Monday, May 10, 2021

Writing Historical Nonfiction: Interview with Gwen Strauss, Author of The Nine

Gwen Strauss is a nonfiction writer as well as an award-winning children’s book author and poet. Her newly published nonfiction book The Nine is currently in development for a TV series. Strauss’ other titles include Trail of Stones, The Night Shimmy, Ruth and the Green Book, and The Hiding Game. She lives in Southern France where she is the director of the Dora Maar House and Hôtel de Tingry, an artist residency program and cultural center.

Gwen Strauss, author of The Nine

Zack Rogow: The core story of this book, the escape of nine fearless women Resistance fighter prisoners from Nazi Germany, takes places in only a few days. The women also have backstories and “front stories” about how they came to be arrested, and what they did after World War II. How did you weave the front- and backstories into the narrative of their escape? 

Gwen Strauss: The actual journey of the escape takes nine days and there are nine women, so from the beginning I thought this would be a great structure, if I could pull off pairing one woman’s story with each day. I ended up mapping it out with index cards the old-fashioned way, on a cork board. I had to maneuver things to keep the story moving, at times shifting to the backstory of the woman that chapter was dedicated to. I realized I couldn’t tell the story in exactly nine chapters, so I had to be more flexible with my structure. I also needed to tell what happened after the war. And for the final drafts, I had the excellent help of my editor Elisabeth Dyssegaard—I owe a lot to her. She was rather ruthless cutting sections, but I realized she was right about keeping the momentum of the story going forward.



Q. One thing I learned from this book was the key role that women played in the Resistance to the Nazis. Could you talk about that?

 

Yes, I had a lot MORE about women in the Resistance in earlier drafts—whole sections about amazing women like Milena Jesenská, Danielle Cassanova, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Germaine Tillion, Odette Rosenstock. I could have just written about all these somewhat forgotten heroes. It’s important to realize that women in France got the right to vote only in 1944, because of the contributions they made in the Resistance. De Gaulle realized they had to be recognized as citizens. Women had a certain freedom during the occupation—more than the men. They could move around. A young man would be stopped and asked why he wasn’t in Germany working for the German war machine. And so little was expected of the women—the Germans didn’t think they were capable of sabotage and undercover work. Marie Madeleine Fourcade, who ran the largest network of agents, kept secret for a long time that she was a woman from both the English she was working with, and of course the Germans.

 

Q. You are personally involved in the story of The Nine through a family connection. Could you talk about how that story finally emerged after many years?

 

My great aunt Hélène told me her story one day quite casually over lunch. She was nearing the end of her life and was ready to talk about it. Because I was a somewhat distant relative, she felt she could open up to me. She hadn’t even told the story to her own daughter. This was something I found again and again as I met the families of these women. They told their grandchildren or nieces or nephews, but almost never did they speak about the experience of the concentration camps to their own children. And most spoke later in life. Immediately after the war there was a general understanding that it wasn’t to be spoken of; everyone was trying to put the dark past behind them. Many women spoke up much later when there started to be Holocaust deniers. The women couldn’t stand by and let history be erased, and many said it was for the women who had died in the camps that they finally spoke up.

 

Q. I understand the book is going to be made into a TV series scripted by the renowned playwright Ella Hickson. What was the process of turning a nonfiction book into such a different medium?

 

I knew nothing of this process, and it has been a huge pleasure to work with Ella. First, we just talked for hours and hours about the women. She asked me questions and I could talk forever—so much information is not in the book. Then later she had a rough map of how she might write the script. She came back to France where I live and we spent a few weeks together. In the morning we met and talked through each beat and episode, trying to figure out how to structure it, what stories would work, what wouldn’t. In the afternoons she wrote. We took lots of liberties with the factual story. Ella really has a sense of this as a playwright—how to tell a story through scenes and dialogue. I absolutely admire how she thinks and works. She wrote a treatment and submitted it to the production company. They had notes and we did another round of edits and brainstorming. So that’s where we are now. The treatment is quite different from the book. And it very much Ella’s voice. I love it. I really hope we can make it into a series. What is fun is seeing how the stories evolve, what is essential stays in. I trust Ella, and that’s a great feeling. I love working with someone I know is a really great writer.

 

Q. At the point where you decided to write this book, how many of The Nine were still alive and who were you able to interview directly? How did you incorporate other sources while keeping a consistent narrative voice?

 

Sadly, when I really started to write the book, all nine had died. I discovered the identity of the last one and found she had only died a few months earlier. It was like chasing a retreating wave. I only spoke with Hélène, my aunt. I spoke with family members or friends of all the others except Josée. I found no one to speak about Josée. I did find written accounts from three of the women and several hours of oral testimony from one of them. Then I found other women who wrote about the same experiences who were with them. In all, I was able to piece together the different accounts.

