Sunday, February 24, 2008

An Interview with Jenna Blum

The Literary Life and How To Live It

by Sean Murphy

An Interview with Jenna Blum

Jenna Blum in person is very much like Jenna Blum on the page: intelligent, articulate, passionate, intriguing. The type of person you could talk to for hours and still long for more. With the publication of her first novel, the ambitious and breathtaking THOSE WHO SAVE US, she hopes to cast her spell on a larger audience. Early indications are positive: the story of family secrets and survival in Nazi Germany and New Heidelberg, Minnesota contains "characters…drawn with rare complexity…a gripping mystery in a page-turner that raises universal questions of shame, guilt, and personal responsibility" (Hazel Rochman, Booklist).
Ms. Blum's evolution as a writer underscores the actuality that there is no such thing as an overnight success story for a serious novelist. While her readers will have cause to celebrate the fact that a unique and talented voice will not remain unnoticed for long, her quest for publication reinforces the notion that tenacity and unwavering resolution are integral components of any writer's arsenal. Already at work on her next book, it seems easy to predict that she will become-and remain-a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Jenna Blum's first novel, THOSE WHO SAVE US, published by Harcourt, is available in bookstores everywhere. Excerpts have appeared or are forthcoming in The Briar Cliff Review, Prairie Schooner, and Meridian and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Ms. Blum has been writing professionally since 1986, when she won First Prize in Seventeen's National Fiction Contest. Since then her short fiction has earned awards from and appeared in various national publications, including The Bellingham Review, The Kenyon Review, Explorations, Reader's Break, and Pine Grove Press. Ms. Blum holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University, where she teaches Creative and Communications Writing; she also runs Advanced Fiction Workshops for Grub Street Writers.
SM: First off, congratulations are in order! How does it feel to see your first novel in print? To be able to go to a bookstore and see it/buy it?
JB: First off, thank you! And I won't lie: the first time I saw THOSE WHO SAVE US on the New Hardcovers Table (at Borders in Boston's Downtown Crossing, between The True Story of the Capture of Saddam Hussein and Suzanne Somers: The Sexy Years), it felt really damned good. Also incredibly surreal. I'd had an advance copy in my apartment for a couple of weeks, propped up on the mantel where I could marvel at it and think, in the way of all proud new mothers, Did I really DO that? So I was accustomed to seeing the book in its hardcover form. However, I was used to seeing it only in my living room, so my initial impulse upon finding it in public was to buy all the copies and spirit them back to my apartment, where I felt they belonged.
My second impulse, the one I actually acted upon, was to call my mother on my cell phone and be so loudly jubilant that a very nice guy standing next to me picked the book up. He glanced at my author photo and then at me with an expression of disbelief (in the photo I look uncharacteristically clean and glamorous, whereas in the flesh I was wearing sweats), and when I was finally off the phone, he said, "Did you really write this?" Yes, I said, doing a little aw-shucks shuffle, that's me. And God bless this guy, he and his partner brought a copy right then and there and had me sign it. They also hugged me and said "This is your special day," and for the rest of the afternoon I wanted to grab people on the street and shout, "HEY, THIS IS MY SPECIAL DAY!" I will never forget those two guys as long as I live.
Now I consider it my job to go into every bookstore I see and subtly rearrange the shelves to make sure THOSE WHO SAVE US is fronted. I have to confess to an impulse to sweep all the other books aside and shine a spotlight on my baby. Seeing the book in print has brought out a new side of me, since up until this point I have been reduced to giggling idiocy simply by strangers politely enquiring, "So, what's your book about?" No longer; now, apparently, I am shameless in my efforts to promote my child. I would make a terrifying stage mother.
SM: How long did it take you to write this novel?
JB: I embarked on a very early (and now unrecognizable) draft of THOSE WHO SAVE US in 1993, shortly after returning from my first trip to Germany with my mother. I had been inspired by the question we so constantly asked each other during that visit: "If you had been a civilian German woman during World War II, what would you have done?" We agreed we would both like to think that we would have done something to help our Jewish neighbors but recognized that, as one Holocaust survivor I once interviewed said to me, "You never know what you're going to do until you do it, until your back is up against the wall."
