Jennifer Rosner on Crafting Evocative Historical Fiction That Honors the Past
Natalie Jenner Talks to the Author of Once We Were Home
I first connected with Jennifer Rosner as fellow debut authors in early 2020 (you might recall what happened next). Historical fiction authors trip upon, excavate and fictionalize stories from the past that in turn inspire each other. I loved Jennifer’s brilliant debut The Yellow Bird Sings and was not surprised to discover two years later that we were both writing, albeit in very different ways, about child separation during WWII. I sat down (virtually) with Jennifer, now a dear friend, to discuss how we approach our craft, the randomness—and many random rewards—of research, and how to honor the people whose lives have lit the creative spark behind our stories.
NJ: The genre of historical fiction is rooted in connection: connection between different people and cultures, connection across time, connection between the head and the heart. Then again, so many books are: E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph—Only connect—could be ground zero for us all. How does connection inform your writing and the stories you choose to tell?
JR: Researching for my memoir, If A Tree Falls, the single-most meaningful detail I uncovered about my ancestors (two deaf great-great aunts who lived in eastern Europe in the 1800s) was that, when they had children, they tied strings from their wrists to their babies at night, so that, if the babies cried, they’d feel a tug in the darkness and wake to care for them. I think much of my writing has been an expression of my own longing to have some sort of connective string—from my mother’s wrist to mine; from my wrist to my daughters’.
In my first novel, The Yellow Bird Sings, a little girl in hiding plays the violin (a stringed instrument) as a way of reaching out for her mother in the darkness. In my forthcoming novel, Once We Were Home, four children seek the threads of connection that will help them solve their puzzles of identity and belonging. One of the characters, Roger, even takes up the philosophical study of what constitutes a self over time.I try to proceed at the level of the ordinary, even in moments of extraordinary difficulty, to reflect a character’s life.
NJ: Something you and I have in common, which I think is somewhat uncommon with historical fiction authors, is the fact that we are both “pantsers” instead of “plotters.” Our books also each share a character or two between them, in the manner of world-building. Do you think that these separate elements of our craft are connected in some way?
JR: I’ve needed to learn to trust that the seemingly unconnected bits I write down will eventually show themselves to be connected, and that my varied ideas, thoughts, and imaginings will cohere…eventually! It’s a slow process for me, and it takes faith that can sometimes waver when a project seems to be going nowhere. But when I’ve tried to plot my stories in advance or outline them, my writing becomes contrived and I can’t seem to access the deeper material that drives me to my desk.
I was bolstered recently by a gesture of a friend of mine, also a writer. While visiting her, I dropped a sticky note of nearly-illegible scrawl—just random ideas scattered this way and that on the little square of paper. A piece of trash, by most people’s lights. Well, she found it beneath her table, and she put it in an envelope and mailed it to me because, as she said in the accompanying note, you never know what may be important. She’s a person whose faith in writing processes I aspire to. If the mind is a web, then every one of our thoughts (scrawls) is somehow connected.
Bringing a character from a past work into one’s future work illustrates this connection, I think. It feels lucky to discover that there’s room to tie past and present writing endeavors together in an organic way. I’m certain that an in-advance outline would have prevented it in the case of my novels, or else it would have been conjured as a contrivance.
NJ: It’s exactly the same for me! I am embarking on my fourth “connected” novel and not once during the writing of any of them, did I ever contemplate the next. It always feels like it drops in my lap.
JR: I took a writing workshop with a brilliant teacher who suggested that each scene we put down might be thought of as a star in the night sky. There may be many different ways to draw lines between these “stars” and thus create a constellation. As our understanding grows along with the work, we see which lines best capture the narratives we want to write.
NJ: One of the joys for me with writing is transporting myself somewhere I already know and love, as a way of returning to it. You have travelled extensively to new countries and conducted intensive on-the-ground research for both your books. How does travel factor into your own historical fiction?
JR: The “on-the-ground” experience of being in a place brings subtle detail to my writing that is hard to access through books, the internet, and so on. When I traveled to Poland for The Yellow Bird Sings, I was lucky enough to have a guide who read my draft manuscript in advance of my trip, and he not only took me to relevant settings but also advised me on such details as the names I was considering for my characters.
In one case, he suggested that the name I’d chosen carried “economic connotations” that didn’t match the character’s circumstances. I had pondered names, their roots and meanings, from online sources, yet I would never have discovered an implication like this without the consultation of someone steeped in a place and its history. In Israel, where I traveled for Once We Were Home, details I’d read about (such as border changes after 1967) came alive with felt emotion when I spoke to a variety of people there. This passion animated my work in the re-drafting after my travel.
I try to research and write as much as I can before travel so that I have a clear sense of where I need to go and what questions I need to ask. Consultations have also been vital to my research, and I’ve been lucky for the generous conversations I’ve had with historians, musicians, mushroom trackers, violin-makers, and others. Writing research can lead to very interesting discussions (and search histories)!
NJ: I focus my initial historical research on time and place but inevitably trip across individual tales that transfix me and which end up part of the story, or—just as often—the next one. The origin story behind your first book, The Yellow Bird Sings, is a goose-bumps one, practically cinematic!
