I find it interesting that you have both a Masters in comparative literature and training as a psychologist. How does this dual training affect how you approach your characters?
I’m very intrigued by human motivation. To my mind, psychology and literature are closely related. In the one case I’m trying to help someone change their life, in the other I have the freedom to just explore whatever I want, but in both I’m trying to understand the nature of human experience and what the boundaries are.
When you’re a psychotherapist, a patient walks into your office and you study everything about them. You observe their body language—whether they pick their nails or pull off their wedding ring when they talk about their husband, and so on. These are all things that you’re trained to read and engage with. Then you try to gradually unravel the source of their conflict or pain and figure out what’s tripping them up. You’re really unraveling a mystery. For me, writing a story is a similar process of unraveling clues and making a coherent narrative out of various disparate elements.
Your stories all seem to have a certain central question, or what might be considered a puzzle. The puzzles often have to do with identity, or memory, and there’s usually a surprising missing piece that’s revealed somewhere toward the end. Reading them together, they reminded me a bit of O. Henry stories with their unexpected twists. I know that some writers have their stories’ endings already in mind before they start writing, whereas others just sort of write their way to wherever their story ends up. I was wondering which category you fall into.
When I start writing I haven’t got a clue where I’m going to end up. Not a clue. I have a lot of faith in myself and in the unconscious, though, so I just keep writing even when I’m perplexed by where things are going. I just try to figure out how to piece together the seemingly incongruous elements. I do sometimes end up kicking myself and asking, “Why on earth did you do this complicated thing, this complicated setup?” But usually I figure out some way to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
I’d love to talk about time in your stories. Each of your stories has two narratives that vacillate between the present and the past. Most are set partly in contemporary U.S. society and partly in war-torn Germany. It’s like there’s sort of a call and response between present and past. The present asks the questions, and then sometimes the past answers it and moves the story forward. Why did you structure your stories in this way?
A lot of the decisions one makes as a writer are conscious, but then there are some that are unconscious. In the case of this book I only made two conscious decisions as far as structure was concerned. The first was to tell all the stories in the first person present. And the second was to have all the central characters have that voice, so that both the mothers’ and the daughters’ perspectives would be written in first person present. Those characters’ stories came at me with such urgency that I wanted the reader to feel it too. I wanted the readers to feel that these things are happening to them, and that it’s taking place right now. So even if it’s set in the past, it has a feeling of immediacy. I wanted to eradicate the distance.
Could you explain the significance of the Henrich Heine folksong that you use as the epigraph?
Henrich Heine was perhaps the most famous and beloved poet in all of German history. He was Jewish and lived in the 1800s. “Die Lorelei” is a very famous German poem that he wrote. All the schoolchildren learn it, and it’s even been put to music by Liszt. When the Nazis came to power they wanted to eradicate it. But “Die Lorelei” was so much a part of German culture they couldn’t bear to do it. So what they did instead was they attributed it to “Anonymous.” So the German Hitler youth would sing “Die Lorelei,” and here it is written by a Jew!
In October, at the Brooklyn Historical Society, your stories were set to music by the composer Ben Moore and were made into a musical and theatrical performance. How did that come about?
There was a young woman at Scribner—a publicist—who was also a very serious French horn player. When she read the book, she said she had such a visceral, emotional reaction that it went to the same part of her soul that her music comes from. She said she felt that this book should be put to music. Everyone said, “Well, great idea, but, what planet do you live on? We’re a publishing company!” But the head of publicity there is this visionary woman who’s open to anything, and she said, “That’s a great idea, let’s think about it.” People thought she was nuts. But then I said, “You know, one of my best friends is a magnificent composer. Let me sit with him, and we’ll talk about it.” And we did. He agreed straight away. He’s a Catholic boy—he has nothing Jewish in him at all. But we’ve been friends for a very long time, and we’ve been through a lot together, and although we’re very, very different people, artistically we’re kind of brother and sister.
He got off the subway one day, and the opening overture of the melody just came to him. It was very exciting. He called me straight away and he came to my house and played it. I was just…crying, because he had taken the emotions and somehow turned them into music. So then I wrote a twenty-page document where I broke down every element of each story. I explained the textures and undertones—what are the battles, what are the struggles, where is the hope, where is the despair. It was sort of an instruction manual for creating music that would express those nuances. He took that and turned it into a full-length piece of chamber music. It’s a forty-minute work for piano, clarinet, and violin.
Then we worked with this director, Jimmy Bohr, who selected monologues from the stories to be performed by an actress named Andrea Masters. It was extraordinary. The music interweaves with the monologues. It was very carefully orchestrated. We spent six months working on it. It was pure devotion to art—there was no money involved; no one got paid. It was just for the sheer love and belief in the project and the love of the work.
I read somewhere that you said that yours was a “forbidding muse.” And regardless of whether people are categorizing this collection as a Holocaust book or a book about human brutality, it’s certainly weighty, heavy stuff. I would imagine it was in some ways a daunting task, and a hard place to live for a long period of time.
It was extremely hard. When these stories came at me, I was busy doing other things. I was very frantic about finishing a novel that I’m very close to having finished, and I really wanted to get on with that. But this thing kept coming at me, and I kept pushing it away. Finally, with a heavy heart, I put the other book aside and I set down to do this one. At the time I remember feeling—and I know this sounds self-congratulatory, though I don’t mean it that way—but I felt like it was an act of generosity on my part because I really didn’t want to deal with all this heaviness.
We’ve all read about the Holocaust, but it seems that there’s always new and horrifying information to blow your mind.
I can tell you one that could really blow your mind. This is from Amos Elon’s book. In World War I, Jews were allowed to serve in the army as officers for the first time, and they were very joyous about that because it seemed that finally the anti-Semitism of the past was being broken down. There was an officer named Gutmann. He was a very good, kind man. His battalion was in a battle where they showed a lot of bravery, so he wanted to nominate them for the Iron Cross. But one of his men had been a coward. He was a very unpleasant soldier and everyone hated him. But Gutmann didn’t want to give everyone an Iron Cross except this one soldier. So he asked his commander if the problematic soldier could get the Iron Cross anyway. The commander said, “Absolutely not! That soldier will not get a medal, because I’ve heard about him and his deplorable behavior.” But this kindly officer really appealed to the commander, and managed to convince him not to leave this one soldier out. So in the end, they’re all awarded the Iron Cross, and at the ceremony Gutmann goes from soldier to soldier, pinning the medals on their chests himself. Well, that soldier was Adolph Hitler. And it was Gutmann, the Jew, who pinned the medal to his chest. And because Hitler had that that Iron Cross, later on, when he was agitating for power, people thought, “Well, he seems pretty crazy, but he must have done something right, because look at that Iron Cross.”
To me, those quirks of history are just so mind-boggling. I feel like I have to devote my life to exploring them.