Monday, May 17, 2010

Author Chat: An Interview with Jenna Blum


I'm thrilled to have author Jenna Blum hanging out with me today on Bloggin' 'bout Books. Jenna's the author of two novels - Those Who Save Us (read my review here) and The Stormchasers (which will be out on the 27th of this month. You can read my review of it here.


Welcome, Jenna!

Me: Tell me a little about your path to becoming a published author. I know you've wanted to write since you were a child, but how did you actually make it happen?

JB: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I can remember. My dad was a writer, a broadcast newswriter for the networks, and my earliest memories have a soundtrack of his typewriter (remember those?). So from the time I could scribble, I was writing stories. I wrote my first novel, about my crush on my Social Studies teacher, when I was 11. (I shopped it around and got encouraging remarks but, much to my annoyance, no publishing contract.) I won the Seventeen Magazine national fiction contest when I was 16, and I published a lot of short fiction in college, all of which combined to give me the idea that the world owed me a living in writing fiction. What happened was, I graduated, worked in food service for about a decade, wrote and marketed more short stories, had some published, received many many rejections, and kept pollinating the world with work. My mantra, a Winston Churchill quotation I had on my wall, was—and is—“Never give in, never give in, never give in.” THOSE WHO SAVE US, my debut novel, was published the traditional way: I wrote it, published some excerpts from it as short stories, revised the whole to the best of my ability, sent it out, got an amazing agent, the agent sold it. This was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I am very, very lucky and grateful.

Me: Your first novel, THOSE WHO SAVE US, is about the experiences of the German people during WWII. What inspired you to write about this time period, especially from the perspective of non-Jewish Germans?

JB: You can find the long answer on my website, http://www.jennablum.com/, but the short answer is that while I was researching THOSE WHO SAVE US, I went to Germany with my mom, who has German relatives on her side of the family. Neither of us speak German, nor did we have a plan; basically, we tooled around the country visiting sites and asking each other, “How could the Holocaust have happened here, in this beautiful place? How could people—from the country that gave the world so many great composers, musicians, writers, artists and thinkers—have aided, abetted, stood by, let this happen?” One day we were driving from Buchenwald, which we had just visited, to neighboring Weimar, and I was struck by the fact that from the camp, you could see the city—so from the city, the citizens must have been able to see the camp. What did the Germans tell their children when ash fell from the sky in May? I asked my mom, “If you had lived here during the war, what would you have done?” Because I’m half-Jewish, I would have been sent to the camps with my Jewish dad, but my mom would have been considered a full-blooded Aryan. She said thoughtfully, “I don’t know. I hope I would have been brave enough to help my Jewish neighbors, but if the Nazis caught you they would kill you, and if I had you kids to care for….I just don’t know.” That’s when the character of Anna came to me, on the road from Buchenwald to Weimar: an ordinary German woman caught in the crucible of circumstance and forced to make terrible decisions.

Me: What kind of research was involved in the creation of the book? What did you learn from the Holocaust survivors you interviewed that surprised or touched you most?

JB: To write THOSE WHO SAVE US I not only went to Germany three more times with my mom, I engaged in what one reader kindly called “method research” and others might call “insanity.” I read everything I could about the time period, but I also tried to immerse in my characters’ lives as much as possible. I listened to German music. I took German classes. I baked everything that appears in the novel, which was no small undertaking considering half the novel is set in a bakery. For a while, I even dressed like Anna, my heroine, when I was writing—wearing a dirndl skirt, my hair in braids. (But only inside the house. Except on Halloween.) Of course, I was privileged to be able to interview survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, and although I didn’t consider that research per se—it was an honor unto itself—this blessed experience did inform the novel. I did NOT use any survivors’ stories in the book, because I believe those are hallowed ground. But what astonished me over and over was how generous the survivors were. Here was this stranger coming to their homes to ask them to excavate their worst memories, many of which they had not talked about in fifty years—even to their children, even to their spouses, even if those spouses were also survivors. And what did they do? Fed me. “Eat,” they would always say to me, settling me at their kitchen tables. “Eat.”

Me: How have readers responded to THOSE WHO SAVE US, especially those who lived through the events described or lost loved ones in the war/concentration camps?

JB: My readers have been incredibly generous in their reactions to THOSE WHO SAVE US. I have had several interesting dialogues with readers about the graphic sex in the novel, which to me is intrinsic to the story of Anna’s realistic wartime treatment at the hands of her captor, the Obersturmfuhrer, and her subsequent shame—which so strongly affects her daughter as well as herself. Readers often write to me about this aspect of the book with varying degrees of discomfort, but I am grateful to say these emails have become conversations about writing choices and what happens to women in wartime. Otherwise, I have been humbled by how many readers have written to me to say THOSE WHO SAVE US has touched their lives by explaining to them why, maybe, their parents didn’t talk about what they endured during the war. I think the book has become sort of a lightning rod for the second generation struggling with their parents’ experiences, and I feel very grateful that it has brought some readers solace by providing an exploration of how people act when they’ve survived trauma.

Me: Your second novel, THE STORMCHASERS, is vastly different from your first. Did you purposely plan to publish such diverse books? How did both stories come about?


JB: Actually, THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS share very similar thematic ground—which speaks to your next question as well. THOSE WHO SAVE US is obviously a historical novel, and THE STORMCHASERS is contemporary. But both novels are set partially in “New Heidelburg,” the fictional Minnesota town based in part on the southern Minnesota town where my mom and grandmother were born. So readers who read THOSE WHO SAVE US will be able to revisit that landscape in THE STORMCHASERS. Both novels pose a moral question: what would you do, how far would you go, to save somebody you love? THOSE WHO SAVE US tests a mother’s love for her daughter; THE STORMCHASERS asks this question of a twin trying to care for her mentally unstable brother. Both novels are about people whose lives have been swiftly devastated by enormous forces beyond their control: the Nazi regime, mental instability. And with both novels, I aimed to give readers a good story, well told.

Me: Will fans of THOSE WHO SAVE US find anything familiar about THE STORMCHASERS? What similarities are there between your two books? What differences?

JB: Since I’ve discussed the similarities already, I will say that one difference between the two novels is stylistic. For instance, although I didn’t use quotation marks in THOSE WHO SAVE US because I wanted the novel to have an austere, almost sepia atmosphere of memory, there ARE quotation marks in THE STORMCHASERS. This should please a lot of readers who weren’t so happy about their omission in the first novel! Also, with THOSE WHO SAVE US, I aspired to give the writing a formal cadence, almost as if the language had been translated from German. With THE STORMCHASERS, my goal was to be able to capture the storms in the novel—atmospheric, mental, and emotional—in as simple and descriptive a manner as possible, so their enormous power would speak to readers for itself.

Me: I know you did extensive research for THE STORMCHASERS. Tell me what got you interested in the subject in the first place, and then what your research involved.

JB: I’ve been fascinated with severe weather since I was four years old, when I saw a tornado at night in my grandmother’s southern Minnesota hometown. While everyone else was asleep, I hid under the living room couch and watched a black rope twister move slowly across the picture window, left to right. This experience—which I transposed into THE STORMCHASERS—was terrifying, but to a little girl so obsessed with the Wizard of Oz she would answer only to “Dorothy,” it was also terribly exciting. I spent much of my adult life trying to see another tornado, chasing as an amateur when I lived in Minnesota in my 20s, often with my poor mom in tow. The results were predictably disastrous, like we’d end up cowering in a barn with a severe storm coming on and all the animals running like heck in the other direction. Finally it occurred to me that it would be much safer and more effective to chase storms with people who knew what they were doing, so when I started researching THE STORMCHASERS in earnest, I signed on to follow the professional storm tour group Tempest Tours, the model for Whirlwind Tours in the novel, as their media correspondent. I’ve been tailing Tempest for five years now and am about to take readers on a storm tour this June—check out http://www.tempesttours.com/ if you’ve ever wanted to stormchase! We will keep you safe while we take you on the big weather safari—and I’ll tell you how my experiences translated into the book. There’s also a photo and video gallery and audio about my close calls—I had a few really hair-raising ones—on my website, http://www.jennablum.com/.


But the real heart of THE STORMCHASERS is bipolar disorder—the novel is about twins, a brother and sister, and the brother, Charles, is bipolar whereas his sister Karena isn’t. Like many of my readers, I have beloved people in my life who are bipolar, and for years I’ve watched them struggle with the unspeakable conundrum the disorder presents: either take medication to comply with polite society and run the risk of not feeling like yourself, or don’t take medication and feel like yourself but risk alienating family and friends. While researching bipolar disorder, I was struck by how often it is likened to storms—mania is literally caused by a storm of electrical energy in the brain. The brother in the novel, Charles, believes he is a sort of human storm, that his rapid-cycling moods enable him to understand severe weather better than anyone else, and I wanted to explore how he and his twin grapple with the disorder in this context—through describing Charles’s storms in the mind’s eye and their consequences.


Me: How would you describe the *crazy* people who are obsessed with chasing storms? What did you learn about them that surprised you?

JB: That actually, they’re not crazy! From what we see in movies and on TV, we have the idea that all stormchasers want to do is hurl themselves into the heart of a tornado, screaming the entire time. That’s not true. There are a few “yahoos,” as chasers call them, who want to do very dangerous things so they can post the footage on YouTube and get famous. But really, what we fear is what they’ll get is dead. The chasers I know are a super-responsible bunch of scientists, meteorologists with master’s degrees and PhDs. They drive the speed limit. They’re veteran chasers of 10 years or more. They’re cabinet salesmen, supermarket managers, graphic designers with a summer hobby about which they are extremely passionate. Most chasers chase because they love the extraordinary majesty of big weather—simple as that. They love the awesome experience of being in the great lonesome Back Of Beyond, watching a cloud grow from a cumulus puff to a sculpted supercell. How does this happen? Why does one storm put down a tornado and another not? Chasers want to know this, and we also provide a public service by calling dangerous storms in to emergency management—on my Facebook page, there’s a video of my doing this during a recent chase on May 12th! Finally, it comes down to what my stormchasing friend Leisa said once: “I’m not a religious person, but chasing makes me think I could be; it’s like communion, to be one with something so much bigger than yourself.”

Me: You've taken readers to Nazi Germany and to Tornado Alley - where are we going next? What are you working on now?

JB: I’m sorry to say that’s a secret for now :) I do have another book in mind, and even when I’m not actively writing, I’m thinking about it—which to me is actually a big part of writing! But if I talk about the story now, it will dissipate. As the witch in The Wizard of Oz says, “These things must be done delicately, or you break the spell.”

Me: Finally, I ask this of all the writers I interview because I'm so fascinated by the variety of answers I receive: What is your writing routine? Do you write at the same time every day or do you wait until inspiration strikes? Do you outline or just let your ideas flow? Where do you write? What do you have to have (food, music, lucky charm, etc.) in order to write? How do you handle writer's block? Of the 24 hours in a day, how many do you spend writing?

JB: Oh, gosh. Well, I’m a crop-rotation writer; my writer’s life occurs in seasons. There’s the season of rest, when I don’t write much of anything except journaling and correspondence, and this is typically when I am miserable to live with because I always feel I should be writing. But in my wiser moments I remember this fallow-feeling period is actually very productive and necessary, because it overlaps with the information-gathering season: I’m traveling to research, I’m forming and discarding and considering ideas. Then there is writing season, when I’m actively working on a project; I go into lockdown, immerse totally, write and talk about and think writing 24/7. For instance, while I was writing THE STORMCHASERS, I moved to a motel in the small town the book is set in, lived there for two months with my black Lab Woodrow, so I could write without distraction until the novel was done.


In order to write, I need strong coffee, Ultra-Fine black Sharpies, canvas-covered notebooks from Borders to write longhand in, and my MacBook Air to actually write the scenes. I also need Woodrow for ruminating walks.


Because I can’t imagine setting out on a journey without a map, I always, always outline, although the outlines always change; for THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS, I had at least 11 outlines apiece! Finally, when all the writing and revising is done, it’s promotion season, as it is now. This is the delightful time when I get to go out on the road to bookstores, book clubs and events to meet the readers who have been so wonderful and supportive to me and my books. I very, very much hope everyone will come out and let me introduce them to THE STORMCHASERS, and I hope you will love my second baby as much as I do.

Me: Thanks so much, Jenna!


JB: Thank you!


(Author photo from Jenna Blum's Official Website)

2 comments:

  1. This was a great interview, Susan! I enjoyed it very much. I'm planning on reading STORMCHASERS soon.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great interview! I read Those Who Save Us around when it came out, and it's one of the best books I've ever read! It's great to get to read more from the author about it! :-)

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