A Conversation with Joanna Hershon
Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia, a novel, and How This Night Is Different, a collection of short stories. She is a fiction editor at Nextbook, editor-at-large of Jewcy, and an adjunct assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University.
Elisa Albert: Much of modern Jewish literature tends to focus on the Eastern Europe experience–Yiddish, the Holocaust, shtetl life, etc. What inspired you to tell this particular tale about a kind of Jewish experience that might not be quite so familiar to readers?
Joanna Hershon: While The German Bride is certainly a very Jewish book, I didn’t set out to write a novel about a “Jewish experience.” After writing and publishing two contemporary novels, I knew that I wanted to write quite a different book, one that would require a great deal of research. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, but I wanted to study as I wrote. Essentially, I kept my ears open and one day, a friend of mine made an offhand comment about how his ancestors were “Jewish cowboys,” and that his great-great-grandmother was currently a famous ghost haunting a hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My friend’s personal connection to Judaism was minimal, and he knew very little about his ancestors besides these conversational snippets, but these snippets were compelling enough that I told him (jubilantly!) right then that I’d found my next novel. I contacted his father, who knew a little more information, and then I began with researching his family, which led me to spend years reading about German Jewish pioneers. Originally, I’d intended to set the novel in both the present and the past, but I became so focused on the story of these immigrants–so brave and so varied–that the past basically took over. In terms of the book being a Jewish one: I suppose I was so strongly drawn to the story because I am always interested in stories about Jews in unlikely places, how the true extent of the diaspora is so much greater than many people–even very well-educated Jewish people–realize. While writing my novel, one of the main responses I encountered, after explaining I was writing about German Jews in the American southwest, was “Jews lived there?” More and more, I wanted to illuminate these people’s lives. Though their community was relatively small, they made an extraordinary impact on their surroundings, and thus, on American history.
EA: What particular research sources most inspired and informed you?
JH: My original conception for The German Bride did not include nearly as much about Germany, but after reading Amos Elon’s exceptional book The Pity of It All, I became very interested in what my characters were leaving behind. The notion of memory as identity probably became a theme of the book–at least more directly–because of this very rich resource. I was also very inspired by the smallest ephemera–a “commonplace book” that I held in my hands at the Leo Baeck Institute, a cookbook, photographs, very fine paper, so thin and old–I could only imagine how precious such things must have become when they’d survived such perilous journeys. Also different European accounts of arriving in Santa Fe–nearly all of them described the view as less than inspiring. As I find so much beauty in Santa Fe–its beauty is nearly cliché these days–it was important to see the town and old photographs of the town in a historical context. And then there were the (very few) female firsthand accounts of the Santa Fe trail, which were invaluable. I think the process of doing research throughout the writing of the book (because I never really stopped researching) affected my writing in positive ways. The research slowed me down and forced me to add layers of detail as I found them. As I grew to know my characters better, I was scrupulous about not including research just for research’s sake, and so these layers of detail became layers of meaning, defining my characters very specifically.
EA: Eva’s story takes place during the same period in which Zionism would have been sprouting into existence. Was the long-delayed building of the promised house an intentional metaphor for the plight of Jews in the diaspora, whose homeland seemed forever just out of reach? How does that parallel strike you?
JH: For the most part, the Jews who immigrated to Santa Fe were not particularly religious, and though as a group they took pride in their Jewishness, they were practical, business-minded Europeans. What struck me about them was how they identified perhaps most strongly with being German. This push and pull of identity is something I find fascinating and consistently relevant. So much of my intellectual energy tends to be caught up in the plight of the individual–which is a very American attitude, I realize–and the subtle gradations of identification. That aside, of course the book is also about Jews as a people, and though I hadn’t intended the house to be a metaphor for Zion, this intrigues me. I certainly think it’s a compelling parallel.
EA: Abraham and Meyer Shein have a moving, complicated brotherhood. We see them at their best trading at the pueblo; otherwise their kinship is duly strained by Abe’s irresponsibility/thievery and Meyer’s censoriousness. Though their connection is much different than the one between Eva and Henriette, the novel seems hinged on these two very intense, very committed, very tragic sibling relationships. How do you think sibling struggles define character in a way that other familial bonds can’t?
JH: I have long been intrigued by the power of sibling relationships–or the lack of them–so this always seems to make its way into my work. Having thought a great deal about why this is the case, I always arrive at the fact that there is something inherently dramatic about being born into the same family. This is not breaking news, I know, but still the seemingly random fates of families never fails to stun me. No matter how hard one might try to shrug family off, or for that matter draw family closer, there is a particular intimacy at work, and where there is intimacy there is bound to be questions of perspective. Being a sibling (for the most part) never requires the inherent selflessness of being a parent, and maybe this is where the drama starts–the immediate tremendous intimacy on a level playing field.
