-Joseph, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

 

Menachem Kaiser is the winner of the 2022 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. In this interview he discusses his prize-winning book, Plunder, as well as his writing process and favorite authors.

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Menachem Kaiser

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8.14.22

Interview with Menachem Kaiser

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SRP: What part of your book was the most challenging to write and why?

MK: The chapter on conspiracy theories took the longest, because there was so much research involved. That was like six months of research.

The most conceptually challenging was the last chapter, because to a certain extent it subverts or even undermines the stakes of the whole book. And resetting the stakes so late in the game is difficult, can be confusing; it’s a little bit of a high-wire act. This chapter had by far the most edits.

SRP: When did you feel that your book was “complete”?

MK: When I sold the book proposal—i.e., when I was committed to the book—everyone, including me, including the publisher, believed I was going to successfully reclaim the building, and in a timely manner. In the outline included in the proposal, the final chapter was “Getting the Building Back.” But a year or two later, when it became apparent that that was not going to happen, I was forced to reconceptualize the book. (See above.) So the last major task was making sense of this surprise non-ending.

I approached each chapter as its own unit. So the book was kind of like a puzzle, it could have been put together in any number different ways; my editor, Deanne Urmy, was essential in figuring out the structure. A couple of chapters got cut, and almost all of them were shuffled. We settled on a four-part structure. There were edits after that, but nothing major.

SRP: The timeline feels very elastic. It’s not clear how much time passes in the book. There are occasional mentions of different years, but never anything particularly concrete.

MK: It’s true, the timeline is very vague in the book. Some readers have assumed I lived in Poland; I didn’t. I was spending two or three months a year over the course of five years. So that’s a lot of time, but it’s very spread out. In the book there is a lot that is compressed and curated.

Most of that time I was actually in graduate school, in Michigan, but I don’t mention that once – I’m not providing a snapshot of my life, I’m writing a story.

SRP: Was your Fulbright Fellowship related to this at all?

MK: No, that was in Lithuania in 2010. During my time in Poland I wasn’t affiliated with any institutions.

SRP: The book answers this question somewhat, but did you learn anything more about your grandfather during your research? Or maybe even after the book was published?

MK: Yes and no. In terms of hard historical facts – not much. There was a huge pile of documents in my parents’ house, but they were mostly applications for medical aid from the German government. 

But it’s not just about historical knowledge. Those family videos, for instance – there are hours of footage containing my grandfather. I watched those again and again. That’s a sort of knowledge that’s more speculative, more sentimental.

During an interview not long after the book came out, I was asked what I would say to my grandfather, if given the chance. It was a Zoom interview, and my father was in the audience, so I gave him the floor. My father said, “The question is not what would Menachem say to his grandfather, but what would his grandfather say to him?” And a few days later he wrote a sort of letter, channeling his father, letting him “speak” to his children and grandchildren. I found it very touching. It opened a conversation about who my grandfather was, what he stood for.

 

SRP: What insights did you uncover about yourself during the writing process?

MK: This writing thing, it’s not very glamorous. Most of the time nothing happens. You’re not even having ideas. You just sort of sit in the material for months on end. But it can take on new meanings, if that make sense, or maybe it’s that your relationship to it can shift.

For example: I came in with a very non-sentimental approach. It’s how I grew up. Places, objects, whatever weren’t sentimentalized; we didn’t have heirlooms or keepsakes. And I’m not a particularly nostalgic person, and, despite writing a book about my family history, I’m not sentimental about that, either. But I think while writing I discovered a strain of sentimentality within myself…?

SRP: It almost seems in part of the book as though you’re talking to yourself, having a conversation and trying to figure out how you feel or what to do. You often present both sides of an argument.

MK: It’s a tension in the book, for sure. I think a lot of books in this genre can be very sentimental – it’s about return, and family trauma, and memory, and so on – and that can ruin everything. So I wanted to be personal but also honest; sentimentality in writing rings false because on some level it is false – it’s the writer uncritically adopting the sort of ‘correct’ emotional attitude.

