Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Q&A with Gwen Strauss

Gwen Strauss is the author of The Hiding Game, a picture book for children about the work of her great-uncle and others who helped Jewish refugees escape from the Nazis during World War II. Her other work includes Ruth and the Green Book and The Night Shimmy, and she has written for various publications including The New Republic and the London Sunday Times. She lives in Southern France.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your great-uncle’s work during World War II, and how much had you known about it as you were growing up?

A: Growing up, in a family that had many war heroes, but not a lot of talk about what had actually happened to them during the war, I heard just vague references from my grandmother about her brother’s bravery.

There were a lot of artists around my grandmother who were “friends of Danny’s during the war.” One of my grandmother’s closest friends was Max Ernst, for example. Ernst was someone Danny [Bénédite] helped save and later introduced to his sister.

I learned more about my great uncle Danny when I moved to Paris in my mid-20s and I learned enough French to read his book, La filiere marseillaise, which is a rather dry account of what Varian Fry and the rescue committee did to save lives in 1940-41.

It’s also about the early organizations that would form the Resistance, and the world of refugees desperate to get out of the closing Gestapo net.

I met Danny a few times in Paris, but sadly he died only a few years after I moved there. (I probably met him many times as a child, but the huge loud French family kind of blurred.)

In my 20s in Paris, I became interested in his life. He killed himself when he started to feel the oncoming Parkinson’s take away his mental and physical health. I thought it was powerful that he was so determined to choose the manner of his death. He fascinated me as a character at that stage. 

There was also a tragic love story, which held my focus. And there are other more adult parts of Danny’s story that I hope someday to write about.

What set me off to write a children’s book was one particular visit to the U.S. Embassy in Marseille to renew my children’s passports. Right there in the lobby is a huge photograph of Danny. I just started to enthusiastically tell my kids, “That’s your great great Uncle Danny!  He was a hero!” They were embarrassed that I was being too loud.

But I realized they didn’t know the story, and as I tried to tell it to them, I realized I needed to learn more. I have written several other children’s books and so the thought just came then: there’s got to be a good children’s book here.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

A: I did a LOT of research. I knew the basic story but I started to read all the books I could find on the subject. Books by Varian Fry, by Danny, but also other people who were with them at the time.

And I read more recent historical books about Fry, the rescue committee, and the refugee situation in Vichy France. I have a whole bookshelf of books and documents. I went to a few symposiums and lectures in Marseille. I talked to family members. I contacted Aube Breton.

I found a strange series of coincidences around this research. I had moved to the south of France for my professional work. I run an artist residency program in the historic Dora Maar House. Aube wrote me that she visited that house many times as a little girl—she asked me if there were still so many scorpions-- (there aren’t). 

Her mother Jacqueline Lamda and Dora Maar were close friends. As I read I saw that many of the artists that Danny and Varian hid, they hid in my village and in the villages all around me. 

The names of the characters are all around me, every day. I was inside the history in a way I wasn’t when first reading Danny’s book in Paris. It’s really a story of this region and suddenly this is my home. So that made it all the more compelling. 

I love research, and I could just do it all the time. But at some point I have to start writing. And that’s when it got difficult. I spent almost as much time crafting a story for children. I knew I couldn’t tell the whole story—I didn’t want to—but I had to find some window into a part of it.

The right structure to fit the format of a picture book. Aube and the Villa were a perfect small peek into the world of the rescue committee. It took a lot of rewriting. Children’s picture books have pretty rigid limitations, in page and word count, and vocabulary etc. So the story has to be honed carefully.

I am grateful to several editors along the way. I had to adjust the story- to make some of it fiction. For example, the real Aube called her mother and father by their first names. They were surrealist artists and non-conventional. So she did not call them maman and papa—but the editors insisted as a children’s book Aube had to.

Q: What do you think Herb Leonhard’s illustrations add to the book?

A: Herb was chosen by the art director Janice Shay, who was very helpful to me in all the stages of this book. She worked closely with him as he developed the art—this was after the text was pretty much written. But occasionally seeing his illustrations I would suggest a change in the text.

I also had more experience with the “look” of the south of France so I sent him reference pictures and ideas as he was working out the sketches.

One reason I love doing children’s picture books is the joy I feel when an artist creates a picture based on my words and it takes the story so much further. It’s really magical. I stand in awe and amazement at how much better the pictures make the story! I love the color palette and the sketchy way he approached the subject.

