Interview with Jenna Blum, Author of Those Who Save Us

those-who-save-usFollowing our read-a-long of Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us last month, we contacted the author to ask her some questions about the book.

If you missed the read-a-long, feel free to see our discussions here, here, here, and here.  We’d love to have you chime in if you’ve read the book.

Please give Jenna a warm welcome.

What inspired you to write Those Who Save Us? How did your work for the Shoah Foundation come into play? During your research for Those Who Save Us, what prompted you to select Weimer as the setting, and did you visit the area before you began writing?

In 1993 when I was fresh out of college, my mother announced we were going to Germany. I was underwhelmed at the prospect. “Why Germany?” I protested. There were so many more pleasant places in the world to visit—Spain, Italy, France, Canada, Arkansas…any destination whose people had not helped murder six million Jews, some of them on my father’s side of the family.

But my mother wanted to investigate her own heritage. She’s a concert pianist, and for years she’d been reading about the Nazi era, trying to understand how a country that had produced so many great composers and musicians had also engineered history’s most atrociously efficient mass genocide.

So I soon found myself hurtling through the German countryside in a rented car with my mother. We didn’t speak the language. We had no plan. We visited where her people came from—Wallhausen, a little farm town. We drank a lot of schnapps. And we asked each other over and over, “How could the Holocaust have happened here?”

One day we were driving from Buchenwald to Weimar. Buchenwald was the first concentration camp we visited, and we’d been stricken into uncharacteristic silence. As we descended the Ettersberg mountain into meadows full of purple flowers, I reflected that from the camp, you could see Weimar. So, I reasoned, from Weimar, the Germans must have been able to see the camp. What did they tell each other and themselves about what was going on up there? What did they say to their children when ash was falling from the sky in May? I wouldn’t have had a chance to make those choices; I would have been classified a Mischling, a half-breed, and, if discovered by the Nazis, sent with my Jewish father to the camps. But my mother was full-blooded “Aryan.”

I asked her, “If you’d been living in Germany during the war, what would you have done?”

She was silent for a moment, smoking, contemplating. Then she said, “I don’t know what I would have done. I’d like to think I would have been brave enough to help my Jewish friends, my neighbors. But if the Nazis caught you, the punishment was death. And if I had you kids to care for…Well, I can only hope I would have been brave enough.”

That was when the character of Anna came to me, on that road from Buchenwald to Weimar: a young, quiet, beautiful German woman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. An ordinary woman forced by a crucible of circumstance to make extraordinary, terrible decisions. Anna dwelled in my head for the next ten years, softly but insistently demanding that her story, that of the average German woman, be told.

***
When I got home, I began to research. For the next decade, I read everything I could get my hands on about the Third Reich, its causes, victims, and citizens. I read dozens of survivor accounts. I engaged in what one reader kindly called “method research,” although you could also refer to it as insanity: watched German films and documentaries; listened to German music; took German classes (at which I was a total failure). I baked everything appears in the novel, because I wanted to know Anna from the inside out. (That Christmas Stollen took me 48 sleepless hours to make, and I swore like a trucker the whole time, but it lasted several months afterwards, like a Teutonic fruitcake.) And for a short period of craziness, while I was writing Anna, I dressed like her: in a dirndl skirt, my hair in braids. I did this only when writing, at night, not outside the house. Much. Only on Halloween.

The most important research I did, however, was to interview Jewish survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation. I was living in Minneapolis then, in the mid-1990s, and my mom, who lived across town, pointed out an announcement in the Star-Tribune that the Foundation was seeking interviewers. I protested I couldn’t possibly apply for the position; I didn’t have survivors in my family; I didn’t have the right. My mom said, “Go.” I went.

I auditioned in Chicago with maybe a thousand other people for an interviewer’s position, and the Foundation did grant me that honor. For the next four years, I interviewed dozens of survivors in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. I specialized in couples: survivor pairs who had met each other after the war, in Displaced Persons camps overseas or here in America or, in a few instances, during the war itself.

Readers often ask what survivor testimonies I used in the writing of Those Who Save Us. My answer: nothing. Survivors’ memories are earned at a cost the rest of us can only imagine. They are hallowed ground. But the survivors I was privileged to interview did inform the novel’s emotional atmosphere, allowing me to create the emotional spectrum along which my characters dwell: from guilt to shame to denial to anger to a fierce, abiding hope. Most survivors, when asked for their testimonies’ final statements, said, “The world should know what we went through so it will never happen again.” I wanted, in writing Those Who Save Us, to respect their wishes by refracting some of their anguish and horror through a fictional lens. That is another reason I wrote the novel: to pay survivors an homage.

Was it important to the story that Trudy be a professor and working in German studies? How so? What other profession could she have had?

