Turning her mother’s life into fiction: Anne Raeff talks with Barbara Ridley about her new Holocaust novel, WHEN IT’S OVER

  


I recently had the pleasure of reading this moving novel inspired by the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II. The protagonist is Lena Kulkova, a young Jewish woman who comes of age in Prague during the 1930s. There she is a member of a group of leftists and falls in love with a charismatic activist, Otto, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Before the war breaks out, she follows him to Paris and eventually joins him in England, where they spend the war years and where most of the book takes place. Although they are relatively safe in England, Lena is in a perpetual state of anxiety about the fate of her mother and sister who stayed behind in Czechoslovakia.

Barbara Ridley was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review, and BLYNKT. This is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and dog. Find her online at http://www.barbararidley.com.

Anne Raeff is a novelist and short story writer. Her book of stories, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including New England Review, ZYZZYVA, Antioch Review, and Guernica. Her novels are Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia (2001) and Winter Kept Us Warm, which will be published by Counterpoint Press in February 2018.

Raeff: My first question is about how you came to write this book. Is it a book that you have always wanted to write, have always been writing, or was there something that pushed you to take up your pen now after all these years?

Ridley: It didn’t occur to me to write this novel until the death of my mother in 2002. A friend of mine, a woman I had known for over 40 years, asked me how it was exactly that my mother had ended up in England, and when I started to tell her, she said: that is an amazing story! And I realized, yes it is. I had done very little creative writing before—just occasional poems or stories over the years—but I had published several academic articles, so I knew how to string words together on the page. So I thought: okay, maybe I could do this. But I didn’t start writing until three years later.

Raeff: I am wondering why and how you made the decision to tell your mother’s story as fiction. Did you consider writing it as memoir or biography or did you conceive of it as a novel from the start?

Ridley: I pretty much realized right from the start that I would write it as fiction. I had always known the outline of what had happened to my mother and her family during World War II, but there were a lot of gaps.  And the people who might have been able to fill in the gaps were either dead or memory-impaired. (I tried.) So, I thought, well, I love fiction, I’ll make up what I don’t know.

Raeff: What was the most unexpected detail or information that you came across while you were doing research for this book and how did this affect the shape that the book took?

Ridley: First: I came upon a book on my parents’ bookshelves—this was after they had both gone, but before we had cleared out the house and their hundreds of books. It was a small 1940’s style Penguin paperback called The Internment of Aliens. I was astonished to learn that thousands of Germans, both Nazi sympathizers and Jews or Communists who had fled for their lives, were interned in England in 1940, as “enemy aliens.” It was very controversial, and this book, written at the time, was a polemical critique of the policy. I knew nothing about all this, and I found it fascinating. It became an important element in Lena and Otto’s story.

Then later, I was given the opportunity to read the letters my father wrote during the war. Initially, I hoped they would contain more information about the early stages of my parents’ relationship. But in spite of the fact that they were written to one of his closest friends, they were almost entirely devoid of any personal information, and didn’t mention my mother at all!  Instead, they offered long, detailed, and fascinating insights into the political climate during the last two years of the war, leading up to the defeat of Churchill and the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.  I always knew Labour won this election, but how was it that Churchill, the great wartime leader, lost so badly? And how would it have affected my protagonist: the euphoria of this victory against the backdrop of the revelations about the fate of those sent to concentration camps? This was very interesting to me, and I incorporated it into the last section of the novel.

Raeff: Since the book is so rooted in your mother’s story, can you talk a little bit about how you learned her story? Did you grow up hearing the stories that would later become the core of this book, or were you the one who initiated discussions about her past?

Ridley: I grew up knowing the general outline of how she was a refugee during the war, and she told a few stories about the group living together in the tiny cottage in the village. But she didn’t talk about it often or in detail, and certainly she never dwelt on the emotional impact of her family’s past. When I was in my thirties, after I had already moved to California, I interviewed her, recording an oral history on a 90-minute cassette tape.  This was 20 years before she died, and the first and only time she told me a lot of the story that forms the core of the novel. She gave me a glimpse there of her hopes and her anguish about the fate of her family members left behind, but we rarely talked about it more after that.  Years later, I had that tape transcribed, and I referred to it a lot while writing. Unfortunately, the tape ran out just as she was talking about the man who formed the basis of the character of Otto in the novel—and I can’t remember if she told me more about him, but if she did I didn’t record it.

Raeff: Since the book is based on a true story, I am curious to what extent you used the facts and actual details of your mother’s life. I am especially interested in knowing whether the main characters surrounding her existed and whether their roles in her life and in politics are the same?

Ridley: Broadly speaking, yes. My mother was involved in the Socialist Youth movement in Prague in the 1930’s. The man whom I call Otto in the novel did exist, but I know very little about him or their relationship, so most of that is fictionalized. But it’s true that he was a spy for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, she did follow him to Paris, and he was instrumental in finally getting her an entry permit for England—after many failed attempts. The characters Muriel and Milton in the novel are based on my grandmother and father, and their politics are pretty accurately portrayed. My grandmother came from a very privileged background but developed an unorthodox lifestyle and liberal views.

