When Iris Mitlin Lav was readying for retirement in 2016, she sat down to jot out some notes about what she might do. After a rich and rewarding career as a self-described policy wonk — including 25 years at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where she focused on policies to aid low-and moderate-income families — Mitlin Lav was ready to spend her time on pursuits beyond the Beltway-centric Washington policy arena.
Among the options: Return to pottery, an activity she enjoyed in her youth. Spend more time on Hebrew and Jewish text studies, including giving more talks at Tifereth Israel Congregation, where she’s a member. Focus her time with family and friends.
“Writing a novel was not on that list,” she said.
And yet, in September, Mitlin Lav, 74, published “A Wife in Bangkok,” drawing on own experiences as a young wife and mother who moved to Thailand when her husband’s job transferred him there.
It is her first novel. She started writing her first draft in January 2016, spending two hours a day, Monday through Friday, for the year. Then came revisions.
Mitlin Lav said her protagonist, Crystal’s, story is nothing like her own. Crystal doesn’t want to leave the familiarity of her small Oklahoma town and the job she loves. Once in Bangkok, Crystal suffers from intense loneliness and depression, while her husband focuses on his career and his social life — even a suspected infidelity.
“My time living in Bangkok was really very transformative,” Mitlin Lav said. “Just the opportunity to learn so much about a different culture and to travel so much.”
Mitlin Lav married at 19 while she was an undergrad at the University of Chicago. When she and her husband, Michael Lav, moved abroad in the mid-1970s, they had one young son and were expecting their second child.
“I just thought maybe I should write something about that time, but I didn’t want to write a memoir. I didn’t think it would be that interesting because I had a great time,” she said — no conflict or adversity to overcome during her time in Thailand.
She also got involved with the Jewish community there, which she described as small yet unusually collegial. Not only did the 100 or so members of Beth Elisheva, the only synagogue in the country at that time, range from Orthodox to Reform to other, they were also Ashkenazi and Sephardic.
“Somehow,” she said, “we all managed to pray together.”
Loneliness is one of the predominant themes of the novel. Mitlin Lav couldn’t have predicted how central the issue would become as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the novel, Crystal can’t figure out how to find a community — her husband is the only Westerner in the office, there aren’t many Americans. Crystal didn’t feel she fit in anywhere,” she said.
She said that when oldest her son read the novel, he observed, “It seems that the message is to go find a community.”
Mitlin Lav said that when some people retire, they plunge in and sign up for classes and activities to make themselves busy.
“I have a tendency to make myself very busy and I say ‘yes’ to this or that, joining a board or a volunteer position.”
But in retirement she said that she learned, “Being busy doesn’t allow for your creativity to move in a different direction.”
“A Jew in Bangkok,” Iris Mitlin Lav speaks about her experiences in Thailand in the 1970s and about the Jewish community there today on Nov. 10 at 5:45 p.m. for Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim. To register for the Zoom talk: https://www.htaa.org/event/guest-speaker-iris-lav—a-jew-in-bangkok.html. For information or to purchase “A Wife in Bangkok,” visit: https://irismitlinlav.com.