One way to counteract the horrors of history is to ignore them. A better way is to keep them alive so no generation can claim ignorance as an excuse.
Jon Clinch, known for his widely acclaimed debut novel, Finn and, following that, Kings of the Earth, decided to take the publishing and marketing reins in his own hands with The Thief of Auschwitz. Intertwining narratives keep the reader engrossed throughout.
My Q&A with Jon Clinch:
Q: Why did you decide to write a new Holocaust novel? Certainly each generation needs to be reminded or taught about all the major horrors of history, from slavery, to the Holocaust, to the massacres of Armenians and Rwandans and all the others.
My wife remembers visiting her grandmother’s house when she was little, and seeing serial numbers tattooed on the arms of some that saintly woman’s friends. Not many of us can imagine the immediacy of that. So in the novel, when the adult Max Rosen ruminates on the popularity of tattooing these days—“I say why disfigure yourself in advance, when if you wait long enough someone will come along and do it for you?”—he’s speaking for my wife. He’s speaking of something that she remembers witnessing the physical evidence of, right there in her grandmother’s living room. That’s one reason I wrote the book.
Another is my own experience of reading first-person accounts of the camps—Elie Wiesel’s Night, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning—and finding myself unable to look too closely at the horrors that those stories set before me. It was simply too much. It was as if the facts themselves were somehow working to repel me. Thinking that other people might have had the same experience, and I wondered if I could use the tools of fiction—character, tone, pacing—to focus the reader’s attention and keep him looking at the terrible stuff for as long as it took to understand.
Q: The present-day interspersed chapters are far less emotionally draining than the camp chapters. Is that their purpose?
The novel takes that structure very much by design. By opening with the adult Max, who’s a painter living in contemporary New York, I sought to show readers that at least one of the characters they were soon to begin caring about would leave Auschwitz alive. By bringing him back every few pages, I hoped to establish a rhythm that would make the rest of the story easier to get through. Plus Max has a story of his own—along with a few secrets.
Q: In the Reader's Guide, you wrote about how you learned to write and what you learned the hard way about writing (and selling) literary fiction. Anything new to add?
Literary fiction is a strange and misunderstood beast. Some folks think it means novels where nothing happens. I can assure you that I’ve never written anything that fits that description, including most particularly The Thief of Auschwitz. On the other hand, the qualities of literary fiction that appeal to me—evocative language, intricate structure, respect for the intelligence of the reader—don’t just appeal to people who think of themselves as “literary” types. I think they appeal to most everyone who wants to experience the transformative power of a good story about human characters.
Q: Did you make up some or many of the specific horrors in the camp?
I don’t think I really made up much of anything, although once you’re deeply enough immersed in the material, it’s hard to tell. Some things came directly from the first-person accounts, and some came from Laurence Rees’ great and terrible Auschwitz, A New History. I don’t believe that you could invent anything so horrific that it couldn’t have happened in that place and in that time.
The real challenge wasn’t in making things up but in tempering them and pacing them so that they would become endurable. My plan of relying on sympathetic fictional characters to enlist the attention of readers could have backfired easily, had I permitted the going to get too tough. So I softened things in some ways.
Q: Was this a hard book to write? Did you have to get yourself into a particular mood to return to the writing each day? Did it flow?
They’re all hard to write, and they’re getting harder. My first two novels, Finn and Kings of the Earth were very different beasts from The Thief of Auschwitz—they were exercises in narrative voice and experiments in structure, and although they had big hearts they were also extremely formal. Thief doesn’t rely on artifice in anything like the same way. I had to put most of the artifice aside—or at least make it work very hard in the service of the plain facts of the story. As a writing experience, that gave me less to fall back on in terms of language and poetry. It also reduced me to tears a couple of times, which was new for me.
Q: In the book, present-day painter Max talks about how it gives him the willies to think of the artist as masseur, creating something with the goal of touching people, making them feel. Can you say something about that?
So here I am talking about weeping over my own story, and my own character advises me to knock it off. Obviously, I’m torn. Max speaks for me throughout most of the book, particularly his opinions about what makes art worthwhile. He hates the easy and the shabby and the cheap. On the other hand, I think he might be a little bit jealous of people who manage to touch their audience in a way that’s not easy for him.
Q: What went into your decision to publish this yourself? Had your agent tried to interest the major publishers? The indie publishers? Because it’s beautifully written (and edited and designed).
The world is changing. I’d been nicely published before, my first two novels winning awards and making year-end lists of the best books and so forth, but I felt in my heart that I could do better. Writers get pigeonholed, you see, even by their publishers. Especially by their publishers. I think I was seen as someone whose books would reliably win the awards and make the lists, without ever exactly setting the world on fire in the sales department. I don’t believe that that’s necessarily true, or that the distinction is even worth making, so I thought I’d try doing the whole job myself. Technology, and thirty-some years as an advertising creative, made it possible. We’ll see how I do.
Q: What’s next for you?
I have a handful of projects in the pot, one of which will no doubt rise to the surface. Now that I’ve made the decision to publish my own stuff, and I’ve set aside the need to satisfy an agent or an editor, I might just finish that novel I’ve been working on with Dick Cheney and Elvis and the zombies from Mexico. Honest. Just you wait.
Read sample pages at Jon's blog Turn the Page.
Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry