Ayelet Waldman: Do better

Ayelet Waldman takes on an ambitious project with her newest novel.
By Megan Kaplon | Published: August 11, 2014


ASu11_Wald_9780307275820ap2_1Ayelet Waldman’s ideal workday goes something like this: Get up, get the kids off to school, sit down at her desk and write until it’s time to pick the kids up. On a great day, she even finds time for some exercise, maybe a walk or trip to the gym.

“When I’m writing well, that’s actually what happens,” says the author of the new novel Love and Treasure. “There are long periods, however, of this kind of desperate procrastination when I will sit in the kitchen and I will ‘work,’ which often involves quite a bit of Internet surfing and then frantic self-loathing and eking out my word count.”

Waldman recounts a recent moment of procrastination when, through some untraceable path of links, she found herself researching Orthodox Jewish women’s hair wraps. “I am not Orthodox,” she says in a phone conversation. “If I were to wear a hair wrap, I would look like either I had cancer or like I was desperately trying to look like Erykah Badu. That’s the Internet man. It’s every writer’s worst enemy.”

“And best friend,” Waldman’s husband, the novelist Michael Chabon, can be heard saying in the background. Waldman concurs, acknowledging a paradoxical truth.

Despite the Internet’s multitudinous distractions, Waldman managed to put together enough productive writing days to finish Love and Treasure, her 13th book, which takes place in Hungary in three historical eras connected to the true story of the Hungarian Gold Train, which was discovered by American World War II soldiers. The train was filled with jewelry, art and other household items and treasures confiscated from Hungarian Jews. The property was never returned.

Waldman admits that she came across her idea for the novel in the most unremarkable of ways. She Googled “Hungary” (because her friend Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis was serving as ambassador to Hungary, and she desperately wanted to visit and deduct the travel expenses from her taxes); “Holocaust” (because as an Israeli-born Jew raised in America, she had always been slightly obsessed with the topic); and “art” (because she felt her artistic ignorance was inexcusable and wanted to educate herself).

The book challenged Waldman. It was a more ambitious project than she had ever embarked on, but because of that, she found herself producing writing beyond anything she had created before. “There were these moments of intense exhilaration where I just couldn’t believe what I was writing,” she says. “I’ve never done heroin, but I like to imagine that’s what doing heroin is like, and I can totally see why you’d become an addict because it’s worth everything when you have those moments.”

Since the novel’s inception, Waldman had settled on a three-part structure inspired by similarly plotted novels such as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Julia Glass’ Three Junes and D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel.

“The structure came first, and it’s really demanding, but also very enticing because you’re trying to do something very intricate, you’re trying to draw parallels in a way that is both obvious and subtle,” she says. “You have to hide parallels. You want the reader to feel them rather than have them jump right out.”

The ambitious structure and dark subject matter combine to make this novel a personal landmark for a career she hadn’t originally intended to pursue. The Harvard Law School grad entered the workforce as a public defender and started writing only after quitting her job to become a stay-at-home mom. Finding the repetitive days painfully dull, Waldman began writing mystery novels featuring a stay-at-home mom who solves mysteries in her free time. Although highly successful (Waldman published seven Mommy-Track mysteries in all), she felt driven to look for more.

“I am by nature a really aggressively ambitious person,” she says. “I mean, you don’t end up at Harvard Law School if you don’t have that unseemly side to your personality. Once I started writing and not trying cases, I wanted to do well at that, too. I wanted to be taken seriously. It’s hard to be taken seriously if you’re ‘Michael Chabon’s wife who writes silly murder mysteries.’”

Waldman’s process of learning to write played out in the public eye, with each subsequent book showing proof of her progress. “People woke up a lot in my early novels,” Waldman says. “I remember at one point, Michael was like, ‘You don’t actually have to describe: she reached out her hand, she opened the car door, she sat down in the car, she put her keys in the ignition.’”

Such harsh truths are often imparted from spouse to spouse in this literary household. Waldman and Chabon share an office (although she mostly writes during the day and he mostly at night) and constantly edit each other’s writing, even emails.

“None of my writing friends can believe that I can tolerate it,” says Waldman. “My manuscripts are strewn with the initials DB (do better), which is such an aggressive note. I often find myself screaming, ‘Do better?!’ But he’s always right, I can always do better.”

Waldman, too, gets her chance to put red pen to paper: “My similar note for him is ‘Yuck.’ Often I cry if I don’t like something in one of his manuscripts. That’s usually a sign that he needs to change something. Very articulate response. It’s really very professional.”

The couple has also collaborated on projects, including writing a TV pilot for HBO. “Watching us work, if you didn’t know us, you would think we were at war because there’s a lot of shrieking and yelling and stamping of feet that’s involved,” she says, “but we actually kind of enjoy it. That’s the fun of it. We’re Jews. We’re loud Jews.”

Chabon – author of many novels, including Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – earned his MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and as a second-career writer, Waldman often feels insecure about her lack of credentials. “I don’t have [an MFA] and I have a constant anxiety about that. I feel like there’s some secret that is imparted to all those Iowa MFAs and Irvine MFAs and all the better programs. They sit in these classes, and they are given the truth to literary fiction.”

To illustrate the depths to which her MFA-envy goes, Waldman tells the story of when she met the writer Tobias Wolff. They were both nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and while they were waiting for the winner to be announced (Wolff took home the honor that year), she asked if he would accept her into Stanford University’s Stegner program where he is a professor and was at one time the program director.

“He was like, ‘That’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,’” Waldman remembers. “He probably said it much more gently than that, but he basically said, ‘Look how many books you’ve written. Your book was nominated for this prize. No, you can’t come.’

“Then he very generously offered to look over my work, but mostly it was like, ‘Grow a pair, Waldman. Do your work, stop imagining this fantastical truth that you’re not getting.’”

However fraught she is about her lack of an MFA, there are things you can’t be taught – not even at the University of Iowa. Most significantly, in her opinion, voice. “You can forgive a lot if there’s a voice that captures your imagination,” she says.

“I also think it’s hard to teach an ear,” she says. “You’re writing a sentence, and you know it’s going to end with a certain rhythm. A-buh-buh-buh-bub-boom. You can hear the rhythm in your head before you know what the words are going to be. I think there are people who just don’t hear that.”

Earlier this year, the day Love and Treasure was officially released, the Washington Post ran a review of the book written by Ron Charles, and it was that review that Waldman says has helped her come to terms with her non-traditional path to authordom. “Michael texted me [after he read the review] and said, ‘Listen, I’m sitting here crying, and I just really never want to hear from you that you’re not a serious writer again.’ It really was that review, more than anything in my career, that has made me feel OK. OK about starting out as a mystery writer. OK about not having an MFA. OK about not being in the room when the secret words were whispered.”

With the weight of self-doubt slowly lifting from her shoulders, Waldman is free to concentrate on writing her first movie, an adaptation of another author’s book (“I hope she doesn’t mind, because adaptation is basically evisceration”), and while she was promoting her latest book in Israel, an Israeli director approached her about the possibility of making Love and Treasure into a movie. The Berkeley-based writer found that proposal very attractive because she would get to finish a storyline left untold in the novel. “I was trying to inspire in the reader a sense of the magnitude of the loss of the Holocaust by not finishing stories,” she says. “That feeling that you have of life being just snapped away in full bloom, a tree cut down in the midst of its flowering.” But in film, she says, that doesn’t quite work, and she would love the chance to fill in the missing pieces.

Of course, a new novel is in the works as well, again inspired by authors she loves to read, such as Alan Hollinghurst, Stefan Zwieg, Cynthia Ozick, to name a few. Waldman also hopes to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest now that Love and Treasure is finished. “If he just hadn’t called it Infinite,” she jokes. “If he had called it The Jest You Can Finish in August, I would have read it a long time ago.”

When the writing isn’t going well, you’ll find Waldman on Twitter (@ayeletw). Otherwise, she’ll be clicking away, writing her new novel from the comfort of her summer home in Brooklin, Maine.

Megan Kaplon is an editorial assistant at The Writer. She is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston.

Random writing moments with Ayelet Waldman

  • “Have you heard the joke about the Jewish husband? It’s my favorite joke of all time. A little boy comes home from school and he says to his mom, ‘Momma, Momma, I got a part in the school play!’ And she says, ‘What’s your part my darling?’ And he says, ‘I’m the Jewish husband!’ And she says, ‘You march back down there and demand a speaking role!’”
  • To husband Michael after reading The Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall: “How come you didn’t tell me I’m not allowed to use adverbs?”
  • “I’m turning 50 next year, and I have lost every proper noun I ever had. It’s so embarrassing. I can grow my hair long and pretend to be all youthful, but as soon as it comes time to not have old lady forgetfulness, it just disappears and I am revealed to be what I really am.”
  • On adapting novels for film: “You shoot your wad on your novel, and then you’re kind of done with the story.”
  • “I don’t write short stories. I’m not a huge fan of short stories. Don’t tell my husband. Maybe that’s why I would never get into an MFA because I don’t have the veneration for the short story that is required.”
  • On her ability to transition between genres: “I don’t have the built-in distain for genre-writing that you learn as you suckle at the breast of your Master of Fine Arts. As Michael always says, you can write a beautiful literary masterwork that also happens to be a nurse romance. Why couldn’t you?”
  • On Twitter as a marketing tool: “It’s terrible. I don’t think it sells a single book. I don’t think any social media sells anything.”

Excerpt from Love and Treasure

04-28ltreasure_full_600It was while going through a boxcar that contained household silver – cutlery, tea services, platters and bowls, candlesticks – that Jack caught on to the origin of the treasure on the train. Up to his elbows in a crate his superior officer had instructed him to open, he grabbed hold of a heavy silver candelabra. For a moment he wasn’t sure. But there were four arms on either side, and one in the middle. He disentangled the menorah from the other silver pieces in the crate and then dug out a silver cup decorated with Hebrew writing. A Kiddush cup like the one his grandmother had on her mantel. Without seeking Rigsdale’s permission, he grabbed another crate and split it open with a crowbar. In this one he found a silver breastplate and crowns that looked very much like the ones that had decorated the Torah from which he had chanted on his bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, nine years before.

“Everything in this wagon is silver?” Rigsdale asked Avar.

Avar gazed at him blankly.

“You know, silver? Wiseman, ask him if this car’s all silver.”

“Captain,” Jack said, the only evidence of his distress the beads of sweat collecting on his lip. “All this stuff is Jewish, sir.”

“What do you mean?”

He held up the Torah breastplate, pointing to the Hebrew words. He picked up the caps for the Torah handles. They were hung with silver bells that tinkled in his trembling hands. “This is from a synagogue.”

He turned on Avar. “Where did you get this?” he said. “And this?”

Avar looked blank but not quite blank enough.

“This is stolen from Jews!” Jack said. He pawed through the pile of silver, yanking out candlesticks and Kiddush cups, waving them, piece after piece, at the man.

Avar let loose with a string of German, but Jack was far too upset to understand more than a few phrases – “civil servant,” “official government business.” Avar shrank into himself, like a turtle hiding beneath its bureaucratic shell.

“What’s this ‘Property Office’ that you work for? What property” Jack shouted.

Avar raised his chin defensively and informed Jack that he was an employee of the Jewish Property Office, a division of the Hungarian Ministry of Finance, and that it was in his role as an employee of that department that he had protected this property on behalf of the Hungarian government.

“Wiseman!” Captain Rigsdale said. “Get down here. Now.”

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Ayelet Waldman © 2014, Knopf.