I am very excited today to be able to bring you an interview with my very own cousin, Alison Pick, about her most recent novel, Far to Go, published just recently by House of Anansi Press. It can be ordered from Canada, and will be released in the States by Harper Perennial in summer, 2011. Don’t sorry, I will be reminding you when it comes out in the States! Far to Go, inspired in part by the lives of my grandparents and my father, is the story of one Jewish family’s experiences during the lead-up to the Nazi occupation in 1939 in Czechoslovakia. Paul and Annaliese Bauer are affluent, secular Jews whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the German forces. Desperate to save themselves, they manage to secure a place for their six-year-old son, Pepik, on a Kindertransport to England. Far to Go is also the story of how what happened to the Bauers is remembered by those who survived, and the stories that are told about them.
The events of 1938 and 1939 unfold through the eyes of Marta, the governess, a woman uncertain of her own origins. Why did you decide to make her the viewpoint character?
Good question. Truthfully I can almost never remember why I did anything in a particular way, beyond the fact that it felt intuitively right. But the idea of an unreliable narrator was appealing. I often turn to Jack Hodgins’ ‘A Passion for Narrative,’ – my novelists’ bible – and I think it was his suggestion to view the main characters, in my case Pavel and Anneliese, through outside eyes. That said, through the process of writing Marta grew to become a main character herself. She is a liminal character, not Jewish but close with Jews (and, as you point out, unsure of her origins, so with the possibility of being one); not the mother of a child sent away but close enough to understand a mother’s perspective. She is both on the Bauers’ side and, if only accidentally, against them. I wanted this tension to work in concert with the plot so the reader wouldn’t be certain what they could trust. The desire to keep reading would be to discover how the story turns out but also how Marta—who is still young and naïve—resolves as a person.
Once being Jewish starts to become a problem in Czechoslovakia, Marta spends a good deal of time thinking about what it means to be Jewish, what makes a Jew, a Jew, and what it means that her employers are Jewish. Have you figured out what makes a Jew, a Jew?
The short answer is that no, I have not. Every attempt I make – that it’s a religion, that it’s a race, a faith, a way of being in the world, an ethnicity—seems to come up short. And the other obvious answer–that it’s a combination of all of the above – seems somehow too easy. To further complicate matters, I know from my own experience that feeling Jewish and being accepted as Jewish by other Jews are two different things. After connecting with my own patrilineal Judaism and with a Jewish community in Toronto, it was still made clear to me in ways both subtle and overt that I was not actually Jewish and wouldn’t be without a formal ritual (and even then, of course, there are those who still wouldn’t accept me). My own self-identification, in other words, wasn’t enough. I hasten to add that this is different between countries, and even cities. If I’d been a New Yorker with a Jewish father my experience would have been totally different. I would have had many more options available to me.
Long before I knew anything about Shabbat, my husband Degan and I were practicing what we called “24 hours unplugged” in our home – we’d pick a day on the weekend, turn off the computers, unplug the phones, make a nice meal, go for a long walk, spend quality time together. So what is that? Is it something in my genes that remembers a ritual not practiced in our family for generations? Is it a lucky coincidence? Happily for me, asking questions is central to Judaism so this is one that I will continue to ask and to wrestle with as my experience as a Jew grows and as I feel my way through raising my daughter in the tradition.
Your novel connects the past to the present in an unexpected way. What was it like living and travelling in Czechoslovakia so many years after our family was forced to flee? Did you perceive echoes and remnants of our family’s past there? Or has that world vanished completely and for good?
I was searching for echoes, longing for them even, but I don’t think I was honestly able to hear them. More than anything I wish I’d been older, or maybe more mature, when we traveled there with Granny before she died. I’d love another chance to hear (and remember) what she had to say about where and how she lived. At this point the best I was able to do was soak in the little details: the food, the language, the landscape.
When I read novels by people I know well, I am always struck by the little bits of their lives that I find within the story. How do you as an author decide what of your own life can become grist for a novel? What is tabu?
Anything goes, as far as I’m concerned, with the proviso that it be in service to the overall narrative. In fiction, the author has the liberty to include whatever “truths” they want with the knowledge that it will be taken as fiction (versus with poetry, where everything is assumed to be autobiographical, especially if written in the first person). That said, I have friends and colleagues who have seriously offended family members who recognized themselves disguised in novels and short stories, and who have vowed to write differently the next time around. When I was writing my first novel, The Sweet Edge, I drew heavily on an old friend from my teenaged years for the character of Ellen. What still amazes me is that I did so entirely unconsciously. When my friend confronted me with it (she was flattered, thankfully, rather than offended) I was blown away that my psyche had acted thus without my knowing it.
It looks like my next book will be a memoir, very confessional in nature, and I think these questions will come more into play for me in that genre. There’s a gut instinct to censor out the most personal and revealing details, which, paradoxically, are often the ones to which a reader can most relate, and which make the book most compelling. Before having started to actually write I’m already coddling myself along, telling myself if I write the “truth” (or my version of it) I can always change names and details at a later date.
I loved the way you built up the layers of historical detail in the book, not just the facts about the political forces that were shaping your characters’ lives, but the depiction of things like what they ate and what kinds of spaces they moved through. How were you able to do that?
Plagiarism! But really, I read as widely as possible on the time and place and reminded myself of the notion that there are only really seven main plots in the world and the famous saying, “‘Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” I was lucky to come into several unpublished memoirs by people who had grown up in Czechoslovakia, so they were incredibly helpful to that end, as were books by writers like Alan Furst who write about the Old World as I was doing. I did also draw on the memories I do have of our grandparents—what they wore, what they smoked, how they spoke—especially of Granny who was alive into my adult years.
Everyone I know who has read this novel has said that they read it almost compulsively, scarcely able to put it down. But as the narrator tells us, it is not a happy story. Were there some parts that were especially difficult to write, either because of the motions and events they described, or because of their technical challenges? How do you write those scenes?
First: thank you. To hear that someone read the book compulsively is one of the best compliments, almost as nice as hearing that it made them cry! Which might sound odd, but I take it to mean that the book is working as it’s meant to, and that the reader is, even momentarily, invested in the fiction as in reality.
In terms of the writing, the whole thing was a challenge for me, and I wrote many drafts (of course), but the section from Pepik’s perspective was especially so. The perspective changes abruptly, from female to male, adult to child, and I didn’t want that to feel jarring for the reader. I wanted the voice of the child to seem authentic, and not having spent much time around small boys, I worked hard at that. I wonder, actually, if I would have written it differently now that I have a child of my own. I’m already looking forward to starting my next novel—down the road—and to the new perspective that parenthood will bring.
We will all be looking forward to reading the next thing you write. Thanks so much for participating in this interview, Alison!