A Conversation with Pam Jenoff
What is your new novel, The Orphan's Tale, about?
Noa, a young Dutch girl, has been kicked out by her parents after becoming pregnant by a German soldier. She lives above a rail station, which she cleans to earn her keep. One day she finds the unthinkable: a boxcar full of infants , ripped from their parents arms too young to know their own names. In a moment of fateful impulse, she snatches one of the infants and flees into the snowy night. She finds shelter with a German circus, where she must learn the trapeze act to earn her keep. The woman who teaches her to be an aerialist is herself a Jew in hiding and the two women must see if they can save each other - or if their secrets will destroy them both.
Is the novel based on a true story?
The novel, though fictitious, was inspired by two real events: first, the little-known account of the rescuer's circus, an actual German circus that hid Jews, including rival performers from another circus. Second, the train of unknown infants was drawn from an actual, horrific event during the war. There are also elements of the book that were drawn from real life. For example, the instance of a German military officer being ordered to divorce his Jewish wife was true. Also, a real-life romance between a Jewish woman in hiding and a circus clown provided the idea for Astrid and Peter's relationship in the book. Finally, while researching I was amazed to find a rich history of Jewish circus dynasties in Europe, which also helped me develop the story.
How did you first discover the seeds for the novel - the real-life stories of circus performers during the war and the story of the train car full of infants?
I found these remarkable stories in the Yad Vasham virtual archives which document the Righteous - people, often not Jewish, who saved Jews during the war.
What sort of research did you do before writing the novel?
Some of my research is done before I write the book, other bit contemporaneously with the writing. In any event, armed with the stories from Yad Vashem, I began to dig deeper, I found a book on Jews in popular German entertainment and that book provided more detail about the rescuer's circus and introduced me to Jewish circus dynasties in Europe. From there, I needed all kinds of research about Jewish life and life in general during the war, in both Germany and France, where the circus travels. I needed to understand how they were able (and permitted) to keep performing, if at all during such grim times. I used a variety of sources: books, internet, periodical and photos, from the time period, correspondence and other first-hand accounts.
Then there was the research about the circus in general. European and American circuses are different and I tried hard to get the details right. Interestingly, there are many websites devoted to historic circus arts. Finally, I had to learn about aerialists arts, such as trapeze. I began with books and videos and then consulted an aerialist, who taught me what was and was not possible. But first I had to understand enough to even know the right questions to ask.
There have probably been more books written about the Second World War - both fiction and nonfiction - than any other subject. How did you keep your story fresh?
There are times when I look at all of the books I and others have written during World War II and think, "that's it, I'm done." But then the stories keep coming, each so original and irresistible, that they demand to be written. In particular, I think the end of Communism and the opening of communications and archives not previously available have provided a lot of people who lived it, and as long as we treat them with the thoughtfulness and respect they deserve, I'm not sure we will ever be done.
Why do you think readers are still so drawn to stories from this period in history, fast fading from memory?
Stories from the war are more popular than ever. In part, I think it is a drive to capture and tell the stories of the survivors in whatever form now and before they are gone. I also think that the war is just such fertile ground for storytelling. The dire circumstances and stark choices are ideal for placing the reader in the shoes of the protagonist and having her ask, "What would I have done?"
Which characters in the novel are based on real people and which did you fabricate?
All of my characters are fictitious. But I was inspired by real life accounts I read of courageous circus owners, Jewish performers in hiding, and others.
The novel has two central characters - Noa and Astrid. Which one would you say is the main protagonist?
I couldn't choose between Noa and Astrid - the story is equally theirs and I worked hard to give each a distinct voice.
There is a lot of detail about circus life and circus acts. Did you spend any time with a real circus?
One question I struggled with in writing this book was whether I had to go see the circus as part of my research. I dislike the circus and think it is cruel to animals and didn't want to go. Ultimately, I concluded that since the modern American circus is very different from the historic European version, going would be more misleading than helpful. But I did consult extensively with an aerialist on the trapeze.
The "orphan" who lends his name to the title is only an infant as the story unfolds. Why did you choose to give the book this title?
I'm not sure that the infant is the orphan. First, it is unclear whether his parents are deceased or out there somewhere. Second, Astrid may be an orphan in that her parents have been taken by the Germans. Finally, Noa is metaphorically an orphan since her parents kicked her out. As for titles in general, developing them is a very interesting process creatively and editorially and I think that is all I will say about that!
You spent time in Europe during your career with the State Department. What did that knowledge of place bring to the writing of the book?
I spent several years in Europe, most of which as a diplomat in Krakow, Poland. The State Department gave me responsibility for handling all of the issues related to the Holocaust that had never been resolved during the Communist era, questions of anti-Semitism, property restitution, and preservation of the concentration camps. I also became very close to many of the Holocaust survivors, who were like grandparents to me. I was profoundly moved and changed by those experiences. My books are tributes to those people and times. I think they reflect an understanding of the era and events that can come only from having spent so much time on the ground in the region grappling with the past.
Why have you called The Orphan's Tale "the book that broke me"?
I call The Orphan's Tale "the book that broke me" to write because of the train of unknown infants, taken from their parents. It is the opening scene and the lynchpin of the book, but as a mother of three children myself, it was also the hardest to write. I avoided it for a long time before doing so.
Are you working on another novel? If so, can you give us a sneak peek into what it is about?
My next book, still untitled, is about twelve young British women who went missing in Europe during World War II while working as spies, and the woman who goes searching for them - and who might or might not have betrayed them.
*** I don't know about you, but I am really excited to start reading The Orphan's Tale...and I will certainly be anxious for Pam's next book as well! Thank you MIRA for sharing this conversation with Pam and Pam, thank you for taking time to answer all these questions - they were so insightful!!!
The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff
February 21, 2017
Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-0-7783-1981-8
February 21, 2017
Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-0-7783-1981-8
E-book ISBN: 978-1-460-39642-1