People are rarely heroes or villains but fall somewhere in between. And I never forgot that because my father was Jewish, I would have had the chance to do precisely nothing; like him, I would have been rounded up and deported to one of the camps.
In any case, I was fascinated by Germany's schizophrenic heritage--that Uber-civilized culture engineering history's most devastating mass genocide--and my own, and I began a rough draft of the novel. I didn't have enough historical or emotional knowledge to make it resonant then, however, and for many intervening years it functioned solely as a doorstop in my apartment while I worked on other projects. In 1999 I returned to the era of the Reich in short story form; that story, also entitled "Those Who Save Us," was quickly published by The Briar Cliff Review. This gave me the encouragement I needed to expand it back into a book, and I wrote a first draft of the novel as it now exists in six months. The revisions required another two and a half years. So, all told, I'd say the writing of THOSE WHO SAVE US took me three years to complete.
SM: What would you want potential readers to know about your book? What are some of the things you'd hope a reader might take away from it?
JB: THOSE WHO SAVE US has been billed as a mother-daughter story and also as a war novel, and both of those descriptions are accurate. So I hope any reader who has a mother--particularly a difficult mother--will be able to relate to the story! And I hope I have accomplished the goal any historical novelist aspires to reach: that the novel will enrich the reader's understanding of what life on the home front was like, especially for women, during World War II. What makes THOSE WHO SAVE US different from many other books about the time period, I think, is that it offers the perspective of the Aryan German woman; such women had a ringside seat to the conflagration (as women often do, from their quiet domestic position behind the scenes), but their viewpoint has been largely ignored in fiction. So I hope I have incorporated enough vivid detail to be able to make the era of the Third Reich come alive for readers from a perspective that hasn't been previously explored.
I also feel very strongly that at the novel's heart there is a "Judge not lest ye be judged" philosophy. Again, it's very tempting to think that if one were in a similar situation to that of my German protagonist, Anna, one would always try to help one's Jewish counterparts (as she initially tries to do)--and that one would never enter a relationship with a Nazi officer (as she later does) in order to survive. But as Anna's daughter Trudy says relatively early in the novel, "History isn't just a study in black and white. Human behavior is comprised of ulterior motives, of gray shades." To me, history consists of the stories of the people who lived it, the small cogs in the big machine. And through exploring the crucibles of circumstance in which my characters find themselves, I hope I've demonstrated that people are rarely angels nor devils--rather, they are a complicated stew of psychological and cultural factors--and that they should not be judged as such.
SM: Since it's inevitable to be asked about the autobiographical elements of any novel, what particular experience(s) did you have that served as inspiration for-or construction of-Those Who Save Us?
JB: One of the great things about writing fiction is that it acts as a shield of sorts: the writer can express things of great emotional importance to him or her through the card tricks of character and plot, leaving the reader guessing as to what components belong to the author. Put another way, fiction is something like the puzzles that fascinated me as a child: in among the amoeba-like pieces, there were some recognizable shapes--tulips, moons, stars. There are bits of me encoded throughout THOSE WHO SAVE US--snippets of dialogue, setting descriptions--that only family and friends would catch.
Otherwise, when asked what of me is in the book, I like to say enigmatically, "It's fiction." I remember snapping this after a reading I did of a scene in which one of the characters is raped with a Luger; a man in the audience sidled up to me and whispered hopefully, "Was that autobiographical?" Sorry, buddy, thank you for playing, but NO.
As I am, however, half-Jewish and also German--Jewish on my dad's side and German on my mother's--I have been steeped in the knowledge of the Holocaust for as long as I can remember. Two of my father's great-aunts, for instance, were murdered by the Nazis at Babi Yar. And from my mother I have inherited a fascination with Germany that persists to this day. So the inspiration for the novel is genetically embedded in my personal fabric. I've interviewed dozens of Holocaust survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, and I've returned to Germany with my mother three times since that initial trip. All of these experiences have been highly inspirational in informing the emotional landscape of my characters.
SM: Has your experience tended to demystify the publishing process (for good or bad-or both) or has it made it even more special?
JB: Ever since I was a little kid, I had this certainty that one day I would be an author with a novel coming out. In the interim between childhood and when this actually happened, I fantasized so often about the things writers dream of--meeting the agent, going to New York to have that three-martini lunch with the editor--that when these events occurred, it felt in one way like a strange deja-vu.
