Thursday, 6 August 2015

Author Interview: Pam Jenoff

Today I'm handing over the reins of the blog to Emma who had the chance to interview author Pam Jenoff about her latest book The Last Embrace which Emma will also be reviewing later.  
Can you give us a brief outline of your new book 'The Last Embrace'?
THE LAST EMBRACE is the story of Adelia Montforte, a 16 year old Italian Jewish girl who emigrates to the Philadelphia in the early years of World War II.  Her aunt and uncle take her to vacation at the New Jersey shore, where she falls in with an Irish Catholic family that has four sons. She develops a crush on the eldest, Charlie, and he finally notices her. But just as they find happiness, war breaks out and tragedy strikes.  Addie flees her pain, first to Washington and then war-torn London.

You say this book began life over twenty years ago. What made you decide to come back to it? I love how you describe it as a kind of reverse Little Women in terms of a young girl becoming close to a family of four sons. 
THE LAST EMBRACE is not a new project for me, but a manuscript I started almost 20 years ago.  I was living in Europe at the time; I was in my early 20s, alone and halfway around the world from my family.  (And this was before cell phones and the internet so I really was quite alone over there.)  In the solitude of living remotely, I realized consciously for the first time what I had known all along: that I wanted to be a writer.  So I began a story about Adelia, a young girl who goes to the beach for the summer and meets a family with four sons vacationing next door. For many months, I struggled with the manuscript – I had no English speaking peer group of writers and no way to connect with writing resources back home.  I tried to publish it and failed.  Ultimately I put it in a drawer and forgot all about it.  

Only I didn’t forget.  A few years ago, I pulled it out again.  The language, though unpolished, leapt out and grabbed me, still ringing fresh and true.  I knew there was still a story there worth telling.  So I developed the concept, set it during the Second World War, and made the families in the book fail from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.  But it was not just a homecoming for the manuscript – working with my own words from a lifetime ago was like having a conversation with my younger self and I could see who I had been and how far I had come since then.  

On some level I think I was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN, with the boy Laurie living next door to Jo and her three sisters.  More recently, I’ve come to realize that some of Addie’s choices (no spoilers here!) were also inspired by Alcott’s work.  

Did you find it difficult writing of two characters from different religious and ethnic backgrounds considering the conflict it caused during World War Two?
With my previous books set during World War II in Europe, I have often written about characters from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.  But here it was two families from different backgrounds.  Addie is Jewish and she is an immigrant and her perspective is very different from the Connallys, who are Irish Catholic.  They lived in different neighbourhoods in the city.  I find it so interesting to explore the divisions (cultural, racial, etc.) that existed on the home front.

Who was your favourite character to write about and why?
Although none of my work is autobiographical, I’ve learned after eight books that some stories are just more personal than others.  Such is the case with Addie in THE LAST EMBRACE.  I began writing about her almost two decades ago and so we have grown up together.  I see a lot of my younger self and growth in her.

Do you think it was unusual at the time for such a young girl like Addie to flee Italy for America only for tragedy to unfold which causes her to uproot again?
I think that times were desperate and parents made many hard decisions to send children and young adults on by themselves to a country they thought would be safer.  As to the subsequent tragedy (again no spoilers) I’m not sure one can generalize about something so personal or the response one might have to it…

What made you give Addie the job of a war correspondent? Would many women at the time have held such an important job?
Technically, she isn’t a correspondent.  She is a typist turned translator turned copyeditor, who finds herself in some unique situations with an opportunity to witness history.  There were women correspondents for sure, though.  One of the reasons I adore writing about this period is that so many women were shaken from the roles they might have traditionally played and challenged to greatness.

How essential do you believe the romantic element of the story was and was it challenging to balance this alongside the historical factual elements?
I don’t think in terms of writing a romantic element.  Instead I consider it one of just many relationships in the book – parent/child, sibling, friend.  If I treat the female lead’s romantic relationships in this way, their choices will ring much truer to the story.

Of course the larger question is how to balance the needs of the story alongside the historical elements.  This is always a struggle.  For example, getting the timeline right is one place where I do not like to mess with history.  Other times, I’ve decided to take liberties, such as fictionalizing Churchill’s niece.  It is very tricky to write fiction and still maintain historical accuracy, but I believe it is a promise I make to my reads and I shall always try my best.

How much research did you undertake before writing 'The Last Embrace' and did you uncover anything unusual in the process?
Writers take different approaches to this – one writer I know says she has to research for months ahead of time so that the research is “sewn into her skin” before she begins to write.  Others like myself do just enough ahead of time and then research as we go.  I use many different resources:  I memoirs, correspondence and accounts of people who lived during a particular period are particularly useful.  Periodicals from the era, magazines and newspaper, are great, as are photographs.  The archives to a museum or institute that are fully online can make it as though I was actually there.

For this book, I particularly enjoyed learning the details of everyday life in London during the war, how it changed during and after the Blitz. I also enjoyed learning about the lives foreign war correspondents led.  Stateside, it was fascinating to learn about the role my own shore town, Atlantic City, played during the war, training thousands of soldiers at what was dubbed “Camp Boardwalk.”   

You have studied history as a postgraduate so what period in history interests you the most and why?
I read history at Cambridge as a postgraduate, spending two years doing nothing but research is the dusty stacks at the Wren Library and the archives of the Public Records Office at Kew Gardens.  (My master’s thesis was based not around World War II but the Paris Peace Conference.)  My books are also inspired by my years as a diplomat for the State Department in Poland, working on issues related to the Holocaust, as well as some time at the Pentagon.  So I would say modern history, 20th century.  I particularly like illuminating buts of little-known history (though my work is fictitious, it is often inspired by real events.)  I also like exploring what life was like for everyday people and how their lives were changed by extraordinary circumstances.

You mention as an American you find it daunting to portray life abroad. What challenges did this present you with while writing the book?
It is always challenging to write about another country and culture.  Even though I am still writing from the perspective of an American, I think there is close scrutiny to make sure I get the “details” right.  Nowhere is this more true than wartime Britain, which is so central to the nation and its identity.  And I consider my UK readership to be one of my most important.  So no matter how much I research and ask British friends and editors to double check me, I still sit up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, wondering what I have gotten wrong.

What message would you like readers to take from The Last Embrace?
I believe the central question of THE LAST EMBRACE is: can there be a second chance at first love?  I hope that readers will enjoy exploring that question in their own lives and the context of the book as they share Addie’s journey.

How do you plan to celebrate publication day?
Honestly, it will be like any other day.  I have three small children and a day job as a law school professor.  I may go to my local bookstore and see it on the shelf, something which never gets old.  I will check obsessively online for reviews.  Then I will get back to my next book and the massive deadline I am facing! 

Finally can you give us any clues as to what you are working on at the moment?
I am so very excited to tell you that my next book, THE AERIALIST, will be out next year.  It was inspired by true stories and it tells of a young woman who rescues an infant from a Nazi train car full of babies headed east, and find shelter with a German circus that is rescuing Jews.  Stay tuned!

August 1940 and 16-year-old refugee Addie escapes Fascist Italy to live with her aunt and uncle in Atlantic City. As WW2 breaks, she finds acceptance and love with Charlie Connelly and his family.

But war changes everything: secrets and passions abound, and when one brother’s destructive choices lead to the tragic death of another, the Connelly family is decimated, and Addie along with them.

Now 18, she flees, first to Washington and then to war-torn London where she is swept up with life as a correspondent. But when Charlie, now a paratrooper, re-appears, Addie discovers that the past is impossible to outrun. Now she must make one last desperate attempt to find within herself the answers that will lead the way home.

Amazon links: Kindle or Paperback

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