Tova Mirvis is the author of three nov­els, Vis­i­ble City, The Out­side World and The Ladies Aux­il­iary, which was a nation­al best­seller. She is blog­ging here this week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

For me, writ­ing fic­tion always begins with curios­i­ty about oth­er peo­ple: what are they real­ly think­ing but not say­ing? What does it feel like to live inside some­one else’s body?

I trace this curios­i­ty, in part, to my Ortho­dox upbring­ing – to the feel­ing that peo­ple (or was it just me?) were think­ing things they were not say­ing, that there exist­ed for many a shad­ow inner life that did not align with the out­er one. There, tucked away under a hat, walled inside the pri­vate domain, were the feel­ings not allowed into the light. So much had to be encased, or run past the inter­nal cen­sor before it could be said. Every­where, the sense that you were being watched, eval­u­at­ed, judged. So few places where the inner expe­ri­ence – messy, com­pli­cat­ed, impo­lite – could be revealed. 

But in a nov­el: here, final­ly, there is free­dom and access. The walls give way to win­dows. Here, what peo­ple real­ly think, say, feel. In life, how many of us walk around with no tres­pass­ing signs affixed to our bod­ies? But in a nov­el we enter into char­ac­ters who stray and fear and lie and love and seethe and desire, that great messy stew of what it means to be human. Real empa­thy comes not from con­ceal­ment but from reveal­ing. We hide out truest selves for fear of what oth­ers will say, yet in those messy spaces we are, how­ev­er iron­i­cal­ly, most sympathetic. 

This chance to peer into oth­ers is what makes me read, and what makes me write. I’ve always thought of the nov­el­ist as a kind of voyeur – a job which requires you to assem­ble pieces of oth­er people’s lives into a larg­er whole.

In Vis­i­ble City, my third nov­el, I start­ed with a young moth­er who watch­es her neigh­bors out the win­dow, catch­ing snip­pets of their lives. In the city, we live a com­bi­na­tion of anonymi­ty and inti­ma­cy. We watch but act as though we don’t see one anoth­er, thus allow­ing this shad­owy dance to con­tin­ue with­out becom­ing over­ly expos­ing and inva­sive. So much around us is pack­aged and cov­ered. Here, the chance to see one anoth­er unre­hearsed. To escape our own lone­ly nights, to pre­tend as though we occu­py oth­er lives. 

But at the same time, in all those views out the win­dow, sure­ly we are see­ing not just oth­ers but our­selves. As I was writ­ing, I was fas­ci­nat­ed by the ques­tion of whether we can watch and remain unchanged. In my nov­el, my main char­ac­ter is ulti­mate­ly not con­tent to just watch. Watch­ing breeds the desire for some­thing more. Doors open and she becomes entan­gled in the lives of those she watch­es. But even if we are nev­er caught watch­ing, even if we nev­er walk through our own doors, we are still changed. When we see into oth­er peo­ple, we grow wider, more empathic.

Tova Mirvis’s lat­est book, Vis­i­ble City, will be pub­lished by Houghton Mif­flin Har­court on March 18th. Her essays have appeared in var­i­ous antholo­gies and news­pa­pers includ­ing The New York Times, The Boston Globe Mag­a­zine, and Poets and Writ­ers, and her fic­tion has been broad­cast on Nation­al Pub­lic Radio. She lives in New­ton, MA with her three chil­dren. Vis­it her web­site here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: Essays on Writ­ing, Pub­lish­ing, and Promoting

Tova Mirvis is the author of three nov­els: Vis­i­ble City, The Out­side World, The Ladies Aux­il­iary, a nation­al best­seller, and the mem­oir The Book of Sep­a­ra­tion. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe Mag­a­zine, and Poets and Writ­ers, and her fic­tion has been broad­cast on NPR. She lives in New­ton, Massachusetts.