Saturday, November 16, 2019

Q&A with Jennifer Cody Epstein

Jennifer Cody Epstein, photo by Julie Brown
Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of the novel Wunderland. She also has written The Painter from Shanghai and The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal and Vogue. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: You write that Wunderland was inspired in part by a piece in The New Yorker. What was the article about, and how did it lead to this book?

A: It was a 2013 article that my husband happened upon in The New Yorker, about a new U.S. translation of a somewhat obscure German book.

The article--by a U.S. writer who was also the publisher/editor of that translation (Helen Epstein, of Plunkett Lake Press) --recounted how Melita Maschmann, a former Hitler Youth enthusiast, had in her 1963 memoir Account Rendered written an intimate account of her rise and fall as a national socialist.

It's a confessionary account that takes the shape of a long letter to Maschmann’s childhood best friend, a girl who found herself classified as a Mischling--"mixed-race"--under Hitler’s race laws at roughly the same time Maschmann joined the girl’s branch of the Hitler Youth. 

That story sparked both my interest and my imagination.

I’d known for years that I wanted to write about the Holocaust—not about the monstrous mechanics of the Final Solution (so many other authors have already done that, some far better than I could hope to), but something that would explore the individual choices people made at that time; choices that might have seemed logical or mundane in the moment, but which could ultimately have had a devastating and deadly impact.

At that point I hadn’t really read any historical accounts that shed light on those kinds of experiences. But in both the New Yorker piece and, when I read it, Account Rendered I spotted the seeds of the kind of story I wanted to tell, and the rough trajectories that my book’s two central characters might take in order to explore those themes.

From there sprang Ilse and Renate: two young German girls caught up in the madness of Hitler’s Germany, but in very different ways, as Renate has her life destroyed by the Nuremburg laws, while Ilse rises to the Hitler Youth’s highest ranks.

Since I was also interested in understanding the impact of those kinds of choices on the next generation, I created a third character: Ava, Ilse’s estranged daughter who has fled Germany to live in New York and uncovers the secret of her mother’s hidden history after Ilse’s death

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I researched primarily by reading as widely as I could; mainly memoirs and first-hand accounts.

I probably read dozens of books in the end, but a few that were particularly helpful in addition to Maschmann's memoir were Victor Klemperer's I Will Bear Witness (a meticulous account of how the Nuremberg laws impacted daily Jewish life between 1933 and 1939, written by a German Jew from Dresden), Alison Owens' Frauen (a collection of extraordinarily frank interviews with German women who had lived through National Socialism), Marion Kaplan's Between Dignity and Despair and Erica Fisher's Aimee and Jaguar. A Woman in Berlin, an anonymous memoir written by a survivor of the Soviet invasion/occupation directly following the war's end, was also pretty illuminating. 

Actually, apart from the horrific event of the Holocaust itself (which never ceases to shock me, no matter how much I read or hear about it), the chilling details of the Soviet occupation of Germany surprised me a lot.

I hadn't read or even heard before about the months immediately following Germany's surrender, during which Soviet troops rampaged through the country pillaging, looting and systematically raping millions of German females, including children and the elderly.

It's an extraordinarily brutal but strangely little-known chapter of the war that A Woman in Berlin evokes very powerfully. 

Q: The novel is told from three characters' perspectives, and jumps around in time over a half century. Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: I more or less wrote them the way they appear, though Ava's character and storyline changed quite a bit as I got into the story.

I also ended up flipping her timeline around. I'd started having it unfold chronologically, like Ilse's and Renate's, but it felt too repetitive thematically that way (you'd read about Ilse and Renate as schoolgirls, then Ava as a schoolgirl 20 years later, for instance--different storylines but essentially the same setting).

Because of that I made Ava's narrative unfold in reverse, starting with her as an adult in New York in the 1980s and then "unwinding" to her first meeting with her mother Ilse at a Bremen orphanage after the war.

My hope in structuring it this way was to create more texture and tension with the Ilse/Ava narratives, and also build more effectively towards the novel's (somewhat biggish) reveal at the end. 

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

A: I actually try to avoid telling readers what to take away from my work, simply because what I love about reading is how deeply personal and subjective an experience it is.

If I had to name something, though, I guess it'd be that they find in Wunderland as readers what I did as a writer--an opportunity to consider the roots and repercussions of the Holocaust from angles they might not have considered before. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another historical novel, only this one is set in 19th century Paris at what was then Europe's (and possibly the world's) largest insane asylum for women. There as some pretty wild stuff that went down there in the 1880s, particularly as relates to a mysterious ailment was then being diagnosed at epidemic rates: hysteria. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jennifer Cody Epstein.

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