Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rebecca. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss City of a Thousand Gates. Congratulations on this novel.

Rebecca Sacks: Thank you.

Zibby: This is a literary achievement. This is a big deal. It’s interwoven stories, people’s lives intersecting, great prose, different characters. It’s an epic journey. Congratulations.

Rebecca: Thank you so much. I actually just got the bound copy.

Zibby: Ooh, let’s see.

Rebecca: Here. I don’t know if you can see.

Zibby: So good.

Rebecca: I know. I’m someone who’s very attached to the book as an object, so just holding it and feeling the texture of the cover. I noticed I’ve been dressing to match it ever since I got it.

Zibby: These are great colors. In fact, this would be a great blanket, perhaps, maybe curtains. I think this could be some sort of textile you could involve in your home.

Rebecca: I really loved the design. Harper did such a great job, my publisher, in really listening not just to me as the author, but reading the book carefully. Everything surrounding the book has reflected that so much. This is my first book, my first novel. I had no idea what to expect. The cover, to me, it has that sense of multiple narratives, doors opening and closing, lives intersecting. I was so taken with it. I’m very grateful to them, actually, for hearing me and reflecting the work so beautifully.

Zibby: Tell me about writing this book and when you started it. I know you’ve had multiple — Bread Loaf, you’ve got all these fellowships and retreats. You’ve been at this for a while. Everybody obviously keeps identifying your talent. When did this start? How did it change and take shape over the years?

Rebecca: It almost feels like we grew up together or something, this novel and I. I’m thirty-four now. I think in a way, I started writing it even before I knew I was writing fiction. I was about twenty-six. I left New York City. I’d been working in magazines. I really lucked out after college. Right after college, I got a job at Vanity Fair. It was the best education you could ask for.

Zibby: I interned at Vanity Fair.

Rebecca: Stop!

Zibby: I did, yes.

Rebecca: Oh, my gosh.

Zibby: You probably were not even born. No, I’m kidding. I’m forty-four. I interned my freshman year of college. When was that? 1995, that summer.

Rebecca: May I ask, were you working directly with anyone? I have such feelings for that time.

Zibby: I rotated departments. I started in special events. At that time, I had no idea who anybody was. I had to answer the phone.

Rebecca: Sara Marks?

Zibby: Yes, Sara Marks.

Rebecca: So cool, oh, my god.

Zibby: Aimee Bell would walk in, and . I actually emailed with Aimee Bell recently. I was like, I was an intern. You were there. Did not remember me, but that’s fine. Then I moved to the feature department for a little bit with Jane Sarkin.

Rebecca: Oh, my gosh, I love Jane. Wonderful.

Zibby: I remember so well. I’m sure she doesn’t remember me either. I was there for like a week in her department.

Rebecca: I was the same.

Zibby: I’ll never forget because she was on the phone as I was filing slides. I don’t know what I was doing for her. She was trying to schedule her c-section based around the Hollywood issue. She must have a child now that was born in 1995.

Rebecca: Wow, what a power move. That’s amazing. I really admired everyone I worked with there. I was probably really foolish to leave, but I did. Not long after, I worked very briefly at a travel magazine. It was very cool, a lot fun, Departures. Then I moved to Israel. I thought I was doing a master’s in Jewish studies. I was doing a master’s. I thought that’s why I went. I think really deeper down, I wanted to get lost. I wanted to get lost. I didn’t know any Hebrew. I grew up in a very secular home, generally speaking, sort of reform. My mother wasn’t born Jewish and didn’t convert. We were just raised in this secular, nebulous zone. I didn’t have strong feelings one way or the other on Israel. I didn’t speak any Hebrew except I knew the brachot for the Hanukkah candles.

Zibby: Good to know. If you’re going to know any of them, that’s a good one.