 

Q. It would seem as if a concentration camp would be the most unlikely place for acts of kindness or solidarity, but your book includes extraordinary examples of these among the women prisoners of Ravensbrück. How did you discover these stories, and what impact did these have on you?

 

Yes, these acts of solidarity were amazingly moving for me. I found that women were more prone to work together as a group, to see that as a tool of survival, then the men were. Maybe men were conditioned to think of “every man for himself.” Women tended to form camp families and take care of the weakest. I also have been thinking that vast organized cruelty is a sort of function of power and the state—whereas true humanity and compassion can only happen on the individual level. It’s a kind of muscle that has to be engaged. I can’t say it enough, people in extreme desperation did extraordinary acts of kindness. I don’t want to forget this. I found a quote from the musician Nick Cave recently that sums it up: “At the heart of grief, and midst of mayhem, carnage and deep sadness, people do beautiful things.”

 

Q. You not only give an account of the historical facts, you create the characters of The Nine, and their relationships with one another. How were you able to get a handle on the more psychological, less fact-based aspects of the story?

 

This was tricky. I struggled with this until I gave myself permission to imagine my way into their story. It’s not a strict historical narrative. I argue that it is nearly impossible to do that when you are writing about people marginalized in the historical archive. It’s also a problem historians confront with African American enslaved narratives. How to give voice to the voiceless? I was inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. I was also inspired by a Jamaican artist named Jacqueline Bishop who has searched the archives for actual quotes from enslaved Caribbean women. There are only fragments, but she embroidered these fragments onto sackcloth that was the fabric they were given for their clothing. She uses this beautiful needlework (again something women did, not valued or considered real art) and uses that act to give voice.

 

Q. You used many different kinds of sources for this book—interviews, journals, memoirs, archival information. How did you create a consistent narrative voice?

 

This is a hard question, because I’m not sure. Writing and rewriting over and over and having a good editor. I easily wrote 50 drafts.

 

Q. When you visited the site of the women’s journey in Germany, what was that like as an emotional experience? What did you learn from that trip?

 

Yes, very emotional. I did two trips to trace their route. One just as I was beginning, before I really knew I would write a whole book about it. And the second one, a few years later, when I was deep into the story. On the second trip I had a better idea of what had happened where, and that was really moving. I was with my sister. I realized with a shock how little ground they covered each day. They were exhausted and so broken during the nine days of their escape. They needed food and rest. Some days they only covered only five kilometers (three miles). Seeing the bridge, or really the Mulde River they had to cross on a broken bridge—I found the repaired bridge and it was impressive to imagine.

 

Q. Of the nine women who are the focus of the book, whose stories particularly resonated with you?

 

I really admired Nicole. I think she was able to take what had happened to her and transform her life. She said that after, without having gone through what she went through, she never would have had the career she had after the war as a feminist. And I also grew to really like Mena. Mena didn’t have a very great marriage and she died young from cancer, but I liked the way she lived passionately. I think if she had found the right husband, or if she had come from another social class, she would have been an artist. I would have loved to read the account she would have written. But I think I found something in each of them I really admired.


Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.


Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Inside the Frame: Ekphastic Poems: guest blog by Steven Winn

 This post is a guest blog by poet and art critic Steven Winn.


It was, so far as I remember, the first ekphrastic poem that made its mark on me. It was a good one, indeed a famously good one – W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” From its invocation of The Old Masters in the second line to its masterly conjuring of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the poem is a shining fulfillment of the ekphrastic form – which, to put it loosely, is a poem or other piece of writing that references a specific work of visual art.


Steven Winn

 A full discussion of the origins and variations of ekphrasis, a term which dates back to the ancient Greeks and is not strictly limited to writing about visual art, is well above my pay grade. A passing point on the matter, to suggest how broad and deep the topic is: Is Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box ekphrastic art? Are the industrial Brillo boxes on which they are made a kind of found art, or do they become so by virtue of Warhol’s deadpan reinvention of them?

 

As it happens, that aside raises both the allure and challenges of ekphrastic poems. At the heart of the matter, it seems to me, is the paired questions of how the poet uses, adapts, transforms, transcends – or possibly misuses and corrupts – the artwork and how the reader receives the finished poem. To put it simply, it’s complicated.

 

Back to Auden’s “Musée” for a moment, and my powerful reaction to it. The poem is glorious in its own right, independent of the reader’s knowledge of the Bruegel painting – a meditation on memory, suffering, the joy of living and our transitory experience of it. But if you happen to be familiar with Icarus, as I was, a kind of chiming chord goes off. You “see” the painting in your mind’s eye, and register Auden’s seeing of it through the details and language he chooses (the ploughman, those “white legs disappearing into the green/Water”, that “expensive delicate ship”) that seem to alchemize paint on a centuries-old canvas into a kind of inner sight – an insight, as it were, into the poem’s deep interior space.

