Q&A: Margot Singer on Novel-Writing, Terrorism, and Crosscultural Understanding

Denison University/Timothy E. Black

Denison University/Timothy E. Black

Margot Singer, a professor of English at Denison University, is a highly respected short story writer. Her collection The Pale of Settlement won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, among other honors.  Now she has written her first novel, Underground Fugue, which tells the story of an American art restorer, dealing with a broken marriage and a dying mother, who travels to London and finds many things she was not planning for, including the July 7, 2005 terrorist attack. Ron Charles, reviewing Underground Fugue for the Washington Post, hailed its “tenacious spirit” – and Singer for demonstrating “extraordinary new talent.”  Singer talked with The National about how novel-writing compares to story-writing, intercultural understanding, and the future of reading.

1. With Underground Fugue, you’ve gone from writing (highly acclaimed) short stories to novel-writing. How is the experience of writing a novel different?

The transition from writing short stories to writing a novel was challenging. I had a hard time holding such a big idea in my head. I spent an enormous amount of time writing and writing, getting stuck, throwing everything out, and starting over again. You can easily experiment with a short story, but writing a hundred or so pages of a novel and then realizing it isn’t working is tough. It took me nearly three years of attempting, giving up, and starting over before I found an approach that clicked.

All writing is lonely, but novel-writing is the loneliest I’ve been as a writer. There were long stretches where I had nothing to send out for publication, nothing to share with writer friends. I felt like I’d disappeared into a black hole.

I tend to write very slowly, spending a lot of time at the sentence level. With stories, I was used to writing very compressed scenes. With the novel, I had to learn to settle into a different kind of pace, to let the important moments slow down and expand. I’m looking forward to writing stories again, but I wonder if it will also be hard to go the other way.

2. Underground Fugue is about, among other things, terrorism. What drew you to that subject for your first novel — and did your feelings about incidents like the London subway bombing change over the course of writing it?

The project began in April 2005 with one of those NPR “driveway moments.” The piece that kept me sitting in my car was the story of a strange man who’d been picked up by the police on the southern coast of England, dripping wet, dressed in a formal suit and white shirt. He carried no identification; the labels had been cut out of his clothes. He could or would not speak, but impressed the hospital staff with his abilities at the piano. A bulletin was sent out on the Missing Persons Helpline, and thousands of people called in, but no one could identify him. The story got picked up by the press around the world. The tabloids dubbed him the “Piano Man”; speculation ran wild. Some claimed he was yet another illegal immigrant; others compared him to David Helfgott, the genius pianist portrayed in the 1996 Australian film Shine.

I was intrigued by the image of the “Piano Man” as well as by other things going on in London during that summer of 2005, including an exhibition in a London gallery of a collection of anti-Semitic cartoons, and of course the 7/7 bombings. These pieces connected for me around questions of post-9/11 fears of radical Islam, the resurgence of anti-Semitism, the experiences of migration and refugees. I didn’t set out to write a novel about terrorism. In fact, I thought at first that anti-Semitism was going to be the book’s major theme. But by setting the story in London during the summer of 2005, I couldn’t help but grapple with the attacks, and eventually, that issue came to the forefront.

I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived in New York City, I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel—all places where major terrorist attacks have taken place, but like most of us, I’ve never experienced terrorism personally. (I’d moved away from NYC by 9/11.) Still, for me, these places are home, the scene of my day-to-day life, and I don’t feel, or perhaps I refuse to feel, afraid. Writing about the 7/7 bombings brought me closer to what it might feel like to be caught up in such an incident. I had to imagine it, obviously. But it didn’t change my feelings about terrorism. As the Brits say, you have to carry on.

3. It is also about another major topic of the day: the uneasiness of multiculturalism. Your protagonist, who is Jewish, becomes friendly with her mother’s Muslim neighbors in London, but finds that it is difficult to navigate the cultural distance between them. As the word becomes a smaller place, due to large-scale immigration and distance-shrinking technologies, and more different sorts of people find themselves in proximity, how optimistic are you that we will all find a way to — as someone once said — just get along?

That’s a great question. I’m not very optimistic. Just look at what’s going on here in America, post-Trump. I live in a small central Ohio town and we had a big issue recently when the Village Council proposed a resolution affirming that we are a community that welcomes different people from diverse backgrounds. An alarming number of people were not okay with that.

In the novel, I wanted to explore how difficult it is for any two people to know each other—parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers, neighbors, friends. I wanted to write about how we yearn for human connection and how we fail. My character Esther, who is a liberal, secular Jew, finds that she can’t really get away from the prejudices of the past no matter how much she wants to leave them behind.

4. Underground Fugue could be placed in many genres, but certainly one of them is Jewish-American literature. That is a category that has gone through many eras — from the immigrant stories of the early 20th century, through the mid-century novels of Jews who were successful in America but still anxious about their place in it. Where would you say Jewish-American literature is today?

I was excited to have a short story included in a 2015 anthology, The New Diaspora: The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction (edited by Victoria Aarons, Avinoam J. Patt, and Mark Shechner). In their introduction to the volume, the editors point out some of the characteristics of contemporary Jewish fiction. They observe that, by contrast to the self-obsessed, psychoanalytically minded, Jewish writers of an earlier era, today’s writers seem to take their American Jewish identity as a given. But instead of focusing on the present moment, they tend to be much more intent on grappling with history—especially the Holocaust and its aftershocks. The editors also note the incredible diversity of voices that comprise the “diaspora” of the anthology’s title, including writers who live in America and write in English but come from places like Russia, Iran, Cuba, Yemen, Guatemala, Egypt, France, Israel, and so on. They also point to a rich conversation between the American and Israeli literary communities.

5. You teach English to undergraduates. Do you notice any difference in the way this digital-native, highly wired generation relates to book reading than your own generation? And how optimistic are you about the future of books and long-form reading?

I’m actually pretty optimistic. I direct Denison’s summer program in creative writing for high school kids, and every year the students completely clean out the free book shelf where my English department colleagues put the books they no longer want. And they’re writing. I can’t believe the number of 16-year-olds who have written multiple novels during that awful thing called “NaNoRiMo” (National Novel Writing Month). It’s insane!

Of course, it’s true that today’s undergraduates have grown up on a meager diet of Common Core language arts selections, plus all that fantasy and YA fare, and that they consume information very differently than we did even a decade ago. They surely spend too much time on YouTube and Netflix and social media, but I also think they understand that poetry and literary fiction and nonfiction are valuable and important too. At Denison, we recently launched a new concentration in Narrative Nonfiction (long-form) writing, and three times more students than we expected signed up in the first year. Our literature and creative writing classes fill. There is still a lot of love out there for books.