Tag : national-book-award
Tag : national-book-award
Wendy Lower is most recently the author of Hitler’s Furies, a nonfiction finalist for this year’s National Book Awards, which will be awarded on Wednesday night.
Author: Wendy Lower
Subjects Discussed: Marriage and genocide, the hausfrau who shot at Jews from the balcony, Liesel Willhaus, Hitler’s “baby machine” speech in 1934, Nazi ideology and gender roles, Volksgemeinschaft, Erna Petri, societal cues and massacring children, the fluidity of women’s personality in 1930s Germany, women in higher education restricted from participation, women who advanced up the social ladder, the League of German Girls, upward mobility among German women existing before the Nazi regime, Michael Wildt, looking at history through mundane everyday activities, Leni Riefenstahl’s rally footage, organized marches as rituals, looking at the motives for people who participated in these marches, concentrating on the half million women in the Eastern territories where communities of violence flourished, the Red Swastika Sisters, women serving as nurses, Annette Schücking, women listening to men boasting of massacres and being forced to comfort them, Nazis socializing by looking down at the inferior to affirm their superiority, Claudia Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland, women’s complicity in Nazi crimes, secretaries and bosses organizing massacres together, complicity in the workplace, shooting people from balconies, differing ideas about Vera Wohlauf, Christopher Browning’s claim of men feeling uncomfortable by Wohlauf’s presence because it made them feel shameful, Goldhagen’s ideas of men proud of their acts, genocide as men’s work, Browning’s Ordinary Men, German women using their pregnant condition to reduce their perceived culpability, the question of whether being close to the Miedzyrzec Aktion makes you an accomplice to atrocities, terrorizing by attendance, defining women’s culpability in relation to men, Gertrude Segel and Felix Landau, why it’s taken so long to consider women as part of the Nazi regime, how focusing on killing centers shifts the dialogue away from exploring violence within the general population during the Holocaust, how the German and Austrian courts excluded witness testimony after the war, how many women committing atrocities were allowed to return to regular life, cruelty focused on eroticized forms by the courts, the 500 women vs. the 20,00 men who stood trial after the war, low conviction rates, the Lemberg Trial, appearance stereotypes, the curious case of Johanna Altvater Zelle (aka Fräulein Hanna), how masculine appearances of women “explained” barbaric behavior, the natural Germanic ideal and its role in Nazi crimes (and subsequent exoneration), Nazi cowgirl types, Karl May, Nazi ideas of the wild west, German women telling journalists, scholars, and historians exactly what they wanted to hear (and how scholars have sorted out the truth from the hyperbole), the choices that women had under the Nazi regime, euthanasia programs, duty prevailing over morality, executed women, Nazi Empire Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine, resistance figure Maria Kondratenko, women who took advantage of the Nazi idea that women were intellectually inferior, why gender matters in looking at the Holocaust, the Black Misha, how secretaries were responsible for the administrative part of the Holocaust, workplace relationships and Nazi socialization, Nazi consumer culture, German women who were raped, and questioning the narrative of innocence.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Let’s discuss the idea of genocide as men’s work under the Nazi regime. There was this duty to serve the Reich and anyone who was considered work-shy was sent to a concentration camp, of course, to be reeducated. Men were expected to go out and perform an Aktion, which meant of course massacring Jews. You have this idea of marriage, where a woman had to be fulfilled with domestic work while she was simultaneously subordinate to her husband. But then you have people like Liesel Willhaus. She would often shoot at Jewish slaves working on her villa from her second story balcony for the sport of it. So I’m wondering. To what degree were figures like Willhaus responding to Nazi societal cues and to what degree were they reacting to these gender roles that were associated with work?
