A Conversation with T Cooper, author of
Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes
1) Where did the seeds of inspiration come from for this book?
The novel was spun from two or three autobiographical seeds from my family history. One: when my maternal grandmother came over from Russia in 1900, one of her brothers was lost upon arriving at Ellis Island. The family never found out what happened to him and simply moved on because they had to. Nobody really talks about it or knows anything more than that.
The second autobiographical strand is the story surrounding the Galveston Movement that is, my mother's side of the family ended up in Texas because of this program which operated between 1907 and 1914, and sought to funnel otherwise East-coast ghetto-bound Jewish immigrants to the port of Galveston, Texas instead. A member of my family came to Texas through Galveston, and the rest of the family joined him there soon after. The movement managed to relocate about 10,000 Jews by the time it ran out of steam, but many others who weren't officially in the program came as a result of it (like my family), providing the seeds for the Jewish communities in many Western cities like Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, St. Louis, Santa Fe, Denver, etc.
I've spent a lot of time with family in Amarillo, Texas, where there aren't a lot of Jews, and there really is a sort of Jewish ghetto in the back of the cemetery where my family is buried. Over the years I found myself pondering the sort of instant assimilation that occurred for them because they stuck out so blatantly. In places like New York, Boston, Philly, it was easier to preserve religion, culture, and language, whereas my relatives all over Texas became businessmen before anything else. They were Texans first, Americans second, and Jews third and only culturally Jewish, not necessarily religiously.
There are a few other minor autobiographical strands in the book. My grandfather (who died before I was born) did in fact win a jewelry business in a poker game, and at the store, he and my grandmother did conduct a contest in the local paper to announce my mother's birth: the correct guesser of her middle name was awarded a free $100 diamond ring from their jewelry shop. I learned about most of these stories through old yellowed Amarillo newspaper clippings that were passed down to me, in addition to the usual fragmented snippets of family lore.
All of this got me thinking about the entire notion of a family history and how one might "write" it, and how the minute it happens, it will always be altered in the re-telling just by the simple act of its being filtered through a source, any source, even a newspaper, our flawed minds, or multiple generations, wishful thinking, trauma, sadness whatever it is, it's never going to be "fact" again.
2) Along those lines, since there are a great deal of "historically accurate" facts in your novel, how do you feel the notions of fiction and nonfiction play into your writing?
This is precisely what is so fascinating to me, the blurry line between fact and fiction. I think it's all fiction, to some extent. "What really happened" is immediately not really what happened, because even in that statement, what really happened, there's subjectivity. This is nothing new, but it did play a large part in the writing of this book for me. For instance, all the Lindbergh articles are "true." That is, they are factual, newspaper-like representations of his life between the years of 1927 and 1942. But again, I've slightly altered some aspects for my purposes (the way many newspapers do), added other details that I deemed consistent with my research, and left other facts out so it would remain relevant to the lives of the fictional characters in the book. Is it still a true and faithful account of Lindbergh's life? Sure it is. No less real than our history books. Who writes these, who gets the power to record the "facts" that are passed down through history texts, newspapers, people's minds, etc.? We as readers (and writers) are taken with stories and everything is a story, even if it's supposedly true. I'm thinking about our culture's obsession with "reality" TV it's still intricately edited and crafted into thirty-minute or one-hour pieces that have climaxes, character development, foreshadowing, etc...
In the novel, the character T Cooper is fixated on putting together the story of the Lipshitz family, using nothing but a hat box filled with newspaper clippings, letters, and photos, all kept by his admittedly mentally unstable great-grandmother Esther. Why couldn't it be the case that their lost child ended up being Charles Lindbergh? But T cannot faithfully tell their story, and he's starting to realize why. T has already intersected fact with fiction (in the first book he published, which he derisively calls memoir thinly veiled as fiction), and this ambiguity is echoed in his obsession with Eminem, another icon who constantly plays with fact and fiction on his records. Eminem has made an entire career from the fictions that he's spun from the facts of his life back and forth between fact and fiction, employing different personas and realities to bridge the gaps between them.
3) How/when did you become interested in Charles Lindbergh?
There's a sort of nerdy, history-geeky part of me that is entirely fascinated by what Charles Lindbergh did. All of the intricate designs and preparations for the flight especially his insistence that as much equipment as possible be stripped from the Spirit of St. Louis so that it could carry more fuel. Lindbergh was so singularly obsessed with all of these details and yet miserably inept at everything else in his life up to that point. At twenty-five, the guy was a total momma's boy and still a virgin, totally useless in school, and utterly unable to engage with anybody about anything that didn't have to do with aviation. He was practically idiot-savant in this regard, but when he actually accomplished what he set out to do what everybody else was dying while trying he was thrust into the spotlight and put upon a pedestal the likes of which hasn't quite been matched as far as that kind of world-renown.
When I read A. Scott Berg's 1998 Lindbergh biography, it dawned on me, this notion of American-ness that he instantly started representing the blond-haired, blue-eyed ideal, the ready-made, almost blank screen onto which people of all sorts who are just trying to fit in themselves might project all of their fears and desires and identities. In the book, Esther, the mother who grows convinced her lost son is Lindbergh, well that's one manifestation of this obsession with passing as the ultimate American, white, and non-Jewish.
Later in Lindbergh's life, all this worship backfired. Lindbergh was a gear-head aviator, not a politician, and yet he still got entirely caught up in the politics of the Second World War. Lindbergh was rich, famous, and hanging out with people like Ford and others who had anti-FDR sentiments, so it makes sense that he became a mouthpiece for the America First isolationist movement. He'd been feeling betrayed by America because it had grown so hostile to him and his family, and Lindbergh quickly developed a taste for all things European (and German, including the Nazi party, as his journals intimate). To me, Lindbergh's life is so iconically tied to the 20th century; it felt perfectly natural to tell the story of one Russian family's assimilation against the backdrop of the various landmarks in Lindbergh's life.
4) Likewise for Eminem?
Then there's this other part of me that frequently wants to scream, "F&%$-the-world!" and thus loves and reveres Eminem for the same. We really were born one day apart in October of 1972, and sometimes I fancy we might've been separated-at-birth twins. Okay, maybe not, but...
Eminem is a genius lyricist, a force of nature. He's tapped into a nerve, and it paid off not just in his back pocket, but culturally as well. He was so despised when he first came out, and after the movie 8 Mile came out, there was a tangible shift, and he was sort of given a "pass" by mainstream, white culture in this country. He'd already been given a similar pass by the black, hip-hop community, which to me is why he fits into the story I'm trying to tell in this book because the notion of "passing" is so intriguing to me. Passing as white, passing as American, non-Jewish all these supposed rigid boundaries that we, as humans, often find ourselves straddling. That's infinitely more interesting to me that space between the extremes and does call into question these dubious notions of fact and fiction, white and non-white, male and female, American and un-American, and so on.
In some ways, although it's joked about in the book, Eminem is the modern Charles Lindbergh. He knows acutely that he sells more records precisely because he is white and (bottle) blond, blue-eyed, and thus more palatable to suburban kids hanging out in the malls of Middle America. The T Cooper character in the book knows that his book was taken seriously precisely because he was seen as hip, young, male, instantly-consumable; and Esther Lipshitz knows that if Lindbergh is her son, then she's made it she's white, protestant, American and the bloody homeland she fled is in fact behind her, for good.