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Charlotte Mendelson interview

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2007-05-04

Charlotte Mendelson

Charlotte Mendelson

Having made her mark on the literary world with her first two novels Love In Idleness and Daughters Of Jerusalem, author Charlotte Mendelson is back with her latest effort, When We Were Bad.

Set around the Gospel Oak area of North London, the action centres on the eccentric Rubin family (led by high-profile female rabbi Claudia) whose lives begin to slowly unravel after eldest son Leo ditches his bride-to-be on their wedding day for the affections of an older woman. The life of his downtrodden sister Frances takes a particularly surprising turn, while Claudia's husband Norman is keeping some secrets of his own.

With the book due in the shops this week, 34-year-old Mendelson chats to SJ's Caroline Westbrook about inventing Jewish characters, her own Jewish roots, the Mendelson family name, and the challenge of speaking Hungarian.

When did you first come up with the idea for When We Were Bad?

Well actually ages ago, it took four years to write. The idea came from a mix of things, I moved here about five years ago, originally from Oxford, it was a mix of that and places are important to me in fiction, it adds another layer of texture and interest and detail, not just for people who live in the same place but also for everyone else. And I was thinking about how hard some people find it to dare to be grown-up even when they are a grown-up – an awful lot of people do, probably most of us, find it hard to make choices for ourselves rather than what our families would want for us. Obviously it's a cliché but can be particularly true of Jews and I'm sure it's true of Italians, Greeks and lots of other ethnic groups. And also I was thinking that if it's about daring to be a grown up then it also coincided with me wanting to write about what it's like to be Jewish in England, so everything came together, and then from that it made sense to make the family exposed and self-conscious and visible by making them the children of a rabbi. That way there is enormous pressure on them to be good.

Do you know any children of rabbis? I know you're friends with Julia Neuberger.

Well her children are actually nothing like those in the book, it's more that I was interested in what it would be like to the children of someone well known and I was interested in what it would be like to be under enormous pressure to be good even when you're a grown-up, and having a mother who was a rabbi was a perfect solution. But also it was interesting to find out what it was that rabbis do all day, which is an enormous amount. The children aren't particularly typical rabbi's children, as I don't know what typical rabbi's children would be. They're just children.

Do you think a lot of the themes in the book – perfect lives unravelling behind closed doors, for example – are more universal than Jewish?

Well the thing is that I'm fascinated by families and I think families are the most interesting mini-world that it's possible to imagine, and the idea of families spiralling out of control and everything going so horribly wrong completely fascinates me. I was always going to write about family and I was probably also going to write about things going wrong because one of the reasons that I write, I suppose, is because I'm drawn to the idea of everyone having enormous secrets bubbling away which will tear the family apart. I'm fascinated by that kind of thing in real life.

Are any of the characters based on people you know?

No because then it wouldn't be fun to write, it would be like writing a memoir, and then I might as well do that instead. It's much more fun inventing characters because you can get them to do what you want.

Did you draw upon any aspects of your own life when writing the book?

Well no not really, I'm very far from being a rabbi, and none of this happened to me either, it's more that you use things you know about and then invent things from there. Although I have set it somewhere I know incredibly well, Hampstead and Highgate and Gospel Oak is completely my stamping ground, I love it. And then there were forays to Forest Hill and Woodside Park and Golders Green, but because they're liberal Jews they're not the stereotypical North London Jews.

How important is it to you to include Jewish themes in your work?

Well my previous two books, Daughters Of Jerusalem and Love and Idleness both had characters which to me were Jewish, and probably to Jews were Jewish, but I'm not sure that non-Jews would necessarily think of them that way. This is the first book where I've really gone for it, and I really wanted to look at English Jews as though they were just as interesting as any other ethnic minority and as different and culturally rich as any other group – there are lots of ways in which Jews are very like Bengalis, Asian Kenyans, Italians, people who've been in Shropshire for 15 generations – and it's quite a daring thing to write about English Jews from within, not a lot of people do it. That was one of the ways that I felt empowered to do it, we're just as interesting and different as everybody else.

Do you think there's been a bit of a revival in Jewish culture in recent years?

I would be absolutely thrilled if there were a bit of a renaissance and also a bit of a feeling of course. If we weren't ashamed of being Jewish that would be absolutely fantastic. In England it is easy to think we have to keep our heads down but why the hell should we?

Are you a full-time author now or are you still working in publishing?

I'm still a publisher, working for Headline Review, I edit other people and I write my own, so I have two full time jobs.

What does being Jewish mean to you?

I'm very proud of it, and I suppose for me it's more of a cultural thing, hand gestures and food and jokes and Yiddish words, and a way of feeling slightly different. I love the community aspect and I love the food. Having children has changed things completely, I feel much more aware of my roots and feel much more engaged with them. My partner is not Jewish, but it works for us – I'm doing more myself and that's fine.

What's your Jewish background?

We were only very very faintly practising when I was growing up. I suppose my father was raised Orthodox, but they'd ceased to be that when I came along. I think my father is surprised and pleased that I'm returning to the fold a bit. My mother's side of the family were from a complicated bit of is it Hungary, is it Czechoslovakia, is it the Ukraine. They spoke Hungarian – so I can speak a little bit of Hungarian - and my father's side were Latvia and Poland. I know least about Latvia, the Hungarian side is the side I like showing off the most, and the language is astonishingly difficult to learn.

What was the family name – was it always Mendelson?

Actually, that's a good question! No, the family name was Mendel and apparently 'on the boat' it was changed to Mendelson for some complicated reason, but I'm quite pleased. I would rather sound like a composer than a geneticist monk, I think.

How did you get your break in book writing?

It was with the short story Blood Sugar. I had always wanted to write but didn't dare, and then someone I know who always wanted to write said 'I'm editing this anthology, why don't you give it a try?' And I didn't because I was too scared, but eventually he forced me, and then to my astonishment my story was good enough to get in and it's gone from there. So that was definitely the first step. But for me it was a great act of courage because I thought surely you have to be a genius to do it, and I'm not a genius, I can't possibly be. It's such a frightening thing to write, it's so exposing, and if you're a woman, it's very hard to think 'I might be as good as anyone else'.

And finally....tell us a Jewish joke.

Oh, I will, but it's just been in the Guardian so everyone probably knows it! An Italian, a Belgian and an Israeli go into a bar. The Italian says I'm tired and I'm thirsty, I must have wine, the Belgian says, I'm tired and I'm thirsty, I must have beer and the Israeli says.....'I must have diabetes'. That's my new favourite joke, I think it's wonderful.

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Charlotte Mendelson