In another, more profound sense, the experience of having a novel published has made me feel like Alice In Wonderland. I'm still falling down the rabbit hole, marveling at the things I pass en route: my fierce and lovely superagent, my astonishingly acute editor, contracts, the arrival of the galleys, the incoming reviews. All are curiouser and curiouser. I do perhaps know a bit more about what to expect: the fact that it's perfectly normal, for instance, to feel as though one's publishing house is a gigantic and powerful machine laboring on one's behalf, without the writer necessarily knowing much about what's going on. And that it's not nice to pester one's publicist with daily panic calls. But in recent months many authors have said to me, in that "You're so cute when you're naive" tone, "Oh, this is your first book? You'll find out. Nobody really cares. Nobody does anything for you. You have to do all your promotion yourself." Not only is this not true, but I think it's spitting in the eyes of the Publishing Gods. To think that people were interested enough in what my characters have to say that they actually published the book--this to me is an ongoing miracle.
SM: Speak a little about your process of "becoming" a writer. Did you always know you wanted to write? Was there a turning point (Or several?)?
JB: I did always know I wanted to write. The soundtrack to my earliest memories is that of my father typing--he also was a writer, a newsman--and so my own compulsion to write, too, has probably been genetically encoded. I've been writing ever since I could hold a pencil; I think my earliest story dates back to when I was four years old. Writing is the only thing I've ever been any good at--writing and teaching writing. I love both more than I can say. And I have proven completely useless at any other sort of profession, more financially lucrative ones that involve working in offices, for instance.
It's always helpful to receive affirmation of one's compulsions, however, and not just from one's adoring parents (though I have been blessed with their lifelong support). I was lucky enough to publish short stories in Seventeen Magazine at an early age--I won the national contest when I was sixteen--and this reinforced my suspicion that writing was what I was meant to do. I've also been fortunate in placing short stories in literary magazines as an adult. And one of the proudest moments of my life was receiving my Authors' Guild card in the mail. I wept at Kinko's while laminating it, and I wish my dad were still alive so I could show it to him. He would say, "Well, Cookie. Mazel tov."
SM: You have taught at the college level for several years-what has that experience been like?
JB: I adore teaching--I'm not one of those writers who sees it only as a necessary evil to pay the mortgage. I teach Communication and Creative Writing at Boston University, from which I earned my MA in Creative Writing; again, I've been lucky in that once I had my diploma in hand, the University was kind enough to simply move me to the other side of the desk. In the beginning I felt like a complete impostor, and I had a few astonished private giggles over the fact that my students would assiduously write down whatever I chalked onto the board. But there was also a sort of mantle of calm that fell over me the first day I walked into my classroom--I can't describe it better than that--an almost predestined feeling that I could do this: take attendance and then talk about writing. It has been a blessing. I have especially enjoyed scarring my students in terms of the proper uses of grammar. I've heard I'm known around the department as the Grammar Hag, a title I relish. You can't write well unless you are familiar with the fundamental building blocks of language, how to put them together and how to move them around.
SM: How has teaching helped/hindered your own writing?
JB: Teaching has helped me enormously in a couple of ways. For one thing, it gets me out of the house so I don't lose ALL sense of normal social graces. For another, the structure of teaching plays devil's advocate with my time. When I have a day free to write--well, it's amazing how many errands I suddenly have to do or how often the floor needs to be Swiffered. But when I am teaching, I have to fight to find time for my own work, and I'm that much more on-track.
I also run Advanced Fiction and Novel classes for Grub Street Writers, an independent Boston-based writing school for adults, and commenting on my students' stories and novels, pinpointing what's working and what could be improved, has strengthened my critical muscles and made me that much more alert to problems in my own work. Not to mention, writing is in essence a solitary profession; there are often days when the only other people I see are the counterfolks at my local Starbucks. My Grub Street students are the exception: they provide a community of funny, smart, talented people who are as interested in and dedicated to writing as I am, and that has been an enormous boon.
SM: MFA or No-MFA? Any comments or opinions for the folks who are adamant (pro OR con) about the value of MFA programs?
