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Interview: February 12, 2010

February 12, 2010

In this interview with's Jamie Layton, Sarah Blake discusses her personal motivations for writing her second novel, THE POSTMISTRESS, and the bigger questions that arose from it about the human capacity for both empathy and denial. She also reflects on the balance between her attachment for her characters and the distance required to tell a story, shares her thoughts on the evolution of journalism since the 1930s, and describes her current work-in-progress about an old-monied family that loses its fortune. What inspired you to write THE POSTMISTRESS?

Sarah Blake: Long ago, while I was living in a small town on Cape Cod, the image of a woman in a post office looking down at a letter in her hand, looking up to see if anyone was watching and then swiftly pocketing it, flashed into my head. Right away I wanted to know who that woman was, why she didn’t deliver the letter, and whose letter it was. So I started writing to find out. Iris James, Will and Emma Fitch and the town of Franklin grew in response. And about 100 pages into that early draft, Frankie Bard walked off the bus into the town, having fled the war. What was she running from? Why had she come to town? Again, I wrote to find out. As I was writing, my own times caught up with me: the attacks of 9/11 took place, we went to war in Iraq, and I wanted very much to try and write a war novel that took place far from the battlefield and centered on women’s lives.

BRC: From the start, were there always three female protagonists, or did their roles evolve?

SB: There were always three women whose story this was, but the two messengers --- Iris James and Frankie Bard --- were always slightly more pronounced than Emma Fitch. I was very much interested in the question, How do we bear, or carry, bad news?

BRC: You do an astonishing job at describing the reality of life in London during the Blitz. How did you conduct your research?

SB: Oh, thank you so much! I really immersed myself in the period as much as I could, looking at photographs, reading books, and listening to radio broadcasts. Gavin Mortimer’s THE LONGEST NIGHT, about the worst night of the Blitz, was tremendously helpful.

BRC: Based on your research, would a female war correspondent have been able to get into Europe and travel freely during the early years of the war? If news correspondents (male or female) had overstayed their letters of transit, what would have happened to them?

SB: From what I gathered, there were a handful of female war correspondents in Europe --- Sigrid Shultz of the Chicago Tribune had been the head of the Berlin bureau for example, from 1925 all throughout the ’30s --- who did travel freely, though not easily. I don’t know for a fact what might have happened to correspondents who overstayed their letters of transit, but I do know the German censors made it very difficult for some journalists who displeased them.

BRC: As an author, you must become very attached to and involved with your characters. Is your natural inclination to help or rescue them from themselves? Is it difficult to withhold a helping hand and let the natural course of events come to pass? Which characters from THE POSTMISTRESS had the biggest hold on your heart?

SB: While researching this book, I came across this quote about war reporting --- you have to have a cold eye and a warm heart --- and I’d say the same holds true for writing a novel. As warmly involved as I was with each of the characters, constructing the world or the plot in which they are entangled requires distance and detachment. Along those lines, each of the characters has her hold on me in her own way: Frankie’s bravery and sorrow, Iris’s love of order, and Emma’s longing to be seen, all compete for my heart.

BRC: Many of your characters express a need to feel “tethered” to life. Where did this idea come from?

SB: There is the basic human need to be connected, to have a reason for being --- a tether, if you will, to this life. It seems to me that one of the cataclysmic effects of war, natural disaster, or a life-changing accident is how quickly one can become untethered. Iris James, the lover of order and the crusader against unnecessary accidents, turns off the radio, and Frankie Bard’s voice, in horror at the image Frankie has painted of the refugees in Europe: “If one of you were to write them a letter, you have to understand, there is nowhere a letter would find them.” It’s how quickly we can become untethered that I wanted to imagine.

BRC: Too often, we as humans do nothing, thinking one person cannot really make a difference. Yet in your book, one character voluntarily goes straight into the English war theatre saying they “have to go. That is humanity…human beings do not look away.” Where do your personal beliefs on this matter lie?

SB: At the end of the first chapter, Frankie Bard is holding a microphone for Edward R. Murrow as they are broadcasting the sounds of the Blitz across the Atlantic and into American living rooms and thinks, “I dare you to look away.” Probably this was closest to my own motivations when I began writing this novel. And yet the more I worked on the book, the more interested I grew in exploring the varying degrees to which each of us do look away, and why, and what we do in our own lives to encompass that denial.

BRC: There are some graphic depictions of the thin line between life and death, the small whiffs of fate that can topple one person’s life while leaving the next one standing. As an author, how were you able to let go of the mental images so obviously developed by assiduous research? Was there a long decompression period following the writing of this book?

SB: In some ways, the number of years it took to research and write the book softened the impact of the images and stories I came across. And always, being able to turn an image into your own words allows you to make sense of, or come to terms with, something that is unbearable or unimaginable.

BRC: In THE POSTMISTRESS, you depict Emma smoking during her pregnancy. Obviously an accurate picture of the time, taking place before the dangers of smoking were clear, yet today we live in a time when these scenes are almost shocking. Was it hard, writing from such politically correct times, to include such accuracies?

SB: One of the great pleasures of writing about a different historical time period is taking on its language and its mores like a kind of cloak. As a fiction writer, there is tremendous freedom in getting the diction and patter of another era in your head, and in the writing of both my novels (GRANGER HOUSE was set in 1896), writing in the voice of another time also made it easy to see with the eyes of that time. So no, it isn’t hard because the time I’m writing from slips away.

BRC: THE POSTMISTRESS is set in the final months before World War II. Very few Jewish refugee stories were getting out to the world, and much was discounted as second- or even third-hand information. If more individual tales had been able to elude censure, thus escaping Europe to find world-wide airwaves, do you think their voices could have moved people (the U.S. in particular) to action any earlier? Why do you think it is so hard for humanitarian need to overcome political policy?

SB: It’s so hard to say. In hindsight, the pieces of the puzzle are put together and the lines can be drawn so clearly between public policy and the desperate fate of the Jews, but those years before we entered World War II were rife with U.S. ambivalence, exhaustion and fear of entering a European mess. It is difficult to imagine past one’s own household, and imagining someone else’s life --- the necessary ingredient to empathic action --- requires so much work.

BRC: Do you think journalism has evolved over the past 70 years into a mix of news and the human story? What societal changes do you think have contributed to this?

SB: Actually, I think that the kind of reporting that Martha Gellhorn, Ernie Pyle and Edward R. Murrow laid down in the ’30s and ’40s set a standard that the best current reporting follows. Edward R. Murrow instructed Mary Marvin Breckinridge --- the only woman to broadcast for him --- to “give the human side of the war. Be honest, be neutral, and talk like yourself.” The result often is a glimpse at news through the telling, human detail, what Ernie Pyle called “the worm’s eye view.”

BRC: Although Otto Schelling was a Jew from Austria whose wife was in a “refugee camp” in France, most Franklin townspeople call him a Kraut and assume he is a German spy. Harry and Frankie know this is not true, but do very little to correct this assumption. Why do they not do more to convince people that he was a collateral victim of the war in Europe and not the enemy? Is it simply a sign of the times --- life in a small town, stricter boundaries between relationships, an unwillingness to interfere or get involved?

SB: Again, I think it’s important to realize how little the scope of the tragedy in Europe was known on this side of the Atlantic in 1940. Harry gives Otto a room and a job, and a wide swathe of privacy, which I see as protective. Frankie goes to bat for Otto almost immediately, because she recognizes who he is and where he has come from.

BRC: One of your characters overhears a Franklin townsperson remarking that “even good doctors have little graveyards, God knows.” I found this statement to be filled with compassion, perhaps unintended by the speaker. How did you mean for this short sentence to be taken?

SB: It’s actually something I overheard one person commenting to another on the street one summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the town Franklin is loosely based on. The two women were quite elderly, and the mix of matter-of-factness and empathy --- as well as the turn of phrase --- struck me hard. I knew I needed to have that sentence in my book as it conveys so effectively the truth that Will Fitch comes to understand himself: what’s coming comes, all you can do is watch alongside, as he says.

BRC: Do you read reports and articles about the wars in the Middle East in a different way now than you did before beginning to write THE POSTMISTRESS?

SB: In many ways, it was photographs and reports from the wars in the Middle East that crystallized the themes in this novel for me. I wanted to write the story behind the story captured in the paper, or see “round the edges” of a photograph, as Will Fitch says, into the moments right after the single image, into the daily ongoing lives of people caught in the crossfire.

BRC: What are you working on now?

SB: I am in the very early stages of a novel about an old-money WASP family that finds itself at the end of its old money. It takes place over the course of two summers, 1959 and 2009, in the same summer house in Maine, moving back and forth between those time periods and across three generations of women in that family.

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