Part of the challenge of writing a children’s picture book is to structure a story arc that will make each spread have a dynamic “illustratable” moment. But sometimes a spread just isn’t that dynamic, it may be more subtle or emotional. Then I don’t know how the artist will show it.

Herb was able to make those more subtle moments visible, such as when Aube is thinking about the people in the camps and she’s worried about the cold and the snow.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: I think that when you write for children, mostly you want to spark their curiosity, to get them to ask more questions.

As I began working on this story the refugee crisis around the world exploded. The last time there was a crisis of this size was World War II, though now, I think the numbers are much greater.

The majority of the world’s refugees are under 18. They are children. The current refugee crisis IS a children’s story. I want the children who read this book to have a way into imagining what that might mean to be a refugee, to be fleeing for your life. To start to ask themselves, How would I feel?  What would I do?

I also feel that Varian Fry is an unlikely hero. He was a Latin teacher. He simply saw something that he knew was wrong and decided to do everything he could to help.

He knew about the death camps. He was the first person in America to publish an article talking about the Final Solution in the New Republic. He was ignored.

He also did what he knew was right against the odds, against the wishes of his friends and supporters, against the demands of his country—he broke the law, because the law was unjust. And he saved over 2000 lives.

His good deeds were largely unrecognized in his lifetime.  In fact when he returned home from France the office of the Rescue Committee in New York fired him. He had done too much, they said. He was too pushy.

I really am moved by his moral imperative. Why is someone like that? What makes a person behave that way? What would I do?

Finally I really loved the artists’ response to fascism, terror, and fear mongering.  There is this idea that art is irrelevant in extreme times, that in extremity people think only of food and shelter.

But I don’t think that’s completely true. What Breton and the surrealists illustrated by their Sunday games, and with their insistence on maintaining their creative lives, was that fear could not possess them. They would remain free in spirit.

And that freedom expressed itself in collective joy and laughter. The authoritarian destructive Nazi machine would not break them. (Even in the camps, there are accounts again and again of people coming together to create poems, songs, paintings, and theater.)

I hope the children become curious about these artists. At a few of the readings I’ve done we have played Cadavre Esquise. Children love the freedom of collective drawings.

I think the artists in this story show the way out of darkness, artists are our leaders against totalitarianism. They show that fear can’t stop us from living fully creative joyous lives. We live in extreme times, so how should we keep hope alive? How do we maintain our humanity?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have gotten stuck in the World War II period. Danny married a women named Helene many decades after the war (he divorced his wife Theo soon after the war). Helene was arrested by the Gestapo at age 21, tortured, water boarded, beaten, and sent to a series of concentration camps. Three years later, she escaped with eight other women.

This past winter I retraced their escape route with my daughter. I had interviewed Helene about her story before she died. One of the women wrote a very short book about it, which I discovered a few years later.

Another woman wrote an article in Elle—but it was published in the 60s, and I only recently found it online. And there’s a ten-minute documentary of one of the women. So out of the nine women, I had found four points of view of this same escape story.

I also only knew the names of these four women, but I knew the nicknames of all nine. So slowly with research, and with the help of the German historians we visited at the camps in Leipzig and Buchenwald, I have been able to discover the identities of seven maybe even eight of the nine women.

Each one of them has her own amazing story. They were all young, beautiful, and politically active in the resistance. They had spent at least two years in harrowing conditions of the camps. They had all been tortured, etc. They were starving and traumatized. And they were able to escape and survive together because of their tough friendship. 

I am writing about this and thinking about it. It won’t be for children. I am not yet sure what format it will be: novel, essay, or script. But the process is really so wonderful. I am thinking a lot about friendship and how essential it is, and was for these women. 

But also how differently from men, groups of women organize themselves and behave together. I think this helped women survive longer in the camps. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am working on the above project about the nine women, but I often work on several projects in tandem. So I am also working out a simple children’s picture book about a girl and her dog. 

And I am working on a Young Adult novel, which is a thriller ghost story, set in the medieval town next door, Lacoste. This is where the ruins of the chateau of the Marquis de Sade are. So for this story I am researching the violent periods of French history from the Dark Ages to the Revolution.

Provence, where I live, is an idyllic bucolic place that is also absolutely steeped in a bloody violent past. I’m kind of exploring that contradiction for young adults!

Here's a link to a video about The Hiding Game

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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