Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Author Joan Leegant on Inspiration

I’m one of those fiction writers who doesn’t plan the story out ahead of time. Instead, I’ll conjure some characters and a setting and follow them to see what they do and where they take me. I might have a dim sense of their struggles and passions, what might be driving them, but I try not to think about that too much before I start writing. Otherwise the story tends to come out as too engineered; there’s no room for surprise, for letting the characters develop the way they need to develop, not the way I might want them to develop.

With Wherever You Go, I knew only two things when I started the book: that I wanted to write a novel set in Israel and that I wanted to write about young Americans in Israel. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life either in Israel – since 2007, I’ve been teaching in Tel Aviv a semester each year—or thinking or reading or worrying about Israel. So it was a natural place for me to explore through fiction. I came up with 3 Americans, all in the country for different reasons. Finding the characters sounds straightforward, but coming up with those particular characters took several years. Though the character Yona is the first one you meet in the book, she was the last one I wrote. For a long time, I had another woman in her place, a holdover from an early draft that had a very different tone and an entirely different storyline. Eventually I realized that the first woman didn’t belong in the book; she wasn’t a fit. I had to send her back to her own story and find someone else. When I found Yona, the novel began to fall into place.

Not surprisingly, my characters took me straight into the heart of the West Bank and the contentious matter of the settlement cause. I’m very interested in people who attach themselves to causes, who live for “the movement,” whatever that movement might be—and that’s what I wanted to explore in the book. What draws people to causes, especially ones that involve violence? How much is ideology and how much is psychology? The power of such fierce attachments was something I first became aware of when I was a student during the Vietnam war. There were anti-war protests and feminism and all kinds of radical movements sweeping the US then. People who exhibit that kind of revolutionary fervor fascinate me.

I’m also very interested in religion and how embracing a religious discipline can save a person, but can also destroy a person. This was something I explored in the book through the character of Mark Greenglass, who’s lost his religious passion when the book opens and doesn’t know why. I didn’t know why either, so I had to write the book to find out. That’s one of the pleasures of writing fiction that you don’t plan out ahead of time. You get to find out what happens the same way a reader does: by discovering it as you go.

Joan Leegant is the author of WHEREVER YOU GO, and AN HOUR IN PARADISE. Formerly an attorney, she taught at Harvard University for eight years. Since 2007, she has lived half the year in Tel Aviv where she is the visiting writer at Bar-Ilan University and lectures for the U.S. State Department. When not in Israel she lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Thanks so much to Joan for taking the time to stop by In The Next Room. You can find my review of her beautiful yet horrifying novel, Wherever You Go, here. To connect with Joan, visit her website,

1 comment:

  1. I'm about halfway through Wherever You Go right now, so it was really interesting to hear a little about what inspired the book. I'm looking forward to the second half!


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