Interview with Joan Leegant, author of Wherever You Go

Last week, we wrapped up our read-along of Joan Leegant‘s Wherever You Go, hosted by myself and Avis at She Reads and Reads. It was a perfect book for a read-along, prompting some great discussion on the characters and themes. You can read our discussions here: part one and part two. Joan also wrote a guest post at Avis’s blog called Telling the Truth While Making Things Up.

Earlier this week, I sent Joan some questions from the read-along participants, and she was gracious enough to take the time to thoughtfully answer them for us.

Whenever I read a book about a hot-button issue, like this one, I’m interested to see if the author will reveal their personal feelings on the topic. In Wherever I Go, I felt you were very even-handed in your treatment of the issue of the settlements in the disputed territory. Was it difficult to keep your personal opinions out of the story?

Joan: I’m glad I came across as even-handed since that was important to me. I didn’t want to write a tract or manifesto, though I do have strong feelings about the settlement issue. I was careful to tone things down when I felt my personal opinions coming through too emphatically. It was something I addressed on revision.

Did you know how the book would end before you got there? I’m especially speaking of Dena’s decision at the end.

Joan: I didn’t know what Dena would do, or what action she would take, if any, until I got to that point in the story and wrote it out. I was very glad she did what she did, as I had imagined her to be a principled person, but I honestly didn’t know how that would play out until the very end. It was one of the questions that kept me going as I wrote the book. Just as a reader keeps reading to find out what happens, I as the writer was doing the same during the writing of it. It’s one of the things I love so much about writing fiction–discovering the story as I go.

For people interested in reading more contemporary fiction about Israel, could you give us a few recommendations?

Joan: A wonderful Israeli writer whose work is widely available in translation is David Grossman. Among his many novels, I might suggest The Book of Intimate Grammar, about a boy growing up in Israel in the 1960s, and Someone To Run With, about homeless street kids in Israel today. They are very different in style, the first more maximalist and stream-of-consciousness, the second more straightforward. Both are masterful.

Another excellent writer is Evan Fallenberg, an American who has lived in Israel for decades and who writes in English. His most recent novel, published this year, is When We Danced On Water, about an aging choreographer in Tel Aviv with a complicated past. Beautifully written.

When you’re in the mood for a comfort read, which books or authors do you turn to?

Joan: I love short stories and often turn to story collections when in the mood for something I know I’ll enjoy, often for the humor or shining intelligence or simply wonderful prose. Some writers whose short stories I love to read–and re-read– are Lorrie Moore, Amy Bloom, Edith Pearlman, William Maxwell, George Saunders, Jim Shepard, Bernard Malamud and Tobias Wolff.

Can you talk a bit about the significance of the title?

Joan: The title comes from the biblical Book of Ruth, where Ruth, newly widowed, proclaims her loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi, saying: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” Instead of going back to her own country when her husband dies, Ruth chooses to stay with her mother-in-law.

This passage is often cited in Jewish tradition as an exemplary expression of loyalty: to a person, to a land, to a religion, to a concept of God. But there is a shadow side to that kind of allegiance. Should we pledge loyalty at any cost? The book explores this shadow side. It explores how far people will go in the name of God or for a land, how far they will go out of allegiance to a particular ideology.

The title also echoes the fact that the main characters have all moved to another place–from the U.S. to Israel– in order to re-invent themselves or find forgiveness or fulfillment. Yet wherever they go, they take their personal histories with them, along with all the accompanying pain of those histories. So that’s also reflected in the title.

Which of your characters did you identify with the most? (I wondered in particular if you agreed with Eyal’s rant on pages 123-125.)

Joan: I do agree with Eyal’s political position, which you spotted there on 123-125. That’s an accurate expression of my feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; my views are certainly coming out of his mouth. But in terms of the more major characters and their personal stories, a part of me was once like Mark Greenglass, a religious seeker who lost that religious passion (though I was never a drug dealer, let me say for the record!). In the end, though, I’d have to say that I’m really in all the main characters, in one way or another.

How did you figure out what was a likely punishment for Aaron’s crime?

Joan: Ah, one of the Thorny Questions! I know this issue has generated some discussion in book groups, some of whom have told me they had spirited debates about whether the punishment was sufficient or not. The answer is that I made up that punishment. I’m a lawyer by training, and have also lived in Israel for chunks of time, so it seemed plausible to me, given what I understand about diplomatic matters and the possibility of a behind-the-scenes deal. On a more gut level, however, I felt that Aaron’s father bore a lot of the responsibility for how Aaron’s life turned out, so the punishment for Aaron also became a punishment for the father.

I’d love to know if the author has any comments on how she thinks some of the characters were affected by their decisions in the long run. Did Dena and her husband fall apart because of her decision? Did Aaron ever have to face major consequences for his actions?

Joan: I don’t think Dena’s marriage would fall apart because of her decision, for two reasons. One is that Dena is very strong and principled, and I think that once she’d make a choice, she’d stand by it and defend it. She wouldn’t have chosen to do what she did out of weakness or uncertainty. Second, I see her husband as someone who would respect and admire his wife, and ultimately respect her decision. I also see him as less fanatical than Shroeder, the man who Dena helps implicate. So I think Dena’s husband would come to understand, if not agree with, Dena’s actions.

As for Aaron, I felt the consequences he was facing for his deeds were already pretty awful. To me, Aaron was like the figure of Cain from the bible: he would never be allowed to forget his terrible deed, as Cain–who had killed his brother Abel– wasn’t allowed to forget his. God tells Cain in that story (paraphrasing): instead of killing you, I’m going to let you live, but I will put a mark on you so that everyone you ever meet will know what you have done, and you will carry this with you the rest of your life. I thought the burden on Aaron’s heart, that awful shame and guilt, not to mention the circumstances he would now be required to live under, was worse than any other kind of punishment he might have gotten. He would never get relief, never feel he had “paid his debt to society,” never be forgiven, never be allowed to forget.

Thank you, Joan, so much, for answering our questions! And, thanks again, Avis, for hosting with me – I have enjoyed all of our read-alongs this year, and look forward to more in the New Year!

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5 Responses to Interview with Joan Leegant, author of Wherever You Go

  1. Joan Leegant says:

    It was my pleasure to participate in the read-along. Great questions here. My thanks to both Avis and Carrie, bloggers extraordinaire!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Joan – it was wonderful to have your participation in the read-along – thank you so much!

  2. Melissa
    Twitter: avidreader12
    says:

    Thanks for answering the quesions to Joan and thanks to Carrie and Avis for hosting this read-along. I was really interested to read the comments about the title. I knew the reference to Ruth, but I didn’t connect that to a general comment about loyalty to an idea or relgion. Thanks again guys!

  3. Sorry it’s taken me a while to comment on this post. Thank you, Joan, for answering all our questions! (And great questions, by the way, Carrie!) I do wish I’d asked a few more, particularly in view of the discussion of hair that happened over on my blog.

    Carrie, I also look forward to co-hosting more read-alongs with you in the new year!