As a teenager, poet and novelist Elizabeth Poliner was “deeply serious” about writing, but somewhere in college, her sense of certainty about being a writer faltered. Part of it was anxiety, “not feeling I was good enough,” and part the desire to “stand tall” before her family in a chosen vocation. Eventually, interested in public health, she decided to attend law school. But before she returned to school, she decided to take a class to “shore up” her grammar. This turned out to be a creative writing class taught by Michael Curtis of The Atlantic— an experience that reawakened her passion for writing. “A light that had gone out came on.”
Poliner still attended law school and practiced for years, but after that she never stopped writing. Her life was transformed again when she attended a talk given by several Jewish-American women authors. “Linda Pastan and Faye Moscowitz were there—and I can still remember that someone asked them, ‘Are you afraid?’ Of course, I was terrified—I had a secret, that I wanted to be a writer. I kept coming up with all sorts of reasons I couldn’t do it. Then I heard—I think it was Linda Pastan—say she was terrified. I didn't know you could be a writer and still be afraid! I’m so grateful for going that night. I learned that you didn’t have to wait for the fear to go away.”
Even her new novel, As Close To Us As Breathing, an ambitious work that explores the interconnections of a large, closely-knit Jewish family, was itself an exercise in facing fear. “I’d say I kept that story at bay for ten years,” she laughs ruefully. “I knew it was enormous and complicated. I knew it was going to be hard and I wasn’t sure I was up for it.” Praised by Kirkus for creating a mosaic of “chronologically fragmented episodes,” the novel considers the long-lasting reverberations of a tragedy; when eight-year-old Davy is killed in an accident, his death ripples out, altering the lives of everyone around him: his parents, aunts, cousins and siblings who gather each summer at “Bagel Beach” in Woodmont, Connecticut in a crowded summer cottage.
Though Davy’s death is announced in the novel’s first sentence, readers only absorb its full impact after witnessing how various characters’ expansive sense of the future is altered. “Before the accident, there’s a sense of possibility, characters are considering who they are and who they might become. But their lives contract after the accident.” Grief stricken characters, torn between a sense of community and a sense of self, abandon love and genuine career interests, in an effort of atonement. “They all do penance in different ways,” Politer explains. “What does it mean and what does it cost them, not living a life true to themselves?”
The setting for the novel is informed by Poliner’s own deep ties to the sunny, crowded world she depicts; she says her family provided “the emotional inspiration” for the novel: “Bagel Beach and the Woodmont community is a place that’s been in my imagination forever.” As a child Poliner vacationed there, a generation before that her parents met there—and before that, each side of their respective families summered there, all of which was “enormously helpful” when recreating this seaside world. Before she began writing the first draft, Poliner visited the area with her mother, “She could tell me where Bagel Beach was, where the cluster of cottages were—there’s a Condo complex there now.” As she wrote, she kept her map of Woodmont nearby.
The project took six years —“a full and busy six years,” Poliner says. Does she miss those characters, after spending so much time with them? She laughs.“They’re still alive for me! The book is like a puzzle—you finally figure it out, so that inner tension dissipates. But those characters are still very alive! And I’m so happy that they exist in the world—I like them, I like all of them.”
Besides, she adds, sounding animated and pleased, she’s busy working on a new novel. And though she’s wary of discussing it, she’s dealing with a story that has yet another large and tangled group of characters at its center. “I just got started on it this fall. I’m happy, and I don't really want to say too much. Another clan of people has entered my consciousness yet again. Interconnectedness is where I am ultimately heading, though in a different way.” She pauses, thinking.
“It wasn’t planned. They just sort of arrive, like they come in on a slow ship, and the ship arrives and then you say, ‘Oh my God, all of you?’”Jessie Grearson is a writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop living in Falmouth, Maine.