I actually first started writing this story—or a version of it—in a very different voice, with an adult narrator reminiscing about her teenage years. That version wasn’t working at all.
NER author Avigayl Sharp talks to staff reader Malka Daskal about the teen protagonist in Sharp’s story “I Love You, Dr. Rudnitsky” (NER 41.2) and the elaborate fantasies she develops “to escape the powerlessness of puberty and its accompanying indignities.”
Malka Daskal: In “I Love You, Dr. Rudnitsky,” Chava joins the ranks of other contemporary protagonists (the boys of Leopard by Wells Tower and 10th of December by George Saunders come to mind) who develop elaborate fantasies to escape the powerlessness of puberty and its accompanying indignities. What drew you to writing this character, at this moment in time, at this moment in your life?
Avigayl Sharp: There’s probably a simple answer, which is that when I wrote this story I had just started psychoanalysis—very old school—and was spending four mornings a week lying on a couch, going on and on about my childhood. So adolescence was very much on my mind, all the routine little humiliations of being twelve or thirteen years old, the horror of having to buy a training bra and all that. And I found myself thinking a lot about psychoanalysis on a theoretical level, as well, this idea that there are things that can’t be looked upon directly, or aren’t directly articulable, and so are forced to manifest themselves in some indirect way: dreams, obsessions, fantasies. Chava’s character rose out of my growing preoccupation with the structure of fantasy in particular, the way in which it always functions both as an escape and as an articulation of whatever it is that makes escape necessary in the first place.
I think in some ways it’s hard for me to really look at anything head on; I’m always trying to talk about one thing by talking about something completely different. Thinking about adolescence in terms of the kind of fantasy terrain it might produce felt more intuitive to me than writing about the events of someone’s teen years in a more direct way. And I’ve always loved fiction that operates on this level—the Tower and Saunders stories you mention are brilliant examples. Nabokov’s Pale Fire is another one, and was very much on my mind while I was working on this story.
MD: Chava’s brutal self-assessments and yearning for affirmations of normalcy are equal parts humorous and heartbreaking in this largely voice-driven story. What was your process for finding her teenage voice and interpreting her thoughts on paper?
AS: I actually first started writing this story—or a version of it—in a very different voice, with an adult narrator reminiscing about her teenage years. That version wasn’t working at all; for one thing, it wasn’t very funny, though it was trying hard to be, and tonally it felt wrong—too distant and nostalgic. I had a writer friend take a look at the first few pages, and it was her idea to experiment with rewriting in the voice of a teenager. So I can’t really take credit! The lesson here is that it’s useful to have smart friends, especially smart friends who are generous enough to read your terrible first drafts.
Once I started to inhabit Chava’s voice, that’s when the story really opened up for me. When you’re twelve or thirteen, you’re still really playing around with language, I think; you tend to have a decent grasp on the adult lexicon, but you haven’t yet assimilated it fully. So you end up incorporating all sorts of imported phrases or concepts into your speech in ways that are just slightly off. I wanted Chava’s voice to have that kind of texture, where complex thoughts and feelings are getting filtered through what’s clearly a received lexicon. She uses a lot of words and ideas that she’s obviously picked up from her parents or from the media or from her classmates, and she’s usually using them in a way that’s a little absurd. Much of the process for figuring out her voice involved navigating that tension, between great depth and intensity of feeling on the one hand and the limits of communication on the other. I think the tension is inherently a funny one, but behind it lies a real desperation. It was very important to me that her voice walk that tragicomic tightrope.
MD: Chava’s mother is a remarkably intriguing character because of her loving but volatile relationship with Chava, her profound but not fully explained sadness, and because we only see glimpses of her through Chava’s unreliable point of view. Was it challenging or freeing to write this complex, enigmatic character under the constraints of a first-person narrator?
