Ottawa Writers Festival: Alison Pick turns utopia upside down in Strangers with the Same Dream

Alison Pick. Photo: Emma Lee Photography

A Chalmers grant from the Ontario Arts Council was the launching pad for Alison Pick’s novel Strangers with the Same Dream. The money allowed her to travel to Israel three times and to conduct the kind of research needed to prepare a historical novel that resonates today.

Strangers examines the utopian dream of those idealists who joined the kibbutz movement that gained a foothold in Palestine in years after the First World War. It is dream that spawned a story that is Old Testament in its message and its setting.

“That is intentional,” she said in a recent interview. “I had conceived it as Biblical in language and in the intensity of the plot. It’s interesting to hear how common that is as a piece of feedback” about the book.

Pick’s own journey to Judaism started late in life when she discovered a hidden heritage, a story she has revealed in her memoir Between Gods. But the appeal of the kibbutz story is also about setting her novel in Palestine in the 1920s.

“A novelist is aways looking for a time and place that is full of tension and giving the reader a sense of the time and place.

“And on the other hand the writer is trying to create characters people can relate to. Characters with flaws and internal contradictions.”

She says with each book she is trying to do something new and challenge herself.

“There were a bunch of years when I couldn’t look at Israel because it is such a complex fraught topic. Then I got the Chalmers grant and went to Israel three times over course of two years. It was in those trips that I started to get really interested in the history” of the kibbutz movement.

There is always a risk when writing about the Middle East of being caught between the sides.

Pick knows all about that. She is also clear where she stands on the Palestinian question.

“I think we need a two-state solution. Beyond that I have found that when I have tried to read about the history and understand it, it is one of the most complex. It’s an issue that makes people extremely defensive very quickly.

“On the other hand the reality of it seems to be anything but black and white and it’s hard to make hard and fast statements. Fear and trauma are fuelling both sides.

“I think one of the tasks of art is to open questions and to be compassionate and nuanced rather than didactic or black and white. That’s what I am trying to do with the book.”

Her gaze turned to the kibbutz movement after reading a book by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. In his book My Promised Land there is a chapter on the history of one of the largest of the kibbutzes Ein Harod.

“It seemed so novelistic to me. There were stories of suicide and betrayal and possibly a murder. That  was one of the impulses. I could see the drama of it.

“I have also always been interested in the idea of utopias and the different instances of human beings trying to create ideal societies based on human equality, freedom and love. Something happens though when you put a small group of people in a small place with rules and strictures imposed.

“Eventually the people stop believing in the rules.”

She travelled to Ein Harod to continue her research. She met an archivist there who had boxes and boxes of documents, diaries, letters and journals.

It was all in Hebrew so she hired a translator and the individual stories began to emerge from the boxes.

Strangers with the Same Dream tells the same basic story from three points of view. A leader of the kibbutz cheats on his wife. Their daughter cuts her leg in an accident and the mother is forced to watch as infection slowly kills her daughter because of a lack of proper care. Meanwhile the lover of the husband dies.

Pick was a new mother when she started working on this novel, so the stories she found in her research had a strong resonance.

“One of the ideals of the movement as that the women would be free to work the land critically important. One of ways to accomplish this would be to raise babies in baby houses. The kids would form their own cohort.

“You can see the logic to it.” But that doesn’t make it right, she says. adding that there is a branch of psychotherapy in Israel repairing those broken attachments.

As a writer, Pick says she is “not one of those writers who says the characters dictate the story. It doesn’t seem that way to me.

“It does feel like the story emerges as its own entity. I’m trying to listen and feel the direction it wants to take. I always feel kind of hokey talking about it,” she admits. “It doesn’t feel like I have x or y idea and I transpose it into the novel. It’s more like a big thing coming out of a foggy lake and I’m squinting to see what this thing is.

Pick is also a novelist who truly loves writing.

“A happy day for me is when I have a chunk of hours set aside to write. I’m a first thing in the morning person. My productivity begins with the sun rise and goes directly down.

“I love writing. There is something meditative about it. I’m pretty introverted. I know there are some writers who struggle with long hours alone but I am happy with that element. It’s so fun to have something so completely absorbing.”

Strangers with the Same Dream
Alison Pick (Knopf Canada)
In town: The author will appear on an Ottawa International Writers Festival panel at Christ Church Cathedral on Oct. 23 at 6:30 p.m. For tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.