Another Day in Paradise…New York, That is:
An Interview with Author Eileen Pollack

Interview conducted by Phil Brown
from In the Mountains #5 June 1998

In The Mountains interviewed Eileen Pollack, whose novel, Paradise, New York, will be published shortly by Temple University Press. Eileen Pollack’s The Rabbi in the Attic and Other Stories has been well-received and the Washington Post listed it in a special group of the 50 best books they’d reviewed in the last decade. Eileen read some excerpts from Paradise, New York at the second annual History of Catskills Conference, and will read some more at the upcoming fourth annual conference. Catskills veterans who have read the manuscript or heard Eileen’s readings are amazed at how beautifully she captures so many elements of the rich Mountain legacy.

Phil Brown: Your novel, Paradise, New York, will be published in the fall. How are you feeling about this?

Eileen Pollack: I’m thrilled that my novel finally found a publisher! Authors aren’t supposed to admit how many rejections a book received … but this book received a million. I started to work on the novel in graduate school, and it did take me many years to get the voice and structure right. But even after the book had achieved the form it’s in now, publishers kept turning it down. Some of them wanted it to be an exercise in nostalgia. They liked the first half, which resembles a coming-of-age novel, but they didn’t know what to do with the second half, which turns darker and more complex. A few editors – the ones at the very literary houses – didn’t like the first half because they wanted it to be darker. Mostly, though, the editors said they liked the novel fine, their problem was they felt the audience for such a book would be ‘too limited,’ by which they meant that only Jews would want to read it. I also got the sense they thought Jews were passe.

They didn’t understand that the novel is about the mistake of treating someone’s ethnic identity as a commodity in the first place. Lucy decides to run the Eden as a sort of living museum of the Borscht Belt. Yiddishkayt happens to be in fashion that summer, so she makes a success of it. The presumption is that yiddishkayt might be out of fashion the next summer. That kind of identity is that? I wanted to figure out if there is something more authentic and enduring about Jewish culture – and Judaism itself, as a religion – than a way to feel special and successfully compete in the ethnic identity contest. Readers of many cultures are asking these same questions. Maybe the book just needed its audience to catch up with it. In any event, I’m very happy that Temple University Press saw potential in the book – as literature, as sociology – and decided to publish it as part of their series on the Catskills.

Are there any ties between your short story collection, The Rabbi in the Attic and Paradise, New York?

Many of these same ideas appear in Rabbi in the Attic. Not to mention that half the stories are set in Paradise. I had lots of fun giving various characters from the stories walk-on parts in the novel, and vice versa, since I wrote many of the stories while I was working on the first few drafts of the novel.

If a person who had experience with Catskills would read Paradise, New York, would they find it familiar?

There’s no telling what people will think of my version of the Catskills. One editor said she’d spent a few weeks in the Catskills as a girl and she was rejecting the book because I obviously knew nothing of the tone and flavor of the place, which I had to think odd, given that my grandparents owned a hotel there, and I grew up within a few minutes’ walk from Grossinger’s, and everyone I knew owned or worked at a hotel, and I spent most of my free time hanging around with the employees of various hotels, and I worked at an insurance company that insured most of the bungalow colonies, camps and hotels in the Mountains. Certainly, it’s true that every resort had a slightly different atmosphere and clientele from the others. Our hotel wasn’t much like Grossinger’s. I once heard a student say she assumed all the hotels in the Catskills were fancy places. I think the present generation thinks American Jews always have been comfortable – in both senses of the word. That’s the irony of the title: there was a time not long ago when Jews like Lucy’s grandparents–like my own grandparents–that a few shabby buildings in the foothills of the Catskills could be a Paradise where they could relax and hang around with other Jews without worrying what the Gentiles might think. I hope I’ve presented an accurate version of a particular hotel, at a certain time in history. The story–and the hotel–are completely fabricated, but I hope that I got the general atmosphere and most of the details right.

How did you get the characters for the book?

Let me take this chance to say that no one in the novel is based on anyone I know in real life, especially my family! It’s true that my grandmother was one tough cookie, and some of the dynamics of her relationship with my grandfather are based on what I think was true of my own grandparents–my grandmother stayed behind the scenes and did the dirty work while my grandfather was out shmoozing with the guests–but my grandmother wasn’t anywhere as difficult as Nana!

How much of you is in the main character of Lucy ?

