Saturday, February 29, 2020

Q&A with Barbara L. Baer

Barbara L. Baer is the author of the new novel The Ice Palace Waltz. Her other books include The Last Devadasi and The Ballet Lover. She lives in Sonoma County, California.

Q: How much was The Ice Palace Waltz based on your own family history?

A: Yes, Ice Palace was entirely based on my family story as much as I knew and could recover from remembered stories, letters and newspaper articles that recorded business in Leadville, Colorado, marriages, deaths.

If I'd been a wiser granddaughter, I'd have asked the one grandparent I really knew, June in the novel, so many more questions about her love and marriage and loss of her young husband. My mother, Margie in the novel, always told me stories about her mother, Tillie in the novel, but I didn't know that grandmother.

I was fascinated by the contrast between the grandmothers, the one so upright and serious, the other frivolous and full of fun. I imagined, made up, a great deal because I really wanted the characters to have fuller lives than what I knew.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I did lots of research, whether about Leadville and NYC, or more general social, economic and political history. I loved details such as the abiding presence of Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions we think about today.

When I first went to Leadville decades ago, the synagogue Temple Israel was in total disrepair--tenants had trashed the little building and it was abandoned.

A New York hippie, Bill Korn, who came to the Rockies to be a ski bum in the 1970s, ended up deeply involved in recovering Leadville's Jewish history and has restored Temple Israel into a gem of a shul with glorious colors and intimacy and warmth, as well as restoring the graveyard where Jews are relatives as well.

This summer, I'll go there, attend a service, present The Ice Palace Waltz, take part in the graveyard maintenance, and meet descendants of Leadville's Jews. I'm in for surprises, I'm sure!

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

A: "The Ice Palace Waltz" comes from that astonishing ice structure where my grandmother told me she'd first danced with her love. It was certainly a magical place and night for her.

The actual Ice Palace was a dream of renewal, of salvation, for the town, but as we know from history and I recount in the novel, an early thaw melted its walls and dashed hopes for attracting visitors.

What's fascinated me was both the actual ice marvel, heavy blocks layered hundreds of feet high, and the airiness, the fairy tale of the imagination that inspired it.

Q: How did you decide on the novel's structure, which stretches over several decades?

A: I started really thinking of about writing The Ice Palace Waltz after the 2008 financial meltdown. The structure, the plot, came easily once I centered the turning points around the financial disaster of 1907 and to a lesser degree, 1929, that affected my family.

I followed the family story in its larger outline while using my imagination to fill out the characters.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've had published three novels before The Ice Palace Waltz (all small presses) set in places where I lived when I was younger: living and teaching in the former USSR; deep interest in dance, both ballet (London and NYC) and Indian classical dance from my time living and teaching in Madras, India.

I always wrote short stories and essays and travel pieces as well, so I plan to gather what I want to keep and collect into a book.

I also had a small press for years (Floreant Press) and published regional women writers as well as a few other titles; with one ISBN left, I hope to bring together a wonderful group of women who were part of two early collections and put out one last book of our writings, two decades later.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Transforming family history, more or less facts, into fiction turned out to be a great pleasure for me. I lived inside my forebears through imagining them, bringing them to life. This was a gift I didn't know I'd be given when I started writing The Ice Palace Waltz.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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