Bethany Ball is on fire right now. Her debut book, “What to Do About the Solomons,” is set to release from Grove Atlantic on April 4 (basically, right around the corner!), and it’s the book you’ve been dying to read for your entire life. Booklist said her book “vividly captures a singular family….This novel from a most promising writer has been compared to the work of Isaac B. Singer and Grace Paley, as well as Nathan Englander and Jennifer Egan. Try Eudora Welty with sex and Jews.”
Bethany, who has written for us about being a mom and all the things in between, talked to me about how the book came together, what TV shows she’s binge-watched, and what surprised her about being a mom.
What prompted you to write this book? How did the story all come together for you?
I wrote the first chapter originally as a short story. Some of the other chapters were stories as well, from my thesis at Sarah Lawrence. I liked the creative challenge of linking unrelated stories. As the book progressed, I realized it was really a straight up novel.
I wanted to write another language in the organic way Junot Diaz uses Spanish so that the reader might feel immersed in this unfamiliar culture, or familiar if you grew up with Israelis, or in Israel. I did a six-month ulpan in Israel, and have lived with an Israeli and among Israelis for years. I wanted to write about a large family—very different from my own Midwestern three people nuclear family existence.
When did you start writing? How did you persevere through all the rejections?
I started writing seriously when I was in college, although I’d been writing stories since I was very little. The way I persevered through rejection was by almost never sending anything out. In fact, my first publication was winning the Detroit MetroTimes summer fiction contest in college. I was in love with a poet and sent in one of his poems.
At the last minute, I sent in my story. I didn’t even know I’d won until my father walked into my house asking if the story was really mine. I think I only submitted a few stories after that. I didn’t really send work out seriously until I’d finished “What to Do About the Solomons.” I knew in my gut that it was meant to go out into the world. It took me years and years to learn to write. But really, I was scared, and I should have been sending work out continuously.
What is the most surprising thing about being a mom?
Being a mom grounds me and organizes my life. I was laid off from my dotcom job before I had children. My plan was to take those six months and sit in cafes and write a book. But it didn’t work out that way. I can still feel the painful boredom, the lack of anything happening on the page. Having children distills life to its more important essence. No messing around. No time for writers’ block. I’m writing this right now while my daughter eats pizza in the other room with a friend. At any moment I’ll be interrupted. But I like that. I need that structure and also that chaos in order to be creative.
The most surprising thing though, honestly, is how little freedom people give their kids and how fearful they are at all times for them (I highly recommend Lenore Skenazy and her Free Range Kids blog!). It definitely curbs the freedom of mothers and sometimes I wonder if that’s the point. Like, women finally got the opportunity to define themselves outside of motherhood and–BAM–suddenly you can’t leave a child alone ever. There have even been reports of mothers being arrested for letting their kids play alone in their own backyard. This is so hard on mothers and also kind of sad for kids.
What was your favorite children’s book or young adult novel growing up?
I adored, like most women my age, Judy Blume. I grew up in sort of repressed mostly conservative Detroit where no one talked about their feelings or anything personal ever. But Judy Blume does. Her characters do. “Tiger Eyes,” “Deenie,” “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.” It was unbearably exciting to get hold of one of those books. They were so readable and relatable and you wanted to be best friends with all of Blume’s narrators.
What TV show have you binge watched?
“Transparent” is my all time favorite TV show. It was the only time in my life where I thought it would be really cool to write something like a screenplay, or TV pilot. It’s funny, dark, and true and the settings and actors are so beautiful to look at. I also count the days for the next “Game of Thrones” season. I love the mash up of zombies, history, gorgeous settings and sex. And “Fleabag.”
Who are you, in one sentence?
I’ve had a meditation practice for close to 20 years now and I’d say that “Who Am I?” is the most important question we grapple with.
Biggest pet peeve:
I’m one of those people who hates chewing noises. If you sit next to me on an airplane and eat a banana, I’m going to curse you and your whole family. I have ear plugs and noise canceling headphones with me at all times.
If you were a Jewish holiday, which one would you be?
I love Passover. I love the seder. I love squeezing all our friends and family around a big table. Israelis have the most wonderful Passover songs, and if you have enough of them at a seder they will sing. I love my mother in law’s wonderful delicately flavored matzah ball soup, and Moroccan fish. Two dishes I’m proud to say that I now also make pretty well.
What’s the best thing about yourself? What’s the worst?
The best thing about myself is that I’m always trying to penetrate deeper into a subject. Maybe because I am the daughter and granddaughter of journalists, and a mother who trucked no bullshit, but I never take anything at face value.
That might be my worst quality too.
I have always wanted to be a writer. My wonderful 2nd grade teacher bound a little book I wrote and sent me to the Young Author Association. I was pretty much hooked from that point forward. Sometimes around that age, a classmate came running up to me on the playground of my school and showed me a newspaper that had been blowing around. She wanted to show me my dad’s byline in the local newspaper. I guess I also wanted my name in print.