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What Erika Dreifus Knows
January 24, 2011 - 3:45am

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I first met Erika Dreifus through her blog ,Practicing Writing, and e-newsletter, The Practicing Writer, both excellent resources on the craft and business of writing. In fact, my nonfiction book contract was the result of a query I made after reading a listing in her “Monday Morning Markets/Jobs/Opportunities.”

Erika’s first book of fiction, Quiet Americans, was published this month by Last Light Studio Books, “an independent, author-friendly cooperative micropress,” and I wanted to take this opportunity to talk with her about it.

Erika’s paternal grandparents were German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, and the seven stories in Quiet Americans reflect this legacy. A portion of sales will be donated to The Blue Card, which supports survivors in the U.S. of Nazi persecution.

Outside her full-time staff job at the City University of New York (CUNY), where her responsibilities include maintaining the Creative Writing at CUNY website, Erika is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and Fiction Writers Review and an advisory board member for J Journal: New Writing on Justice. She wrote the section on “Choosing a Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing” for the second edition of Tom Kealey’s Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008). She also maintains a second blog, My Machberet“the Hebrew word for notebook”—where she writes especially on Jewish literary news.

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Welcome, Erika, so nice to have you here, and congratulations on the new book! Tell us about Last Light Studio, which seems to me a good alternative in today’s uncertain publishing market.

Thank you so much, John! I’ve been a fan of The Education of Oronte Churm for a long time, and it’s an honor to be interviewed here.

Last Light Studio (LLS) could not have existed in any earlier publishing market. The publisher/editor-in-chief, Armand Inezian, is based in Boston, and already the authors in the cooperative stretch from coast to coast. We rely on the opportunities provided by e-mail (and GoogleGroups) to communicate, and the press depends on print-on-demand technology to publish the actual books.

LLS has certainly turned out to be a good alternative for me. I had pretty much given up on the possibility of ever seeing my collection in print by the time Armand contacted me and asked if I had a collection he might consider. (He knew about me/my work, by the way, because we’d interacted once upon a time on a blog, After the MFA.) Yet more evidence for the very contemporary nature of this particular enterprise.

And you’re currently on a “blog tour” to promote the book? That sounds awfully smart. Whose idea was that, and how’s it work? How else will you get the word out?

My blog tour was something I knew I’d do once it was definite that the book would, in fact, be published. But it’s not an idea that began with me. As a blogger, I’ve been approached to host “stops” on other authors’ “virtual book tours,” and that is how I first became familiar with the concept.

My own tour is quite blog-focused, but virtual tours can encompass a variety of online venues: Webcasts, podcasts, etc. The basic idea is that instead of traveling in person from one physical location (often a bookstore) to another, a "touring" writer follows an online itinerary and travels from one URL to another. The substance of each "site visit" can vary. Mine, for instance, are encompassing interviews like this one, as well as reviews of Quiet Americans written by host bloggers and, in a few cases, some guest posts of my own written with the host blog's specific audience in mind. Some authors plan their own virtual tours, but people do hire publicists or others to complete the behind-the-scenes work for them.

Since I announced my plans to coordinate my own tour, I have received a number of questions about how virtual tours work. For more guidance, I have pointed people here and here, among other places.

As for getting the word out, I do have a few “live” events planned. I’ll be in D.C. in early February for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference, and I’m happy to have scheduled an off-site reading there. I’ll be heading to Boston at the end of April/beginning of May. (Please check with my News & Events page for details/updates.)

But the combination of my holding a full-time, year-round, non-teaching university job and my publisher’s limited financial resources means that there’s neither time nor money for some of the traditional touring and advertising. Review copies have gone out to a number of print and online publications, and we’re beginning to see some nice results there.

Again, however, the Web’s power is proving essential. In addition to my “fan” page on Facebook, I’ve been sharing news about the book all through the pre-publication process with my blog’s readers. Then, in December, I offered three signed copies of the book on Goodreads: Nearly 900 people entered to win, which astonished and delighted me. (In fact, we’ve just launched a second Goodreads Giveaway, and anyone interested can enter here.) And, of course, I’m on Twitter, interspersing book news among my tweets.

The stories in your collection are sometimes continuations from one to the next. The baby born in Imperial Germany in one story escapes the Nazis in 1937 only to work, in the next story, in a prisoner of war camp for German soldiers in the United States during the war. Elsewhere there’s a motif of twins and other pairings, such as the men in the first and last stories who both hold envelopes with important information for long periods before opening them. With all this continuity, mirroring, and thematic descent, did you ever consider writing this book as a novel instead?

Well, that requires some backstory. Three of the stories in this collection—including “Lebensraum,” the story that takes place in the POW camp—I first wrote and workshopped as an MFA student. When I began my MFA program in 2001, I’d just signed with an agent to represent the novel I’d been working on for the previous five years. The agent was preparing to “shop” the novel, so at that point, I was reluctant to workshop chunks of it (besides, so much of the novel had been workshopped multiple times already).

