ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
A young immigrant, a Russian seamstress named Lillian Leyb head west across North America in 1925. She's bound for Siberia in the hope of finding her lost daughter. That's the premise of the new novel by Amy Bloom titled "Away."
Lillian Leyb had survived the slaughter of her family, Russian Jews massacred by their neighbors in a pogrom. Believing her daughter, Sophie, is dead, too, Lillian emigrates to New York. And then comes word that Sophie is alive.
Ms. AMY BLOOM (Author, "Away"): (Reading) Sophie's name is a match to dry wood. Ice is sluicing down Lillian now, running off her in sheets. Trees of fire are falling across the frozen field, brilliant orange, blue-tipped and inextinguishable. Lillian's veins are bleeding fire, her hands and feet rippling with it. Hawks and sparrows drop down from the blackened sky and Lillian's face hurts. She stands in front of the window, her wrapper open, and presses her face and body against the cold glass. She has clawed four dark red scratches on her cheeks, and she will have them for weeks and the fire will not go out. Alive. Not dead.
BLOCK: With that, Lillian begins her odyssey away from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she has finagled her way into marrying a star of Yiddish theater. Writer Amy Bloom says that part of the story felt like familiar ground.
Ms. BLOOM: These were easy voices to write. These were the voices of my childhood. They were not at all difficult. My sister and I used to act as maids and waitresses at my great aunt and uncle's cocktail parties, which were very much sort of, retired, minor stars of the Yiddish theater and the Yiddish opera. And it was a great pleasure, but it was also a great foundation for these voices. I mean, these are the voices of my grandparents and my aunts and uncles.
BLOCK: Lillian Leyb, when she finds out, she gets this word that her daughter, her young daughter is still alive, knows that she needs to leave New York. And this is the plan. She's going to get herself to the Bering Strait and walk to Siberia. And your job, as the novelist, is to really make the reader believe that in some way, she's going to pull this off, she's going to be able to do it.
Ms. BLOOM: Well, her plan, of course, originally, is to take a ship back to Russia, but that's simply not possible. It's not possible financially. It was very, very difficult for Jews to go back, actually. And so when her friend, Jacob, says it's not that hard to cross this country, it's actually true. Even then it didn't take very long, especially by a train. The tricky part, of course, is the Bering Straight, about which she knows absolutely nothing. And so her assumption is that she will either walk when it is frozen or she will sail.
BLOCK: She is, though, she's a woman, a young woman traveling by herself, not just train but steamship, mule train, walking through the Yukon, doing all sorts of amazing things to stay alive and to get by.
Ms. BLOOM: I suppose. I mean, they don't strike me as amazing. They strike me as pretty much what is required. I mean, I guess what is striking about her is that she does not sit down and put her head between her knees and give over. She rises to the occasion, not always gracefully, but she does well enough so that she can go on.
BLOCK: Were there any false starts? Did you have her go in places that you realize were…
Ms. BLOOM: Yeah.
BLOCK: …bad detours?
Ms. BLOOM: Yes. I did. The truth is I don't have much of a sense of direction and so I had to pin up all sorts of maps on the wall so that I could always keep track of where I was and where I was going for Lillian. And there were false starts both geographically and in terms of transportation and, of course, you know, false starts in terms of the writing itself, which is inevitable.
BLOCK: Mm-hmm. So you - she was getting, maybe, boxed on to a corner that you weren't quite sure that she could get out of?
Ms. BLOOM: Oh, she get boxed into a corner where I'd say to myself, oh, my God, we already did that? Or, really, are we winding up there? I don't - where is that on the map?
BLOCK: You - there are a lot of places in the book where it seems like you really love listing of small details. There's a section where you're describing lineman on the telegraph trail who would be walking out of their cabins for the last time and the things they would take with them, their diaries, their Lemon Hart rum, their snow shoes and their recipes, and that they would leave behind hand-carved jigsaw puzzles, cloudberry jam, pine floors painted to look like Persian rugs.
Ms. BLOOM: Well, I think there are some details that are so particular and so evocative. And when you get to put three of them together, you can see so clearly that little piece of the world that I am inclined to put them together and write them down.
BLOCK: Can you describe the process where that happens?
Ms. BLOOM: Well, for example, just like that, when I was reading about the telegraph trail and, you know, what happened with the operators and when they left and, you know, in sort of 1935, being told to abandon their stations. There is a description - I didn't have to make this stuff up, they, they list what people tended to walk out of.
Also, there were letters from these men to their families saying, I had to leave behind X, but I took Y. And so, obviously, as a writer, you don't write it all, but you pick the things that speak to a couple of different qualities -loneliness and domesticity, creativity, boredom, and it's sort of like being handed this basket of metaphors.
BLOCK: Do you think that - since you are a practicing psychotherapist, do you think that your ear is especially tuned to details like that, the small things that people might say?
Ms. BLOOM: I'm sure it doesn't hurt. I spent a lot of time listening to people. But it's also true that I liked details, and listening to people when I was a bartender and when I was a waitress and probably when I was a babysitter as well. I suspect that's part of what drew me to psychotherapy rather than the other way around.
BLOCK: When you started writing the book and have this thought in your head of Lillian Leyb trying to get back to Russia to find her daughter, did you know, as you started out, how you wanted the book to end? Or did it revealed itself to you as you went along?
Ms. BLOOM: It did reveal itself to me, I guess, with a lot of chipping and chiseling. But in the end, I went with what seemed more solid to me and more connected to the rest of the book.
BLOCK: Did it take a lot to figure that out?
Ms. BLOOM: Oh, yeah. It took me - taking three months off from working on the book entirely to wander around my house, tearing my hair out to come to the ending. I just had to stop and, you know, go down to the baseball field not too far from my house and smoke cigarettes and kick up some dirt, usually about 11 o'clock at night.
BLOCK: You would go down and walk at 11:00 at night around the baseball field?
Ms. BLOOM: Mm-hmm.
BLOCK: And what would be going through your head?
Ms. BLOOM: I'm doomed, doomed, doomed is what was going through my head. And sometimes what would be going through my head would be, how about this? How about this? How about this? And then, I'd sit down and take a few notes and eventually go back home and make another pass at it.
BLOCK: How hard was it for you at the end to put Lillian Leyb aside?
Ms. BLOOM: Oh, when the book was done? Oh, I was delighted.
BLOCK: Not hard at all?
Ms. BLOOM: Well, I can, sometimes, sort of, hear her or see her. I find her actually a fairly funny character, which is not always apparent to other people. There's a certain dry humor about her that I sometimes see and hear.
BLOCK: And what will she be saying to you?
Ms. BLOOM: Oh, well, it's essentially, you know, sort of, you know, pull up your socks and get on with them.
BLOCK: Amy Bloom, thanks very much.
Ms. BLOOM: Thank you.
BLOCK: Amy Bloom's latest novel is titled "Away." You can read an excerpt at npr.org.
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