Lower: You know, in a speech that Hitler gave in 1934 at one of the rallies, he was very explicit. He said that women are supposed to serve their Reich to propagate the race. As baby machines, as it were. He didn’t use that term. But that’s kind of how we’ve come to understand it. But he also mentioned using the term “fellow combatants,” which I refer to in my book. And I do that deliberately to show that there were two strands of thinking in Nazi ideology vis-à–vis women and gender roles. One was obviously predominantly racial: the drive to expand the German race. But that drive to expand the German race was about survival. And survival was about militarized operations and it was expansion of the living space and building of the empire. So you have women in the role of the expansion of the German population to fulfill these megalomaniac global ambitions of Hitler’s and also serving as fellow combatants. There you see this paradox, where you see the kind of femininity of the hausfrau, of the mother, of the wife. But they also are mobilized in these campaigns. And the uniform culture, for instance, that is very a clear theme in my book, when these young women like Liesel Willhaus aspire to seek careers through the party and better themselves. They’re swept up in this fervor when they’re mobilized to go to the Eastern territories. She was sent to the Ukraine in this case. So there’s social mobility that is possible in the Volksgemeinschaft. But it has both this traditional feminine role as well as this very militaristic revolutionary experiment.
Correspondent: I guess what I’m trying to unravel here — I mean, I looked also to Erna Petri. She comes to the East in June 1942, observing her husband Horst beating and sexually assaulting servants shortly after arriving in Thuringia. By the summer of 1943, she’s already not only an accomplished hausfrau hostess, but she invites six starving Jewish children in and she shoots them in the back of the head. She had heard other Nazis saying that this was the best way to dispose of them. And the thing that fascinates me, and I’m hoping to hear you unravel, is how this kind of societal cue of “This is the best way to shoot a child” — how is that tied into what it was to be a hausfrau hostess or be this woman who, as you put it earlier, Hitler called a baby machine?
Lower: Yeah. The Nazi experiment tested all kinds of boundaries of matrimony, femininity, child rearing. These are all coming out, I think, in these individual cases that I delve into in a way, in which I’m putting faces on this lost generation of women and straightening out these different examples of those who went east. And you’ve focused on the worst cases. And the killer Erna Petri is probably the most extreme case in the book that really is the most shocking. But we see even in her case that she starts out as an ordinary farmgirl, a farmer’s daughter from a town near Erfurt, near Weimar, and attaches herself to a rising star in the SS movement, is then sent east with him to one of these plantations. And they’re kind of lording over this estate. So they have a lot of unsupervised power over the laborers on the estate. And you mentioned Jewish boys who fled the boxcar that was headed to Sobibor in ’43. And she slipped in and out of multiple roles at any given moment. She was both self-aware of being part of this revolution and wanting to assert herself, to prove herself. But then she had been socialized in traditional ways of how one should behave as a hausfrau, as a mother. And these are coming together. There’s a perversion that takes place here of these gender roles that are instrumentalized in the genocide. So you have a lot of tension in this history between racial ideals, gendered stereotypes, and this extreme violence that comes together. In the Eastern territories in particular.
Correspondent: But would you say that a particular gender role encouraged, “Hey, since this is the best way to dispose of a Jewish child, I will quite naturally fall into this because of the state.” I’ll later get into the fascinating postwar trials, in which a lot of these women got away. But I am curious, first and foremost, how many of these roles amalgamated into something where — is it even possible to unravel? It is even possible to isolate what could cause someone in one year to go to this state of being a hausfrau hostess who thinks nothing of shooting a child in the back of the head?
