The Day Begins with “Evening”: A Conversation with Nessa Rapoport
By Tom TeicholzJanuary 10, 2021
Nessa is the author of a previous novel, Preparing for Sabbath (1981); a book of poetry, A Woman’s Book of Grieving (1994); and a travel memoir, House on The River (2004). Her essays and stories have been published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and her column, “Inner Life,” appeared in The Jewish Week.
Beyond that, Nessa has been one of my closest friends for more than 35 years. The following conversation — conducted live over Zoom for Diesel, a bookstore in Santa Monica, and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple — has been edited for clarity and concision.
TOM TEICHOLZ: I thought we’d start with the story of how we originally met …
NESSA RAPOPORT: Great idea! But you first. Your memory is better than mine.
As I recall, I was writing a piece for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine about young editors in book publishing. There were some people that Andy wanted in the article, and my editor also wanted more women editors in the mix. I was busily reading through Publishers Weekly, and I came across a profile of you. You had published your first novel, Preparing for Sabbath, and were also a big deal in publishing because you had edited a book that established the category of business biography: Iacocca, written by our mutual friend Bill Novak.
I arranged to interview you and went to your office, which was in a large New York building on Fifth Avenue. I was surprised, first of all, that you even knew Interview magazine. I was also surprised that your office was smaller than I had expected for such a powerful editor.
I was probably smaller than you expected as well. I still am.
That’s funny. But the interesting thing was that somehow in that short meeting, which couldn’t have been longer than a half hour, we clicked enough that we became friends and our lives began to intersect.
I can tell you from the other side, Interview magazine was a very hip place to appear. But editors are, for the most part, behind-the-scenes, introverted people. So, when I showed up [at Andy Warhol’s Union Square Factory, where Interview was then housed], they styled me as if I were a supermodel. They chose my outfit and put on makeup for hours. They did my hair. And then they wanted me to do all these elaborate poses. I remember thinking: This is crazy — magazine poses? I was both bemused and horrified, like: What’s going to happen with these images? And then, when the article came out, you may recall, all of us were shot in a gauzy haze. I really think they did it because we were, as a category, so uptight that we just couldn’t relax in front of the camera. So they decided to blur us all. But I still have a paper copy from a long, long time ago.
Me, too. So let’s turn to your novel, Evening. Can you tell us a bit about what it’s about?
Evening opens in a shiva house. It’s about two sisters in their 30s, one of whom is grieving for the other. Before the end of Tam’s life, the sisters had a stupendous fight and did not reconcile. Then, after the funeral, Eve, the narrator, discovers a secret about Tam that throws into question her idea of her sister, herself, and her family. Working that out, with plenty of twists and turns, takes the length of the novel.
Evening is not a mystery. It’s a work of fiction. But it has propulsion. To attain that accelerated speed, I took 26 years to write it!
Evening begins with the declaration: “One loves, the other is loved.” As we read the novel, that sentence foreshadows some of the relationships, but it’s also an act of misdirection. I’m wondering if you had that phrase from the start, or whether it came to you later.
That’s a good question. The whole first chapter came to me in an instant, a writing experience I had not had before. Sadly, I have not had it since — including for the rest of the book. I thought I would write the rest in a year, but no. It took a long time for me to learn what I needed to know about the story in order to tell it.
The novel is not autobiographical. What happened instead is that all these tidbits and tendrils that had lodged in my unconscious surfaced in ways that I really don’t feel I was in control of. One of them was the opening aphorism, which had been said in my family (but not about me).
This novel tells about Eve and Tam, but also about Nana, Eve’s grandmother, and her sister, Nell. And I know you are one of a gaggle of sisters. Talk a little bit about the power of sisters and why you chose to explore that theme in this novel.
A rapture of Rapoports is what I call it. We are four sisters within six years, and I am the eldest.
I once edited a book by Francine Klagsbrun, a friend and a wonderful writer, who made an obvious point I hadn’t considered, which is that no one knows you for as long as your siblings do. Your parents know you earlier, but they leave the stage sooner (ideally, before you do).