Raeff: In the book both Lena and the British man she ended up marrying were activists, socialists. Did your parents continue to be active in politics in England until late in life? Did their politics change? How did their activism affect the way you view the world and the choices you made?

Ridley: My father continued to be active in politics, and in the 1950’s ran twice (unsuccessfully) for Parliament as a Labour Party candidate. I grew up a “red diaper baby,” as it used to be called in the U.S.  At the age of two, I declared that “there are two kinds of parties: the Labour Party and birthday parties,” and soon I was taken to “Ban the Bomb” demonstrations.  Later, my father became disillusioned with Labour for moving too much to the center. I was constantly exposed to his running commentary on current affairs, which was very different from the narrative I heard at school or in the media.  So I learned to be skeptical and form my own opinions.

My mother became a 1950’s stay-at-home housewife, and was not directly involved in politics, but they both maintained a left-wing outlook throughout their lives, and my mother was an early supporter of the Green Party.  But they lived in a staunchly conservative upper-middle class area, where they were very different politically from their neighbors, and they took a conservative newspaper. In England, as you may know, the daily newspapers are all national, not regional, but distinguished from each other by their political bent.  So usually, if you see what kind of newspaper someone reads, you pretty much know all you need to know about their social class and political affiliation. But my parents read the Daily Telegraph, the most conservative of the quality papers. They preferred its news coverage, they said.  I found that odd.  I was eager to escape the conservative small-town environment in which I was raised, and head for the big city, and I have chosen to live most of my adult life in the politically-liberal San Francisco “bubble.”

Raeff: Because I am also the child of immigrants and refugees from World War II, I was particularly interested in Lena’s loyalty and feeling of connection to England, her adopted country. As the child of an immigrant, growing up English, what were your struggles?

Ridley: My mother was loyal and grateful to Britain, but as an immigrant, she also had an outsider’s perspective, and she often mocked English mannerisms and certainly English cooking, the way the vegetables were boiled into oblivion, for example. (This was back in the 50’s and 60’s; it’s vastly improved now.) So, I always felt different, and somewhat of an outsider myself. I had a mother with a foreign accent (which was uncommon), and then there were all the political differences I just mentioned, plus we didn’t go to church, which was a big deal. My parents were not religious, which was unusual back then, and in school—the equivalent of what we would call a public school in the U.S.— we had to begin every day with Christian prayers.  So I always felt odd, and that I didn’t completely belong. And then, in an interesting parallel, I ended up as an immigrant myself, moving to another continent, to find a place where I felt more at home.

Raeff: I am always interested in how a writer’s profession or work influences his/her writing. Can you talk a little bit about that, about how your years as a nurse practitioner shaped you as a person and a writer?

Ridley: That’s such an interesting question. I loved my work as a nurse and then a nurse practitioner and I spent most of my career in rehabilitation nursing, working with people with neurological disabilities, helping them adjust to life after devastating injury or disease.  As a person, this has made me always appreciative of my own good fortune and health. As a nurse, I felt privileged to witness the huge range of response to trauma and adversity.  I had to accept wherever my patients were coming from, and acknowledge their perspective, not impose my idea of what they should be feeling.  I was always inspired by their resilience.  Perhaps this informs the way in which I write about my characters facing trauma and my ability to get inside their heads, interpreting scenes from different points of view.

Raeff: Do you have any advice for other writers who are working on books that are so closely drawn from real historical events?

Ridley: I worked very hard to make sure that all the historical details were correct, and that I was not introducing any objects or language that would not have existed at the time. I think this is very important. You don’t want the reader to be thrown out of the story and not trust the authenticity of the world you are creating.  But working as I was from family history, I learned that you have to be able to view the narrative as a separate entity, with a life of its own. My protagonist is based on my mother, but Lena is not my mother. She became a character that I created. During the process of writing the novel, and workshopping chapters, I would sometimes receive feedback that this action or event was not “believable.” And I had to resist the urge to say, “But it really happened.” It is not enough that something really happened; it has to be believable within the arc of the story.

Raeff: What are you working on now or, if you haven’t started something new yet, what are you thinking of working on next?

Ridley: I am working on another novel—completely different, set in contemporary California, and very much based on my years of clinical experience. It’s about a young woman having to reinvent herself after a spinal cord injury.

Advertisements

THE JUNGLE AROUND US: STORIES probes the mysteries of people and places

the-jungle-around-us

The Jungle Around Us: Stories

By Anne Raeff

University of Georgia Press: Oct. 1, 2016

$24.95, 140 pages


The folks at the University of Georgia Press who administer the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction have done a stellar job of “discovering” new talent. The list of winners includes Dana Johnson, Lori Ostlund, Ha Jin, Bill Roorbach, Amina Gautier, Antonya Nelson, Debra Monroe and, in the last few years, Monica McFawn and Karin Lin-Greenberg.