Lower: I think that these transformations were not — it’s a very fluid situation. They’re kind of moving back and forth. And this is after some intense socialization in the ’30s. So Erna Petri is born in 1920. In the 1920s, she was very young. But this was kind of the heyday of the explosion of women’s activity in politics. They gained the vote. So you have the politicization of women. And then boom. She’s coming of age in the ’30s in that kind of atmosphere. But it’s being shaped by this genocidal Nazi regime, which is highly ideological. And she said even in her testimony that the indoctrination of the ’30s was her motive, that she had been taught to hate Jews. And so she’s learning things along the way as well. And there’s a lot of leeway. There’s a lot of room for maneuvering too that we see in her behavior and many women like her, which was exciting for them and empowering. They were acting out. They didn’t assume that this regime was going to come to a screeching halt and be defeated. They just saw career tracks opening up. Bright futures in front of them. And especially someone like Petri and some of the wives of these SS men. They had entered into this new nobility under Himmler. And that was another level of being part of a community. And their actions, of course, because of the emphasis on this racial community. Volksgemeinschaft is a German term. People’s community. One could act out individually, but also understand one’s actions within this society. So later on for instance, not to jump too far ahead, someone like Erna Petri and many male perpetrators who find in their testimony these kinds of defense rationales in the courtroom, I don’t know how deep they went in terms of their own psychology, in which they literally state, “I feel myself.” They use the reflexive case in German. “I don’t feel myself to be guilty.” They don’t appreciate the individual responsibility and culpability because of the pervasiveness of this social experiment, being part of a national revolution and how unity and duty were so heavily stressed more than, say, morality.
Correspondent: Hitler, as you say — this whole “baby machine.” I want to go with this further. Basically, he said that a mother of multiple children was more beneficial to the Nazi regime than a woman lawyer. There were quotas in place preventing women from obtaining these degrees in higher education and political office. You point to upward mobility in this book as one of the big reasons why these women left villages and they saw jobs. Vera Wohlauf, she advanced up the social ladder through this office encounter and by marrying this wealthy merchant. So you didn’t have a lot of choices. But there were ways around this. How much of these ambitions emerged from, say, the League of German Girls, which was the girl answer to the Hitler Youth, and how did disregarding and humiliating Jews in the pre-Kristallnacht period lead to this alternative empowerment for women? It’s extraordinarily strange and I’m just trying to isolate certain aspects of this.
Lower: When I talk about the socialization during the Nazi regime, let me break that down. So, for instance, the League of German Girls was compulsory after the mid-’30s. So anyone — and with the boys as well obviously — after the age of ten, they had to be part of these youth movements. And they predominated and swallowed up all the other activities. I mean, the Nazi Party was really clever, insidiously so, in mobilizing the youth. They didn’t need to shut down the churches as such. They would just hold a lot of party meetings in these youth programs on Sunday morning. So people couldn’t go to church. Or they, of course, infiltrated the entire education system. The textbooks were completely rewritten. So each of these professional groups were somehow restructured along party lines as a one party system. Now in the beginning, thousands of German women — ordinary German women; Jewish women among them — who had been very active politically in the 1920s in the Communist movement, in the Social Democratic Party, the Catholic Center Party, other parties that the Nazis were destroying basically in ’33 as they consolidated their dictatorship — these women, especially the Communists, were sought out, arrested, and many were killed. And German women were also victims of sterilization policies. About 200,000. So within the German female population, already an early part of the ’30s, those who might be resistant to these policies are being weeded out, terrorized, incarcerated, and so forth. And so some like the individuals in my book — Erna Petri, Vera — they’re not part of that. They’ve survived that and they’ve triumphed. And now they’ve got this bright future ahead of them. And they can get out of there. Liesel Willhaus was the daughter of a foreman in a czar land. Worked on a chicken farm. And those who were not the killers in my book — the witnesses and bystanders — were similar demographics. They didn’t have educations beyond grammar school. They had secretarial training or nursing. Obviously nursing training was essential for the war effort. That particular career path was opened up. So this is how the socialization happens and what it means in terms of how women’s lives and their futures shift into these different directions under the regime.
Jesmyn Ward is most recently the author of Salvage the Bones.
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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Testing the limits of his fury towards the Bush family.
