by Rebecca Honig Friedman
It’s dark, dreary and raining here in New York, just the kind of weather that makes you want to curl up with a good novel.
The German Bride, by Joanna Hershon, would be a perfect choice. Part-romance, part-travel-adventure, part-history, The German Bride is a fun but still thoughtful, and educational, plot-driven read, “a stylish account of a German Jewish young woman’s often brutal odyssey to the post–Civil War American Southwest” (Publishers’ Weekly).
Joanna Hershon is also the author of two previous novels, Swimming and The Outside of August. Her writing has appeared in One Story, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Post Road, the literary anthology Brooklyn Was Mine, and was shortlisted for the 2007 O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the painter Derek Buckner, and their twin sons.
Below she tells Jewess why she chose to write a historical novel, how her Jewish-ness influenced the book, and why feminism isn’t a starting point for her characters.
JEWESS: What drew you to write about this oft-neglected period in history? How typical is Eva’s story of the period?
JOANNA HERSHON: I was looking to write a novel that required research but I didn’t know about what, exactly. One day I heard a friend make an off-handed comment: “My ancestors were Jewish cowboys,” and I was hooked. I started researching his family, which led to years of reading about Jewish pioneers in America. What is typical about Eva’s story are the cultural details of her family’s home, the facts of a German Jewish merchant coming home to Germany to find a German Jewish bride, and that pregnancy and childbirth are central struggles in her life. The specifics of her situation — her secret past, her husband’s profligate behavior — I can’t say any of that can be found in any historical records.
Why did you want to write a novel that required research? Wouldn’t it have been easier to just make stuff up?
I was interested in learning about something specific — a period of time, a group of people — the student in me was eager.
What would you like readers to take away from The German Bride?
This is a question I can only answer after a book is finished. Because it is only by writing that I begin to figure this out. But having thought about it a great deal, I now can say that I would like readers to broaden their ideas of both what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be American. I also hope that readers will appreciate the significant contribution that Jews made to the American West. Also, without giving away the end of the book, I will say that, thematically, the last passage of the book is crucial to my understanding of the story and what drove me to write it.
So without giving too much away, is it fair to say it’s about finding independence and forging your own identity?
Finding one’s independence and forging one’s own identity is certainly a big part of the novel, but the last part of the book really opens up in terms of characters and experience. There is a sense of expansiveness in everything from new characters to new landscape.
Do you see Eva as a sort of proto-feminist?
I don’t tend to create characters with feminism in mind, however after the book was finished and I’d read it for the zillionth time, I did feel pleased that I do think Eva does emerge as a kind of proto-feminist, if an utterly reluctant one.
Is there a reason why you don’t have feminism in mind? How do you create characters?
I only mean I don’t tend to create characters in order to express a political opinion, or to be symbols. That doesn’t meant that I’m not bolstered by certain ideas or approach my writing with particular lenses. But my characters tend to emerge from their flaws and their desires and also from their physicality. I find that vulnerability — and not virtue — is a much more natural and interesting place to begin.
Eva’s story is very much about Jewish identity and the formation of a Jewish-American identity in the New World. How did your own Jewish identity inform the writing of this novel?
This is a question I have thought much about because, though I didn’t set out to write a “Jewish Story”, one of the main reasons I was interested in the story is precisely because the players were Jewish. This book evolved in layers and the book grew to be more deeply Jewish as my writing evolved. Creating Eva’s relationship with Heinrich the painter was a complex, difficult and ultimately very satisfying process because I found myself looking deeply into questions of assimilation and anti-semitism, but in very subtle and sometimes challenging ways. Conversion to Christianity was extremely popular at this time in Germany, and, given what ultimately befell Jews in Germany, it is easy to brush these conversions off as a stupid and short-sighted idea, but I wanted and needed to really look into the reality that the path of conversions was a real temptation. This book is about Jews who live among gentiles both in Germany and America, Jews who, based on their choices– for better or worse– do not have a shtetl mentality. My own Jewish identity is strong and also in a state of constant questioning (which is, of course, inherently Jewish!). And so these questions raised in the book– and even raised in the title of the book– are a reflection of my own Jewish identity.
And one more just for fun, a contemporary (and morbid?) variation on the desert island question: in the current financial crisis, if you had to sell all of the books you own (or burn them for heat, etc.) except for three, which ones would you keep?
Ah yes– that is a good variation. I suppose I’d keep Anna Karenina, Sophie’s Choice and either American Pastoral or The Norton Anthology of Poetry.
Posted on October 28th, 2008 Filed under: Interviews |