Friday, February 18, 2011

Interview with Erika Dreifus, Author of Quiet Americans

Welcome to Erika Dreifus, author of the short story collection, Quiet Americans.
Today is one of the last stops her on her Winter 2011 Blog Tour. I’m so happy that she could be with us.

As I wrote last week, I met Erika while we were both studying writing and literature in Prague in 2004.

Quiet Americans is a short-story collection that is largely inspired by the histories and experiences of her paternal grandparents, German Jews who escaped Nazi persecution and immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. As you read Erika’s thoughtful answers to my questions below, you’ll learn about how she created fiction from family stories and history and her approach to writing.

I invite you to pose follow-up questions or comments below.


Q. You’ve said that your book is inspired in part by your paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. While I’m sure that parts of the book came naturally from your immersion with family stories and historical and religious learning throughout your life, can you discuss the oral, historical and/or social research that you conducted prior to (or during) the writing of your book? Are there particular characters who reflect real, or combined, people? Were there details that you worked to exclude?

A. First, Chloé, thank you so much for having me here. I enjoy your blog and visit it often, so it's a special pleasure to be "meeting" your other readers this way.

Well, there are seven stories in Quiet Americans, and I could probably fill ample pages (not to mention bandwith) with the specifics of the research that went into each story. So perhaps I'll try to focus on one example: the book's opening story, "For Services Rendered."

The kernel of the story is indeed based on a “real” person and circumstances I'd heard about, many times, from my paternal grandmother. When she arrived in this country in the late 1930s, my grandmother found a job as a nanny for a Jewish-American family whose little girl was a patient of a refugee pediatrician, another German Jew (this doctor later became my father’s pediatrician as well). As my grandmother told the story, that pediatrician, back in Germany, had cared for the offspring of “a high-level Nazi” who had advised him to "get out of here."

My grandmother never named precisely which Nazi it was, and by the time I began writing the story, it wasn't possible to ask her anything more, since she had passed away. In any case, here is where the research came in handy.

I worked hard to make “For Services Rendered” historically plausible. For instance, I was careful to adhere to the chronology of Hermann and Emmy Göring’s marriage and parenthood, as well as to the historical timeline of restrictions placed on Jewish physicians in Nazi Germany. I consulted several history books. Also helpful were Emmy Göring’s memoir, which I read in English translation, and newspaper accounts of her postwar trial.

Q. We met while we were both attending the Prague Summer Program in 2004. You have also completed other writing residencies and workshops. Before you leave for such a program, do you have a particular project in mind? If so, what do you do to prepare your writing project (the ideas and actual drafts)?

A. Prague was wonderful, wasn't it?

Truthfully, the preparation varies and depends on the program. For example, I've attended some workshops that require participants to pre-submit the manuscript that will be their primary focus during the session. Typically, such programs offer specific guidance on manuscript length, formatting, etc. In these cases, you want to submit work that isn't so entirely new that it may still lack the coherence and organization that will assist your instructor and classmates in providing a useful critique. But at the same time, you don't want to submit anything that you've already polished to such a level that you may not truly welcome suggestions for further change (this is a lesson I've learned the hard way!).

On the other hand, I have also had opportunities to generate entirely new work, especially when I have won residencies. For instance, the collection's concluding story, "Mishpocha," began germinating in my mind during the summer of 2006, but I did not begin writing it until I traveled to Maine for a residency at the Robert M. MacNamara Foundation that fall. I brought with me a number of books and other materials to help push the project along, and with the luxury of time and a beautiful setting, I really did accomplish a lot of what I set out to do in those weeks.

Q. It is daunting to think about completing a manuscript, revising it, and submitting it, all while working full-time, maintaining two blogs, and continuing with your other commitments (family, friends and household.) How do you manage to keep up with and succeed at so many ventures? In particular, I wonder how you are able to switch your mind over to a “writing mode” when you do have time to write?

A. Thank you, Chloé, but I have to tell you that I don't necessarily feel as though I'm keeping up and succeeding all that well much of the time! One big change for me and my writing occurred about four years ago, when I shifted from teaching and freelancing to a full-time, salaried staff job at a university. This obviously altered all sorts of patterns, including my writing patterns.

In particular, I was finding it very difficult to write new fiction. But I discovered that my new life was amenable to poetry-writing. It remains rather mysterious to me, but I suspect that the ability to focus on a single image or idea in a poem, and the possibility of writing an entire (albeit very rough) draft of a poem in a single evening or weekend afternoon may have something to do with it. Not to jinx myself, but I suspect that I will have a book-length poetry manuscript completed long before I have a new book-length work of fiction. (This one took me nearly a decade, from drafting the first story to publication.)

Q. Often writers will say that they feel as though earlier pieces or drafts contain kernels of a later piece. When do you think you first started on this collection of short stories? Did they develop through other pieces?

A. Well, as I suggested a moment ago, this collection goes back about a decade. Three of the seven stories I first wrote and workshopped as an MFA student. When I began my MFA program in 2001, I’d just signed with an agent who was representing the novel I’d been working on for the previous five years. The agent was preparing to begin “shopping” the novel, so at that point, it didn't seem to make sense to continue submitting it for critique—we were waiting to hear what editors had to say.

But—and this was one very good aspect of my MFA program—I was required to submit 8-25 pages of fiction every month for four semesters. So I began writing stories—many stories—and my graduating thesis was an early iteration of a story collection. Over time, and as I continued to write new stories, the collection changed. I added stories, I removed stories, I revised stories. But the "oldest" story in the book dates from a draft written in 2001.

Q. Finally, what is the best piece of advice that you received as a writer and continue to follow today?

A. Advice can be tricky, because I believe that each writer's practice is so individual: What works for one writer may not work for another. On the other hand, there is something that I believe to be "a truth universally acknowledged": If you want to write, you must read.

Portions of the proceeds from sales of Quiet Americans will be donated to The Blue Card, which supports survivors of Nazi persecution and their families in the United States.

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