It’s the third Monday of March and, while the world is in turmoil, I am comforting myself with following my very normal and quiet routine. Which includes talking to some wonderful writers, and Ann S. Epstein is one of the loveliest. Not only does she write amazing novels, but she’s a great advocate for others.
Ann writes novels, short stories, memoir, and essays. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination for creative nonfiction, the Walter Sullivan prize in fiction, and an Editors’ Choice selection by Historical Novel Review. Her novels are On the Shore; Tazia and Gemma; A Brain. A Heart. The Nerve.; The Great Stork Derby; and One Person’s Loss (in press). Her other work appears in North American Review, Sewanee Review, PRISM International, Ascent, The Long Story, Saranac Review, Minnesota Review, and many other literary magazines. In addition to writing, she has a PhD in developmental psychology and MFA in textiles.
Welcome to the Fountain Pen, Ann, tell us a little bit more about yourself
I wear many hats, from which my curls nevertheless escape. I have a PhD in developmental psychology and worked for over 40 years at a nonprofit foundation, specializing in child development and early education. I wrote books and articles for multiple audiences, including academics, teachers, parents, and policymakers. I also have an MFA in fiber art, and have shown (and occasionally sold) my weaving in exhibits and galleries. My background as a psychologist and artist affects the content and imagery of my writing. A degree I don’t have is one in creative writing, but I’ve taken workshops and learned the most about my craft by being a member of two long-standing critique groups. I’m also the bubbe of two young grandsons who live two blocks away. Daily playdates with the boys stoke my creativity.
How did your writing career begin?
In my nonfiction child development writing, I loved creating classroom anecdotes and vignettes to illustrate for practitioners and parents the lessons learned from research. I thought that when I retired, I’d try my hand writing fiction, with the freedom to invent characters and interactions solely from my imagination. Then I asked myself, “Why wait?” So, I took a creative writing class at the local community college, enjoyed it immensely, and wrote fiction in my free time. Retirement was easy. I simply began writing fiction full time. I love to work and I’m disciplined, so my days are full and purposeful.
What do you hope your readers take away from your work? What are you trying to achieve?
My work interweaves several themes. Central are the ties and tensions in relationships between family members and friends. I also care deeply about the struggles of those outside the mainstream, such as immigrants; racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; those who are poor, handicapped, nonbinary, elderly, or in some way seen as “other.” Social and economic justice are undercurrents in my work. I look to the past for parallels and insights about the present. My writing is not polemical; people are the focus. But I hope readers develop empathy for characters who, while different from them, share their hopes, dreams, and basic humanity.
How do you approach a new project? Are you a plotter or a pantser, or somewhere in between? Where do you get your ideas?
I’m both, though more planner than plunger. I can’t face an empty page. I begin by brainstorming ideas and doing research until a general outline emerges that includes an overview, thumbnails of primary and secondary characters, and (in order) the parts of the manuscript, each part’s point of view (if the manuscript has more than one), and what happens in each part. Then, as I write (also in order), I fill in the outline in increasing detail, modifying it as needed. If I have an idea that doesn’t apply to the section I’m working on, I keep a “parking lot” file where I “park” the thought to use when I rewrite an earlier chapter or begin a later one. I revise as I go, straightening before I can move on. Of course, with each subsequent revision, everything is open to change. Once I’ve passed the halfway point, I’m not likely to make major alterations, but I continue to drill into the framework. I love nailing the last line; the Muse of Endings is kind to me. Openings are harder; the Muse of Beginnings must be cajoled.
I write literary fiction, much of which falls in the category of “historical fiction,” primarily the years from before WWI to after WWII. I’m interested in how big events affect the lives of ordinary people, especially those who live on the margins. I’m intrigued by the lesser-known and quirky events of the past. For example, I was inspired to write my latest book, The Great Stork Derby (described below), when I found out about a contest in which a large cash prize was given to the Toronto woman who had the most babies from 1926 to 1936. The idea for my forthcoming novel One Person’s Loss (September 2022) arose when I heard about a bizarre exhibit at Coney Island that attracted gawkers from 1903 to the early 1940s. Before I can decide what the “story” is in these events, I have to determine who is telling it, that is, the point of view. Sometimes the germ incubates for months or years before I have that “aha” moment that unleashes the tale. Then the brainstorming begins.
Tell us about your most recent publication.
Inspired by a bizarre but real chapter in Toronto’s history and set in 1976, The Great Stork Derby asks whether an overbearing father deserves the chance to make amends with his alienated offspring. Widower Emm Benbow, told by his doctor he can no longer live alone, must move in with one of his many children or go to a dreaded old age home. Fifty years earlier, Emm pressured his wife Izora to enter the Toronto Stork Derby, a contest which offered a sizable cash award to the woman who had the most babies between 1926 and 1936. They had a large family, but it was hardly the happy one Emm envisioned. Now, living in turn with each of his adult children, Emm discovers that the true value of fatherhood is not measured in big prizes, but in small rewards.
The narrative addresses the fraught relationships between parents and children, and among siblings who compete for their parents’ attention. The adult children are complex characters, with good health or physical and mental disabilities, successful or stalled careers, and satisfying or troubled relationships of their own. The story asks at what point ambition turns into obsession, and desire into addiction. Covering a fifty-year span, the book appeals to those curious about the Depression, post-war recovery, the emergence of the women’s and gay rights movements, and an earlier time when families interacted face-to-face around the dinner table. These highly charged issues are treated with the seriousness they deserve, but also with the humour required to confront them.
Is there anything you need to have with you when you write? A tool of the trade, a mascot…?
No security blanket, but I’m very short and my desk is an antique kindergarten table and with two child-size chairs. I love it because when I sit, my feet reach the floor.
I’m still searching for my forever desk – I’m sold on the idea of your antique table! What’s next for you?
I recently finished a novel, The Sister Knot, told from the alternating perspectives of two Second World War orphans who survive on Berlin’s streets through cunning, theft, and prostitution. Brought to the United States by a Jewish refugee agency as teenagers, their lives diverge when one girl is adopted and the other is sent to a group home. The novel follows their seesawing relationship through school and work, marriage and motherhood, incarceration and death. As one of them says, “how people turn out is not always the way you predict.” I’m letting that book “sit for a bit” before I submit it.
Meanwhile, I’ve started a new novel. Set in 1960, the story draws readers into a city-owned facility for the indigent elderly. Given a precarious economy, municipal officials entertain a developer’s proposal to boost tax revenues by converting the home into a fancy private senior residence. Current residents fret over where they will live; employees worry about losing their jobs. The novel is told from multiple perspectives: seniors and their families, staff, and community members. The working title, Who Cares? can be interpreted as a cynical comment on the disposability of the elderly or a plea to maintain dignity as we age. Researching the book is engaging. The characters’ lives span the inter-war years but, being 75, I can recall the later milieu in which the book’s current events transpire.
I love how your work spans so many different eras. It must make research so interesting. Both of those novels sound fantastic, good luck with them.