By Marian Kaufman
Anne Raeff, the judge for our annual James Knudsen Prize for Fiction, spoke with us about her passions for teaching, travel, history, and the influence of these passions on her writing.
Her first novel, Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia, was published in 2002. She has published stories and essays in various journals, including New England Review, ZYZZYVA and Guernica. She has taught for over twenty years, primarily working with recent immigrants. Fluent in four different languages, she has traveled and taught internationally. Most recently, her short story collection, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and will be published in October 2016. She currently lives in San Francisco with her wife and two cats.
Readers have already gotten a taste of your short-story collection, The Jungle Around Us, from the story, “The Doctors’ Daughter,” published in Guernica. In the story, two doctors escape from WWII Vienna to a remote Bolivian village, where their daughter falls in love with a local boy. Can you tell us how this particular story relates to the collection?
Much of my writing is about displacement and the lingering effects of war and violence on individual lives, yet my work also examines the ways in which we find shelter and connection despite the dangers that are always lurking. In The Jungle Around Us, the jungle is both metaphorical and real, and, perhaps more importantly, the jungle is both menacing and protective. The source of these themes in my writing is my family history. Both my parents were refugees. My mother is from Vienna. She and her family escaped to Bolivia in 1938 when the Germans annexed Austria. They lived there for five years until they were able to get visas to come to the United States. My father was born in Russia. His parents were socialists, so they left the Soviet Union when Stalin came to power. They moved to Berlin, and then when Hitler came to power, to France. In 1941 they arrived in the United States after fleeing France through Spain and Portugal. Thus, though I grew up in the safety of the New Jersey suburbs, the legacy of war and genocide, exile and flight were never far away.
You are also a nonfiction writer, and you have contributed to the essay collection, What I Didn’t Know: True Stories of Becoming a Teacher, coming out this month. Is there a difference for you in writing nonfiction and fiction?
Writing nonfiction is not that different from writing fiction. A work of nonfiction is still a story, and the author must find a way to make that story compelling. I suppose what makes writing nonfiction easier is that the plot is already there. One just has to find the essential details that are needed to tell it. Yet this also makes it more difficult because one cannot go to one’s imagination for the perfect image, the perfect conversation. We must work with what exists. I suppose writing nonfiction is like taking photographs. We have to find the story that already exists and find a way to capture that moment of truth that lies within all good stories. Writing fiction is more like painting. The images can come from one’s imagination, from a composite of experiences and realities, but in the end a painting, like a photograph, must move us. It must be the truth.
You have said that there’s an important connection between teaching and being a writer. Will you elaborate on this?
What I meant was two things. First, that in order to write one must live life, be part of it. One must have experiences and connect on a deep level with other human beings. These connections and experiences become part of who we are as people and as writers. Second, as writers we must imagine other people’s lives so that we can tell our characters’ stories. Teachers must do the same thing. We must know our students as we know our characters so that we can figure out the stories they need and want to know.
Your fiction is often based in historical settings that align with your own family history. For instance, “The Doctors’ Daughter” seems to draw on your family’s experience living in Bolivia after fleeing Vienna. How did you conduct your research?
I would say that I did most of my research for my fiction listening to my parents’ and grandparents’ stories when I was growing up. I also continue to listen and ask questions to this day. I read a lot of nonfiction as well, though I don’t read with any specific goal in mind. I read what strikes me as interesting, and what I learn often finds its way into my fiction.
The other form of research takes place through traveling and living abroad. Setting is extremely important to me, and I never set a story in a place that I have no connection to. I am currently working on a book that takes place in Nicaragua where I have been several times. Two summers ago I went back to Nicaragua so that I could have fresh experiences and images to use in my book. I also had the idea that the proposed transcontinental canal project was going to be a key issue in the book, so I talked to a lot of people about the canal and what they thought of the project. As it turns out, that the canal will not be built, at least not in the foreseeable future, and my novel went in another direction, but just being there and talking to people helped me figure out what the book was actually about.