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Subjects Discussed: Smoothies, fruit, bad franchises, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, what it means to be a mother and a woman, Medea, America’s lack of mythology vs. Greek mythology, life within a poor community, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an author’s responsibility to community, the regional limitations of contemporary American fiction, being made angry by comments relating to Katrina, Pat Robertson, Barbara Bush’s insensitive comments about Katrina, FEMA and Michael Brown, novels of ideas, the physicality of characters, sinewy muscles, stomachs in fiction, close third person vs. first-person perspective, bad models of womanhood in the natural world, language, China as an anagram of chain, words as tokens of physical identity, present stigmas against figurative language, collisional rhythm, Outkast and Deuteronomy, finding an incidental rhythm, when to resist feedback that gets in the way of a natural voice, violence in fiction, creating a ferocious and multidimensional dog in Salvage the Bones, being surprised by the middle, pit bulls, Manny as a conflict generator, the mysterious ghostly mother, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, sexuality and promiscuity, unstoppable emotional forces, not glossing over the truth, describing trees with limbs, paradisaical cesspools, keeping a natural environment alive, and finding the right details to depict impoverishment.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You have Esch reading this Edith Hamilton book, especially Medea. And you also point out near the end that mythology won’t entirely help you out in a fix. Esch says that she is stuck in the middle of the book. And aside from Hamilton, I have to ask, did you draw on any other inspirational mythology when you were creating this book? Was there a point when you abandoned mythology at all like Esch? I wanted to start off here from the origin.
Ward: That’s an interesting question. I didn’t draw from any other mythology. I don’t think. Greek mythology, that was the thing in this book. I think in my first book I did — well, if you consider some of the older tales in the Bible mythology. I drew from some of those in my first book.
Correspondent: Do you consider them mythology?
Ward: Well, they are tales that explain how the world became what it is. So in ways, I think it is. But did I use any other sorts of mythologies in this, in Salvage the Bones? I don’t know. I don’t think that I abandoned it. I think that mythology’s important to her because it’s helping her understand what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a woman. So therefore, like even though she turns away from it, she still can’t help but go before the storm. To come back to that story and read more of Medea. Because see, she’s searching. And in there, she’s found something. She can’t figure out what it is. But she’s found something.
Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you would have her cleave to mythology in America, which is a nation that is constantly in search of its own great mythology. The Great American Novel. We’re Number One. You name it. I’m wondering if this mythological concern was in some sense related to, well, whatever American identity that Esch and her family had.
Ward: Well, I think she feels very much like an outsider. I think that the culture that she is from, that she lives in a small world — you know, a poor black community. I mean, I feel like they think they’re outside of that. They exist outside of that American dream. And so, in ways, they have to look elsewhere. And Esch, particularly, she finds that she is even more isolated than that community that her family is. Because she’s this only girl who grows up in a world full of men. So she really has to look outside what is easily available to her or in front of her in order to find some sort of kinship.
Correspondent: This leads me to wonder. Have you read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful ForeversWard: No.
Correspondent: Because your book, on a fiction level, reminded me of this great journalism book. Which I think you would love and I’m just in total admiration of. It basically deals with this inner life of the people who are poor, who are collecting trash on the edge of Mumbai. And your book reminded me very much of this response to typical First World guilt or what not. That instead of actually pitying or looking down upon these people, your book is very much about giving all of these characters a great inner life. They do live. And it’s important to remember that they live. And I’m wondering where this impulse came from. Whether this idea of allowing Esch and her family to live was in some sense a way for you to counter any accusations of “Well, I’m responding to politics” and so forth.
Ward: Well, I think that I write about the kind of people that I grew up with, and the kind of people that are in my family and about the place that I’m from. I mean, I’m from a poor rural Southern community that — at least in my part of the community, which is mostly black. And you know, our family’s been there for generations. And I have a very large extended family. I’m related to almost everyone in my town. And so, for me, it’s like writing about the people that I’m writing about — you know, I feel that it’s a responsibility. Because I’m writing about my people. Even though my path is very different from most of the people I grew up with, I still consider myself — you know, that’s still my place. And those are still my people. So for me, that’s what this is. I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like an insider who’s speaking out for the rest of the people inside my group.
Correspondent: Sure. I totally understand that. Do you think that this is going to be how it’s going to be for your fiction career? That you have to respond to this responsibility of speaking for this group of people? Because nobody else will. Or, in fact, one might argue that maybe American fiction, or regional American fiction, isn’t actually hitting that particular territory. What do you think of this?
Ward: I mean, I think that for the foreseeable future, as far as my writing life is concerned, I intend to write about the place and the people that I come from. Because part of the reason that I do so — I mean, part of the reason that I wanted to write about Katrina is because I was uncomfortable and made angry by the way that I heard others speak about people who didn’t evacuate from the storm. About people who stayed. About poor people who were caught in the maw of that storm. And I wanted to write against that. And so in a way, I do think that the voices of the people that I write about, or even just the people that I write about, that they’ve been absent in the conversation, in the national conversation. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do by writing about them. Introduce their voices into the conversation so that people pay attention and people aren’t so quick to write them off as worthless or stupid or all the other crazy things that I heard after Hurricane Katrina.
Correspondent: Are there specific things that really pissed you off?
Ward: Well, I heard this one woman. She’s from Atlanta too, which is close enough. It’s six hours away from where I live. And she said that the reason that Hurricane Katrina had hit us and done so much damage is because we were sinful. That we were in a sinful place. Like, for her, it was very much about — you know, she was approaching it from a religious standpoint.
Correspondent: The Pat Robertson-like charge.
Correspondent: “Well, they brought it onto themselves.”
Ward: Yeah. So we deserved it because of our proclivity for gambling and drinking and all the rest. And then other people that I encountered said that, one, they couldn’t understand why people stayed. Why people would stay and try to survive a hurricane like that. And, two, that they didn’t understand why people would return and try to rebuild. Because what’s the point if global warming just means that there are going to be more storms, there are going to be just as powerful as Katrina and more of them are going to hit that part of the United States. And that comment really made me angry. Because that person was from L.A.
Ward: That person was from California, which has its own.
Correspondent: These bicoastal buffoons.
Ward: So I just heard commentary like that. And it just made me really angry. And I wanted to counter those. I really felt that our voices were absent from that. Especially that conversation. You had what’s her name. It’s Bush’s mother. Remember when she said that crazy stuff?
Correspondent: Barbara Bush.
Ward: Yeah. About the people from New Orleans. Like this was like a vacation for them. Because they got to go ahead and stay in the Astrodome. Like really? Are you serious? Just so far removed from the reality of these people’s lives and their struggles. Just so far removed. Comments like that just made me realize how, when people said them, it’s like they didn’t recognize our humanity at all. And that really made me angry, and made me want to address Hurricane Katrina in the book.
Correspondent: Well, this seems as good a time as any to confess to you, Jesmyn, that at the point where they are scrambling for their boiled eggs and their packages of ramen, and there is of course the depiction of the carton of bones in the fridge — and then they say, “Oh, well, FEMA and Red Cross will help us out.” At that point, I thought I had a maximum level of anger towards Bush and Brown. And then I read that. And I became even more furious towards them.
Correspondent: And you’re talking here about anger. And you’re talking about it in a very calm manner. And this book is extremely focused, I would say. So what did you do to not get so caught up in this understandably furious impulse and actually focus in on the book? Was it really the inner life of these characters that was enough for you to counter any socioeconomic, political responsive bullshit?
Ward: I think so. Because I feel that my book will fail if my characters are not alive on the page. There have been great novels of ideas, right? But, for me, the kind of writer that I am, I can’t write those novels. And I don’t think that they would be successful novels.
Correspondent: Why do you think you can’t write a novel of ideas? Or that the ideas are best represented in the environment that you set down?
Ward: I don’t know. It’s just not my style. What comes naturally to me is telling a story that’s invested in people and in the characters, and making them live on the page.
