Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Q&A with Tara Ison




Tara Ison is the author of the new historical novel At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf, which takes place during World War II. Her other books include the story collection Ball, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Tin House and O. She is Professor of Fiction at Arizona State University.


Q: What inspired you to write At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf, and how did you create your character Danielle/Marie-Jeanne?


A: The inspiration comes from my stepmother – when I was 12, I learned she was a hidden child in WWII Hungary, and ever since I’ve been intrigued by what that experience must have felt like.


She was only 5 at the time, and remembers very few details: the coldness of the water in the church font; the man she was living with taking her to the beer hall in the evening and sitting on his knee; learning new Catholic prayers and a new name (which she has forgotten.)


Her caretakers were kind to her, but she clearly remembers being told not to cry, ever, and never to talk to a policeman – even at 5 she felt the pressure of this, of not making a mistake. She was fortunate to lead a relatively safe experience; when the war ended her mother found her, and eventually they emigrated to America.


But it isn’t my stepmother’s story at all. I changed the setting from Hungary to France – a history and culture I was more familiar with.


And I wanted my character, Danielle, to be an adolescent, as I think that’s already a developmental stage fraught with anxiety over identity; at 12 she’s old enough to struggle with the psychological complexities of living a dual identity, and to understand what is at stake – while not fully understanding herself, or the larger implication of her own behavior and choices. (I’m just realizing now – Danielle begins at the same age I was when I learned about my stepmother’s history…)


In the beginning Danielle is a rather spoiled and selfish young girl, very secular, cosmopolitan, and comfortably shielded by her loving parents from the horror of what is happening - but after her father is killed on a Paris street by Germans in the early days of the Occupation, and her mother “leaves her” with Catholic farmers in a small southern village, her trauma begins, and she has to struggle for ways to psychologically, then literally, survive.


The irony is that in a way, as she becomes Marie-Jeanne over the course of the novel, she becomes more loving and self-sacrificing – while at the same time, through the influence of extremist right-wing propaganda, gradually transforming into a rigidly devout Catholic, and an anti-Semitic fascist. I wanted to explore how that transformation can happen.


And we’re seeing the rise of this ideology all over again, now. I didn’t set out to write a political novel, but I’ve realized how disturbingly timely it was.


Q: As you mentioned, the novel is set in World War II-era France--how did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: So much research, yes! Fortunately, I love research – it’s often more fun than writing, for me, but I can still tell myself I’m “working on the book.”  Plus, you never know what you might find.


I thought I knew a great deal about collaborationist Vichy France – but as I read histories of WWII France I was stunned to learn the extent of that collaboration.


For example, the French Police began rounding up Jews for deportation before the Nazis even asked them to, in order to prove their “loyalty” to the Germans, who they were sure were going to win the war and conquer the world. Or, initially, the French “definition” of who counted as Jewish was far more extreme and punitive than the Nazis’ – again, so the French could prove their loyalty by turning over as many Jews as possible. All of these things became important points in the book.


But I also realized how critical the setting in France was, in other ways; the country was virtually split in two, between those loyal to the Free French, French independence, the Resistance, and de Gaulle, and those who believed collaboration with Vichy, the puppet French government, was the only way to assure France would not be “conquered” in the same way as Poland, and that France would be able to walk “hand-in-hand: with their German friends. This national split in identity is very much what my character Danielle experiences.


I read shelves and shelves of books throughout the writing of the novel: histories of WWII France and the Occupation, books on Catholicism and Judaism (I’m Jewish, but not especially knowledgeable), and several studies of the psychology of hidden children.


Many have written memoirs or novels about their experiences, which are extremely varied – what these children went through relied on so many variable factors. There are also many documentaries and films that explore the topic. I wanted my story to honor the experience, but at the same time be unique in its dramatic circumstances, intention, and approach; I’ve never seen the story of a hidden child told in the way I’m doing.


I also traveled to France when I could – my reading comprehension in French is good enough that I could find the archives, libraries, and museums extremely useful. And actually visiting the area makes a difference; I’d read about the horrendous massacre of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, but it wasn’t until I walked through the preserved ruins that its power really hit me, and it became a critical part of the story.


But immersion in French life, breathing the air my characters breather, is also so important for those tiny sensual details that create verisimilitude and bring fiction alive: the feel of paving stones underfoot, the look of sunflowers curling at the end of the season, the quality of the light in a small French village.


Q: The writer Robert Olen Butler said of the book, “At the Hour Between Dog & Wolf is a thrilling novel, not just as a splendid read but as a deeply resonant work of art driven by the central yearning in the greatest literary narratives: the yearning for a self, for an identity, for a place in the world.” What do you think of that description, and what do you think the novel says about identity, particularly during wartime?


A: I’m so grateful for his generous comments on the novel – and I love his focus on home and identity, as this is the core theme of the story. I wanted to novel to capture how fragile identity is, especially during wartime.


The power of fascist ideology is that it starts by instilling fear – of the Other, of losing what you have, of losing your home, of your very identity being stripped of meaning. That fear can turn people into someone they may never have believed they could be, empowers people to do things they may never have thought themselves capable of.


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


A: In my head the book was just “The Hidden Child” for many years, until I came upon a French idiomatic expression: “entre chien et loup,” between dog and wolf, meaning twilight, or dusk. It immediately resonated for me, both its lyrical beauty but also the reference to transformation, the subtle shift from light to dark.


It’s very integrated into the novel – Danielle remembers spending Sundays with her father, how at twilight they would stop and look at the sky, and he’d ask her to tell him the exact moment the dog becomes the wolf – and those subtle shifts make it impossible. Just as Danielle’s psychological transformation into Marie-Jeanne is a slow, creeping process. So: At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Putting together a new collection of short stories, and a hybrid nonfiction project about my mother. Ready for a break from the novel form!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: We can’t forget. We can never forget.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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