Rebecca: I think I wanted to go to a place where I had to articulate everything anew to myself. I had to learn new languages. I spent years studying Hebrew and Arabic. There’s all these boundaries, all these divisions. I had to articulate them to myself and learn how to hear them and see them. At that time, I began writing essays for a couple different outlets. The ones I’m most proud of, for sure, were published in The Paris Review‘s website, The Daily. In a way, I think I was sort of starting the novel at that point in the sense of I was coming to know and to explain to myself, the landscape I was in. A lot of times when you’re drafting a story or a novel, the very, very first draft is you telling the story to yourself. Later drafts become ways in which you are telling the story to an audience. You are making it legible to an audience. I think the first draft is a story you tell yourself. In the first drafts, it was a story I was telling myself about a place that had at least two different names for everything, at least, maybe one in Hebrew, one in Arabic, one the UN uses. That’s three, at least, different. Eventually, I lost interest in myself as the center of these stories. I felt that I was so limited in the kinds of stories I could tell if I was the narrator and if my body was at the center. I did what I love most. I got lost in other characters, in other lives. That was the story of the novel and I think why it took a good — gosh, I don’t know; I should have these numbers handy — let’s say, six years to write, maybe, and really a process of learning to hear, learning to see, and then learning to disappear into other lives and to let these characters, and as you know, there are quite a few of them in this novel, but let them tell the story of their lives in this place.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. Wait, tell me then after you spent all that time how you ended up selling the book, the publication.

Rebecca: I’m sure many people think that they have the best agent, but I have the best agent.

Zibby: Who’s your agent, then?

Rebecca: Her name’s Joy Harris. She is wonderful. She read this novel. I made a great decision in about 2016. I was living in Israel. I was living in Tel Aviv. I had begun what I thought maybe could be a novel, but I didn’t even really know what shape it would have. I almost just had some scenes that felt important to me, some of them based on things people had told me or incidents friends, siblings had told me about that I fictionalized. By fictionalized, I mean maybe they had a narrow miss. What could’ve happened didn’t happen, and so I fictionalized it by pushing it farther. What if the worst thing did happen? What would the consequences have been? That kind of thing. It was all really just very early drafting. I came to understand if I really wanted to do this, the best thing I could do for myself would be to go to an MFA where I had full funding where I could write for two, or if I was really lucky and got into a three-year MFA, for three years with full funding, maybe get a little teaching experience. This would be the way that I would have concentrated time to work on the novel as opposed to doing it in the morning between five AM and seven thirty before I went to work. I would definitely still have been writing it, which is fine. That’s a very good way to write a book. I wanted more time to devote to it. I wanted to get lost, again I suppose, in the work.

I applied to and got into the MFA at UC Irvine in Orange County just south of where I am now. There’s a lot of debate in the writerly world. Do you go to an MFA or not? What does that mean for how it shapes your writing? Who gets in? What are the problematics of these institutions? All very worthwhile discussions. For me personally, it was the best thing I could’ve done for my work, mostly because I had all of this beautiful time, the ultimate commodity for a writer. One of my teachers there, Michelle Latiolais, she had told her agent about my work, which was very lucky for me because then when I eventually did send Joy my novel, she was at least expecting to see it. I didn’t have to wait a few weeks or even months until she got to it in her stack. That was nice. It was nice to arrive at her door, as it were, with a letter of introduction. She became my agent because she loved the book. She was one of the first people I’d spoken to who read it from start to end. She was actually the first person outside of my MFA program. It was just amazing to be read exactly how I hoped I’d be read, someone who was reading the book with her heart. I could feel it. I didn’t think about it long.

She’s a pro. She was much more ambitious for the book than I was. I didn’t think we would go to a big press. That just seemed outsized. I guess I was limited by my own imagination or ambition. She had her own idea. We were going to go to Harper. When people ask me now, maybe friends who are going through the process themselves of looking for an agent, I always say you want someone who is just in love with your book. That’s the most important thing, more important than maybe — there’s a lot of other considerations. They’re all important too, about the access that person has. Maybe I don’t know how long they plan to be working or how long they have been working. Of course, these are all considerations. More than anything, you want someone who is in love with your book and who can share that with anyone that they bring that work to. For anyone who’s thinking about agents or shopping, I would say that’s what makes your agent the best agent, loving your work very much.

