Sunday, February 17, 2013

Q&A with author Leslie Maitland

Leslie Maitland
Leslie Maitland, a former reporter for The New York Times, is the author of Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed. She lives in Bethesda, Md.

Q: How did you decide to write Crossing the Borders of Time, and was it difficult to delve into such personal details about both your parents?

A: I grew up so mesmerized by my mother’s dramatic stories of love and war and of the European world she’d left behind that I always felt my own life would not be complete unless I managed to preserve her saga for future generations, including my own children. 

Just recently, though, I was surprised to encounter evidence of how long I’d consciously embraced that goal when I found a Mother’s Day [card] that I had written when I was in college. “On the day that you became a mother,” I’d written to Mom, “I entered life to mirror your life through my eyes.” That seemed to suggest that I viewed my role as the teller of her story as a kind of existential mission, and the implication that I felt destined or purposed to take it on struck me as astonishing.

All the same, I can’t really claim that it was difficult to delve into my parents’ lives – and here I’m assuming you mean emotionally – because most of the personal aspects of the book involved things that were already quite familiar to me. There were difficult periods in the past in our experience as a family.

But in terms of researching and writing the book, the painful part derived from my deep regret that I could not discuss it with my father. In thinking hard about my parents’ marriage, I probably came to view his side of things with more understanding and empathy than I ever had before, and I desperately wished I could express that to him. It was surely not the easiest thing for him to co-exist with an idealized romantic rival as a constant presence in my mother’s heart. I see that now.

Q: Your family seems very close-knit. What did your mother and other family members think about your taking on this project?

A: For the most part, they were supportive and encouraging. I think they were also a bit surprised to find how deeply and extensively I would choose to research and describe the wartime context in which my mother’s tale unfolded – that I would personally want to travel to every place involved and track down so many of the participants who had figured in different episodes. My mother – by nature somewhat uncomfortable as the center of attention – has since said half-jokingly that she loves the book, but wishes that the main protagonist were someone other than herself!

Q: When you were growing up, did your mother often tell stories about her experiences during the war, and did you think back then about what Roland might be doing?

A: My mother told me stories for as far back as I can remember. Indeed, growing up in a neighborhood of northern Manhattan so full of German-Jewish refugees that it was informally dubbed the Fourth Reich, I learned that many of our neighbors were people my mother or her parents had known in Germany. Among them, for instance, was a Hebrew schoolteacher who had terrified her in childhood. 

But knowing that my mother had come to New York from a land called France across the ocean, as a very young child I earnestly believed that a radio tower I could see across the Hudson River on the Palisades in New Jersey was actually the famed Eiffel Tower in Paris. The truth eventually came as a memorable disappointment to me. Regarding Roland, I always pestered her as to why she never tried to find him, but since she felt that he’d abandoned her, she always brushed off such suggestions as impossible.

Q: What surprised you most when you returned to the places where your mother had grown up and spent the first years of the war?

A: Our first trip to Germany in 1989 was amazing from the start, because I’d never imagined that my mother would agree to travel back there. When she learned that the mayor of her birthplace of Freiburg was inviting Jewish former residents for visits of reconciliation, her suggestion that we participate was the first time she’d ever shown any inclination to return. 

Going with her then, I was profoundly moved to meet so many Germans who carried the legacy of the Nazi years as a burden of their own and were eager to extend themselves in welcome. In Freiburg, I was charmed by the beauty of the town and fascinated to see the places that were the backdrop of my mother’s stories, especially the stately house at Poststrasse 6 that had been her family’s home.  

Of course the synagogue that she’d described to me was gone, because like so many throughout Germany, it had been burned to the ground on Kristallnacht in 1938. But my grandfather’s former business was still there, just across the street from the family’s former home, as was the hotel next door, exactly as my mother had described.

My greatest surprise involved becoming friends with Michael Stock, the grandson of the hotel’s late proprietor, who had taken over my grandparents’ home in 1938 with an eye to enlarging the hotel. Michael genuinely welcomed us to tour the house and later came to visit my parents in New Jersey, experiencing his first Passover Seder at their table. 

All the same, his own mother, still living at Poststrasse 6 in Freiburg, continued to display on her bedroom wall a certificate from a 1934 Hitler Youth track meet, complete with Nazi swastikas. And so I was fascinated to explore a country where the generations were confronting a terrifying past in such complex and varied ways.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: After finishing the book, I first got busy narrating the audio version, which was challenging, making sure I got the right pronunciation for words in French, German, and Spanish. Since publication, I’ve done a lot of traveling around the country on book tours, and it has been great and gratifying to meet readers who tell me how much they enjoyed the book and gained new insight into the period of history that it describes. 

In preparation for the upcoming publication of an edition of Crossing the Borders of Time in France, I’ve also been engaged in retrieving all the letters, documents, and speeches that I’d translated from French to English, because the publishers in Paris wanted to use the French originals.  As to writing, I’m now working on an article about the book for the University of Chicago Magazine.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In research for the book I was reminded of the adage that the truth is often stranger than fiction.  There were aspects of the story – things that happened beyond my mother’s knowledge or after she left Europe – that were astounding and unpredictable. Things I would never have invented because they would have seemed improbable. After spending years as an investigative reporter for The New York Times, I discovered once again my own unquenchable zest for chasing down the facts of things. That was truly fun for me. 

It’s also been a marvel since the book was published to hear from strangers in my mother’s past: a man of 80 in Freiburg whose father had worked for my grandfather, for example, or a relative of a German soldier who had wanted to marry my mother in order to save her life after the French surrendered in 1940. We even rediscovered a branch of the family in Lyon whose postwar whereabouts had been unknown to us and have reestablished contact through reunions. So crossing borders of time is a journey that’s continuing.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

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