Téa Obreht is most recently the author of The Tiger’s Wife, winner of the Orange Prize and finalist for the National Book Awards (to be announced on Wednesday: check out Reluctant Habits and the Twitter feed for live coverage from the floor that evening).
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering a future in which writers are trained by Carl Weathers.
Author: Téa Obreht
Subjects Discussed: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” how much one needs to know about tigers, being a National Geographic nerd, research and laziness, readers who have different takes on a story, clumsiness, musicians who become butchers, precise metaphors within The Tiger’s Wife, having the illusion of knowing what you’re doing, talking in first person plural, storytelling and The Secret, regularly arriving at the wrong formula, the elephant scene, deathless men, finding inspiration at the Syracuse Zoo, why brains need to sit with ideas, working in a faux Balkans world, finding verisimilitude for faraway places within common present-day incidents, sharing earbuds on Walkmen and iPods, immediate points within life that connect you to stories, family members who avoid writers, writing what you know “at the moment,” trigger points, similarities between Underground and The Tiger’s Wife, Emir Kusturica, gypsy film soundtracks, learning English from Disney films, legends particular to Belgrade, the Kalemegdan fortress, film as a greater influence for dialogue than real life, Howard Hawks, bad cinematic trilogies, the Qatsi Trilogy, treating fiction as something fabricated, relationships between truth and fabrication, humor bridging the gap between magic and realism, laughing over awful events, Shoah, The Gulag Archipelago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Master and Margarita, finding a humorous path to the real, Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, bonding emotional with a book, whether death is inherently funny, Fawlty Towers, coffee grounds as personal mythology, thick Turkish coffee in the Balkans, parrots that quote poetry, legends that tend to spring up about English Bull Terriers in Belgrade, Kipling’s The Jungle Book vs. the 1967 Disney film, mythological animals, the rosy Disney view, reading from a non-American standpoint, being shocked by Kipling’s imperialism when discovered later in life, the dangers of embedded narrative, academics obliged to find silly interpretations in order to keep their jobs, mythology that is tied to a specific place, learning everything from Disney, American mythology, cowboy hats and immigrant stories, unnecessary suburban symbolism, hostile reviews from women, being confused as a YA novelist, paying attention to reviews, good art and polarizing people, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, critics who see things that the author never intended, standing by work, having doubts about early work, the inevitability of a few clunkers, deleting pages, overexposure and overexplaining, the possibility of Obreht turning into Smeagol if she wins the National Book Award, becoming corrupted by attention, J. Robert Lennon, insulating one’s self from attention, Sunset Boulevard, the importance of humility, defending the pursuit of writing and the need for books in a terrible economy, Richard Powers’s “What Does Fiction Know?”, the Occupy movements, and fiction as a form of help.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I must confess that Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” was in my head on the way over here the entire time. And I have you to blame for that.
Obreht: (laughs) Thank you. I keep hearing it on radios now. Like whenever I do, I get embarrassed.
Correspondent: Really? You get embarrassed? You get shamed?
Obreht: I don’t know why. Because I get really into it. It’s pertinent now. And then I get embarrassed about myself.
Correspondent: Do you get sick of tigers now that you have dwelt upon them quite heavily and you have to constantly talk about them?
Obreht: You know, I don’t think I do. I think it’s just getting more and more entrenched into what I do every day. Every email I send has a tiger picture attached to it that’s pertinent to the conversation.
Correspondent: (laughs) Wow.
Obreht: I’m sure that at aome moment a big break will come and I’ll say, “I never want to see any feline again!” And I’ll kick cats as I go down the street. No, not really. Not really.
Correspondent: (laughs) Violence is welcome on this program.
Correspondent: Even hypothetical violence. So you have to become a tiger expert, I presume? Have you been reading up on cats and the like?
Obreht: You know, I studied tigers a little bit for the writing of the book and went and sat in zoos a lot. And I’m a total National Geographic nerd anyway. So it came naturally.
Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about nerdom. National Geographic nerdom.
