Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman

An exclusive Authorlink interview with
Ayelet Waldman

By Ellen Birkett Morris

Love & Treasure
by Ayelet Waldman

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July, 2014

Ayelet Waldman, author of the recently-released Love & Treasure, stood up at her 1993 wedding to writer Michael Chabon and publically declared that she would “never be a writer.”

But, when she gave up law to be a stay-at-home mom, Waldman was looking to do something just for herself that her child couldn’t do with her.

“I was either going to take up smoking or writing.”

“I was either going to take up smoking or writing,” said Waldman. An avid reader and lover of mysteries, she started her writing career with a series of “mommy track” mysteries.

“I read a lot of mystery novels and told myself ‘I can write a crappy murder mystery.’ As I wrote, each mystery became more complex and ambitious,” said Waldman. She went on to write thought-provoking essays and well-received literary novels.

Her latest novel, Love & Treasure, is an intricate story told in three parts that centers on a necklace found on the Hungarian Gold Train during World War Two and the lives of the people who touched it.

“You’ve heard ‘write what you know.’ I have an alternative theory; write what you want to know,” said Waldman.

The premise for the novel developed when Waldman decided she wanted to write about the Holocaust, visual art and Hungary. When she googled the three terms information about the Hungarian Gold Train appeared. The train held the valuable personal goods, jewelry, candlesticks, watches, furs, even gold, taken from Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust.

“The structure of the book came first.”

“The structure of the book came first. I was reading The Hours and Three Junes and I wanted to write the book as a triptych, in three separate sections that are thematically related,” said Waldman. She said the process required three times the research and at times felt like writing three novels.

The first section, which takes place in Salzburg in 1945 and 1946, is told by Jack Wiseman, a Jewish lieutenant in the U.S. Army, who is charged with guarding the treasure. When he falls into unrequited love with Ilona, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, he ends up pocketing an elaborate pendant that bears the image of a peacock that came from Ilona’s home town.

The second section, which takes place in Budapest and Israel in 2013, is told by Amitai Shasho, an Israeli art dealer who tracks down artworks and returns them (for a price) to the descendants of their former owners, who helps Wiseman’s granddaughter Natalie find the owner of the pendant. Budapest

“I wanted the story to be about three women, but have it told by three men,” said Waldman.

She found the voice of Zobel, who was modeled after Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert to be easiest to write.

“I woke up at four o’clock in the morning and it was as if he landed in my head whole. His voice was so clear and exciting to me.”

Her goal in the third section of the book was to depict the world that had vanished with the Holocaust, a vibrant Jewish literary and artistic culture that was destroyed by war. It was a culture that like the pendant at the heart of the book had a “complex legacy of memory and forgetting.”

The book also tackles the changing nature of a Jewish Identity. There is an open discussion by characters in the book of the difference between Israeli Jews desire to fight for a homeland and the Jews who succumbed to the forces of Hitler.

“The dialogue of the Palestinian Jews about the survivors of the camps is so shocking that I knew people would balk. The words came from the letters of David Ben-Gurion (a Zionist and first Prime Minister of Israel),” said Waldman.

Her greatest challenge in writing the book was fear of failure.

“This is a much more ambitious book than I’ve ever attempted before . . .”

“This is a much more ambitious book than I’ve ever attempted before. I have a larger than life literary figure in my house and I was trying something more than a domestic novel,” Waldman.

She decided to go big. Waldman relied on two pieces of advice, Annie Lamott’s suggestion that all one needs to do is write a “shitty first draft” and a former analyst who said, “If you can’t make it better at least don’t make it worse.”

She did extensive research that included hiring a research assistant based in Budapest and visiting Dachau with her daughter.

Waldman wrote nine drafts of the book over a period of three-and-a-half years, working from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. five days a week.

“Don’t wait to be inspired. It will never happen . . .”

“Pick your days and your times. Be resolute about sticking to it. Make that time sacrosanct. Don’t wait to be inspired. It will never happen unless you wait for it.” Despite being disciplined, Waldman still found starting a new book daunting.

“Every time I start a novel I am like ‘how do I do this again?’ It is about discipline. My job is to work,” said Waldman.

When she was done, she showed the work first to Chabon and then shared it with writers Julie Orringer and Andrew Sean Greer. She worked with editor Jenny Jackson at Knopf, who suggested she add the prologue, and Lisa Highton at Two Roads in England, who helped her get a rid of a character who was served the same function as another character in the book.

Her advice to developing writers is to cultivate their observational skills.

“Writers are always observing with the intention of stealing what they can take and using it in their work. If you are doing that now, take comfort. If not, I think you should start.”

Waldman is currently mulling over ideas for her next novel.

About the Author

Ayelet Waldman is the author of Love and Treasure, Red Hook Road and The New York Times bestseller Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Her novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits was adapted into a film called The Other Woman starring Natalie Portman. Her personal essays and profiles of such public figures as Hillary Clinton have been published in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Vogue, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Her radio commentaries have appeared on All Things Considered and The California Report.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.