JB: I'm going to weasel out of a proper answer by saying that the to-MFA-or-not-to-MFA question should be entirely left up to the individual. It all depends on your reasons for wanting the degree. There are obvious pros: the degree can open teaching doors, for instance. Without my MA, I would still be working in the food service industry and writing at night; I would have stronger biceps but I wouldn't be able to teach. And MA/ MFA programs can also help provide the got-your-back kind of community of writers I mentioned above. Some of my dearest friends are the people with whom I sweated through the MA workshops.
I made it through the Boston University Graduate Creative Writing program, which I don't think I'm exaggerating in saying is a boot camp for writers. While the experience was humbling, it definitely helped me to be a more conscious writer, whereas prior to attending, I was writing primarily by instinct and out of a great sense of self-aggrandizement.
But there are times when an MA/ MFA program can, I feel be counter-productive. One of my former students is halfway through a novel that I think has great publishable potential, and my feeling is that if she were to go for her degree now, it would break her stride. I suppose, in the final analysis, it's best to ask why you want to go. MA/ MFA programs can be great for gestation, teaching credentials, and being in the company of other writers. If none of that sounds like what you need, stay home and write.
SM: Which writer(s) has/have influenced you most, and which book(s)? Any other notable influences, artistic or otherwise?
JB: My dad influenced me by example and by supporting my endeavors. My mother influences me by being my most unsparing editor; if I send her a scene and she gets through it without yawning, "Ho hum"--and that's a literal, direct quote--I know I'm on the right track.
As for writers, every writer I read influences me in some way. I'm an avid reader of my contemporaries, and I tend to read their works in marathon spurts--right now, for instance, I'm reading the novels of Ann Patchett, and I'm gleaning a lot from her use of structure and elegant sentences. It's very rare that I read a book without turning up the bottom of at least one page, signifying that something on it--even a detail as small as a description of light slanting against a wall in a certain way--has struck me enough that I'll remember it. And that's why writers write, I think--at least, that's my goal: to cast out these filaments of yourself, the way you see the world, into the void--and hoping that they'll catch on at least one reader whose daily life is enriched by something you wrote.
A less lofty answer: I love Larry McMurtry for his sense of humor and eccentric, yet believable characters (and aren't we all, in ways more or less visible, eccentric!). Ditto John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces; its protagonist, Ignatius Reilly, is the best example I know of a lovably horrible character. I admire Russell Banks and Ethan Canin for their male portraiture and solid storytelling; Joanna Trollope for her insight into human behavior and her wry British wit in describing it; Donna Tartt's Gothic novel The Secret History for its wonderful creepiness and beautiful prose. And I love Susan Isaac's Shining Through for the chutzpah of its unsinkable heroine. I've often thought that if writer-heaven consisted of the opportunity to live a favorite character's story, I would choose that of Isaac's Linda Voss so I could spend eternity as a secretary-turned-girl-spy, fighting Nazis.
SM: How much pressure do you feel to be successful due to the increasingly competitive and marginalized publishing scene?
JB: Oy, you really want to get me started on the consequences of Chicklit and The New York Times Book Review cutting back its fiction list by 30 %? I didn't think so!
I think there's little a writer can do about the vagaries of the publishing industry (other than ranting with one's writer friends over Scotch)--talk about being a small cog in a big machine! Like every other writer I know, I'm hoping that the pendulum will swing away from Chicklit, back in the direction of more literary fiction. In fact, I trust this will happen. There's only so much junk food people can eat. Meanwhile, you have to write what you have to write, and I've always believed that if you care about and love what you write, with a little luck and a lot of perseverance, it will find its way in the world.
As for the pressure to be successful, that is omnipresent, Chicklit or no Chicklit, Dire Times For Novelists or not. I have always felt this pressure. It's internal. Increasingly, I feel I owe success to my characters--said success consisting of getting them out there in book form and selling as many copies as possible, so people get to know them.
SM: Are you hitting the road? Will we able to see you read? (Do you have a website?)
JB: Yes! I am doing readings in and around Boston throughout the spring and summer, and I'm also reading in the Midwest, Florida, and the Baltimore/Washington area. For more information, check my website: Please visit it! And please come see me read from THOSE WHO SAVE US. My characters and I will welcome you with open arms.

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