Sunday, April 15, 2018

Q&A with Debra Dean

Debra Dean, photo by Robert Zuckerman
Debra Dean is the author of the new book Hidden Tapestry: Jan Yoors, His Two Wives, and the War That Made Them One. Her other books include the novels The Madonna of Leningrad and The Mirrored World. She is on the faculty of the creative writing program at Florida International University, and she lives in Miami.

Q: How did you first learn of the story of Jan Yoors and his family, and why did you decide to write this as nonfiction rather than fiction?

A: A good friend of mine, Mitchell Kaplan, and I were standing in his bookstore one day and he said, “I’ve got your next book.” People say this to authors a lot, and it’s never, ever true – except this once. Mitchell’s sister is a documentary filmmaker and had met Marianne and Annabert Yoors when she was researching a film on polygamy. He started telling me this amazing story, and I was hooked.

My previous work has all been fiction and my novels—The Madonnas of Leningrad and The Mirrored World—are historical fiction, so it’s reasonable to expect that I would fictionalize this story as well. But in historical fiction, the fiction is created in the gaps between history, those blank areas where we no longer know what happened and so are free to invent.

In this case, though, there weren’t many gaps. I had almost more source material than I knew what to do with. Of the three subjects, Jan had written two memoirs and had given scores of interviews, Annabert had kept diaries from the time she was a young child, and Marianne is still alive and was willing to answer all my questions.

They had also saved thousands of pages of letters and ephemera—family photographs, false passports, newspaper clippings, invitations, and the like. Sure, I could have still made up scenes and invented dialogue, but something about that felt not quite kosher.

The other reason I chose to write it as non-fiction is that the story is so incredible that I didn’t think anyone would accept it as fiction. The adage that truth is stranger than fiction is relevant here: with fiction, readers expect an ordered construct where the world makes a kind of internal sense. But real life is messy and full of coincidence and inexplicable mystery.    

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: I read volumes of material that are in the Yoors Family archives, and I conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with the surviving spouse, as well as others who knew them. And then, to be able to put their story in context, I had to bone up on everything from the history of tapestry to the Hunger Winter in Holland during World War II to Greenwich Village bohemians and Andy Warhol.

It’s hard to isolate one thing that particularly surprised me because so much of the Yoors’ story is astonishing.

But one question that came up for me and has subsequently troubled readers of the book is that Jan’s parents allowed him as a 12-year-old child to basically run off and travel Europe with a family of Gypsies. It seems like incredibly lax parenting to say the least.

In his memoirs and in countless interviews, Jan presented the story of his leaving home with the Gypsies as a kind of accidental lark, but in the course of researching we found in his first wife’s diaries one sentence that referred to him having been molested by a priest and the suggestion that this is what he was actually running away from.

And this leads me to wonder if his parents might have known about the abuse. Is this why they were so strangely tolerant of his going? Jan is dead, Annabert is dead, it’s one of those unsolvable mysteries that they took to their graves. If this were a novel, I would be free to invent an answer and solve the mystery. Ah, well.

Q: How well known were the Yoors during the years they lived in New York, and what did people think of their polyamorous lifestyle?

A: Jan Yoors was never famous, but he was well-known by museum directors and architects and other people in the business. The Yoors hosted big parties at their studio that were attended by lots of names in the art world, as well as people from diplomatic circles and all the different cultures that Jan moved through.

He was also something of a cult figure, especially after his first memoir, The Gypsies, came out. Around the Village, the three of them were recognizable figures.

But the polyamory was a closely guarded secret, and not even their friends knew. Jan was legally married to Annabert, and Marianne was introduced as her sister. Later, when Marianne became pregnant and had a child, Jan divorced Annabert and married Marianne so their son could be legitimate. From that point forward, she was introduced as the wife and Annabert became the sister-in-law.

I think it’s evidence of what a master Jan was of sleight-of-hand and misdirection. People either didn’t notice the change or they wrote it off as their own confusion. Then, too, it was Greenwich Village, so people didn’t really care so much who was sleeping with whom.

Q: How was the book's title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: Titles are usually a negotiation between the author and the publisher, and I’ve only had one title that didn’t come at the end of a long string of other possibilities.

That said, Hidden Tapestry is very apt as a title because so much of their lives were spent in hiding of one kind or another. They were literally tapestry makers, but the book is also constructed like a tapestry, weaving together their three individual stories and the threads of their wartime and post-war lives.

The subtitle of the book is “Jan Yoors, His Two Wives, and the War That Made Them One.” That last part is significant because I came to believe that there was this very particular set of circumstances that allowed them to invent an alternate marital relationship.

It came out of trauma and the fragmenting of their families of origin. Both women lost their mothers when they were young children and then the war further undid those families and any sense of security or normalcy. It’s not unusual for people who have experienced war to begin to question the rules of their society and to choose to live as they please rather than according to the dictates of the old world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve started something but it’s still in the first trimester, so I’m not talking about it yet.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There’s lots more inside Hidden Tapestry–it’s such a multi-layered story—but I won’t spoil it. Instead, I’ll take this opportunity to send people to my website and Facebook page. There’s more there. I enjoy talking with readers and book clubs, and I’ll be curious to hear their thoughts about this new book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Debra Dean.

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