Author Talk: September 17, 2010
Elizabeth Rosner is an award-winning poet and bestselling author whose most recent novel, BLUE NUDE (now available in paperback), follows the relationship between a once-prominent German painter and his Israeli-born art model, who also happens to be the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. In this interview, Rosner discusses the techniques that help her find inspiration for her books, going into detail about how she managed to connect with her German characters given her own family history and revealing why art became a useful tool for connecting her two protagonists. She also addresses the differences between writing her first and second novels, shares her thoughts on happy endings, and speculates on the similarities between poetry and prose.
Question: In a previous interview, you mentioned you like to do research by talking to people and listening to their stories. Do you ever use specific stories in your books, or does your research serve more as inspiration?
Elizabeth Rosner: Research and invention are constantly evolving and interacting as I write. Often, interviews and the stories told to me become so much a part of my imagination that I lose track of where the “facts” end and where my own interpretations begin. In response to some inspiring encounter, I attempt to climb inside the skin of that person, to see the world through his or her eyes and to dream my way into his or her psyche. At the heart of my work, I have a tendency to write what could be called emotional autobiography. The material isn’t exactly based on my own life, but my inner landscape is a deep reservoir that is fed by the stories of others as well as by my imaginings.
Q: As the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors, did you find it difficult to write from Danzig’s point of view?
ER: Without a doubt it was challenging for me to develop the character of Danzig, but my compassion for him --- so necessary to the writing process --- increased the more I wrote. It was even more daunting to write from his sister Margot’s viewpoint. I went through a very mysterious process of imagining her, then putting those drafted pages away because I felt overwhelmed by a terrible discomfort. For an entire year, I even forgot I’d written them! When I re-discovered the scenes I’d composed for her, they were almost exactly finished, serving as the pivotal chapters that the book needed. I can’t imagine the book without her now.
Q: Throughout the book, Danzig continually uses the phrase “begin again.” Why did you choose to use this particular phrase as his motto?
ER: In a way, that motto is mine as much as Danzig’s. I realized during an early stage of struggling with this novel that every artist has to keep facing the empty space, whether it’s a white canvas or a blank page, whether we are listening for music or watching a sculpture take shape in our hands. Each new piece of work means we have to overcome our fears and doubts and find a way to start over, again and again. I am also aware that sometimes I can’t teach others what I think I know, until finally I really listen to what I’m saying as instruction for myself.
Furthermore, with Danzig in particular, there is some profound historical wound he needs to heal inside himself in order to feel capable of being his own person. That kind of new beginning can be elusive for a very long time.
Q: Why did you choose art as a way to connect your two main characters? Do you paint? Do you model?
ER: For a long time, I wanted to be a painter, but couldn’t quite locate a sense of what I would call talent. Although I did spend some time painting while working on the novel, it was mostly to remind myself what it felt like to hold brushes and focus my mind on a visual language. I love how different painting is from working with words. As for modeling, I have done that kind of work off and on, mostly a very long time ago, when I was in college. I wrote an essay about the experience when I reflected back on it from a great distance, and was able to appreciate how much it taught me about my relationship to my body.
In using art as a means of connecting Danzig and Merav, I wanted to show that making peace is an actively creative process and, indeed, a collaborative one as well. These two people have to use their imaginations and empathies to reach across the historical and personal divides that could so easily keep them separated. Each pair of potential enemies has the same creative capacity, or so I believe. Not that it’s easy. But in my opinion, this willingness to break new ground, to take a leap of faith in each other, this is what our future depends upon.
Q: BLUE NUDE ends in an uplifting, hopeful way for two characters who have been through so much pain. Was ending the novel this way important to you?
ER: See above! Even as I find the entire notion of a “happy ending” to be quite complicated, I do want to invite readers to feel that there is hope even in the darkest moments of this story, including the final scenes. Not just to offer a simplistic recipe for optimism, but to explore the fragility and nuance involved in healing the wounds of history, one person at a time. I believe that small movements in the direction of compassion can make a huge difference in the larger scale of humanity.
Q: Your first novel, THE SPEED OF LIGHT, came out in 2001. How was the experience of writing your second novel different?
ER: There are so many ways to answer this question. One obvious concern was how to resist repeating myself, or following a path that felt safe and familiar. I had to be deliberate about making different choices in voice, subject and imagery --- and yet I also had to be able to trust that certain themes continued to haunt and interest me, especially the way the past is palpable inside the present.
I think many authors find that after they’ve discovered an audience of whatever size, they suddenly feel as though there are readers with expectations and preferences. That kind of pressure --- even if it’s imaginary! --- can easily interfere with one’s authentic process. I kept having to remind myself that BLUE NUDE was an individual piece of work, and that it would find its own place in the world.
Last but not least, I was writing my first novel mainly during summers because I taught full-time at a community college. While writing BLUE NUDE, I was able to work with far fewer interruptions because I was no longer teaching.
Q: What books and authors have most influenced your writing?
ER: It would take a long time for me to make a complete list, but first and foremost is Virginia Woolf, especially TO THE LIGHTHOUSE and MRS. DALLOWAY. Other significant influences include Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels, Marilyn Robinson, Michael Cunningham, Don DeLillo, John Banville and Sharon Olds.
Q: You are an award-winning poet, and your prose has a lyrical, near-poetic feel to it. More than once, readers and reviewers have commented on the poeticism of your words. Do you write this way intentionally, or is it a natural inclination?
ER: Some combination of the two, I think. My inner voices always sound lyrical to me, and I try my best to translate that quality onto the page. My poetry is quite prosaic and my prose is poetic, so I suppose you could say that I’m hovering in the spaces between the two forms. Honestly, I’m not convinced they are so distinct, at least in my writing life.
Q: What project are you working on now?
ER: I’m working on a novel that is set in my hometown of Schenectady, NY. It’s called ELECTRIC CITY. Too soon to say much more than that!
Q: If you could offer one piece of advice to authors writing fiction, what would it be?
ER: My single piece of advice is to persevere. That may sound simplistic or obvious, but in my experience, it’s the hardest and most essential part of the process. Not to give up when it feels impossible to go forward, not to be discouraged by rejections and disappointments of all kinds, not to allow the opinions of others to overwhelm your vision and purpose. The corollary is not to try to write like anyone else and not to obsess about the outcome after the work is done. There is something that only you can create. If you devote yourself fully to writing in the most honest way you can, that process itself will be your best reward.
© Copyright 2010, Elizabeth Rosner. All rights reserved.
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