An Interview with Temim Fruchter

The debut novelist talks storytelling, quantum physics, and the unknowable-ness of family.

An Interview with Temim Fruchter

Temim Fruchter’s remarkable debut novel, City of Laughter, is difficult for me to describe. I’m afraid that if I put expositive words to her wildly inventive book, which spans four generations of Jewish women and employs a plot that moves through time like a jumping bean, I’ll take away its element of wonder. From its shapeshifting stranger who appears and reappears over the course of 100 years to its suggestion that stories — especially love stories — are the engines at the center of everything, City of Laughter is one of the most ambitious and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read.

Your book is teeming with Jewish folktales, some passed down through generations, some embellished by you, and some purely invented. What’s your favorite tale, and how might it broadly relate to the themes in your book?

I think more than one particular standout tale, I have always loved the world that Eastern European Jewish folklore transports me to. At once warm and inviting and a little bit sinister; at once magical and wondrous, melancholic and absurdist, I truly feel like my imagination found its first real home in those stories. And whether it’s a function of faulty memory or the way that certain tropes and themes move fluidly from one story to the other, it’s always hard for me to recall where one ends and the next begins. But it’s also exactly this that draws me to Jewish folklore. The stories are muscular and shape-shifty. Some are allegorical, some are moralizing, some extremely supernatural, some long and sprawling. Some change, of course, over time, as oral traditions do. They feel, to me, like one of the most concrete portals I have to my people’s past, so ever since I was a kid, Jewish folklore has felt, to me, like time travel.

Your protagonist, Shiva Margolin, travels to Warsaw and meets El, a nonbinary person who studied quantum physics in school. They were specifically drawn to something called moving spotlight theory, which allows, El explains, “that the past and future might exist alongside the present. But in this theory, only one moment at a time is absolutely present, and that moment keeps changing, as if a spotlight were moving over it.” It occurred to me that this theory also provides the structure to your book. Was this intentional?

It was! In writing this novel, I was thinking a lot about the different ways that time can be forgiving, elastic, or nonlinear. With my friends, I often talk about the idea of queer time. Queer time can mean a lot of things, I think — from the idea that many queer people operate on a non-heteronormative timeline, to the idea that certain expectations about temporality and particular milestones are different, and even to the idea that there is some magic in insisting that time need not be rigid or linear but can move with and about us. I thought about time in this book sort of like layers — like instead of past and present, everything is sort of happening at once, it just depends which frequency you’re tuned into. And when I read about this theory, it seemed like a logic the story wanted.

City of Laughter insists that time is more crowded and simultaneous than we think, and that if we are present to one moment, we can see it clearly, whether that moment is right now or some distant past or future. I wanted to do that for the reader, too — to shine that spotlight on a precise present for a given character, even as that present dramatically shifts.

There is an intergenerational sadness in the women in your book, a shared trait that forms one of the major narrative threads. You write, “The family sadness had no sound.” Would you say a bit more about this?

In my own family, as I’m sure in many others, there is so much not only unsaid but unsayable. Sometimes, there aren’t words for what has transpired, or words that we know, anyway. Sometimes, there isn’t a human language that feels like it adequately describes an experience of childhood wonderment or trauma, something that formed you. And then, in a family, there is some combination of these unsayable things and the much more sayable kinds of sadness — depression or anxiety, for example — that get passed down. A package deal. Part of why I started writing this book was that I had this nagging feeling that I had inherited a family sadness but I couldn’t put my finger on what the sadness was about, nor was I sure that anyone could. It was, more likely, something cumulative and nameless; something far more existential that maybe only fiction could touch.

One of the other themes here is the unknowable-ness of family. It’s something that prompts Shiva’s seeking. Without getting too 23andMe, should some family secrets remain unknowable?

That’s a good question. I think some family secrets must remain unknowable. There’s no version of reality that provides a clear view into every generation of a family. And given the ways that trauma works, that systemic oppression works, and that just plain old family dynamics work, certain elements of a family’s story are necessarily shrouded or hidden from the generations to come. I think it’s a more common perception in a romantic relationship that a partner is fundamentally unknowable, but this is true of families, too. No matter how we try, we can never fully know one another, and instead of being a liability, this is something beautiful about being human. There is this abundance of mystery around what makes us, and something Shiva needs to come to terms with, too, is that she can and will never know the whole story. It’s her curiosity about it that ends up being the most essential thing.

Mirrors figure prominently throughout the book. What is their importance in the narrative?

When I was in religious high school, I remember hearing this elaborate rumor that there was some witchcraft you could do by looking in a mirror at the stroke of midnight on your 16th birthday — something that would reveal who your future husband would be, at the expense of some very specific number of years of his life. This has haunted and fascinated me for years. I’m always looking for portals, and using the mirror as a dangerous portal in this way — particularly as a book that is very much about queerness and the women in it making contact with some very powerful erotic potential — excited me.

[Photo by Leah James.]

[Editor’s note: Temim Fruchter will be in conversation with Addie Tsai at Loyalty Petworth in DC tomorrow at 7 p.m. Learn more here.]

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author, most recently, of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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