Correspondent: How much do you have to know about tigers to know about them? Or do they exist within the wonderful theater of the mind? What’s up?
Obreht: I’m a big believer in the theater of the mind. Especially when you’re dealing with fiction. I mean, there’s only so much you can know. And then there’s only so much of what you know that you can transmit before it begins to be clinical. So I think research, while it helps, can sometimes destroy you. And I was very happy to take a little bit of what I knew and run with that and let a thousand imaginations bloom about tigers.
Correspondent: Wow. So you’ve learned this fairly early on. A lot of writers have to wait decades before they realize sometimes, “You know, maybe I shouldn’t read every book on a subject.” You’ve actually managed to avoid that from the get-go. To what do you attribute this extra wisdom?
Obreht: Laziness. (laughs)
Correspondent: Laziness? Oh, I see. I see. Practical temperament concerns. (laughs)
Obrhet: No. I think I’m always terrified — I think a lot of students that I have had at Cornell have been terrified of not making their intentions known in their writing or not having something clear in their writing. I’ve always been terrified of the exact opposite. I’ve always been afraid of letting too much be known too quickly or hitting the reader over the head with something. Because I know that used to be one of my flaws. So I’m so overly cautious about it that I think that it sometimes cripples me. I think that there are some things that I could research a little more heavily or whatever I write about them.
Correspondent: Being too explicit about stuff. Like. Such as?
Obreht: Such as? I don’t know. I think that such as a particular kind of character interaction or…
Correspondent: Such as?
Obreht: Such as — well, actually I’m thinking about my short story — for some reason I can’t think of an example from the book, but my short story, “The Laugh” — there’s this tension between the two main characters. One is the husband of a recently deceased woman. And the other is his best friend, but also someone who was interested in the deceased wife. And I was terrified of laying this out too quickly and immediately and explicitly at the beginning of the story. Because it would totally break the tension. And so in an early — in the first five drafts of the story, it wasn’t clear at all. And people were like, “Why is this happening?” And I was like, “Well, he likes her! Or used to and now she’s dead.” So, for me, it’s always this holding back and then trying to ease into being okay with the information being there.
Correspondent: Is this one of the chief concerns when you’re going through this endless rewriting and endless revising? To find that tonal balance that really strikes between what the reader needs to know and what the reader needs to infer?
Obreht: Absolutely. And that’s one of the great endeavors of the short story — this negotiation between the reader and the writer and how that information is being transferred. And you can transfer information in a way where the reader knows. Like the implication is already there and all you have to do is trigger it with that one word for the reader’s neural pathways to open up in that particular direction. And it’s so much fun.
Correspondent: You sound like a drug dealer. Dopamine hits or something. (laughs)
Obreht: I do use a lot of caffeine! (laughs) But as a reader, I enjoy seeing how that happens. You know, how I came to the same conclusion as anther reader. That was one of the great exercises of workshop. How did you get to this place with this story? And I got to a completely different place? Or how did we arrive at the same place? Where was the information that led us both there? I love that as a reader. So I enjoy that as a writer as well.
Correspondent: But if you’re constantly revising to get that precision, how do you keep yourself in surprise? Because that, of course, is very important to maintain the life of a story.
Obreht: Oh, that just comes normally. Because I have no idea what I’m doing! (laughs)
Correspondent: Yeah. The big thing that nobody really understands. That writers really don’t know what they’re doing often.
Obreht: Yeah. Exactly. You know, you stumble into things. And you’ll be 75% of the way through something and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, I changed my mind! Actually, this is going to happen because it feels more normal, more natural.” Then you have to backtrack and shift everything. (flourishes with considerable exuberance, nearly knocking an object over)
Correspondent: (reflexes kicking in, saves object from falling off table) Almost knock things over.
Obreht: I’m gesticulating here!
Correspondent: No, no, no. If we knock something over, it will make this conversation 300% better.
Obreht: That’s awesome.
Correspondent: It’s already going very well.