Zibby: That’s true. You have to have some sort of meeting of the souls over a book.

Rebecca: What a beautiful way to put it. Totally. Yes. I love that and will use it and quote you.

Zibby: Thank you. Great.

Rebecca: I love that.

Zibby: That’s awesome. You are a citizen of Israel and the US and Canada, everywhere. You speak languages. You’re all over the planet. Tell me about your identity yourself. You’re a world traveler. Where do you find yourself at home the most?

Rebecca: I was talking to a friend about this recently, or what feels like recently, but time has been, for all of us, so slippery. A few years ago, I was talking to a friend about this. I was asking him, I was saying, “It’s so hard to know where I belong, in a sense.” I was in New York City. I moved to Canada, first to New Jersey and then to Canada, all with my family. Then I went to college in the States. Then I moved to Israel. Then I briefly left Israel. I thought I would go to divinity school, not to become a member of the clergy, but to be an academic in religion. It was so funny. I kept dropping out of my translation classes — this was at Chicago — to take fiction classes with the novelist Vu Tran. I was like, I think I need to rethink what I’m doing. That was an important few months for me when I was living in Chicago. It was also when I formerly converted to Judaism even though I was raised in a Jewish home. I think I wanted to feel like I was fully embracing not just my Jewish identity, but my place in a Jewish community. Of course, being formerly a Jew is very important for things like being counted in a minyan. It depends, of course, on your denomination whether a woman would be counted. I’m a conservative Jew, so that’s all kosher. My converting rabbi, a wonderful man named Rabbi David Minkus, a really generous, thoughtful person who never dangled his own power over me in this situation in which you are vulnerable as someone converting, he said a couple wonderful things to me. One was, “You were always a Jew. I’m just making it official,” which I thought was sweet.

Another was, it was very interesting, he’s like, “You’ll always feel like an outsider because we all do,” which I also thought was interesting, that even when you make official steps to be embraced by your community, that everyone always, everywhere, feels a little like an outsider. So do I at times. I’ve wondered if I feel most at home when I have foot in and one foot out of something where I’m a little on the periphery, a little standing back watching the moment happen rather than inside the moment, for example. I’ve wondered if that’s where I feel at home. The friend I was speaking to about this, I was saying it was kind of funny. I was speaking specifically about my status as a Jewish person in Israel where according to, for example, the state of Israel, I am Jewish — I was granted Israeli citizenship through the law of return which dictates who is eligible for Israeli citizenship based on Jewishness — but not Jewish according to the Rabanut, the rabbinical authority of the state, which is orthodox. I’m sort of inside and outside there, which is an odd place to be as a person, but a perfect place to be as a writer, I have to admit. Having at once full access and yet being a little excluded is sort of the ideal position to write a novel from. I was speaking to this friend of mine. His name’s Benjamin Balint. He wrote a superb book on the fate of Kafka’s letters and papers after Kafka died. He said, “Maybe you’re at home in the text.” I don’t know if it’s true, but I love the way it sounded.

Zibby: It does sound good. That sounds great.

Rebecca: I think my identity is, in some ways, a little fractured, perhaps. Yet I think because I grew up very much between things, between countries, religions, at times even languages a little, that I feel very purposeful in the choices I’ve made about the parts of my identity I’ve chosen to embrace and the communities I’ve chosen to make myself part of it. None of it feels particularly incidental. It all feels like I made choices about where I wish to belong.

Zibby: That’s interesting. I grew up Jewish. I am Jewish. When I was getting remarried, my husband converted to Judaism because my kids are Jewish and blah, blah, blah. I am familiar with that whole process and what that’s like and what you have to learn and go through and the commitment of it. We have not gone to Israel. I have actually never been to Israel in my entire life, which is really embarrassing to say. This is on my wish list.

Rebecca: It’s hard. There’s so much going on. There’s so many strong feelings that people have. I completely understand almost the instinct to put it off a little, like a difficult conversation you keep putting off.

Zibby: I’m just going to blame my parents. They should’ve taken me.

Rebecca: They should’ve.

Zibby: We went to Italy instead, I guess. I don’t know.

Rebecca: Wrong side of the Mediterranean.

Zibby: Although, it was a great trip.

Rebecca: I’m sure. When you go and you want recommendations, please don’t hesitant to ask.

Zibby: Thank you. Yes, you’ll be my go-to on that. Are you at work on another project, or are you just like, oh, my gosh, I finally finished this and I’m putting it off to the side and taking a deep breath for a while?

Rebecca: No, I need to be at work, always. Maybe that’s where I’m at home, working, writing. I love that question. I think I’ll think about that for the rest of the day. Where am I at home? I’m working on something new. It’s interesting. I’m writing in first person which I haven’t done in years and years now. It’s a very unused muscle. In fact, sometimes I’m finding I have to write in third person as the novel — I should say to anyone who hasn’t read it yet, the novel is written in a very close, close third where I’m switching to all these points of view. Writing in first person, all these sentences with I, I haven’t done it in a while.

Zibby: Did I even ask you to describe what the book was about to listeners?

Rebecca: Oh, with pleasure. What a fun challenge.

Zibby: I usually start with that. Maybe I missed that question. For the people listening, tell them what the book is actually about now that we’ve talked about your entire life and everything else.

Rebecca: I’ve enjoyed the attention.

Zibby: Oh, good. I had a pleasant time myself.

Rebecca: The book, which I’m holding again because I’m so excited to finally have it, it is set in the present-day West Bank and Jerusalem, so in a place where Israel and Palestine are always in contact in these places. It is a narrative that is, I suppose, not unlike myself, quite fractured in that it follows, my last count, it was about twenty-nine characters that we’re following in the aftermath of two tragedies, two ethically motivated murders, one of a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl, Yael, who lives on an Israeli settlement, and in retaliation, a fourteen-year-old Palestinian boy who has no relation to Yael’s murder who is brutally beaten in a mall parking lot. These two horrible events reverberate and echo in the lives of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis and Americans in Israel and a German journalist trying to make her name on some newsworthy tragedy. Trying to show the echoes and the iterations of these events in the lives of different communities and families. I’m especially concerned with family life and the way that the political enters family life and shapes it, and within marriages and between parents and children and lovers. Every family, I think, is its own little country in a way.

Zibby: I love that. That’s a quote I will use and credit you.

Rebecca: Good. We can trade.

Zibby: That’s great. Perfect. Do you have, just as a last question, any advice for aspiring authors? I know that you’ve already given a lot, particularly with regard to finding agents and not giving up and all this other stuff. What’s your advice?

Rebecca: A few things. One is slow down in your telling. In actually writing, so often, we have a place we want the narrative to get to. I do this as well. I don’t know how I’m going to get there, but I know I want these two people to have an encounter in this bus or at this checkpoint. I know that’s where I want it to go. I can catch myself rushing in the writing to get there. Life happens in the moments on the way, of course, in the sensual, sensory details. Letting yourself go word by word, sentence by sentence to get where you’re going. Let the story surprise you. Let yourself find some pleasure in that. It’s not always a rush. I would say that would be advice also to myself as I work on something new. It’s such an amazing pleasure and honor to hold your own book, but take your time getting there. It’ll be worth it.

Zibby: Lovely. Awesome. It was so nice chatting with you today.

Rebecca: It was such a pleasure.

Zibby: I feel like we were just off on some retreat or something. You’ve taken me out of the sirens and everything here in the city. I feel like you have this sense of Zen or calm to you in the way you speak. I feel much more relaxed now.

Rebecca: Oh, thank you. I can say for my part, I’ve loved this feeling of being sort of ensconced in your beautiful wooden library. There’s such a warmth coming from you and from this room. Thank you. I really enjoyed my visit.

Zibby: If you were in town, I would’ve had you over here. I used to do all these in person.

Rebecca: I would love that. When that’s possible again, I’ll come by and I’ll bring a copy of the book.

Zibby: Perfect. I will have one already, but I will take another one. Have a great day.

Rebecca: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

Zibby: Nice to meet you. Bye.

Rebecca: Bye.