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Interview: January 31, 2013

Pam Jenoff’s new novel, THE AMBASSADOR’S DAUGHTER, is a prequel to her debut, THE KOMMANDANT’S GIRL, which told the story of Emma, a young Jewish woman struggling to survive and in Poland during the Second World War while working for a Nazi official. In this interview, conducted by’s Rebecca Kilberg, Jenoff explains why she decided to tell her latest story --- which takes place during the Paris Peace Conference following the First World War --- through her protagonist Margot’s eyes; talks about her research for the book and what surprised her throughout the course of it; and previews her next novel, which is also set during World War II. What was your inspiration for writing THE AMBASSADOR’S DAUGHTER?

Pam Jenoff: Ever since writing my first novel, THE KOMMANDANT’S GIRL, which told the story of Emma, a young Jewish woman struggling to survive and in Poland during the Second World War while working for a Nazi official, readers have been continuously asking, “Will there be another book?” But going forward in time beyond the 1940s didn’t feel much like the historical fiction my readers love so much. 

Then I was struck by an idea:  why not write a prequel? My first novel alluded to a rich history of an ill-fated romance between the Nazi official Georg and his wife, Margot. As I began to write, I discovered the kismet that would have not only Georg and Margot, but also Emma’s aunt and mentor, Krysia, meet in Paris 20 years earlier in the aftermath of the First World War. And much as the coming together of nations at the Paris Peace Conference would set the stage for future world conflict, the fateful meeting of Georg, Margot and Krysia also culminates in a series of events that makes what transpires between Georg and Emma two decades later seemingly inevitable. Thus, THE AMBASSADOR’S DAUGHTER was born.

BRC: You are telling your story through Margot’s eyes. What drew you to this character?

PJ: In THE KOMMANDANT’S GIRL, there are a number of references to Margot, Georg’s wife. But she is something of an enigma: who is she, and why isn’t she present in that book?  I was so excited to have the chance to “meet” her in writing THE AMBASSADOR’S DAUGHTER. A young woman, naïve and conflicted, she is the perfect vehicle through which to view the Paris Peace Conference. But she is not simple or easy to understand, and I’m curious if readers will warm to her as I did.

BRC: Authors such as Mary Renault and Hilary Mantel have specific eras about which they write. What attracted you to the particular period of history that you chose for this book?

PJ: I, like so many of my readers, love the myriad novels that have been set during the Second World War. But it is so exciting to explore an earlier era that has been less touched, a period of great change and momentous questions that would set the scene for the tragic events to come. I’d wanted to write about this time period since writing about it for my master’s thesis at Cambridge on the Paris Peace Conference and the League of Nations covenant. The post-World War I era is such an exciting period --- the whole world was being reborn, new nations and identities, new roles and possibilities for women. The fledgling interest in the period following the First World War can be seen in everything from the popularity of recent novels such as THE PARIS WIFE to the phenomenal success of “Downton Abbey.”

BRC: One thing that I wondered about was why Margot's father did not fall under greater suspicion after Margot leaked sensitive information about the Paris Peace Conference at the café. Was the source for this never discovered?

PJ: Well, he was certainly quite nervous about being discovered, but it does not seem to have come to light. The conference had so many delegates and participants dealing with myriad issues in a very short time span. There may have been other “suspects” or it simply may not have been discovered in the rush.

BRC: Spies, clandestine operations and smuggling of information were such a part of the world during this time. Comparing that time to today, where we still are not sure who the enemy really is, how have things changed? It seems that spying and intrigue has been a part of each decade.

PJ: One could say that spying and intrigue have been a part of each century! They certainly remain with us today. My own interest in the topic comes from my years with the State Department, where such matters were of great concern. The technology has evolved, but humans remain very much at the center of intelligence and counterintelligence efforts.

BRC: Do you feel that those who lived during this time envisioned that there could be another war?

PJ: The answer to this question is as varied as those who were alive. Many could not envision destruction as barbaric as the Great War. Others saw it as a harbinger of even worse. Krysia references it when she and Margot visit one of the battlefields, noting that the destruction will come again, only worse with advancing weaponry. Margot’s father and Georg are both working to create a new world order in which such repeated devastation can be prevented.

BRC: Could you envision Margot existing in another era, or is her story unique to this time?

PJ: Margot’s story in particular (a young woman at the peace conference with a fiancé wounded in the Great War) is, of course, unique to this time. However, a headstrong young woman like Margot, trying to find herself and the life she wants to live, is a timeless theme.

BRC: How did you research the book?

PJ: There is always a lot of research, but the type and extent depends on the book. I lived in Europe for several years and traveled extensively, so some of my research is grounded in experience. Additional travel would be great, but my wings are a bit clipped these days due to my three preschoolers. So I rely heavily on the Internet and book research. For THE AMBASSADOR’S DAUGHTER, I read loads about the Great War, the Paris Peace Conference and the artists in Montparnasse, in books, periodicals and online.

BRC: In the course of your research, did you come across anything that surprised you?

PJ: Many things. Among them is the fact that the German delegation was only called to Paris right at the end, a few weeks before the treaty was finalized, and that they were sequestered in Versailles, away from the main conference in Berlin. I’m also fascinated by the information that my research yielded about the Jews in postwar Berlin. Jews were facing important questions of what their roles were to be in the new order of Germany and Europe at large. They were fiercely divided between those who had become alienated during the war and saw Zionism as the way forward, and those who wanted to assimilate completely. Given the hindsight of what was to come, their worldview is fascinating.

BRC: You have published two other novels that take place within two or three decades of this book. Their titles  (THE KOMMANDANT’S GIRL and THE DIPLOMAT’S WIFE) have a similar formula. The struggle of women to define themselves independently is a reoccurring theme in your novels. What draws you to that as a topic?

PJ: My writing is largely inspired by my years in Europe. I went to Poland as a diplomat for the State Department in the 1990s, where I worked on issues related to the Holocaust.  These experiences have inspired my books. But to me, in writing historical fiction, it isn’t the differentness that is the most interesting; it is the sameness. Human nature, emotions, relationships, they all span the continuum and I like making the reader relate to someone in a really different time and place. The other thing that is fun is to find an incredibly difficult moment in time, put the reader in the shoes of the character and make him or her ask, “What would I have done in these circumstances?” I think both of these themes are present in the struggling women you describe in my books.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

PJ: I’m presently working on another novel set during the Second World War. It involves twin sisters in rural Poland who are struggling to care for their three younger siblings, and one of them finds a downed American paratrooper in the woods. How far will she go to help him and at what cost? Stay tuned for this new book (title pending!) in early 2014.