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Faith for Beginners

Faith for Beginners Cover



Author Q & A

A Conversation with Aaron Hamburger

Francine Prose is the author of A Changed Man,

Blue Angel, and The Lives of the Muses.

FRANCINE PROSE:What attracts you to the theme of cross-cultural


AARON HAMBURGER: Growing up, I often felt like an outsider

and an observer, so that when I first traveled outside the United

States, it was a welcome surprise to be in a situation where I was

supposed to feel that way. I also found that when I came back

from traveling abroad, I had a new appreciation for the unique

qualities of place in the seemingly boring, placid suburb where

I’d grown up. I think these clashes of culture are great opportunities

for revealing character and for instigating growth and

change, essential qualities for fiction.

FP:Why do you refer to the main character as Mrs. Michaelson

and not Helen?

AH: To suggest the importance of formality and good manners,

which are Mrs. Michaelson’s guiding principles. She believes

that if everyone would just behave and say “please” and “thank

you,” we’d have a better world. Of course, she’s right. If everyone

obeyed the rules, we wouldn’t have terrorism, drug abuse, or

murder, or other unpleasantness. Her problem is she can’t comprehend

why it is that so many people choose not to say “please”

and “thank you,” or choose to engage in behavior that’s harmful

to themselves or to others. Another reason was that I enjoy the elegance

of formality in fiction. I love that there are certain characters

we think of only as “Mr. Darcy” or “Madame Bovary.”

“Fitzwilliam” and “Emma” just don’t have the same ring to


FP: Who were some of your influences in writing the novel?

AH: I always have to laugh a little when people ask how autobiographical

my work is because when I write I’m much more

conscious of books I’ve read than of people I’ve known. This

book is my love letter to upper-middle-class literary heroines

like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Evan S. Connell’s Mrs.

Bridge, and E. M. Forster’s Mrs. Wilcox, Miss Schlegel, and

Mrs. Moore. I value their common sense and goodwill as well as

their earnest desires for everyone to play fairly with one another.

That impulse seems all the more noble to me because

most people don’t want to play fair. They’d rather get the upper

hand than play fair, and these middle-class women have benefited

from their husbands’ investment in the class system. But

instead of just enjoying their good fortune, the women above

try to, within certain bounds, rectify injustice. With Mrs.

Bridge, it’s more of an internal struggle, yet all the women

grapple seriously with morals and ethics, and in their own limited

ways try to build a better world.

FP: Each chapter begins with a small anecdote or legend about

Israel. Why did you use that device?

AH: Because for me, a fundamental part of visiting Israel is the

difference between the dream of Israel and the reality of the

place once you’re standing there.

I’d grown up with images of the Middle East that were inspired

by the hokey illustrations in children’s bibles and by

Charlton Heston movies. Somehow I imagined that in Israel,

life would be more meaningful and inspired, that there I’d be

surrounded by idealistic pioneers and shepherds who’d invite

me to break bread with them under palm trees and sing hymns.

But modern Israel feels strikingly ahistorical. In contrast to Europe,

for example, it’s much more like America, with the usual

fast food shops, ads for blue jeans, and pop music playing full

blast everywhere you go. It can be disappointing if you’re expecting

religious inspiration at first glance. So for me, the anecdotes

juxtaposed with the text were a way to give the reader the

experience of disjunction between the fantasy and reality of Israel.

Also, as the book goes on, the anecdotes get increasingly

dark and even violent, which I hope gives a sense to the reader

of the darker turn the plot takes as well.

FP: How did you get into the heads of the different characters?

Were any easier to write than others?

AH: I tried to invest each character with some aspect of myself

that I could use as a way into them, so that no character ended

up being simply a villain or an object of scorn. I also tried to

think about people I’ve met, not only in Israel but also in New

York, especially the immigrants from the Middle East and their

attitudes about life.

I suppose everyone will think that the young man is me and

the parents are my parents, and nothing I can say will dissuade

them. But what actually is autobiographical in the book is the

father’s illness. My father was diagnosed with cancer when I

was in college and has been living with it for more than ten

years now. It’s a terrible burden for him to suffer, though thankfully

he’s been in relatively good health lately. Still, the shock of

seeing my father with a potentially mortal illness has been difficult

for me as his child to accept, especially because he has

been such a forceful presence in our family. Also, it’s hard

watching him try to manage the discomforts of his disease as he

gets older. In writing this book, I wanted to explore how one

deals with the idea of one’s parents’ mortality, and then by extension,

one’s own mortality.

