Archive for the ‘Until Our Last Breath’ Category

In Search of the Partisans of Vilna

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

I kept a journal on my 2004 research trip to Vilnius, Lithuania, while I was writing Until Our Last Breath. Recently, San Diego Jewish World began an eight-part serialization of that journal, revised and edited for publication. “In Search of the Partisans of Vilna”  will run weekly on Wednesdays through mid-July.   In it, I write about specific experiences that made the  Holocaust more real to me, the emotional impact of my journey, and the insights I gained that enriched the book.

My author page at San Diego Jewish World will have links to all eight parts of the journal. It’s at the halfway point now, with entry 4 published this week.

Abba Kovner and the Partisans of Vilna

Abba Kovner and the Partisans of Vilna

“Begin again, Ernest. And this time, concentrate.”

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

When his good friend Gertrude Stein finished reading an early draft of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, she handed it to him, saying “Begin again, Ernest. And this time, concentrate.”

Susan Vreeland shared this story during her speech for the San Diego Book Awards earlier this month, and I’ve been mulling it over since then. I suspect that what Stein was reacting to was a falling away from the truth in her friend’s novel.

“Truth in fiction?” you might be asking.  Consider this beautiful passage from Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. “When I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

I must admit, I find Hemingway difficult to enjoy. I don’t use his writing as a model because that would be untrue to my own voice, but I love his acknowledgment of the need to be true when I write.  Facts are part of this, of course. It’s important not to write anything contrary to what we know the truth to be, but facts don’t convey much in and of themselves. It’s the meaning constructed from them that matters. That is the core of the writer’s craft, whether in fiction or narrative non-fiction, of which Until Our Last Breath is an example.   

Where does truth come from? Author Henry James offered excellent advice to new writers when he said, “try to be a person upon whom nothing is lost.” In writing about Jews trapped in the ghetto in Vilna or engaging in acts of sabotage as partisans, I didn’t get all my facts from books. I don’t think the book would have been published if I had.  I gathered from my own experience and occasionally from literature (in particular the Bible) the images and sensations that I hope make the book come alive for readers.  Going out without a winter coat on the first warm day in spring, the feel and sound of snow crunching underfoot, the rustle of bodies in a crowded room, the softness of another person’s lips, the sweet ache of first love.  I am my source for these, for they are things I know.

It takes far more concentration, I’ve found, to write “true sentences” with these kinds of facts than with the ones from books.  Susan Vreeland offered as a  blessing for writers this verse from Psalm 19: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight.”  One doesn’t need to believe in God, or anyone outside the self as the judge of one’s work, to know what this means.  As a writer,  I have to be real before my books can be.

 

A page from A Moveable Feast

A page from A Moveable Feast

“Encouraging the Imagination to Come Alive”

Monday, May 25th, 2009

I had the great privilege of listening to Susan Vreeland speak at the San Diego Book Awards on May 16, 2009. Since that evening was rather full of distractions (Until Our Last Breath and The Four Seasons both won in their categories and The Four Seasons won the Theodor Geisel Award for book of the year), it’s taken until now to come down out of the clouds and give a serious thought to what Susan had to say.

Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland

 

 

How wonderful it was to hear a career teacher and novelist bring those two professions together into a powerful statement about teachable moments, and the imperative for serious writers to offer such moments in our work. It’s not enough for non-fiction writers to convey facts.  We have to convey meaning, or better yet, allow readers to find it for themselves. It’s not enough for fiction writers to create characters and plunk them down into a place and time.  If there’s no wisdom to be gained by what happens to them, why bother?

“Writers are “practitioners developing …the compassion born of imagining the lives of others, fictional or real,” she said.  It is both our charge and our honor to encourage the imagination to come alive, for it is with the ability to imagine the lives of others that we move in the direction of real humanity.  “Where there is no imagination, there is no human connection.[…] Where there is no connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, lovingkindness, human understanding, peace–they all shrivel.” 

Shriveled hearts, we all know, are capable of great harm. But as Susan pointed out,  “each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another is a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race.” Forget about writing books that are no more than shallow diversions, she says.   Go for “themes that matter–issues of faith, morality, mortality, humanity, artful living, literature that explores the ways that Love can make a difference in this world.”

I’m thinking now about UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and how well Susan’s words reflect what I was trying to accomplish as I wrote it. 

I would not have been interested in becoming its author at all if the themes she spoke of were not so readily apparent in the story of the Vilna Ghetto.  Amazingly, not a single ghetto resident died of hunger or in an epidemic, despite the horrific conditions.  Why?  Because the community vowed it would not happen.  Mortality statistics in the ghetto for those who were not victims of organized murder were actually lower than in the rest of Vilna in the same period, and only slightly higher than the city’s annual mortality rate in the years before the occupation.  The Jews were in it together, and everyone’s health and safety mattered. They weren’t going to help the Nazis do the job.

That’s the kind of thing I wanted to write about. The themes of community and commitment were found not just there, but everywhere in the story I was privileged to tell, and I think that’s what brought UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH  recognition not just from the San Diego Book Awards, but recently from the Christopher’s as well. The Christopher Medal goes to books and other media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” If the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto and the partisan camps in the Rudnicki Forest did not affirm those values, I could not have written a book that did. 

There’s more from Vreeland’s speech I want to write about.  Look for another post to my diary in a few days.  For now, if you want to read her speech in its entirety, here’s the link.