 

I did not, until much later, go search out the Bruegel painting in an art book. I enjoyed the parallax view of my own memory of Icarus and the one Auden had placed in conversation with it.

 

Now, of course, the history of art is in our pockets. No one has to go the library and pull a heavy art history tome off the shelf. Read an ekphrastic poem, and you can find the artwork in a matter of seconds on your cell phone. Inevitably, when someone brings an ekphrastic poem to our writing group, the phones come out and the painting, sculpture, or photograph is there in everyone’s hand. Many ekphrastic poems, especially those published online, appear adjacent to the visual art that inspired or induced them.


I’m of mixed mind about this. No doubt an ekphrastic poem invites the comparison and scrutiny. By its direct reference to a work of art, whether in a head note or in the body of the text, the poem has an obligation. Did the poet get it “right?” Did she faithfully capture some essential quality about the object? Did he do it justice? Do something more than simply describe? Make their own work of art out of the material of another?


Then again, there’s something reductive about that kind of response. It’s as if the poem were being fact checked or submitted to some kind of means test. Yes, we do this as readers with other kinds of poems – ones that allude to myth, history, other poems, etc. But there’s something different about poems based on a specific artwork, a tendency to place the art and poem in a more immediate one-to-one relation to each other.

 

What can happen is a kind of cognitive dissonance, a reading of the poem that’s too heavily informed by the reader’s external, perhaps cursory “check” of the artwork. I’m not suggesting that readers should remain in blissful ignorance. Only that they keep an open mind – and eye – to the fruitful liberties, departures, eccentricities, and transcending visions ekphrastic poets employ.

 

Great examples abound, from Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to Anne Carson’s Van Gogh-inspired “The Starry Night,” Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” to lots of poems based on Edward Hopper paintings. Many poets make the allusions explicit; others embed the artwork so deeply it becomes a kind of submerged river or groundwater.

 

I’ve written ekphrastic poems of both types. Several are overt homages to Paul Klee. Others cite less well-known artists. (In general, I think, the degree of difficulty goes up when an artwork is very well known; a Mona Lisa poem better be damn good.) At the risk of playing favorites among my own work, I remain attached to “In Thessaly,” a poem that came about after a visit to the tomb section of a museum in Thessaloniki, Greece.

 

I like to think that it both is and isn’t an ekphrastic poem. In my mind, at least, it occupies that double-vision space of what I saw and remembered and what I made of it. There’s no reason for a reader to know any of that. But I do – an ekphrastic secret I hope the poem contains without ever quite confessing it.

   

IN THESSALY

 

If you’d been rich

and Byzantine

you never would have

lain alone,

with wife, lithe boys and concubines

to keep

you company,

not to mention

servants bound to serve

when breathless night or wine-

raked thirst or tunneled

webby dreams closed in and

left you

in the darkness

on your own.

That would have passed, of course,

and soon, as sweet murmurs,

inquiring looks, offers of cool

water and consoling hands were

fitted around you

like a barrel-vaulted tomb,

where, along with paintings

of your wife and children

holding hands,

of giant birds, stubby trees

and braided vines,

an image of yourself

would loyally stand guard

above your resting form.


Steven Winn is a San Francisco poet and arts critic.  He writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Classical Voice, Opera Magazine, and others.  His poetry and fiction have appeared in Antioch Review, Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, Southern Humanities Review, and Verse Daily.   

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Hated English Teacher and Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”

We all hated our tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Glicksman. In the late 1960s, a time of rebellion and questioning authority, Mr. Glicksman was an old-school disciplinarian. He had taught high school English since shortly before the rocks were placed at Stonehenge. Any violation of his long list of rules incurred points off your grade or a visit to the dean of students.


Bronx High School of Science, where I studied with Mr. Glicksman
Mr. Glicksman had turned the literary arts into a precise science. He gave quizzes on 3 X 5 cards, a piece of white, lined card stock about as wide as your hand and as tall as your thumb. All information was reduced to a series of ten multiple-choice questions that could be answered on one of these cards when it came time for a quiz.

When we studied Homer’s Odyssey, the test questions did not probe the thought-provoking issues raised by an ingenious traveler battling for decades against a hostile god, mythical creatures, and the elements, while yearning to get back to his wife, son, and homeland. Instead, Mr. Glicksman’s quizzes focused on cold facts. One typical question that sticks in my mind (possibly because I got it wrong!) was: “Did Odysseus bend the bow on the third, fourth, fifth, or sixth try?” The answer is the third try, in case you were dying to know.

 

And yet, Mr. Glicksman loved poetry. His favorite was Alfred Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”:

 

Break, break, break,

      On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

And I would that my tongue could utter

      The thoughts that arise in me.