SRP: What was your reaction to receiving the Samir Rohr Prize?

MK: *chuckles*

First I found out I was nominated. That was a double surprise, because I thought this year was for fiction. But then Debra got in touch to tell me that I was a finalist, and that – that was very exciting. Very, very exciting. And then finding out that I won was…. yeah, you freak out. It was thrilling, what can I say.

The book came out last March, and I’ve been beyond lucky, the book got attention, it got reviews, I got to do so many events, but it was tapering off. I didn’t mind—the book was running its course. But this is like a magical grand finale.

SRP: Can you describe your writing process? What does it look like?

MK: I tackled it piecemeal. There were certain things – stories, events, ideas – that I felt were important, that they should go in the book. So I’d write those sections, those chapters. How these related to each other, how they’d be braided together, I wasn’t sure; I sort of just shoved aside that anxiety. Usually the through line, what holds it together, is the plot, but I actually have very little plot in my book. 

In terms of the actual writing: I sort of just pour it all onto the page – I write my first draft longhand – and hope something emerges. Then you just chisel away. I try to delay as long as possible sentence-polishing, because you can do that forever, and it can all be for naught, but I also believe imprecise ideas hide behind imprecise prose. I would work on a chapter until it got too depressing/boring, then jump to another chapter.

There is also an element of luck. You try something and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t—you genuinely do not know how it will turn out. And with this book I feel like I got very lucky, in that some of the weirder, more ambitious elements turned out okay, or maybe even good. Aside from the last chapter, I didn’t have to do any major rewrites once I submitted.

But the short answer is – it’s chaos.

SRP: But isn’t it always chaos? You have a lot of material that you’re attempting to make sense of. It’s messy.

MK: Yeah, it’s going to be messy. I was writing chapter by chapter, and not in any order, and not with any overall structure in mind, not really. They were almost modular. I was worried I was shooting myself in the foot, that some or maybe even most of the chapters wouldn’t make sense, wouldn’t fit, in the larger arc, once that arc was figured out. But I didn’t have any other line of attack, and the advantage was that I was able to finish these chapters. And it was freeing, if risky. I wanted to make an argument about conspiracy theories, and so I did. There’s no narrative in that chapter, it doesn’t, in a narrative sense, move the story along. And it has a very different tone to the rest of the book; it’s a like a research-heavy op-ed, almost.

SRP: But so does what I call the “Myth Chapter”, where you’ve woven your family history into and among the regional folktales.

MK: I had a research assistant, a Polish graduate student named Justyna, who was amazing. I wanted to put all these myths I was encountering, all this treasure hunting, in historical context, and gave her this gargantuan task, to go through any and all sources, from whatever time period, and find myths, folk tales, rumors, news reports, etc. about treasure hunting. And she came back with this wild document, basically dozens of examples, out of order, or that had no order, rather. And I read it and thought – the argument I wanted to make, using this research, it’s already here, it’s perfect like this.

So I rearranged and cleaned it up and condensed, but largely left it intact. And I was sure my editor would not let me get away with it, that she’d object to a chapter, without context or warning explanation, full of weird folk tales and myths. But it worked. So Justyna takes credit for that chapter.

SRP: It’s my favorite chapter.

MK: I’ll let her know!

SRP: In your book you mention Sisyphus, I think, in the last chapter. And the structure, the modules, give a sense of the cyclical nature, the constant learning, and research, and attempts to move forward. That’s life. You talk a lot about truth in the book, and it seems to me that you’ve somewhat captured reality.

MK: Thank you. It went against my instincts, actually. I don’t like books that are modular; I think the hardest thing to do, as a writer – and the most rewarding element, as a reader – is the connective tissue. But sometimes it’s justified, or even necessary. This wasn’t a linear story, so it couldn’t really be told linearly, I don’t think.

SRP: Which authors have been pivotal forces in your development as a writer?

MK: Nonfiction writers like Janet Malcolm and Renata Adler – who are telling a story but also at the same time interrogating the nature of storytelling and the implications of being a storyteller, and are authoritative without being impersonal.