That’s a great question! In early drafts, Trudy was not a German history professor; she was a helpmeet to her husband Roger (who then shrank to a cameo in the book’s current, published incarnation) in his restaurant. I revised Trudy to become a lonely German history professor because I wanted to show she is irrevocably marked by her history: fascinated in an intellectual way by the very emotional parts of her past her mother can never share with her. Mastering historical knowledge is one way Trudy can put her arms around the past. It’s a much more active and character-specific role for her than peeling potatoes at Roger’s Le P’tit Lapin was.

Was Those Who Save Us the original title? How did you come to that title?

The title comes from the pivotal scene on Christmas morning in New Heidelburg when Jack asks whether Anna loved the Obersturmfuhrer, and Anna, trying to answer, wants to say “We come to love those who save us” but can’t speak—because she’s not sure whether she wants the word save or shame. To me, Anna is the ultimate symbol of Stockholm Syndrome, a woman who comes to depend on her captor to the point of loving him. The book’s title speaks to her relationship with the Obersturmfuhrer, which warps her psyche and, to a great extent, her daughter’s.

I also like the title because thematically, the novel is like a big chain letter of saving and being saved: everyone saves everyone else, literally and metaphorically. Max saves Anna, Anna saves Max, Mathilde saves Anna, the Obersturmfuhrer saves Anna, Anna saves Trudy, Jack saves them both, Rainer and Trudy save each other…. But the chain letter also winds heavy links around the characters’ ankles. Being a savior and being saved often comes with very unpleasant burdens, such as survivor’s guilt. I wanted the novel to explore and illustrate that high emotional cost.

We saw on Facebook that you recently traveled to Germany and visited places that were in the book. Could you tell us a little about the experience? Are there any photos that you’d like to share with our readers?

I went to Germany with a company called Adventures by the Book, which takes readers into the settings of their favorite novels. Ingenious, no? We traveled around Germany visiting the settings from Those Who Save Us, from Weimar to Berchtesgaden, and a few more cities that helped contextually fill in knowledge about the rise and history of Nazi Germany, such as Nuremberg. It was incredibly moving for me to return to some of the places I had visited with my mom while envisioning and researching the novel, and two of the most spectacular experiences from the writer point-of-view were: 1. finding the very spot on the banks of the River Ilm that Anna, the Obersturmfuhrer, and Trudie picnic on in Weimar on Anna’s 23rd birthday; 2. hosting a book club in the restaurant of the very hotel in Berchtesgaden where Anna and the Obersturmfuhrer stay in 1943–so answering questions and sharing experiences inspired by the book within the actual setting of the book. That was beyond cool. I encourage readers to enjoy photos of my Adventures by the Book experience on my Facebook page (scroll down to May 2017 and you will find them). Also, check out Adventures by the Book for literary adventures of a lifetime with your favorite writers!

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. What starts you on that journey and about how long does it take you to finish a first draft?

I often spend years researching, ideating, and outlining a first draft before I start writing it. A book starts as a short story for me: one out of several short stories I test-drive will have the “it” factor, beckoning me to expand it into a longer form. The characters are persistent and real and drag me around by the hair. Every short story, to me, is an exploration of an emotional question–for instance, Those Who Save Us began as a short story of the same name that explored what happens when you respond physically, have great chemistry, with somebody whose character you abhor–somebody who does monstrous things on a daily basis. The short stories often become pieces, chapters, in the larger mosaic of the book. I then back up and create an outline around the short story, a laundry list of scenes that will provide the scaffolding structure for the overall book. Many of these scenes begin as question marks, but as I write and revise the novel, I revise the outlines to fill them in! (So writers: if you think an outline is constraining, it’s not. It’s a tool that will help ensure your book has structure and is therefore not boring–but you can always revise it; in fact, you will. It’s fluid.) I have to research my novels, which are either historical fiction or focused contextually on topics that require specific knowledge, and that can take me up to a year. Then I start writing. I actually write fairly quickly; I can finish a draft in 3 – 6 months. The revising takes at least another year and, if done properly, should take more, up to two.

It’s not an instant gratification profession, but it is magic when it works.

Are you able to share any information about your upcoming book?

​I will be sharing more information about The Lost Family on my social media pages as the prepublication process continues, but for now: the novel follows concentration camp survivor Peter Rashkin (whom some readers will recognize from my novella “The Lucky One” in Grand Central) ​as he attempts to build a new life for himself in America, becoming a successful restaurateur in 1965 New York, taking an American wife, and having a daughter–and the effects on both Peter and his new family as they struggle with the memories of the family he lost and can never leave behind.

Thanks for asking–and I hope you stay tuned on Facebook, Twitter, and my website as more is revealed!

Thanks, Jenna, for sharing with us your thoughts on writing Those Who Save Us, your writing process, and your forthcoming novel. We cannot wait to read it.

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2 Comments

  1. What a wonderful interview! Thank you for sharing. All of the characters in Those Who Save Us are so richly drawn and their experiences feel so authentic. It’s obvious the author’s research and personal experiences played a large role in that.

  2. Thanks for reading, Wendy. It was fun to interview Jenna. I agree the characters are richly drawn.


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