I first heard of Fritz Haber in 1998, when I caught a snippet of a TV documentary about 20th-century scientists. The camera zoomed in on an image of a bald man in a military uniform, a pair of pince nez clamped to the bridge of his nose. He looked like a stereotypical German nationalist circa World War I, and that's exactly what he turned out to be: a militaristic Prussian, this chemist whose devotion to the fatherland was so unwavering he had no qualms about creating and deploying the first chemical weapons used in battle. What difference did it make whether someone died from a bullet or from the long, cruel death that ensues after inhaling gas?
"Dead is dead," said Fritz Haber.
The documentary also mentioned Fritz's wife, Clara. A chemist, too, she was kept out of the lab and relegated instead to a life of Küche and Kinder. She spent her last years railing against her husband's deadly work until, unable to sway him, she killed herself. The morning she died, Fritz Haber obeyed the Kaiser's orders and traveled to the eastern front. The Habers' 12-year-old son was left to bury his mother.
A compelling personal story and a story about the 20th century. Chemical warfare, sexism, World War, imperialism, and, because the Habers were born Jewish, the specter of Nazism, exile, diaspora.
"Wow," I said to my husband. "A book about those two would write itself."
The documentary went on to another scientist, and I went on with whatever I was doing that day, most likely working on my first novel, which was definitely not writing itself. But even as I threw myself into my work, I knew I was already obsessed with these Habers. I knew my next book would be about them.
I even knew what that next book would look like. None of this business of coming up with an original plot. My next novel would be a roman à clef. By definition, its plot would simply be a retelling of the verifiable details of Fritz and Clara's lives. Oh, I'd flesh things out by giving them deeply imagined inner lives, and I'd try to make the sentences lovely and lyrical. But basically, I'd just be doing one of those ripped-from-the-headlines kind of narratives.
Without the need to concoct an intricate plot, I told some writer friends over cocktails, the book would take no time at all.
"A book like that would practically write itself," said one of these friends, the most famous in the group, who was either being sincere or sarcastic. It was hard to tell with her.
I decided to go with sincere. I was worry-free when I back-burnered Fritz and Clara. I knew I'd come back to them eventually, and when I did it would take no more than a year, maybe just a few months, for the book to write itself.
The truth is, though, that while I turned the flame down low, I never turned it off completely. Every now and then I'd take a brief break from writing or teaching — I was teaching now, too — and sneak in a little research on my chemists.
That's when I discovered a problem. It turned out there was very little information about Fritz Haber out there and almost none about Clara. Also, what little there was seemed to be mostly in German. How was I to figure out the day-to-day of their lives without biographies and articles and letters in English?
"You can't," the most famous writer said. This time there was no question she meant it.
I was annoyed and embarrassed. I'd forgotten to specify that when my book wrote itself, it needed to do so in English.
A few years passed. The first novel was published. The teaching was going well. I was gaining confidence, was less dependent on the opinions of others. When I turned back to the Habers, I did so with renewed energy. My obsession still burned. All I had to figure out now was how to proceed.
An idea occurred. I would write whatever the opposite of a roman à clef is. Instead of writing about Fritz and Clara Habers' real lives, I'd write about their wholly invented afterlives. Fritz and Clara, dead and waiting to see if they were going to be allowed into heaven: that would be the book. It would be super-fictionalized, fantastical. I'd even throw in a bunch of other historical figures. Whose sins would be forgiven? Who would be forever damned?
Not only did this book not write itself, but it put its foot down and wouldn't let me write it either. I tried, but everything I put on the page was clunky and fake. I just didn't have the imagination for this kind of thing.
The good news was that while I'd been biding my time and spinning my wheels, the research landscape had been changing. The most important of the German biographies had been translated into English. A new biography — also in English — had been published. Feminists and scholars were writing about Clara. The cyber highway, barely existent when I'd first heard of the Habers, was now bumper to bumper with articles about both of them.
I should have been happy. With all this material, I could return to my roman à clef. The book that would write itself could finally get down to work.
And yet here was the thing: I no longer wanted to spend time on a book that could write itself. I'd lost interest in telling a story I now knew inside and out. Why would I want to write a book when I knew how it ended?
After all this time something that should have been obvious from the start finally coalesced. I didn't want to write about Fritz and Clara Haber. I wanted to write about me.
That is, I wanted to know why I, a person living in such a different time and place, a person who stopped studying science after 10th grade biology, was so obsessed with these two chemists. What was it about their lives and legacies that wouldn't leave me alone? Did their stories trigger fear? Grief? Something else that I couldn't yet name or wouldn't yet admit to?
I was implicated now in their story, and that's what it took. Not only did I no longer want the book to write itself, but I no longer wanted to write it from the perspective of Fritz or Clara or even that abandoned 12-year-old. I wanted my narrator to be someone like me. I needed to find someone — invent someone — who shared my obsession and also my questions.
I invented not one but three narrators, sisters born around the same time as me and who lived in the city where I once lived. Their maternal great-grandparents had been chemists who'd lived pretty much the same external lives as Fritz and Clara Haber. But they weren't Fritz and Clara Haber. They were Lenz and Iris Alter. When I gave them those names, made that Alter-ation as my pun-crazy narrators would say, the nature of my project became clear to me, and much of the plot fell in place.
Something interesting happened then. One day, doing some minor fact-checking, I searched the names Fritz and Clara Haber and noticed among the familiar links one for a family tree I'd never before encountered. When I clicked on it, I saw that it included the Habers' great-grandchildren.
A moment before I'd known nothing of this generation, was busily making it up. Now I had names, dates, cities. A few more clicks and I had contact info for a great-granddaughter who lived in England and welcomed correspondence from anyone interested in Fritz Haber.
And so we exchanged emails. She was lovely and generous and happy to help me, though I'd already done so much research, there was little new she could tell me.
I didn't stop writing to her because she had no revelations to share. I stopped writing for the opposite reason. I was afraid she'd eventually tell me something she'd want me to include in my book. I feared she'd have a point of view that she'd want me to express. I was concerned I'd get to like her and become protective of her sensibilities. I was scared of pulling my punches, of being polite, of allowing my Alters to revert to Habers.
I'd once worried about a dearth of research material. Now I'd found a primary source and what did I do? I walked away. It was all right. The book was coming along. I knew that because I was, at last, writing it myself.