JR: Yes, I was presenting my memoir at a book event, explaining how we were encouraging our daughters, who are deaf like my great-great aunts, to vocalize as part of their training to hear and speak with hearing aids and cochlear implants. Afterward, a woman in the audience shared her story as a young child, having to stay silent and still in a shoemaker’s attic for 24 months during WWII. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it must have been like for her to have to stay so quiet, and for her mother to keep her silenced. It led me deep into my research of hidden children.
Her story was incredible, as were the stories of many others—full of strength and determination. I might have written a non-fiction work, but the topic touched me very personally and fiction enabled my further exploration of mother-daughter bonds, hearing and listening, connecting through silence, and so on.
NJ: Then it happened again, in a way, with your forthcoming book!
JR: The first threads of Once We Were Home, the storylines of Oskar and Ana, were inspired by a conversation I had with a different Holocaust survivor who, in the years after WWII, worked to retrieve Jewish children from the homes of Christian Poles who’d harbored them. The children’s parents had perished in the Holocaust, and a mission took hold to return them to their Jewish roots. Eventually (and often with intense negotiation) many of the Christian rescuers agreed to give up the children.
However, in the face of refusals, other means were resorted to, including just taking the children as they could, from the fields and such. In further research and reading of various testimonies, I learned of the differing reactions of children who were retrieved in this manner, and I began to imagine just how complex it must have been, especially for those who’d formed close bonds with their Christian families after losing their families of origin.
And again, this story wasn’t just of historical or philosophical interest to me but felt personal. As hearing parents of deaf children, we faced the challenge (by some) that our children would be better off raised by others, by people in the Deaf community. The topic of where and with whom a child belongs cuts quite close.
NJ: With the historical impetus behind Once We Were Home, to what extent is each of the four main characters connected to a real-life one, and how did you decide what to incorporate and what not to, while honoring any real people involved?
JR: The characters and their storylines are fictional, though rooted in history. In addition to cases of children reclaimed for Judaism by those who sought to rebuild a nearly-annihilated Jewry, there were wartime cases of children hidden by the Church with the intention of saving their Souls, and cases of children stolen for the purpose of Germanization, to bolster a population thought to be ideal, yet waning. From these broad background strokes, I created the particular characters of Oskar, Ana, Roger, and Renata. Now and then, some small, specific detail from my research would stick in my mind and I’d want to include it. As an example, Roger’s narrative is loosely based on the case of the Finaly brothers, two boys who were concealed by French clergy during—and, in a protracted way, after—the war.It was important to let my characters live and speak their truths.
I read that, during their eventual re-adjustment to Judaism, the younger brother at some point said, “I’m still a little bit Christian.” I was very struck by this line because it so clearly conveyed the identity struggle the children were undergoing, and so I gave it to Roger. In The Yellow Bird Sings, I also wove in various details from the interviews I had with hidden children. It was a way for me to honor their particular ingenuity and resolve.
NJ: Jerzy Kosiński once said that the principle of true art is not to portray but to evoke. I do feel as a writer of historical fiction, with the emphasis on the latter, that my responsibility to the people of the past is to honor them in some way while using the tools of fiction to create a compelling story with resonance for today’s reader. Having written two fictional works set during the most horrific time in human history, what have you learned as an author that helps you with that balancing act?
JR: I sometimes think that images and everyday activities are a writer’s strongest tools. Give a girl a spinning top, or a set of nesting dolls to arrange, one inside the other. Let a boy write invented stories in a paper notebook, or try his hand at wood joinery, where bits of wood are made to fit, snug and secure, like they belong.
There are the big (often devastating) movements of history to deal with; but a person’s life is often lived at the level of small activity, in relation to others, and with objects of attachment.
I try to proceed at the level of the ordinary, even in moments of extraordinary difficulty, to reflect a character’s life.
NJ: I have always loved the “social condition” novels of Victorian times (Dickens, Gaskell, Eliot, et al) where the author uses fiction to illustrate and advance a moral view of how best to live with others in a society—again, how to connect. Your new novel explores the immediate and long-lasting impact of the separation of children from their environment due to the larger desire of a religious or cultural group. I can’t imagine a more morally complex or fraught scenario. As a fiction writer, how much does the process or act of writing affect your own views? Or do you write to express a moral position that you already possess?
JR: When I began work on Once We Were Home, I had moral questions about the acts of displacing individual children in order to rebuild a nearly-lost collective, and philosophical questions about how a child might salvage a sense of identity and belonging in the face of numerous ruptures.
The four cases of child displacements I explore in my novel differ from each other, and the varied contexts are quite significant. They even differ according to a child’s memory of the past.
Rather than push a position, I sought to focus on the emotional and psychological lives of the characters: how would these particular children feel in this moment, and this one? What would they understand of the adult missions at play? I believe this is a powerful way to allow readers to come to the material.
Inhabiting a character’s close point of view often increases a writer’s (and reader’s) empathy, and this practice enabled me to see the ways that even misguided belief, when truly felt, can lead a person along. I still had my moral compass, but it was important to let my characters live and speak their truths. I wanted readers to feel the genuine press of the adults’ missions. Eva had lost her entire family to the Nazis and couldn’t bear that the last remaining Jewish children wouldn’t be brought back into the fold; Brother Jacques truly feared for Roger’s future Salvation, and so on.
Though I make no equivalencies between them, every adult who takes hold of a child in Once We Were Home is convinced of the righteousness of their work, and I wanted them to be understood in this light, even as their actions provoked questions to be pondered.
Once We Were Home by Jennifer Rosner is available from Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan.