In my creative writing class last spring, along with my Amazon boycott, another running theme that amused my students was my disapproval of the word “relatable”. Like, first of all, is it even a word? And more to the point, when applied to writing, it seemed to reward stock situations and stock characters. The term felt reductive and lazy, along the lines of justifying a cliche because it’s “true.”
Yet how else do we enter strange things, really? These days, with Judenstaat about to launch in a month, as I prepare to pitch my book to the Jewish Book Council, I find myself haunted by the term “relatable.” How do I invite readers inside my weird new book?
In two days, I will do my best to impersonate someone relatable, wearing “business casual” and opening my two-minute pitch this way: “One night, I was lying in bed with my husband Doug and suddenly asked ‘What if a Jewish state was established in Germany instead of Israel in 1948?'” Do you have a husband? Do you talk in bed? Then you can’t be alienated or offended. I’m like you.
The novel is what might be called “high concept”, and in fact in the eight years it took me to shape it into publishable form, it moved beyond its premise and became a kind of thriller where a widow stalks her husband’s assassin through the streets of Dresden.
But why should we care who killed her husband? What on earth makes a reader take the leap into speculative history, particularly when, frankly, the history’s dependent on some understanding of the history of the second half of the twentieth century, but turns it sideways, or maybe inside out?
I suspect that many questions about Judenstaat will focus on that history, but frankly, creating the history was the easy part. The really hard work was finding the story, in particular figuring out my widow, a stubbornly opaque historian who can’t live in the present, and who’s pulled out of her memories and grief by forces it took me a long time to understand.
On the other hand, I recognize the memories and grief. Over time, I discovered how her life intertwined and diverged from my own, and the intersections were my own bridge into strangeness: the touch of her husband’s hand in her hair, the manic sewing and and unraveling and re-sewing of a seam after a miscarriage, a stone on a father’s grave.
In the end, as ever, I give my students credit. I continue to value strangeness, and the frisson of energy we feel when we take a leap into unfamiliar territory. Yet what makes us leap is empathy. Sure, my novel’s about an imaginary country established as an answer to the Holocaust, but ultimately it’s about a haunted woman who has lost everything and needs to go on living.
Can you relate?