Friday, July 11, 2008

Author Interview: Joanna Hershon

Yesterday, I posted a review of a terrific new book called THE GERMAN BRIDE by Joanna Hershon. Not only was this book fascinating, but I also thought it was beautifully written. I am so fortunate that Ms. Hershon took time from her very busy life to answer a few questions for me.

Booking Mama: The story behind THE GERMAN BRIDE is very interesting to me and quite unique – a young German Jewish girl marries and moves to 1860’s New Mexico. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Joanna Hershon: Years ago I was at a barbeque in Massachusetts and a friend of mine-- who has no connection to his Judaism-- made the off-handed comment: My ancestors were Jewish Cowboys, and I was instantly intrigued. When he mentioned that he'd recently learned that his great-great-grandmother was a famous tormented ghost, haunting a posh hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and that his great-great-grandfather had carted a piano across the plains for his bride, I was convinced I'd found my next novel. My friend's family anecdotes seemed like a perfect creative springboard, especially because I've always been fascinated with both the Jewish Diaspora and the American West, and I spent years meticulously researching Jewish pioneers, but what was striking --though not at all surprising -- was the lack of women's experience on record. We all know the frontier woman -- so brave and plucky and resourceful -- but what about those women who might have not been so brave? Who might not have had the best attitude on the prairie? Women who may have had secret, and perhaps less-than-noble reasons for having to travel across the world? The story was ultimately born out of questions -- questions about exile and desire.

Booking Mama: I would definitely classify this book as historical fiction. What type of research (and how much) did you conduct while writing THE GERMAN BRIDE?

Joanna Hershon: I researched for years and never really stopped. I read every book I could find about Jewish Pioneers, also many about the American Southwest. I read about Jews in Germany, about Bishop Lamy and the nuns who lived in Santa Fe. I read about the culture of the sickroom, about slang and fashion and favorite snacks and plumbing issues and personal hygeine in America during the in the 19th Century. At The Leo Baeck Institute in New York, I found personal artifacts from that time-- diaries, cookbooks, calling cards, photographs-- and held them in my hands, marveling at how they'd once belonged in someone's drawer or on someone's mantel. I walked the streets of Santa Fe, watching how the light played on the adobe buildings, taking in where people had lived, how certain figures I'd read about turned out to be neighbors. Being in Santa Fe and taking in the details of the land and the light-- this was some of the most important research.

Booking Mama: Your books seem to have recurring themes of sibling love as well as loss. Why do you think you write about these issues?

Joanna Hershon: I am always interested in how authors do tend to write on similar themes even when the stories are so different and I definitely recognize how I do come back to family as my fascination, specifically siblings. I am always fascinated by siblings and how people can be so different, while raised in such close proximity. As for loss... well... Joan Didion once said that all writers are born with a presentiment of loss and in my experience this seems to be true.

Booking Mama: I loved this sentence on page 209: "She never asked what she wondered now: If, when undertaking the supremely private act of reading, he searched for comfort or instruction or if -- like she did -- he searched for escape." I think this statement sums up extremely well the reasons why people read. Why do you read?

Joanna Hershon: I am like Eva in that regard. While I certainly read to cultivate knowledge, I do love to escape, or at least to explore. Ideally, I learn as I do so. And I'm glad you like that sentence. Thank you.

Booking Mama: I don’t want to give anything away, but this book deals with many heart-breaking situations for Eva. Is it difficult to write about so much sadness?

Joanna Hershon: It can be very difficult to write about such pain and hardship. Some passages are still difficult for me to read. However, exploring these situations and emotions can also be cathartic, even edifying.

Booking Mama: I think this book would be an excellent choice for book clubs. Is there any chance that Ballantine will come up with a reading guide in the near future?

Joanna Hershon: Ballantine has a wonderful paperback program called Ballantine Readers Circle. My two previous novels, SWIMMING, and THE OUTSIDE OF AUGUST are both published by Ballantine and have interviews and readers guides in the back of the book and, to the best of my knowledge, the paperback edition of THE GERMAN BRIDE will also have these features.

Booking Mama: I notice that you write short stories/essays as well as novels. Which do you prefer writing?

Joanna Hershon: I've always naturally gravitated toward writing fiction and once I wrote my first novel, I became somewhat addicted to the scope and sprawl of novel-writing, but if a story comes to me, I just love writing stories. Writing the essay "Bridges" for the wonderful literary anthology BROOKLYN WAS MINE, was a totally new experience in that-- besides some book reviews-- I hadn't published non-fiction work before and I found the experience really satisfying. Combining research and a personal history is something I'd enjoy tackling again.

Booking Mama: You teach at Columbia and are the mother of twin boys. As a mother of two, I don't know how you do it all. How long did it take you to write this book? What’s a typical day like for you?

Joanna Hershon: Ah-- the balancing act. It is a tricky business. I finished a draft of THE GERMAN BRIDE while I was on bed rest during my pregnancy and when our sons were six months old, I joined a writer's cooperative (essentially a membership to a silent room with desks and lamps!) and set about rewriting. The writing of THE GERMAN BRIDE took about five years, maybe more, including research. As for a typical day, it really changes depending on the work I'm doing. During the week, I work four days and then spend three full-time with our sons. On Monday through Thursday, it is easier to describe what life is like when I am deep into my writing, which goes something like: hang out with my children until nine am, yoga, eat something and then go to the Writers Space in Park Slope, where I write from around 12:30 until 5:30. That is an ideal day. Sometimes I don't make it to yoga. Sometimes life intrudes in the way it inevitably does, but ideally, that is my day. Now when I'm doing more administrative work-- emails, phonecalls, etc. or I'm teaching, which I do (usually one class at Columbia University each fall) the days can vary greatly.

Booking Mama: I always ask this question because I think it tells so much about someone (and I’m always looking for book recommendations) – who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?

Joanna Hershon: This is a great question but always difficult for me to answer somehow. I think my favorite books depend so much on when I read them. Michael Cunningham was very influential for me, especially his book Flesh and Blood. Also Sophie's Choice by William Styron, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer, Endless Love by Scott Spencer, Americal Pastoral by Philip Roth...I really admire Jhumpa Lahiri's writing... this is all in no particular order and off the top of my head!

Booking Mama: What do you want your readers to take away from THE GERMAN BRIDE?

Joanna Hershon: I suppose I'd like readers to broaden their ideas of who is Jewish, and what that means, and to also experience the American West in-- hopefully-- a new way. I hope readers will appreciate the contribution that Jews made in Santa Fe, NM and elsewhere in 19th Century America. Also, I don't want to spoil the book for anyone, but I'll just say that the last moment of the book-- who is there, and the questions they raise-- is very important to me.


Cheryl said...

Great interview. I liked reading how Joanna first got introduced to the idea of this book

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Great questions and answers here! I was already intrigued by this book and this interview has me hooked. Luckily it's already on my TBR list. :)

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading this interview and your review in the previous post. Now I can't wait to read the book!