When Jennifer Gilmore's first novel, Golden Country, was published, The New York Times Book Review called it "an ingeniously plotted family yarn" and praised her as an author who "enlivens the myth of the American Dream." In her second novel, Gilmore takes her particular gift for distilling history into a hugely satisfying, multigenerational family story to a new level.
In Washington, D.C., life inside the Goldstein home is as tumultuous as the shifting landscape of the times. It is 1979, and Benjamin is heading off to college and sixteen-year-old Vanessa is in the throes of a rocky adolescence. Sharon, a caterer for the Washington elite, ventures into a cultlike organization. And Dennis, whose government job often takes him to Moscow, tries to live up to his father's legacy as a union organizer and community leader.
The rise of communism and the execution of the Rosenbergs is history. The Cold War is waning, the soldiers who fought in Vietnam have all come home, and Carter is president. The age of protest has come and gone and yet each of the Goldsteins is forced to confront the changes the new decade will bring and explore what it really means to be a radical. Something Red is at once a poignant story of husbands and wives, parents and children, activists and spies, and a masterfully built novel that unfurls with suspense and humor.
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A Conversation with Jennifer Gilmore
Q: Where did you come up with the idea for Something Red? Was there a character or a scene that you envisioned first?
A: I grew up in Washington and have always been fascinated about how close I was to the "center" of things, and yet how far I was from affecting any real kind of change. I was always very aware of how Washington operated--many of our friends were the children of senators or lobbyists kids or government officials--and it seemed distinctly different than how "inside the beltway" was portrayed in the media.
My father works in foreign food policy and my mother worked her whole career for the state department, involved in food aid. I became interested in food as a "global" issue, as well as how it plays out in a family. Food is "used" in so many ways--especially now with the rise of "foodies" and issues of sustainability--and I wanted to explore it as identity, disease, power, the way it brings families together, and drives nations apart.
The era was informed by the Cold War, and so I wanted to deal with Russia in some way, largely, because, as in my last book, I am very interested in the way history affects families. Russia was the "mother country" for so many immigrants, but what was really happening there? What was left behind and what was taken? I became fascinated by the politics of the era--which stemmed from the Soviet Union as well--and how progressivism evolved into 60's activism and then into post-sixties radicalism, which seemed to be less about real causes and more about music and lifestyle. I wanted to investigate how being a radical is defined differently for and by each generation.
These are all just ideas that started me going, but I wanted to be sure I had real characters the reader could relate to intimately so it did not seem like it was just loaded with ideas. Hopefully that's what I ended up with.
Q: The political backdrop of the novel is incredibly vivid in the minds of your characters. Why did you choose this era?
A: 1979, a year I was too young to remember clearly, mind you, seemed like a seminal moment in history, fraught with endless fictional possibilities. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Iranian hostage crisis was in full bloom, there had been a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Disco was dying, and so was punk rock in its hardcore form, culminating with the death of Sid Vicious. And yet, punk's more popularized version had reached our shores with the release of the Clash's London Calling. Women's oppression seemed to be waning, made concrete by Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party," shown that year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Culturally, the world was thriving: Styron's Sophie's Choice and Mailer's The Executioner's Song were released in 1979. So was Manhattan, The Rose, Apocalypse Now and Breaking Away. Then, on Christmas Day, Soviet deployment of its army into Afghanistan began. And on January 4, 1980, Carter announced the US grain embargo against the Soviet Union. Which is when my novel begins.
Q: How did you go about your research for the novel? What were your preferred sources?
A: History releases me from my own experience and jogs my fictional imagination. For instance, I read a great biography on Ethel Rosenberg, and in addition to her chronicling her life with Julius and in their political beliefs, it mentioned she was a singer. An alto. For some reason this let me see her clearly, and it became a small plot point in the book. So I read a lot of biographies, a lot of Irving Howe to better understand how movements emerged from movements. I read pop culture stuff too, books about punk rock in DC, and Joni Mitchell, and I looked up a zillion Grateful Dead set lists on-line, to be sure that played this song at this particular concert. I read a lot of cookbooks from the era, like Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie, the blue New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. And I also looked on line at old Time Magazine articles, pieces on the Soviet Union. As much as I can read about it now, reading what happened in that time, with journalists reacting immediately, without hindsight, is invaluable. Really, I read anything that could put me in that time, which includes fiction, which often is the most reliable source of real, felt information. E.L. Doctorow's, The Book of Daniel, was a revelation to me, because it was a fiction writer reacting, not immediately per se, but certainly a lot closer to the Rosenberg's execution and the rise of the 60's than I am now. His characters in that book were like the ones mine might have been haunted by.
