Here’s another memoir author interview of a memoir that’s been translated into 15 languages and is soon coming out in paper after a successful hardcover run. Learn from the author directly!
It’s the story of my grandparents, who commited suicide together hand in hand in their bed in Copenhagen late in their life. In writing this book I tried to explore why they did it – whether it might have had to do with their history, which is one tied to the horrors of the last century; as Hungarian Jews they survived the Holocaust, in 1956 fled to Denmark where they lived a totally assimilated life. It’s also a big love story about two extraordinary people who were inseparable until their last breath.
2. How did you come to write this story?
The fact that they died like they did had left me with an uneasy feeling. I wanted to find out as much detail as possible about their last day in order to work through the overwhelming feelings that derived from my not-knowing the facts.
3. Your book covers three generations. Can you describe the structure you chose for such a multi-layered memoir? Was it a struggle for you to find this structure?
The structure came very easily to me. The main story was the last day in their life which I tell based on facts but of course fictionalized, as I wasn’t there when it took place. To get the whole picture I had to tell about their background as well, and I also included myself, my journalistic approach to find answers.
4. You chose to open the book with this stunner sentence: “On 13 October 1991 my grandparents killed themselves.” Did you know you would give the reader this information right away or was that first sentence a decision you came to late in the writing process?
First things first: Actually once I had the first sentence the whole book almost wrote itself. Well, not really, but from the first sentence on it all fell into its place. So the first sentence was where I started because that’s where the whole story starts, for me.
5.Your book was translated into English (from German) by Anthea Bell. What is the experience like for you to read your book in multiple languages? Diana Athill (whose Somewhere Towards the End was reviewed here) credits your precise and supple writing style for the way the book translates into English. Any comments on the author/translator relationship?
My book has been translated so far into 15 languages. English and French are the only ones I am able to read, apart from the original German. I am very happy with the English translation. Anthea Bell translated W.G.Sebald into English, so I feel that I’m in very good company, and I trust her skill completely.
6. Since your publisher is bringing out the paperback version in January, can you tell us a little about the difference between a hard cover book launch and the paperback publication? From an author’s perspective, do you like the fact that the book gets to launch twice?
When it was first published as a hardcover it felt as if my child was moving away from home and starting a life on his own. Now, as paperback, it’s as if it starts to study abroad or something. It’s been quite a while since it has left me but apparently it is still doing fine. That’s nice.
7. What kinds of responses have you received from readers about the way you handled the suicides of your grandparents?
A surprisingly great number of people told me about suicides in their family. No one complained in any way about my way of presenting it. So I guess I must have handled it okay. I know that I tried to treat it with respect and to let the protagonists, my grandparents, have their dignity.
8. The Holocaust continues to claim victims much after the actual atrocity took place. Did writing this story reveal anything new to you about the Holocaust, and perhaps about human nature itself?
No. I didn’t have anything new to add about the Holocaust. As far as human nature is concerned, I just tried to tell my grandparent’s story as truthfully as I possibly could
9. How do you feel about the marketing part of the author’s job? You are involved now in a blog tour arranged by your editors. Do you wish you did not need to do this? Or do you find it enjoyable? Which marketing tasks do you like most/least?
It’s fun to answer questions. So far I’ve liked everything I had to do as far as my book is concerned. No one has ever put me in uncomfortable situations. I am a journalist myself, so I know about that side about the job.
10. What have you learned about the nature of memory and truth by writing a memoir?
Memory is a very personal thing. Each of us has our own truth. That my name is on the cover of the book symbolizes that this is my truth. It’s not the truth. Just mine.
I love how direct Johanna is in her answers–just like the gaze in her photo. Do you want to ask her anything else? What did you learn from her?