My father was also responsible for how I shaped the character

of Mr. Michaelson in a different way. When I was a very

young writer, I used to write a lot of things directly inspired by

my family. My father would read my work and complain, “You

always make me the villain. Just once can’t you make me look

good?” Of course I can’t tailor my fiction to suit every reader’s

feelings, but my father did tap into something there. We’re not

used to reading about gentle fathers in fiction. The gruff, old

dad-knows-best model, both as an object of veneration and of

scorn, is much more comforting. But in this book, it’s the

mother, Mrs. Michaelson, who drives this family, economically

as well as spiritually.

FP: Have you gotten any surprising responses to the book so far?

AH: I’m always pleasantly surprised by the various reactions to

my work. I thought everyone would fall in love with Mrs.

Michaelson, but a surprising number of readers really like

Jeremy more.

So far, the most surprising and telling reaction for me has

been to the cover. I showed it to a Palestinian friend of mine,

who said, “I guess it’s alright if you want to appeal to a certain

sector of the population.” I asked her what was wrong with it,

and she said, “Why does the book held by the young man floating

in the Dead Sea say ‘Israel’ instead of ‘Palestine’?”

At that point, I hadn’t even noticed what the book’s title

said because the lettering was so small, but it was the first thing

that stood out to her. I think that gives an idea of how much

tension there is about this subject matter.

FP: Your first book was set in Prague, this one was set in

Jerusalem, and now you’re working on a novel set in Berlin. Do

you ever think you’ll write something set in the United States?

AH: I think every book I write is set in the United States, in the

sense that the U.S. dominates the world in a way no other country

has in a very long time, not only with our military might

but also with our culture, our way of life, our ideas, our way of

doing business. And with the Internet, our influence only increases.

This year I’m living abroad again, and I’ve noticed how

different the experience is from how it used to be. I read the

New York Times online, just as I used to at home. I can email

all my friends, every day if I want to, and send digital pictures

home seconds after they’re taken. I go outside and buy Diet

Coke and eat sushi or Pringles and hear Madonna’s songs playing

in cafes. The advertising is filled with English words. The

TVs and theaters are filled with American movies. So, I think

it’s getting harder and harder to get away from the United

States, even if you want to, and in a way, you can actually see

the U.S. a bit more clearly from a distance.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Product Details

Random House
Hamburger, Aaron
Terminally ill
Publication Date:
October 2005
8.48x5.86x1.03 in. 1.10 lbs.

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Faith for Beginners
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$ In Stock
Product details 340 pages Random House - English 9781400062980 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "A woman hopes a family trip to Israel will help her reclaim her confused, rebellious son in Hamburger's entertaining, irreverent first novel (after the collection The View from Stalin's Head). Jeremy's been at NYU for five years, but he's still just a junior, and Helen Michaelson, 58, thinks he might have a much-needed spiritual awakening on the 'Michigan Miracle 2000' tour. But while Jeremy's more interested in cruising Jerusalem's gay parks, Helen herself is primed for revelation, as she finds that her connection to Judaism and her family is more complicated than she'd thought. Hamburger has an exacting eye for mundane detail and suburban conventions, and in Jeremy he's created the classic green-haired, pierced college student ranting about social injustice. But beneath Jeremy's sarcastic, moralizing banter, there's a convincing critique of Americans' way of being in the world. In Israel in 2000, the Michaelsons are like Pixar creations trapped in a movie filmed in Super 8 — the Middle East may be fraught with political tension, but their biggest problem is the heat outside their air-conditioned bus. Hamburger goes further than witty satire, though, and when the plot takes a dark turn he demonstrates that he's capable of taking on global issues, even if his characters aren't. Agent, Melanie Jackson Agency." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Synopsis" by , The author of "The View from Stalin's Head" now offers a humorous and moving novel about an American family whose vacation to Jerusalem goes terribly awry.
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