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!
1. Please describe the plot of your memoir briefly.
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?
This looks like a very interesting read. I lost my best friend to suicide in 2005 so I know how difficult it can be to come to terms with such a sudden and abrupt ending to the life of a loved one. For me there was a lot of guilt and wondering what I could have done to prevent it. Congratulations Johanna. Much success on your writing career.
Thanks for the comment, Grace. I think having a friend / loved one commit suicide would be devastating. Many people have become writers, in part, because they needed a way to get past some kind of trauma. Perhaps you have been inspired to write about your own story? Thomas Merton became a writer after the death of his father left him an orphan. He needed a way to work out his thoughts and feelings.
Thank you for your post on my blog, Shirley. At this point I’m querying Indie publishers and have high hopes. I figure if it’s meant to be it will be. If not, I’ll cry a river. Just kidding. Actually I’ll just keep writing and hoping. Thanks again. Your blog is great.
You’re very welcome. All the best. Keep coming back.
Exclusive Love sounds like a compelling memoir – and that opening sentence demands a reader keep reading. Thanks for this great Q&A.
You’re welcome also, Linda. Just imagine having your book translated into 15 different languages. Some day . . . .
An Exclusive Love is an interesting book, I reviewed it on my site 8/24. The fictional frame of the grandparents’ last day is a clever device, and thankfully, I was able to read it in the original. Interesting point, though: In German, the book is not labeled “memoir.” In fact, there is no label at all.
Just read this tread-another example of how one person’s memoir resonates for so many–
Annette, your question caught my eye—In Germany, is their a ‘memoir genre’ equivalent?
Johanna, I’m a huge WW2 buff-my interest has always been on the holocaust victims…. I’ve now added your book to my reading list-
Annette, I just read your excellent review and want everyone who comes here to read it also:http://www.annettegendler.com/2011/08/reading-exclusive-love-by-johanna.html
Your insight into the skillful texture of the storytelling and the cultural differences around memoir and publishing are very helpful to readers trying to learn about the field, seeking models of excellence beyond the American writer.
Thanks for the comment.
Thanks for sharing my link, Shirley – it’s great to have a compatriot in memoir! You remind me that I should review a few more memoirs written in other languages.
Shirley, I love this interview. Adorjan’s approach to memoir is so much like my own – even starting with the gory facts right at the beginning. I will definitely read this book.
I will also have a second launch of my book next spring when the ebook and paperback are released. I also plan another blog tour. So, this information was very helpful and validating of my plan.
Thanks so much, Madeline
Madeline, so glad you found this post useful, both in content and strategy. I invite readers to see the review of your book at this site to get a taste of your own story.http://100memoirs.com/2011/06/29/leaving-the-hall-light-on-a-mothers-memoir-of-living-with-her-sons-bipolar-disorder-and-surviving-his-suicide-a-review/
Congratulations on your own re-launch. Let us know what you learn about the process.
Congratulations to Madeline on a SECOND book launch. Getting a book out is truly a marathon. I’m learning a lot from all of you intrepid writers and publishers!
You can do it too, Linda. Write on!
Great Q & A … and another book to add to my stack of must-read. Sounds intriguing.
Always glad to contribute to the stack. 🙂
Born in Copenhagen in 1957, one year after your grandparents moved there, and listening to my now deceased mother, who was born in 1925, tell me about how Denmark helped the Jews during WWII, I feel a connection to your story. I am curious how much Denmark and the way of life there, had an effect on Johanna’s grandparents way of thinking. Had they lived in the U.S., the ending may have turned out completely differently. Sounds fascinating and Johanna has my Danish mother’s middle name.