One of the two 2016 winners was Anne Raeff, an English teacher at East Palo Alto Academy. UGP recently published The Jungle Around Us, a collection of Raeff’s stories, which were previously published in literary journals like Guernica, New England Review, and Antioch Review.

The Jungle Around Us is a darkly compelling series of stories set in places we rarely visit and know little about, from southern Mexico and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Paraguay. The characters share a sense of dislocation, literally and figuratively, and Raeff coolly probes their psyches and actions as they try to orient themselves to threats both real and imagined. Yes, there is jungle, as well as war, heartbreak, loss, memory, and identity, all surrounding, oppressing, and confusing these characters. Raeff’s narrative voice and prose style are calm and hypnotic, a contrast to the intensity of her characters’ struggles.

The centerpiece of the collection is a quartet of stories featuring sisters Juliet and Simone Buchovsky, in which we observe the two young women as they try to make sense of the mystifying adult world.

In “Keeping an Eye on Jakobson” they encounter the man who is only referred to by his surname, sitting in their back yard and smoking big, smelly cigars while discussing the Vietnam War with their father Isaac and his woman friend, Mrs. Tuttle, whose son is off fighting in the war that has so disturbed Jakobson.

In “The Buchovskys on Their Own” their father, forced to travel to Russia to do research for his book, leaves the girls in the care of his friend, Katja Ladijinskaya, whom he has known since their families immigrated from Russia together in 1941. During his time in Russia, Isaac and his daughters discover that people and places are not at all what they expect.

“Maximiliano” finds the adult Simone, now a home health care worker, visiting Juliet in Asuncion, Paraguay, where she is living with an older man and his precocious young son, Maximiliano. In a setting unlike any she has experienced, Simone is perplexed by Juliet’s choices and the mysterious comings and goings of Raul but intrigued by his son’s gentle nature and fascination with birds. The sisters find each other inexplicably foreign after years in which one has lived in New Jersey and the other in places like Paraguay.

“Chinese Opera” concludes the collection with an exploration of the effects of the murder of their neighbor, Danny McSwene, with whom the sisters once listened to music and practiced dancing.

“After the War” concerns Karl and Margot Epstein, who fled Vienna to avoid the Nazis and ended up waiting out the war in the jungles of Bolivia. After six years, they immigrate to New York City, where they struggle to adjust. Although New York City is not unlike the Vienna of their memories, they have been marked by their time in Bolivia and it has affected their marriage. Karl had tried his best but he never felt part of Bolivia. He found some solace in his friendship with the drug addicted priest Antonio, in scenes that remind one of Graham Greene’s work. But the ghosts of the past follow Karl and Margot to their new life in the new world.

In “Sonya’s Mood,” we meet the daughter of Karl and Margot, living in New York City in the late 1980s, as AIDS decimates part of its population. She was 11 when they left Vienna and 17 when they moved from Bolivia to New York City. Now, approaching her 60th birthday, she still daydreams about Bolivia and listens to her “scratchy old 78s. They sound right to her, even though they are full of static and skips.” The music recalls her first love, Luis. Despite her long marriage to Dan Cohen, her moods have only worsened rather than faded. She meets a gay friend, Rick, for lunch, and his stories of heartbreak and newfound romance add kindling to her low but long-burning flame.

“The Boys of El Tambor” takes us to Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, a coastal town near Veracruz.  Ester, a painter, writes to her former lover, Amy, a writer, back in Albuquerque, about her sudden decision to pick up and leave after experiencing personal and artistic frustrations, in part because Amy insists she needs both Ester and her boyfriend, Gilbert. Ester has stopped in Coatzacoalcos and taken work as a domestic of sorts. She enjoys her anonymity because no one asks about her painting or Amy, and she finds comfort hanging out at El Tambor, “a sleazy bar where all the drag queens hang out” and where a lesbian is welcomed as “one of us.” She enters into an arrangement with Marta and Rafael, her employers, mirroring Amy’s circumstance but without love or passion. The middle-aged homosexual who owns El Tambor offers Ester a moment of solidarity that begins to set her back on track. Interestingly, “The Boys of El Tambor” connects with “Sonya’s Mood” and “After the War” when Ester notes in passing that she might return to her hometown of New York City or even Bolivia, “where my mother and my grandparents spent the war years.”

“Carlito on Pink” introduces us to Kenard, a 16-year-old American student in Nicaragua who is equally possessed by his new passion for photography and the developmentally disabled son of his host family, Carlito. At home, his father is in jail for murder and his mother is going through a series of boyfriends. Kenard’s life at home is limited to school and the Boys and Girls Club, so the school trip to Nicaragua offers him escape and time to think. Carlito becomes his preferred subject.

Raeff’s stories are subtle and haunting, and I occasionally felt as mystified as her characters in sorting out the import of people and events. I was rewarded by second readings, a sign of rich, complex stories that, like the characters within, don’t reveal all their secrets at first meeting. There is a quiet confidence to Raeff’s writing that belies a fierce intellect unafraid to confront the darkness in the jungle around us.