There’s an intimacy about sisters: you know each other’s bodies; you know each other’s scent. There’s also rivalry and competition. I’m not talking about the classic, pre-feminist portrait of sisters. Rather, it’s inevitable that you measure yourself against your sisters. If you go to the same school, the sister who comes after you hears about you, or vice versa. So it’s a complex relationship. You have a culture that you create, a set of jokes you tell; there’s a vocabulary. Sisters are a thing.
It’s not something I was conscious of when I was growing up, because that’s all I knew. Although, interestingly, my mother is one of five and the only girl. My father was one of three brothers. I do feel sorry for them, having four daughters coming of age in the late 1960s/early 1970s, when youth culture was at its peak and adulation of the young was everything. Here were these two parents who had grown up in the Depression, with a lot of deference to their own parents and to authority. The era in which we came of age was a real shock to them.
I don’t think I could be the kind of writer who wrote about a world I’d not heard of. I’m fascinated by these writers who set their novels in a far corner of Russia and seem to have all the verisimilitude. In Evening, I didn’t write a story I knew, but I wrote of what I knew.
One of the other themes in the novel, which I thought was really interesting, is beauty. The uses of beauty, the impact of beauty. Again, why was that a topic that so captivated you?
That’s something I stole from listening at many, many kitchen tables, as one does as a porous child. In families where there is one beauty, an allure and a mystique grows up around it. What does beauty earn you? What doesn’t it earn you? It’s always intrigued me.
I heard stories of beauties of previous generations and the cost of beauty. Again, I didn’t plot it out, I didn’t have a map. But between two sisters, when one is strikingly attractive and the other grows up with that sister: I found it a really interesting subject for fiction. More important — and it’s not something I realized until after I wrote the book — is that Eve has beauty, to which she does not give much credence, but Tam has “everything”: a glamorous career, a devoted husband, a beautiful old house, and two lovable children. Eve is in the middle of her life, can’t get it together to finish her dissertation, lives in small, rented apartments, and teaches at community colleges in continuing education. The world around them expects that Eve must be terribly jealous of Tam. But, in fact, it’s not so. Eve doesn’t think she is, and the story goes on to prove that she’s not. With siblings, what it looks like on the outside isn’t the same as what it is on the inside.
That plays out in the novel among many of the characters in many generations. But speaking of beauty, I also want to talk about the beauty of your sentences. You spent a long time working on those sentences. You have discussed elsewhere how you created this giant document that tracked your use of words and where they appear. So talk to me about that desire for perfection, for the right word, in your writing.
I started out as a poet, for which I won some prizes when I was young. An obsession with language was always part of my work. I grew up in a house where my mother corrected my friends’ grammar, which I assure you did not endear her to them. My son has said, “Mom’s family’s idea of fun is to sit around the table comparing their favorite grammatical errors.”
My father was a physician, and my mother was a teacher. Both of them had stacks of library books on their bedside tables. In my family of origin, reading was everybody’s hobby. I don’t mean high-minded reading, but any and all reading. I was that child who read as I was walking down the stairs and had a novel on my lap at my desk in school.
In addition, I am a perfectionist, which doesn’t work very well when applied to your children or your life. But in writing this book, I was free. I didn’t have a contract. It was very liberating to hold myself to the most exacting standards. I reported to no one but myself. So I spent a year checking only the words in Evening, to make sure they did not occur in too close proximity. There’s a lot of dialogue in the book — and I wanted to be sure that only one character would say, “Oh…” What’s great about computers is that you can check where “Oh comma” appears in the text.
Guess what? I found more than one. I say I spent a year, but the truth is, it took me three years. Still, it’s very satisfying to me to know that I gave this book absolutely everything. There are not many realms in life that allow one to do that. There are deadlines and all kinds of laws in the natural world. But in this case, with my 32-page, single-spaced, double-column document of every word in this novel, I felt really good. I wanted to make a book where every word was chosen. And I think that’s what you’re perceiving.
