Besides being a bestselling author, the amazingly talented Pam Jenoff used to hold the position of Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army before moving to the State Department. These jobs gave her the opportunity to travel to different locations around the world, finding herself surrounded by the history of WWII and becoming an expert on Polish-Jewish relations. She eventually left the Foreign Service to become a labor and employment attorney, and she currently teaches law school at Rutgers.
We were so excited here at Germ when Jenoff agreed to answer our questions about her writing process and about her newest novel, The Winter Guest, which was recently released at the end of August.
For a little background on The Winter Guest, here’s the book description that can be found on Jenoff’s website:
Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor. Though rugged, independent Helena and pretty, gentle Ruth couldn’t be more different, they are staunch allies in protecting their family from the threats the war brings closer to their doorstep with each passing day.
Then Helena discovers an American paratrooper stranded outside their small mountain village…
Can you tell us about your writing process?
I start with an idea, and then I write about 150 pages of whatever comes out, just the worst possible stuff (“vomiting on the page,” someone once called it). Then when it gets unwieldy, I go back and start organizing, making chapters and charts. It is the messiest, most time-consuming way to write a book, and I don’t recommend it. It takes me about a year to write a book, and I prefer to write 7 days a week, 2-3 hours a day first thing in the morning. At night I can research or take notes longhand.
When did you first become interested in writing?
I had always wanted to be a novelist. I was one of those little kids scribbling stories and showing them to anyone who would read them. But I never could quite get started. The turning point for me was actually the events of 9/11 – which happened one week to the day after I became a practicing attorney. I had an epiphany. What I mean is, while being a lawyer was a fine and admirable profession, I had this dream of becoming a novelist, and I realized if I had been one of those 9/11 victims that never would have happened. So, I went and took a course called “Write Your Novel this Year.” Seriously. And I started to work on my first book, inspired by my years in Poland. The catch was that I was a new attorney at a big law firm with a mountain of student loan debt. So, I had to work and write. For many years, I wrote my novels from 5 to 7 in the morning before I went to the firm. Now, I don’t practice law anymore, I’m a law school professor, and I have kids. So, I have to juggle, and I don’t really write in the morning anymore. But that was my regimen for all those years in practice.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you push through it?
I work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. I don’t believe in writer’s block. When I was practicing law, I couldn’t simply say, “I can’t write that brief; I’m not inspired.” I just did it, and I take much the same approach to writing. That said, there are things that help: I read something at night, a book on a craft or some research and take notes so that I have prompts to write from the next morning, even if I’m bleary-eyed from not sleeping.
What are your favorite types of stories to write? How does this differ (if it does) from the types of stories you wrote when you were younger?
I think the focus on my writing was changed by my years in Poland for the State Department. The stories I’ve written since have been focused on the Second World War. But my style of writing has not changed. Recently I was able to return to a story I started twenty years ago and use material from it for a book. I loved returning to those rich, unedited pages and finding something worthwhile there.
How do you find inspiration for your different books? Does it find you, or do you go looking for it?
Both: I read, I stay aware, and then ideas come to me. I usually have an idea for the next book waiting in the wings.
I’ve noticed that WWII is a pervasive theme throughout your various books. What attracts you to this era? How long have you been interested in this era?
I was sent to Poland as a diplomat for the State Department in the mid-1990s. At that time, Poland had just come out of the years of Communism, and there were many issues from the war that had not been resolved. So I found myself working on issues such as anti-Semitism, restitution of Jewish property, and preservation of Auschwitz and the other camps. I also became close to many of the elderly survivors, and they became like grandparents to me. I returned to America profoundly moved and changed by those experiences and wanted to write about them. Sixteen years later, I am still writing about them. I try to write with a love and respect for the people and the hardships they suffered.
Did you have any family members who lived in Europe during WWII or who fought in WWII? What made you want to write The Winter Guest?
I did not have anyone in my family in Europe during the Holocaust; we were fortunate that everyone had fled earlier. I did have a grandfather who fought in both Europe and Asia. But I was equally influenced by the stories of survivors I met while living in Poland.
In addition to my broad interest in World War II and the Holocaust, there were two specific inspirations for The Winter Guest. First, before becoming a diplomat, I worked at the Pentagon and was fortunate enough to travel to the 50th anniversary of WWII commemorations around the globe. We went to a commemoration in the mountains of Slovakia where a young local girl had helped hide the partisans and bring them food. Her bravery inspired Helena’s story in my book.
Second, The Winter Guest opens in the present day where some human bones have been found in Poland and then goes back in time to show the story behind them. I was inspired by actual stories of bones being found when I was working in Poland as a diplomat for the State Department. Many Jewish cemeteries were destroyed by the Germans, and sometimes when there was commercial development, bones from those cemeteries would be discovered, raising complex questions of what should be done with the site. I thought the hidden history of some bones (fictitious in this case) would make an interesting premise for a book.
Are there any characters in The Winter Guest (or your other books) that are based on or inspired by people in your life?
All of my characters are fictitious. However, as I said, Helena was inspired by the Slovak girl who helped the partisans. The resistance leader, Alek, is inspired by the true story of the Krakow resistance (which I first highlighted in The Kommandant’s Girl).
Do you have any sisters or brothers? If so, did that help with writing that sisterly bond?
I have an amazing brother who is a surgeon, but no sisters. In an earlier book, The Things We Cherished, I wrote about relationships between brothers. I wanted to explore sisters, specifically twins, in this one. Coincidentally, or maybe not so much, I have twin daughters (much younger than Helena and Ruth)!
Does your book focus more on the love between sisters or more on romantic love?
Both. It is about the relationships between people and how they are affected by the choices they face in stark times. It is about the gray areas in people.
Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Anne Lamott said, “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.” This is so true. You write wherever you have to in order to get it done.
Do you have any advice for young writers hoping to make a career out of it?
Be disciplined. You have to carve out and protect your writing time really zealously. You make the time to do it. Be tenacious. Don’t give up. It took me a long time to get published, and I think that the only thing that stands between me and lots of other really more talented writers who are not published is that I just kept going. I also think the ability to revise makes a huge difference. The ability to take feedback from an agent or an editor or a peer group and incorporate that into your work makes all the difference.