Monday, February 27, 2023

Q&A with Pam Jenoff




Pam Jenoff is the author of the new historical novel Code Name Sapphire, which is set during World War II. Her many other novels include The Lost Girls of Paris. She also teaches at Rutgers Law School, and she lives near Philadelphia.


Q: What inspired you to write Code Name Sapphire, and how did you create your characters Hannah, Lily, and Micheline?


A: I’ve been writing books set during World War II and the Holocaust for more than 25 years. I’m always looking for an untold piece of history which I can illuminate through fiction. Here, it was the true story of the attempt to liberate prisoners from a train headed for Auschwitz. As soon as I heard this, I knew I had found the inspiration for my next book.


Although in real life, the actual rescuers were men, I created Hannah because so often the roles of women in history were untold and I wanted to explore what it would be like to face this dilemma as a woman.


And I wanted the prisoners to have a close personal connection to Hannah, so I created Lily and her family. Through them, I could show the experience of “ordinary Belgian Jews” who considered themselves so assimilated that they did not think anything would happen to them – until it was too late.


Finally, no story of World War II Belgium could be complete without recognizing the courageous work done by escape lines to get downed Allied airmen and others out of Occupied Europe. Micheline and the line she runs, The Sapphire Line, are fictitious, but they were inspired by The Comet Line and its real-life female leader, Andree.


Q: The writer Sarah Penner called the book “A heart-wrenching exploration of the decisions women must make when their loyalties are put to the test in the most unimaginable of circumstances.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love it! One of my goals in writing historical fiction is to show that history is not made up of battles and decrees, but of an infinite number of individual decisions. So many of these decisions presented epic conflict for those who were torn between saving their loved ones, acting for the greater good, etc. 


I think that Sarah’s quote captures beautifully the way that this plays out in Code Name Sapphire.


Q: How did you research this novel?


A: Historical research for me always involves a wide range of sources, including memoirs, correspondence, periodicals, photographs, etc. For Code Name Sapphire, there was one nonfiction book in particular called The Twentieth Train, which was a wonderful source of information.


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


A: I always hope that my readers will put themselves in the shoes of my protagonist(s) and ask themselves, “What would I have done in these circumstances?”


Also, in my books, characters from very different walks of life come together and help one another. If readers can see characters transcending that otherness, my hope is that they will feel less of the division that is so present in our world today.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: It’s a little early to say much, but I can tell you that it involves a story during World War II, a story after the war, and a mysterious object that connects them both.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just thank you! And I hope readers will reach out to me via email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to let me know what they think of Code Name Sapphire.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Pam Jenoff.

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