For sure. In Evening, you write of the British women novelists between the two World Wars about whom Eve is writing her dissertation, that “these were my women, as I think of them, striving to escape their Victorian upbringing.” I think that’s also true of Eve and Tam, who are each striving to break free of others’ definitions of themselves.
That’s true. But I never forget the impact of second-wave feminism on the life of my generation. It is really different, if you’ve read memoirs by these women, especially Virginia Woolf, the most famous among them. There are many other women, wonderful novelists between the wars, whose lives were so constrained. In the book, I quote Nana, the grandmother, who’s around 90, talking about how, when she was young in Canada, pregnant women wouldn’t leave the house to take a walk except after dark.
My own grandmother was an astonishingly accomplished person, but she was born in an era when women couldn’t show their ankles. Women had no rights — not to their money, not to financial credit, not to vote. And I say to my children all the time, were it not for feminism, I’d be in an insane asylum. I always knew, growing up in the ’50s, that something was awry. And the ’50s weren’t the Victorian era.
I think you’re right that Tam and Eve are trying to break out of something. But I don’t think they were up against the same obstacles as these women, who were really meant only to marry. One of the tragic elements of those women writers’ lives is that an entire generation of men were killed in World War I. Great Britain lost 750,000 men, many of them husbands. So there were a lot of women who couldn’t take the marital path because their future husbands weren’t there.
You’ve described yourself as “the Jewiest writer ever.” So I thought it would be appropriate to discuss some of the Jewish aspects of this novel, starting with the fact that it takes place in Toronto. These are not the Jews we see on Seinfeld, or even in the Canadian Montreal of Mordecai Richler. They’re quite British in a way. They remind me a little bit of Laurie Colwin’s characters, who are Jewish but not very ethnically so. Did you have a specific idea in mind when writing about these sort-of Jewish characters, or was it more a case of writing about what you know?
When I started out, the characters were more Jewishly observant. Whenever I would read interviews with writers where they said, “the characters just chose to do X” or “the character got away from me,” I thought it was a little pretentious. Now I’m much more empathic, because I do feel my characters became the kind of Jews they were in spite of whatever intentions I may have had.
I was also showing Canadian Jewry of a certain moment. It happens that my grandmother was born in Canada, in 1897. That was considered very rare. Many Canadian Jews were more recent immigrants, a generation or two later than American Jews. They are more small-c conservative, just as Canadian culture generally is. By being closer to the immigrant generation, they had a greater sense of … let’s call it tradition, at least in my generation. It wasn’t quite the same as being observant, but there were norms. And I became very interested in this family where the father, by being a first-generation Canadian, was much more traditional. And the mother, who was raised with more tradition, rebelled, as many women did who were not born into feminism. These are women who walked out of their marriages and “found themselves,” to use your excellent term. I became intrigued by the difference between the two parents and the ways tradition did or didn’t manifest itself in this family.
I see you as writing out of a wellspring of tradition, which includes a great and deep knowledge of Jewish text and liturgy. So I wondered: Are there Jewish textual liturgical references in Evening? The characters are named Eve and Tamara, biblical names. Is there a deeper meaning in their chosen names? Or in the text?
I think very carefully about the names of my characters. Nana, the grandmother, is a very WASPy but also very Jewish person, which, coincidentally, my grandmother was. I wanted names that could stand in Canadian Anglo-Saxon culture, but also represented the not-incidental Jewishness of this family. So, in that sense, you’re right. I chose names that were biblical, but not parochial. For Tam, I needed a name that could have a good nickname, which is how I got to Tamara, used only once in the novel.
The book is called Evening partly because the Jewish calendar starts in the evening; all the holy days begin in the evening. Eve’s name is in the book’s title. And the book is about an evening out between the two sisters. And, of course, it’s about grieving, set in a shiva house and structured over the seven days of Jewish mourning.
And, as I’ve often joked with you, that’s not so surprising, since you live beside Riverside Memorial Chapel, which, as noted in the film Network, is where all Jews go when they die.
