern has come to make amends with her sister who is a radical West
Bank settler fiercely committed to the settler movement. So Yona’s experience of
Israel in the novel is given largely through the lens of the settlement issue. Mark
Greenglass is a more overtly devout man who, when the book opens, is enduring
a crisis of religious faith. For him, Israel is the place that enabled him to
embrace that faith most fully in the first place. In the course of the book, he will
find a way to deal with his spiritual struggles while remaining attached to
Jerusalem. For Aaron Blinder, a year-abroad drop-out who struggles in school
and is a failure in his father’s eyes, Israel is the place where he plays out his
need for approval and acceptance, for a sense of self-worth and belonging. He
does this by aligning himself with violent radical settlers, to tragic ends.

Of course, I’m not the first writer to mine the volatility and emotional power of
Jerusalem and Israel. As you say, it is a country loaded with meaning and
symbolism. It is difficult to be there and not be affected by the religious and
political and geographic and historic currents that continually run through it.
This is what makes it such an exciting and complicated and rich place to be. In
fact, I am writing you now from Tel Aviv, where I will spend the next six months
as the visiting writer at an Israeli university.

tolmsted:  You mention that you’re “not the first writer to mine the volatility and emotional power of Jerusalem and Israel”.   I think the term mining can have a negative connotation (specifically, how Aaron’s father mines the holocaust for his novels). I only mention this because I was struck by how even-handed you were in telling Mark, Yona and Aaron’s stories.  You were very respectful…  I’d go so far as to say that you are extremely kind to your characters – even those who are more difficult for the readers to sympathize with (like Aaron & Yona’s sister, Dena). Were you conscious of this?  Or is it just the way the story played out as you were writing it?

Joan Leegant: That’s a great question. I sometimes start out with harsher views of
my characters, but invariably, as they develop, I begin to have more compassion
for them. This comes about as I begin to see them more fully, more completely.
Which is also my hope for the reader, that the reader too will have compassion
for even the most problematic or difficult characters, as they see them more
fully.

Actually, part of what draws me to writing fiction is the desire to explore
problematic people, like the ideologue Dena or the impulsive and
rash Aaron. And though I have no interest in shying away from their most
terrible traits –in fact, I like exploring those traits – I always end up finding
something in them about which to feel compassion. I guess this mirrors how I
feel about people in real life. I’m very interested in terrible people, but I’m also
interested in what might have made them that way.

tolmsted:  Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions (and on short notice too!)   Can you offer some recommendations for readers who want to continue exploring the topics you’ve introduce in Wherever You Go?  Are there authors who’ve inspired you? or who you would recommend for readers wanting to read/learn more about Israel?

Joan Leegant: One author I love is the Israeli writer David Grossman, whose novels
are (beautifully) translated into English. I love his earlier books – The Book of
Intimate Grammar, Someone To Run With, and See Under: Love. His most
recent, To the End of the Land, is painful and difficult if spellbinding. It’s about
a mother whose son has just gone into the Israeli army (compulsory for all).
She’s so terrified of receiving word that he’s been killed that she embarks on a
weeks-long hike the length of the country as a way of artificially protecting
herself from this possible news. Several years into the writing of the book,
Grossman’s own son was killed while serving in the Israeli military. A devastating
and chilling confluence. Grossman’s non-fiction about the Palestinian-Israeli
situation is also outstanding, especially the book Yellow Wind.

Another Israeli writer I recommend is Etgar Keret, who writes terrific short
stories, also wonderfully translated.

Publisher:  W.W. Norton & Company, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 393 33989 5

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