AS: It’s a great question, and in some ways it was a bit of both. I think it was challenging in the same way that just being a person is challenging—you know, there’s this fundamental problem of existence wherein we’re all sort of wandering around, constrained in ourselves and bounded off from everyone else, even (and perhaps especially) those we love the most. And this can feel particularly intense in adolescence, I think, when you’re first becoming fully conscious of that gap. I knew that I wanted Chava’s mother to embody this kind of mystery, especially because her sadness is simply too big and too complex for Chava to be able to bear confronting it directly. It can only be glimpsed for a moment, or only in a sidelong way.
There’s a way in which Chava’s mother’s sadness is historically situated, as well, rooted in part in the lineage of the Holocaust. This is some of what Chava is grappling with in her relationship with her mother; there’s an attempt to come to terms with that lineage, and with the weight of a history that has been passed down from her grandparents to her mother and now to her own self, whether or not she can identify it. In that sense the limits of the first person were actually freeing, because they allowed me to replicate the experience of confronting something unbearable, in which you can only really gesture around the thing itself—it appears for a moment, then disappears again.
MD: As if Chava did not have enough to contend with, as the only Jew in her Catholic school, her search for acceptance is further complicated by feelings of cultural alienation. At what point in the writing process did you know Chava’s struggle with her Jewish identity and heritage would play a role in the formation of her character?
AS: That was probably the first thing I knew when I sat down to write this story. My father is from Waco and was raised Baptist, my mother is Jewish and from Lithuania, and I attended a Catholic elementary and middle school—so much of Chava’s attempt to make sense of her Jewish identity came out of my own struggles with those same questions.
I’m interested in adolescence as this period during which you’re desperately trying to categorize yourself; you have some vague sense of what all these categories mean, maybe from your parents and your peers and TV and the internet and magazines, but at the same time many of the nuances of those meanings escape you. I think the funny and illuminating thing about that age is that no one actually has any idea what’s going on, but everyone insists on pretending that they do. Of course, this is also what adults are like, but we get a lot better at faking it as we get older. I knew that I wanted to write a narrator who was on some level asking all of these difficult questions—what does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be American?—but who, on a more conscious level, was very adamantly not asking these questions, and instead putting a great deal of effort into feigning certainty.
There was also a lineage I wanted to explore, in that Chava’s alienation as a Jew in Catholic school in some ways mirrors her mother’s alienation as an Eastern European Jewish immigrant in the States. Chava’s mother makes a lot of sweeping generalizations about “American Jews,” and she makes it clear that she doesn’t want her daughter to be “too American”; but, of course, Chava is an American Jew, whether her mother likes it or not. So the question becomes, well, what does that even mean? I knew that Chava couldn’t directly ask that question, and so instead she has to stage it in her fantasy love affair with Dr. Rudnitsky, in which she envisions herself as some kind of perfect and unalienated American Jewish Woman—of course, her idea of what this would look like is a strange amalgamation of tropes and misunderstandings, as these things tend to be.
MD: Besides being an author, you also served as the fiction editor for the literary journal Bat City Review and are currently a contributing editor. What qualities do you look for in evaluating works of fiction and are these the same criterion by which you assess your own works in progress?
AS: On the most basic level I’m always reading for beautifully crafted sentences. And I’m usually looking to be caught off guard in some way, whether that’s formally or on the level of plot, character, language. I try to hold my own work to those same standards—I write very slowly, and spend a lot of time on each sentence, writing and rewriting. Ultimately I’m drawn to fiction that can hold onto uncertainty, that attempts to approach the limits of our understanding and asks difficult questions about ourselves, our material world, our history.
Avigayl Sharp grew up in Chicago, Illinois. She now lives in Austin, where she is a fiction fellow at the Michener Center for Writers and a contributing editor of Bat City Review.
Malka Daskal, one of NER‘s fiction readers, received her master’s degree from Columbia University and was the recipient of the Maricopa Artist of Promise Award in 2016. Her work has appeared in Bookends Review, Passages, and the Traveler and is forthcoming in Kind Writers and december. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and two sons.