How much of Lucy is based on me? Hmm, well, how much should I admit! The essence of Lucy’s character is the need to feel powerful, special and unique. She wants to have a mission–a project that defines who she is and why she’s here. She has to decide whether she should shape her identity around being Jewish. Sounds like the definition of Jewish-American author to me! To give you a slightly more serious answer, I’ll answer a question with a question. In creating the Eden, haven’t I done what Lucy tried to do–create a museum of the Catskills? Didn’t I capitalize on my identity as a girl who grew up at her family’s hotel and didn’t want them to sell it? Didn’t I succeed, as Lucy tried to, in keeping it alive?

Did you take a lot of liberties with the location and characters?

For many years after my family sold Pollack’s, I dreamed a recurrent dream in which I was walking around the grounds, around the rooms, and the details were very vivid. Physically, the Eden is a re-creation of Pollack’s. On the other hand, most of the characters are made up, and certainly the plot is a complete fabrication.

How did you decide to bring in the black-white relationship between Lucy and Mr. Jefferson?

Mr. Jefferson was going to be a minor character in the book, but the members of my writers’ group kept asking to see more of him. At the same time, Lucy’s brother began to play a more active role in the story. My own brother is nothing like Arthur–Arthur is ashamed of being Jewish, which my real brother isn’t; my brother didn’t become a lawyer until after I had completed several versions of the book, and he’s nothing like the lawyers I created. But Arthur’s skeptical response to Lucy’s plan to run the Eden as a sort of Yiddish Disneyland is an echo of the response I was sure I’d hear from my brother if I wrote a shmaltzy, simpleminded book about the Catskills. He worked many summers as a waiter and he knew the Catskills weren’t all sweetness and light. Mr. Jefferson’s challenges to Lucy’s plans for the hotel gradually began to merge with Arthur’s objections. In a similar way, the question of whom Arthur would marry began to mirror the question of whether Mr. Jefferson and Lucy would end up together. I wanted to remind people that if you segregate yourself according to your ethnic identity, you’re not necessarily going to be able to live with people who don’t share that identity, though the irony is that Mr. Jefferson is as much a part of the Catskills as Lucy.

Was there anything cathartic for you in writing this book?

What was cathartic was exploring my mixed feelings about the Catskills. I was proud that I’d grown up there. I also was ashamed. I went to Yale in the early 70s, when most of the Jews there weren’t very Jewish. They’d shortened their names. They’d gone to prep schools called Trinity, Friends and Exeter. They dressed themselves with taste and knew what to order in French restaurants. They weren’t “Jewy Jews,” as Arthur labels the Eden’s guests. I felt very self-conscious about being this frizzy-haired Jewish girl from this tasteless place called the Borscht Belt. On the other hand, being from this place associated with bad comedians and gefilte fish and Ethel Merman set me apart and gave me something to talk about–and write about.

What is it like for you when you return to the Mountains these days?

Returning is very sad, not so much because the old hotels are gone as because nothing much has taken their place. The Hasidim are fine, but they don’t pay property taxes. There aren’t many jobs. Most of the stores are boarded up. There isn’t a bookstore within miles of my hometown. Here is this beautiful place two hours from New York, and no one can think of any company that might want to move in? People from New York City couldn’t be convinced to build second homes here? Maybe people can’t get out of the old mindset–gigantic hotels, maybe with a few slot machines added. Forget about the casinos! The world is an exciting place. People in the Catskills need to start thinking about completely new possibilities–though I recognize that’s easy for an outsider to say. And I am an outsider, I can’t pretend to live in the Catskills anymore, I only grew up there.

Why are so many novelists recently turning their attention to the Catskills?

I think that for a while it was considered passe to write about Jews. Philip Roth had already done the Jews, Woody Allen had already done the Jews, Cynthia Ozick had already done the Jews. If you were Indian or Armenian, okay, you can be our favorite author of the week. Then next week we’ll find some other group. Then the newer ethnic groups didn’t seem to be that new. The very notion of ethnicity began to seem passe. Or maybe it was just that you needed newer gimmicks. You could write about Jews if they were special, improved Jews–the Hasids, for example, as Pearl Abraham writes about so beautifully in her wonderful novel The Romance Reader. It’s okay to write about the Catskills because it’s a new, improved genre of Jewish fiction. Also, I think enough time has gone by that my generation of Jews can see the Catskills from a distance and recognize them as sociologically interesting. If nothing else, we’re not afraid we’ll end up working their all our lives, waiting on tables, as my father’s generation feared. In the battle of ambivalence, pride can win against shame, because, from this distance, shame is blunted by nostalgia. When I started to write my novel in the early 80s, I predicted there would be a group of sociologists studying the Catskills, to the chagrin of their parents, who worked hard all their lives to give their kids vacations in Paris and Vermont instead of a crummy bungalow colony in the Catskills, and here their kids are studying the sociology and history and literature of those very same bungalow colonies and spending their vacations there!