That is a coincidence!
Maybe yes, maybe no. But to your point, talk a little bit about why in your writing grieving is a subject that so compels you.
There are people born on the sunny side of the street. You’re one of them. I, emphatically, am not. Once, when my daughter was quite young, she said to me: “Mom, you and your morose childhood.” Very accurate. Having a certain disposition — a dark, dark disposition — and growing up with so much knowledge of the Shoah, as I did, unfiltered by child psychology, had an impact. People today would not show 10-year-olds documentaries with piles of starved dead bodies.
In my Jewish school, half my class were children of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. My teachers were sometimes survivors, too. Born in the early ’50s, I thought the Holocaust happened long ago, but, of course, it had just ended. It was not an event of memory; it was the recent experience of so many people in Toronto.
The combination of my temperament and the kind of writer I am causes me to repeat what I’m trying to resolve. Knowing that sense of darkness and fear, I was drawn to try to figure it out. And there’s no question that, whether you’re sunny or not, grief is coming your way. At least this novel has the virtue of being funny.
And there are some very funny moments indeed. But I have to point out that, in Evening, the Shoah does make an appearance, and it plays a very important role in that the characters are transformed by certain realizations. I don’t want to give away anything, but can you talk a little bit about the decision to include that, or was it something that insisted on being in the novel?
Was it a decision to treat the Shoah? I would say I’ve devoted most of my adult life to the idea that we should not, as a people, identify with the Shoah as the primary metric of Jewishness. I feel strongly that being Jewish is meant to be festive and joyful. We should, yes, grieve the tragedies and the losses but not base our entire identity on the Shoah — which, nonetheless, remains the highest indicator of Jewish identity among North American Jews.
I now have to quote my youngest daughter, who was a teenager when I was telling her my theory about not remembering the Shoah at the expense of a rich Jewish life. She said to me, “Mom, don’t you think it’s the least we can do for them.” In truth, not a day goes by when I do not think of the Shoah.
But to answer your question: I didn’t expect it to come up in this novel because I felt there has been a tremendous amount of Jewish fiction about the Shoah. But again, Tom, that’s what happened. That’s who these people turned out to be. I didn’t plan it. I was very surprised.
You mentioned that you spent almost 30 years writing this novel. Was there a moment when you turned the corner and saw the end in sight? Because, to some extent, your novel is about someone deciding to no longer be in stasis. This must have also happened to you with regard to this novel?
That’s very meta. It wasn’t such a dramatic situation. I wrote two books while I was writing — or not writing — this one. One was A Woman’s Book of Grieving. The other was the memoir, House on the River. But I never let go of these two sisters. They continued to fascinate me. The challenge was that I’d thought up a real story in that first chapter, and the story made its demands on me. What were these two sisters fighting about, enough to stop talking before Tam dies? How does the secret Eve discovers the day after the funeral thread its way through the rest of the novel, upending her idea of her future and her family? Until then, I hadn’t written that kind of plot. I needed to figure out how to resolve what I set up.
At one point, I went out for a coffee with Ted Solotaroff, my mentor, of blessed memory, a plumb-true, brilliant editor. I was telling him that I was really struggling with how to make this plot sing. And he said, “Plot is character. When you know your characters, you’ll know what to do.” So I just kept working at it, finding the scenes that lead you forward — even if they were going back in the past.
But would you still be playing with it or fixing it now, if you could?
Not at all. And I can say that’s not been true for me about anything I’ve written. I don’t usually reread my work, but if I do, I’m content. I’m so exacting that, by the time I’ve finished, I know I’m done. And I’m a big believer that one should finish. There were skeptics who thought I would never let go of Evening, but I was not hanging onto it. I knew it wasn’t where it needed to be. And when I finished it, I knew I had done what I set out to do. It’s a satisfaction no one can take away from you. I feel very graced that I was able to write a book that I wanted to write. Very lucky.
Tom Teicholz is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author — just Google him.
Tom Teicholz is a contributor to Forbes and The Huffington Post.
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