But—and this was probably the most useful aspect of my MFA program—I was required to submit 8-25 pages of fiction every month for four semesters. Revised submissions of earlier work were acceptable on occasion, but we were encouraged to generate new work with the goal of having written the pages that would ultimately compose the thesis required for graduation.

At the time, I didn’t have an idea for a second novel (and, truthfully, there can be a lot of problems with workshopping novels). In any case, I fell quickly into a rhythm of writing new stories, although they weren’t all necessarily as connected as the ones that you’ve singled out. In retrospect, I might have attempted to create a book of “linked stories,” or a “novel-in-stories,” but that isn't how the project evolved.

I like your title a lot. But I’m still mulling how it echoes Greene. In his The Quiet American, Pyle is idealistic and naïve, a do-gooder who gets people killed, as viewed by a cynical and world-weary third party. In your book, the meaning lies in statements such as, “He almost said something else to her. Almost, he said something else.” And: “Later, maybe, he would explain…they named Michael Jacob for both his blessed grandfathers. The one died of diabetes. And the one died of Dachau. […] America. […] How much quiet. How much land.” What connotations did you intend with the title?

I’ve been dreading this question! (Just kidding! It’s wonderful to have an interviewer as smart and well read as you are!)

Says you.

The simple answer is that it may not echo Greene at all. Of course, I was aware of the Greene title and it had resonated with me, although I’ll admit that I was never particularly attached to the book.

But you’re a fiction writer, and I suspect that you will understand that I am telling you the absolute truth when I say that the title of one of the collection's stories, “The Quiet American, Or How to Be a Good Guest,” really, honestly, just came to me from that mysterious place where our past reading, associations, and imagination intersect.

I mentioned my MFA program earlier, and I said that three of the stories in Quiet Americans date back to that experience. In a sense, then, my MFA thesis was a very early iteration of this book. And the thesis bore the title of a story that I decided not to include in later versions: “The Unchosen.”

Then, for several years, I circulated the collection to agents, publishers, and contests as Reparation, after what was then the title story. When I removed “Reparation” from the manuscript, I obviously had to change the title again.

By then, I’d figured out what it seems to have taken you far less time to discern (again, I’m humbled by your reading skills): The characters and situations in this book often reflect a pressure of what is unspoken. I can add that I’d briefly considered titles from two other stories in the collection as the book title: “Lebensraum” and “Mishpocha,” because to me those two words similarly apply to the book as a whole. But it can be tricky to choose a word from another language when you are writing for Anglophone readers. Quiet Americans seemed both appropriate and understandable.

In “For Services Rendered,” the Jewish former pediatrician of Hermann Göring’s child, who’d been given warning to flee Germany by the Reichsmarschall himself, begins to read about Nuremberg. He thinks, “[N]o amount of punishment would bring back…any of the millions who were now gone, forever. Yet something had to be done. But how much punishment? And who should decide? On what basis?”

The dilemma reminded me of George Steiner’s short novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., in which an Israeli commando team finds Hitler alive in the Amazon 30 years after the war. What to do with him? Put him on trial? Instant execution before he can be seen and allowed to speak yet again? Torture him to death slowly? What could possibly serve justice? How deeply does this dilemma play out in the postwar Jewish literary tradition? And how do you find your own way through it?

I’ve just added Steiner’s novel to my Goodreads “to-read” shelf now. Thank you.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to pronounce how deeply the dilemma plays out in the postwar Jewish literary tradition, although it is certainly something that I have been thinking about. But your question reminds me about another aspect of the Jewish literary tradition: a verse from the Book of Micah that was reiterated through all my years of religious instruction: “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8). But what does it mean to “do justly”? What happens when “doing justly” may conflict with “loving mercy”? In my experience and education as a Reform Jew, the world can be filled with such puzzles.

Your question also prompts me to recall that even outside of fiction, I’ve been drawn to these dilemmas repeatedly in my mind and writing. For instance, my undergraduate honors thesis (advised by the incomparable Stanley Hoffmann), was titled “An Unjust Justice and A Community in Crisis: The Postwar Épuration of French Intellectuals.” It focused on the specific case of Robert Brasillach, who was executed in February 1945 as a collaborator. In a section of that thesis, I looked closely at the arguments that unfolded between Albert Camus and François Mauriac in the weeks before Brasillach's execution, arguments that, then and now, have been distilled to a face-off between “justice” and “mercy.”

How extensively researched are your stories? Is the Göring pediatrician a historical person, for instance? How’d you research in libraries or archives, online, and within your own family’s experience?

Again, some personal backstory will help. Before I began my MFA studies, which I pursued in a low-residency program while continuing to live and teach in another state, I’d earned a PhD in history. Research is something that I love to do, and was trained to do.

