“Always, there had been so much about him she hadn’t understood. Always, something about her heart had remained unyielding, beyond his comprehension. But that was the point. So much remained beyond his comprehension.”
~ from “For Services Rendered” in Quiet Americans
What is writing if not an exercise in understanding?
Whether we write fiction or non, we are on a journey to make sense of the incomprehensible, to follow the thread of a story until something is revealed, something of meaning to us or the reader or the character in question.
Erika Dreifus has written a collection of stories about characters searching for that meaning, searching to unravel a mixture of complexities in their histories or to reconcile an agony traced to their past. Nelly Freiburg in “Homecoming” grapples with the decision whether or not to return to places of her youth, knowing that everything, including herself, has been permanently altered by war. In “Mishpocha,” David Kaufmann pursues the mysteries behind his identity and uncovers the unexpected. All of the stories in Quiet Americans reveal a deeper understanding of what it means to be Jewish and an American and a survivor.
I’m honored to host Erika today as she answers questions about Quiet Americans and about writing. I am also offering a book giveaway, so, at the end of the interview, be sure to leave your name in the comments. The winning name will be drawn on Tuesday, May 29th.
Now, welcome Erika Dreifus!
CC: One of the short stories in your collection, “The Quiet American, or How to be a Good Guest,” touches not only on the internal conflicts a young Jewish woman faces when returning to Germany but on the larger issue we sometimes all face: speaking up or speaking out. I love this story and the powerful moment at the end. Did this story draw from your own personal experiences in any way?
ED: First, Christi, I want to thank you for hosting me on your wonderful blog. And thank you so much for the kind words about this story. Yes, the story definitely drew from some of my personal experiences (and traits). For example, like the narrator, I did visit Stuttgart in the summer of 2004. I, too, have a terrible sense of direction. And I did, indeed, sign up for a bus tour of the city. But I invented many other elements of the story, and I borrowed (sounds better than “stole”!) one major piece of it, adapting a travel experience in Germany that a dear friend shared with me in a conversation not long after my trip.
This is part of what is so alluring to me about fiction-writing: the opportunity to combine fragments of personal experience, research, what we learn from others, and what we imagine, and create something new and whole in its own right. Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to remember which elements of a story I’ve created entirely and which do, indeed, have roots in my own lived experience. Which is why those stories begin and remain as fiction. I’m pretty meticulous about making sure that anything I label “nonfiction” is, in fact, not fictionalized.
CC: The Jewish Journal calls your book “…a deeply affecting collection of short stories that contemplate how the long shadow of the Holocaust falls across the lives of men and women who come alive in her work.” While the book focuses on the Jewish experience, the stories within appeal to those who appreciate stories of history and culture as well. What do you hope readers take away from Quiet Americans?
ED: What a great question. Well, I suppose I hope that that readers take away a good reading experience, in that they don’t regret having spent their valuable time with the book. I do also hope to capture aspects of history that will soon be *only* history, in that there will no longer be witnesses to share their experiences. And I hope that we all try to think larger, for lack of a better term, that we try to acknowledge nuance and the challenges of moral dilemma and complexity.
CC: On your website, you mention that partial proceeds from your book will go to an organization called The Blue Card. Can you tell us a little more about that organization and whom it serves?
ED: Thank you so much for asking. I think I’ll quote directly from the organization’s website:
“The Blue Card was founded in 1934 in Germany to help Jews fleeing Nazi oppression. The organization got its name from the original blue cards that were issued. Each time a donation was made, a stamp was put on the card to keep a record. Today, when many Jewish community funds support memorials for the Holocaust, education programs, and other causes, The Blue Card has only one mission; that mission, is to get much-needed funds either on an emergency basis or as an ongoing stipend to indigent needy Holocaust survivors. To date, The Blue Card has provided over 20 million dollars to thousands upon thousands of survivors and their families.”
My family has supported The Blue Card for years. And I have indeed explained more about my decision to share some of the profits with The Blue Card on my own site.
CC: Along with being a published author, you are also contributing editor for The Writer magazine and Fiction Writers Review, as well as editor and publisher for the newsletter, The Practicing Writer. What’s your strategy for balancing several writing projects?
ED: I wish I had a real strategy! I have to confess that I’ve begun setting more limits. For instance, I’ve recently had to decline some requests, even from The Writer and Fiction Writers Review, both of which I love.
The newsletter (and my blogs) I see as a way to provide some sustained literary service to the literary community, and that’s important to me. Sticking to a pretty structured publishing structure and schedule seems to help. I’m always so happy when someone lets me know that something from my blogs or newsletters helped them with their writing and/or publishing path. That makes it all worth the effort.
But, like everyone else, I’m always wishing for more time to write (not to mention for all of the reading and ruminating that good writing requires).
CC: What are you reading these days?
ED: One of the great joys of attending the Virginia Festival of the Book in March was the opportunity I had to meet and speak with Thomas Mallon–and to have him sign my copy of his new novel, Watergate. I’m reading Watergate right now. And on the side, I’m savoring the first issue of my new subscription to The Cincinnati Review and the latest issue of Ecotone.
Christi, thank you again for your enthusiasm for Quiet Americans. I am so grateful!
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, a collection inspired largely by the histories of her paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1930s. Quiet Americans has been named a 2012 ALA Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding Jewish literature; it was also cited as a Jewish Journal “Notable Book” and a Shelf Unbound “Top Small-Press Book” for 2011. Erika writes fiction, essays, poetry, and book reviews from her home base in New York City. Web: www.erikadreifus.com.
Thank you, Erika. And remember, readers, to leave your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of Quiet Americans.