EA: Eva looks up to Beatrice Spiegelman in some ways–Bea is rich but not spoiled, unafraid of a difficult new life in the west, and possessing of a can-do assurance. Ultimately, however, Eva recognizes Bea as fundamentally an “innocent.” What do you think separates Bea from Eva as such, and how would you characterize the price Eva pays to come into her own wisdom and womanhood?
JH: Beatrice Spiegelman is a rare kind of optimist. I don’t imagine that anything too terrible has ever happened to Beatrice; however I also believe that her nature is such that if something terrible did happen to her, she would face it with tremendous courage and positivity. She is an innocent in that she sees the world clearly and without melancholy. Perhaps this kind of optimism requires a predisposition to not dwell on anything too emotionally complicated and this too is innocent, if willfully so. As for the price Eva pays to come into her own wisdom and womanhood, I think that surely one price is that of tremendous loss–both of her loved ones and her original aspirations. But throughout her suffering, I do see her as a sensualist and an escapist, as well as fiercely loyal, and there are certainly pleasures in these qualities, pleasures that–even as her desires might have brought suffering to her–might have also given Eva strength to face the unknown.
EA: The novel is framed by two very different portraits: The first is a full-length portrait of the young, virginal Eva by Heinrich in Germany, and the second is a daguerreotype from the neck up of a pregnant, decidedly older and wiser Eva in Santa Fe. How do these two images and mediums reflect the changes and damages life has wrought?
JH: These two images haunt the novel in its progression. Painting is a messy medium; though of course there are meticulous painters, paint itself is fluid and primal and I can’t think of a better medium to convey Eva in the first part of the story. That her body is included in the portrait is not incidental, though I certainly never imagined the portrait itself as sexualized. That by the end of the novel she is being “captured” again and this time by a photographer–I wanted to put her in this uncomfortable situation while she was pregnant, so that she’d be forced to remember the feeling of being watched and realize that her life could not feel more different right then than how it did on that one pivotal long-gone day. Also, the use of photography as opposed to painting is a reminder of how many changes are happening during this time in America’s history. Western expansion is in full force and societies are growing– creating the need for something so civilized and seemingly frivolous as portrait photographers. Because of how ubiquitous photographs are now in daily life, it did feel like using this medium toward the end of the book helped create some of the tension between the modern and Victorian sensibilities. Additionally–and perhaps most saliently–while doing my research I was greatly influenced by portrait photography; I would sit for hours (procrastinating?) just looking at portraits– at inscrutable faces–searching for clues.
EA: Levi Ehrenberg says he “came to escape [his] family.” Can a pioneer be someone running away from rather than necessarily toward something?
JH: I think that–whether it is from an oppressive political regime or an abusive relationship–escaping can be a kind of pioneering act. Many heroes create their destinations en route and invent their aspirations while they are busy surviving. Of course there are pioneers who have a dream and then methodically work toward that dream but sometimes surviving a terrible or even dispiriting circumstance can bring about bravery and originality, and it is only after fleeing that the dream can begin to exist.
EA: Uncle Alfred is a real presence in The German Bride, despite the fact that we meet him only via letters and memories. He stands outside the narrative but very much influences it. Can you talk about your conceptualization of him–who he is and what shape his political views take?
JH: My conceptualization of Uncle Alfred was in one sense purely intuitive and in another sense carefully constructed. I’m interested in characters whom are absent and how this absence can create an identity for those who are left behind. Also, it seems that many families during this time had various family members of different generations living under one roof and this immediately seemed rife with possibility to me. The character of the mother who dotes on her younger brother rather than her husband and children was a jumping-off place. The more I learned about German history the more I knew that I needed to infuse the narrative with as much of the 1848 revolutions as I could, given that I wanted my American narrative to begin after the Civil War. The revolutions of 1848, which took place in Italy, France, and then throughout much of Europe, including Germany, erupted as a result of many different sources, but the common themes were ideas of liberalism and nationalism. As technology created more avenues of expression for working people, a fight for freedom of the press became more relevant. As I learned about these revolutionaries, whose concerns sounded eerily contemporary and entirely relevant, I felt more and more compelled to address these issues. (Also, how could I resist including a historically accurate revolutionary living in Parisian exile?) The challenge was, of course, to let in as much of this information as possible in a way that was organic to my main characters and their concerns. When I realized that Alfred could have known Heinrich Heine, who is such a phenomenal and complicated character in the history of German Jewry, there was yet another layer to explore. I think of Uncle Alfred as a sort of cultural and political guiding force, shaping and challenging Eva’s ideas as she creates her own revolution, which, in the context of history, is not insignificant, no matter how personal or small.