 

O, well for the fisherman’s boy,

      That he shouts with his sister at play!

O, well for the sailor lad,

      That he sings in his boat on the bay!

 

And the stately ships go on

      To their haven under the hill;

But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,

      And the sound of a voice that is still!

 

Break, break, break

      At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!

But the tender grace of a day that is dead

      Will never come back to me.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
When Mr. Glicksman read that poem aloud to our class, he revealed a rare personal emotion, telling us that those lines recalled for him the death of his own brother. He took off his glasses for a second and wiped away an uncharacteristic tear. We were shocked, but also, having suffered under Mr. Glicksman’s harsh penalties for any minor infraction, the students were ready for revenge. After class, the sophomores mocked him for his soft-hearted response: “Can you believe the way Glicksman almost cried at that corny old poem!”

Not long ago, I was walking by the Pacific Ocean at Sea Ranch in California.


Sea Ranch, California (photo by Esta Brand)
The sky was spread with clouds; waves were fracturing against the rocky coastline. I couldn’t help thinking of the lines Mr. Glicksman had read us:

Break, break, break,

      On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

 

I soon reread Tennyson’s poem, and it moved me, for the first time. It was partly that deeply felt sense of loss that the tides of the ocean pulled out of me that day, and partly the sheer music of the poem’s words.


At first glance, Tennyson’s sixteen lines seem to have a somewhat mechanical plan, with predictable rhymes such as sea and me, and play and bay. But the closer I looked at the poem, the more unconventional it seemed. The first line in stanza 1 has only three syllables, and the same word appears three times in a row. That’s a sharp contrast to stanza 2, where the initial line has eight syllables and no word repeats. The powerful stresses in every line constantly shift the rhythm, from anapestic to iambic to spondaic, evoking the strong but unpredictable swirling of the sea. Tennyson uses mostly monosyllabic words to create pounding beats, and masterfully inserts polysyllabic touches to change up the cadences.

 

Maybe more surprising than the poem’s structure is the fact that the speaker is addressing not a lost loved one, but the sea. The poet says he is unable to “utter/The thoughts that arise in me.” His sense of loss is so jagged that he can barely express it. He can’t even name what or who he’s mourning for.

 

Nothing expressed for me so vividly the feelings the ocean evoked for me that day at Sea Ranch as the poem our teacher had recited to our class, a poem that had lodged in my synapses for 54 years. And I suddenly felt gratitude for that crotchety old Mr. Glicksman, and a sense of loss for “the sound of a voice that is still.”


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.


Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.


Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introduction, the Sonnet, the Sestina, the Ghazal, the Tanka, the Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry




Saturday, March 6, 2021

John Steinbeck’s Epiphany in the Redwoods

Man against Nature—that was one of the great themes of literature that Ms. Weiss taught us to appreciate in eleventh grade English at the Bronx High School of Science. And that theme was certainly recognizable in many of the books we read that year, among them John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 when the author was thirty-seven.


Steinbeck opens The Grapes of Wrath with an unforgettable chapter on the cataclysm that hit the Dust Bowl in the U.S. prairies in the 1930s:

The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air.…

In The Grapes of Wrath, nature feels like a force trying to thwart or obstruct human well-being. What Steinbeck doesn’t mention is that these dust storms were made worse by human factors. Before the region was developed for agriculture, it was filled with tall, deep-rooted prairie grasses. Unsustainable farming practices resulted in an ecosystem with little defense against drought and winds.

Dust storm, U.S. Dust Bowl, 1930s

The Man against Nature paradigm that Steinbeck used in The Grapes of Wrath began to shift in the period after World War II, when the impact of the industrial economy on nature and on human life became more immediate and clear. It’s intriguing that Steinbeck lived long enough to experience and actually influence this shift himself.

At the start of the 1960s, not long before his death at age 66, Steinbeck set off on a quest. “I discovered that I did not know my own country,” he wrote in Travels with Charley, the book where he recounted his trip in an RV with his dog, across the United States. 

John Steinbeck with Charley

At the start of his journey, Steinbeck still looked on America as something of an obstacle: “I was determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land.”

Steinbeck did look again, particularly when he revisited the redwoods of his native California. 

Redwoods, Northern California, USA

This time he saw with new eyes: “The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always,” he wrote. “From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.… The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect.”

Steinbeck’s new encounter with the redwoods towards the end of his life was part of a major shift taking place at this time. In 1962, the same year that Travels with Charley appeared, biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, causing a storm of controversy about the impact of pesticides on the environment and human health, and helping to launch the environmental movement. At the same time, John Steinbeck, in his final years, experienced among the redwoods an epiphany that shifted his way of looking at nature—not as humankind’s opponent, but as the domain of revered elders in the family of living things.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe


Other posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry