Strength of Kindness & Reason: Q&A with ‘Winter Kept Us Warm’ Author Anne Raeff

(photo by Dennis Hearne)

(photo by Dennis Hearne)

San Francisco writer Anne Raeff’s new novel, Winter Kept Us Warm’’ (304 pages; Counterpoint Press), officially out next Tuesday, is an ambitious, multi-generational tale that deals with the interlocking lives of three characters—Ulli, Leo, and Isaac—who meet in Berlin shortly after World War II has ended. A departure of sorts from Raeff’s 2015 story collection, The Jungle Around Us, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, it shares a similar interest in the complexities of character, motive, and human nature, albeit on a different palette. (In a coincidence of fate, Raeff’s wife, Lori Ostlund, previously won the O’Connor Award in 2008 for her collection The Bigness of the World.)

Raeff spoke to us by e-mail about the new book, her biography, and her future projects. This is a writer who deals with serious, sometimes unfashionable subjects, with depth and compassion, qualities the new novel displays in abundance.

ZYZZYVA: Winter Kept Us Warm covers a lot of ground and geographical locations, from Germany to New York, Los Angeles and Morocco. It also seems like a “European’’ novel, in the sense that politics is seen as part and parcel of the tapestry of life, rather than something to be addressed separately. Was that partly your intent, to bring that tradition back? Are there novelists you were particularly influenced by who deal with the same concerns?

Anne Raeff: I don’t see how it is possible to separate story from history. In fact, the word story didn’t come into the English language until the early 16th century. Before that, history was the only word, and it meant a narrative of important events. Perhaps because the stories I grew up with were so closely tied to cataclysmic events in history like the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and World War II, from a very early age I thought of history as story and story as history.

My father was an historian by profession, but the interesting thing is that he didn’t teach me the facts of history, though he encouraged me to study and read about history on my own. Instead, he told me stories. He told me the story of the girl who died because of a gas leak while taking a bath in a pension in Lisbon. She and her family were among the many Russian refugees like my father who had escaped Occupied France and were waiting in Lisbon for visas to come to the United States. He told me about the prisoner at the POW camp in Arizona who believed that Stalin was living in his head.

Part of American exceptionalism is a lack of interest in history and an almost ideological denial of the effects of history on individual lives. Perhaps now that American literature is including a greater variety of voices, the importance of the forces of history will become more integrated into literature and into the American consciousness. The book that comes to mind that weaves together a very particular moment in history with a very particular human tragedy is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. It is a book with an extraordinary sense of place, which is also something that is extremely important to me.

Z: The characters in the novel meet when Ulli is offering translation services to servicemen hoping to meet girls in German bars. She later parleys those skills into work for UNESCO. Your father, Marc Raeff, was a renowned professor of Russian history who spent part of World War II as an interpreter in POW camps. How much of his background did you draw on for depicting Ulli? And more generally, how much has his area of expertise—the tragic fate of Russian intelligentsia who were progressive but anti-totalitarian— influenced your choice of subjects in this and your other work?

AR: This is somewhat connected to the answer I gave for the first question in which I talked about my father’s stories. The character Isaac is very much based on my father. They share common experiences and biographical details—they were interpreters at POW camps during the war; both were Russian refugees and from Menshevik families; they suffered from asthma; they were professors of Russian history; they had two daughters; they lived in New Jersey. The book is dedicated to my father and in the dedication I write: “In memory of my father, who showed me the strength of kindness and reason.” It is this, the strength of my father’s kindness and reason that led me to Isaac. Of course, my family history in general also influenced and formed the way I view the world and gave me some of my particular literary obsessions—the effects of war and violence on individual lives and the dangers of ideology, for example.

Ulli’s character is not based on any particular person, but her interest in languages and interpreting comes from my own love for languages. I was raised in a multilingual environment. My mother spoke three languages—her native German (she was from Vienna), Spanish (her family escaped to Bolivia in 1938 and lived there for five years during the war), and English. My father was born in Russia and spoke Russian at home. German was his second language. He and his family lived in Berlin from 1926 to 1933. In 1933, they escaped Germany and moved to Paris, where he lived until 1941 when they immigrated to the United States and where he learned English. At home we spoke German, and my father taught my sister and me French. Russian, he did not teach us because, according to him, it is not a useful language. When I finished college, I moved to Madrid where I learned Spanish during La movida, the cultural and political reawakening of Spain in the first years of democracy after Franco’s death. This process of learning Spanish, of falling in love with a language, of finding another side of my own personality through new words and structures, led to my literary obsession with language and, ultimately, to Ulli’s reawakening through her profession as an interpreter.

9781619028173-273x413Z: Was it particularly challenging to portray Leo’s sexuality, as a closeted gay man who basically walked away from his family? Similarly, the way that Isaac takes on the role of literal father to the two girls, Juliet and Simone, says more about his essential nature than about glib stereotypes of gender, which seem to dominate too much of the current conversation.

AR: The role of the writer is to pose questions, to make people think, not to preach, so if I managed not to do that, I am satisfied. I think that writers who are members of a particular minority—in my case I am a lesbian, [and] there is pressure to represent that particular minority, to present an ideological perspective in some way. What I try to do is write about things that I know about or have experienced and to try to make those experiences universal. I include gay characters in my writing and try to shed light on that experience, but that is not the sole purpose of my writing. The writer’s role is to give readers the opportunity to view the world from different perspectives, and that is what I hope I accomplished in portraying all three of these characters. They are part of the same story, the same history, but they experience the events differently because of who they are and where they are coming from.

Z: Ulli’s retreat to Morocco, leaving her daughters in Isaac’s care, seems like a defense mechanism by someone who has been bruised, perhaps fatally, by life. How much sympathy—or anger, if any—did you feel about her choices? Similarly, Isaac’s late life decision to travel there, and try to come to terms with her, seems inevitable, given his nature, as it is developed in the book. How difficult was it to enter the point of view of both characters?

AR: Characters have a life of their own. I create them, set them in motion, and then they evolve into who they are through their experiences. As a writer, I must feel compassion for my creations, for the moment that I lose that feeling for my character is the moment that that character becomes two-dimensional, a symbol rather than a complex human being. Having said that, in order to feel that compassion, a writer must feel a variety of emotions that include anger and frustration, love and confusion, hatred even, but not pity—never pity.

With Ulli, for example, I wanted to explore the idea of a woman who abandons her children. I was partly interested in creating a character like this because the world seems to accept the fact that men do this all the time but are extremely judgmental of women who fail when it comes to motherhood. Perhaps because I never wanted children myself, I was able to feel more compassion for Ulli and her weaknesses. I think that our characters are manifestations of ourselves and of our own experiences. Through the process of writing, we access all those emotions that we have felt and shape them, make sense of them, so I don’t find it hard to enter into the point of view of my characters since my characters are part of me and my own tapestry of feelings and experiences.

Z: A couple of questions on craft: You have a demanding schedule as a high school teacher in East Palo Alto. How do you find the time to write such ambitious, and successfully realized, work? And how has the teaching experience informed your writing? Do you feel it’s grounded you in the real world, perhaps in comparison to writers who spend more time in the MFA milieu?

AR: When I am teaching, I don’t have time to think about anything else let alone write, so writing is relegated to the back burner. I was lucky because after my wife, Lori, sold her novel, I was able to teach part-time for three years. With that schedule, I did a lot of writing, but now I am back to full time. We are trying to figure out how I can go back to part-time again.

There have also been times in my life when I have given up teaching altogether. For seven years, for example, Lori and I owned and ran an Asian furniture store in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We had fun doing it, and it gave us the time and intellectual space we needed to work more seriously on our writing. It was during that time when my first novel came out and when I started working on the [Julia and Simone] Buchovsky-sisters stories.

But teaching, more than anything else, has taught me about perspective. As a teacher, I have to be aware of each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. I have to understand their backstory and their goals, their passions and fears, so that I know how to guide them, how to help them discover the world.

In addition, teaching keeps me in touch with my adolescence, which I think is at the core of my sensibility as a writer. It was when I was a teenager that I started writing, and the connection I can find through my students with that early adolescent depth of passion helps me maintain my own passion for writing and for living, too. Since I work mainly with immigrants and refugees, their experiences, though they are very different from mine, help me keep close to my own roots as a first-generation American and a child of refugees. Finally, I love teaching because it is a form of telling and exchanging stories. As much as possible, I try to teach as my father taught me, through the telling and reading of stories, and, I hope that by guiding my students in the telling of their own stories they will learn who they are and where it is that they want to go.

As for when I work, I work best in the mornings after a nice, long run. I run every morning, and it is absolutely essential to my writing. It is when I run that my characters are let loose in my imagination and come to life.

Z: You write in a realistic vein. Is this a rebellion against the posturing of literary post-modernism, an expression of faithfulness to your own sensibility, or both?

AR: When Lori and I were in China last summer, we were invited to a panel discussion, and the whole morning we were grilled by a professor of literature about post-modernism and what, if anything, comes after it. I didn’t know how to address this question—though that didn’t keep the professor of literature from persisting— mostly because I really don’t know what post-modernism is. I also don’t think it’s very useful to create categories for literature. So, no, I definitely do not write in order to rebel against post-modernism. I write in the way that I think best fits my characters and what it is that I want to convey. The books that stay with me for the long haul are the ones that possess that perfect balance of heart and mind.

Z: You and Lori are both winners of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. How has O’Connor’s work influenced your own, if at all? And as a working writer, how do you get around the bias in the publishing marketplace against short stories? It seems like novelists get to sit at the “adult table,’’ fairly or not. I know your next work is a novel—can you talk about it a little bit? Are you working on short fiction contemporaneously with the long form projects?

AR: Well, I can’t say that Flannery O’Connor has been an influence at all really, though I like her work, and winning that prize was a turning point for my writing career. As far as short story writers are concerned, I would say that J. D. Salinger and Paul Bowles have been my main influences. Salinger explored many themes that also interest me, like the perspective of children and the effects of war on the human psyche. Paul Bowles was my first introduction to Morocco. He is the writer who, in my opinion, best describes that feeling of losing oneself, of losing balance and even sanity when one plunges deep into a foreign and unknown world.

Right now I am doing revisions on a novel that takes place largely in Nicaragua. It is a continuation and amplification of “The Doctors’ Daughter,” which is the first story in The Jungle Around Us. I am also trying to put together a collection of essays I have written over the years. The essays deal with some of the themes that I work with in my fiction like language and exile, but there are also quite a few about my experiences as a teacher.

Anne Raeff will be in conversation with Lori Ostlund about Winter Kept Us Warm at Green Apple Books on the Park (on Ninth Avenue) in San Francisco on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m. And she’ll be in conversation with Sylvia Brownrigg at Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore in Berkeley at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 1.

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