“For Services Rendered,” the story about the pediatrician, provides a good example of the confluence of various types of research and family history. The kernel of the story is indeed based on “real” person, one whose situation I came to know through my family’s experience.

My grandmother came from an upper-middle-class family in Germany, and she had received a classical German education, culminating in the Abitur (but as a Jew, she was barred from continuing university studies; she turned 18 the month Hitler became German chancellor in 1933). She spoke several languages, including English, and it is likely that she was an attractive candidate to the Jewish-American family who hired her as a nanny shortly after she arrived in New York.

The little girl my grandmother cared for was a patient of a refugee pediatrician, who later became my father’s pediatrician as well. As my grandmother told the story, back in Germany, that pediatrician had cared for the offspring of “a high-level Nazi” who had advised him to “get out of here.”

My grandmother never named precisely which Nazi it was. Maybe she didn’t know. In any case, here is where the research came in handy. “For Services Rendered” is entirely plausible on several levels. I’ve been careful to adhere to the timeline of Hermann and Emmy Göring’s marriage and parenthood, for instance, as well as the chronology of limits placed on Jewish physicians in Nazi Germany and the postwar trials.

Among the books I consulted are Michael H. Kater’s Doctors Under Hitler, Eugene Davidson’s The Trial of the Germans: An Account of the Twenty-two Defendants before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, and The Holocaust Encyclopedia, edited by Walter Laqueur. Emmy Göring’s memoir, which I read in English translation, and newspaper accounts of her trial, also proved extremely helpful, not least because they provided some very real background about a key aspect to her defense: namely, that she had, as The New York Times phrased it, provided “aid to persecuted persons.”

I conducted most of this research between 2002-2005, when I was living in Cambridge, Mass., and still had full access to Harvard’s incredible library. The library owned a copy of the Emmy Göring memoir, for instance, and I spent my fair share of time reviewing historical New York Times articles. These days, much more material is available online, and I’m grateful for my continued access to journals and databases via my current job.

One of your epigraphs is from Imre Kertész, who said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “Which writer today is not a writer of the Holocaust?” He goes on to say:

One does not have to choose the Holocaust as one's subject to detect the broken voice that has dominated modern European art for decades. I will go so far as to say that I know of no genuine work of art that does not reflect this break. It is as if, after a night of terrible dreams, one looked around the world, defeated, helpless. I have never tried to see the complex of problems referred to as the Holocaust merely as the insolvable conflict between Germans and Jews. I never believed that it was the latest chapter in the history of Jewish suffering, which followed logically from their earlier trials and tribulations. I never saw it as a one-time aberration, a large-scale pogrom, a precondition for the creation of Israel. What I discovered in Auschwitz is the human condition, the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his two-thousand-year-old moral and cultural history. […]

Whenever I think of the traumatic impact of Auschwitz, I end up dwelling on the vitality and creativity of those living today. Thus, in thinking about Auschwitz, I reflect, paradoxically, not on the past but the future.

With the passage of time and the death of that generation of living memory—my own parents among them—what do you think are the possibilities of the world remembering, honoring, and finding use for knowledge of that “break”?

It’s always nice when a reader notices the epigraphs!

I’m not enough of an expert on Kertész to comment much about the additional material that you have quoted. I will say that I have gained much insight into him/his work via Ruth Franklin's provocative new book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, which includes an excellent, informative chapter on Kertész (titled, incidentally, “Child of Auschwitz”).

Nor do I know quite how to respond to the very essential question that you have posed about how the world will remember/honor/find use for the knowledge of the “break.” Surely, that task is already in progress, is it not? You and I, for instance, cannot recall a world that existed “before”; our understanding has been informed by the generation(s) that possessed that living memory. And, of course, by literature, and film, and history. In its own small way, I hope, Quiet Americans may contribute to that process and those possibilities.

The collection is often about loss, obviously, and not just the death of people but of knowing. So many lines in the book say things like, “Here they were…and there still so many questions. Not that he hadn’t tried to get the answers.” Even hard data fails toward that understanding. The final story, about a man who comes to question his Jewish and familial identity due to the latest technology, thinks, “[H]e didn’t know what it meant to have this information.” In fact, in his case it leads to a deeper, wider, perhaps more “obsessive” quest for even more information, without end, which might be read as a future in which his identity will be infinitely thinned. Maybe this takes us back to your epigraph. If the story of the Holocaust opens us all to the whole human story, where can we possibly place ourselves? How do we proceed?

Well, perhaps it’s time to consider the book’s second other epigraph, which comes from the closing page of Günter Grass’s Crabwalk (trans. Krishna Winston): “It doesn’t end. Never will it end.”

The whole human story, as you phrase it, demands that we proceed. After Kertész and Grass, yes, the story may be “thinned.” But perhaps it is the historian in me—as well as the granddaughter of German-Jewish refugees—who simply can’t believe that it will ever disappear.

Thanks, Erika!

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Buy Quiet Americans here.

 

 

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