Q: How would you compare the public opinion of the U.S. government in 1980 with that of modern day? Do you think the particular issues that the Goldstein family copes with transfer? Why or why not?
A: Writing my way into that era, I was really struck by how little had changed and really, how little we look at the past, as a nation, to make decisions. The Afghanistan issue has hardly diminished. Food prices spiked right when I finished the book, just as they had in anticipation of that first grain embargo, and this was all related to ethanol and oil. And of course our dependence on oil has not diminished either. Even footage of the fashion of the era is startling in how similar it was to what might be fashionable now.
On a domestic level though that's an easier question, largely because an inner-life is timeless. So what Vanessa and Ben, the kids, experience in 1979, is not that different than now, though they are not texting or listening to iPods. And issues of keeping a stressed marriage together, and how we manage our work lives and our home lives, who we are in the world versus who believe we should be in the world, well, these conflicts endure.
Q: It has been said that you are part of a new generation of Jewish-American novelists. How do you think Judaism figures in the lives of your characters?
A: Judaism as a religion has less of an effect on these characters than Judaism as a culture. There has been much talk about what it means to be culturally Jewish in this country, but in this book, I think my characters are more concerned by what that means politically. And of course, it's hard to separate the Jewish American experience from an American Immigrant experience, and my characters are grappling with issues that all immigrants deal with, depending on how long they've been in this country. This is why I like to see characters of a family, developing over generations. We can see what is passed down and what's lost. And what's gained. This family is Jewish, and so where they come from--Eastern Europe--and how they left, why they left, figures into each generation's stories significantly.
Q: You are in the unique position of being a former Director of Publicity (Harcourt) and a published author. How do you think publishing has changed since you left to pursue a career as a fulltime writer?
A: I know publishing now more as an author than with occasional peaks inside those elite offices than as an industry insider. It was difficult publishing a novel the first time around, while working behind the scenes, knowing all that has to happen to make a book a success and to still make the leap as an author. I knew the pitfalls of fiction, which are laughable when I remember how we used to bemoan the way fiction doesn't sell; those numbers have dropped significantly.
We all know publishing has changed because the notion of what text is and how it will be distributed, as well as the value of content, has been forever altered by technology, and, of course, by the economy. I wasn't exactly in publishing in its two martini lunch heyday (although I can say I have indulged in one or two of those lunches), but three years ago, just before I left, Amazon brought Kindle demos in under the cloak of secrecy. Seriously, no one had even seen them yet. We were like, huh, cool, but sure is big. We shall see…
I think publishing's strength is also its weakness. It's got such a rich and celebrated history as an industry. For the most part, publishing people are incredibly creative, business is done based on the strength of relationships, and the product being peddled is books. That the industry is slow to change I think is in part because who wants to give up that dialogue with such a magical and unique past? And I think many people are feeling that loss acutely.
Stylistically and thematically complex, this novel explores, from the point of view of four focal characters, the legacy of immigration on the second and third generations of a Jewish family. The omniscient narration from the point of view of the four Goldsteins—Dennis and Sharon and their children, Ben and Vanessa—presents a slow reveal of the circuitous plot. Beginning with a dinner party to celebrate Ben’s departure for Brandeis and ending seven months later on parents’ weekend, Gilmore embeds flashbacks into everyday experiences and repeats the same episode from different points of view to provide a broad understanding of character and motivation. Setting the story at the end of the Carter administration (August 1979 through March 1980) in a Washington, D.C., still enmeshed in the politics of the Cold War allows the author to include elements of the traditional family saga with an intimation of political intrigue. The surprising climax and no-cop-out resolution will appeal to readers of genre fiction as well as fans of Gilmore’s highly touted first novel, Golden Country (2006). --Ellen Loughran
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