Jessica Shattuck – GenXer

Portrait by Grace Kwon

Portrait by Grace Kwon

American Novelist

The Women in The Castle – set in the aftermath of Nazi Germany 

 

I think there are many incremental little things that happen. First, you start thinking, ‘this is not quite as I expected it to be or this is a little weird,’ but you're still holding onto the original narrative you told yourself.

 

 

 

By Heidi Legg

Meet our first subject in our 20-part Generation X series where we hope to discover emerging ideas around us from the generation author Douglas Coupland called "Fantastical Creators and Heartfelt Storytellers" in his sleeper novel, GenerationX: Tales for an Accelerated Culture – those born between 1965 to 1980. You know, that tiny but mighty band of irreverent, anti-hero makers and doers hovering around their forties. These, the ones suffocating between the Boomers and their Millennial offspring, who absorb most of everything. At this moment in time, we think GenX idealism – grounded in a reality that bites – may just save us.  


Jess Shattuck’s much-anticipated third novel, The Women in the Castle, revolves around the lives of three wives of resistors in Nazi Germany during World War II. Shattuck, best known for her novels The Hazards of Good Breeding and The Perfect Life, grew up in Cambridge with a German-born mother who had immigrated to America, shunning her nation and her own parents’ dark past as Nazi sympathizers. Memories of her mother’s shame have stayed with Shattuck long after her mother’s sudden death left many of her questions unanswered when Shattuck was a teenager. It has taken her seven years to research and write this novel, with years spent traveling to Germany and combing through material to research this historical piece of fiction in which she explores the normalization of fascism in a society, and the moral fiber it takes to stand up to it and hold on to what is humane and true.

The novel is alarmingly timely as America and Europe face the emergence of the Alt-Right and populist movements taking the helm of nations, along with leaders who don’t tell the truth. While reading her novel and digesting current events, I found myself asking, ‘how can this be happening again?’ For me, this emboldened an urgency for advocating for critical thinking. I have known Shattuck for over a decade and have read her other novels and this one read differently: it carries expansiveness, while still offering Shattuck’s acute use of detail that sharpens the grey areas of story, poignant in its reveal. I sat down with her to ask how she approached it, to understand why she wanted to tell this story, and ask if she could have predicted its uncanny reflection of what we fear may be happening around us today. I hope her novel will make it into more states across the country.

What did writing this book teach you about how a public normalizes aberrant behavior?

I think it's shockingly easy. That was a driving force in my interest in trying to understand how people, like my grandparents who were ‘ordinary Germans’ and early Nazi enthusiasts, had been drawn to this movement that became synonymous with evil. I’ve spent a lot of my life –  and I spent a lot of time talking with my grandmother about how that happened. I think there are many little incremental things that happen. First you start thinking, ‘this is not quite as I expected it to be or this is a little weird,’ but you're still holding onto the original narrative you told yourself.

You describe the lives of three female resistors during the war and tell the story of their time together. Why did you focus on three women?

I've always been interested in the resistance. One of my mother's best friends here in America was the daughter of a man who was executed for his role in the 20th of July failed assassination attempt. I grew up knowing a lot about that and I visited her family in Germany for her mother's 80th birthday. In some ways, it was a reunion of widows of the resistance and I was really struck by how their experience of that time was very different from my own family's. Many of them had started out on board with Hitler but had seen the evil as it unfolded in Germany. They had taken action, as opposed to many who didn't see it or turned their eyes away. I feel like the resistance is a real foil for everyone who didn't resist. It shows how complicit others were. 

How has writing this book helped you understand your grandparents? Your mom had strong emotions, shame you’ve said, toward her parents. What have you taken away from writing this novel?

My mother immigrated to this country as an au pair when she was nineteen, and she didn't go back for seven years. I think it was partly because she was poor and this was in the Sixties and it was a long way to go, but also because she was really angry with her parents and angry at the country of her birth. She definitely passed on to me that feeling of responsibility, shame, and some level of guilt about what the German people had done and what Germany as a nation had done.

With two of your three characters, we learn about their childhoods. Both had defining moments where their character is revealed early on. Yet we don't learn much about the past of the protagonist, Marianne Von Lingenfels. Was that intentional?

No. I think that was, like many things in the book, kind of organic. My writing method is definitely not to start with an outline or a sense of boxes I have to check. I let the writing guide me and since this is my first historical work, what was really interesting was having the writing take me to a place where I'd say, "oh, now I need to do a whole other element of research that I didn't anticipate because now here I am in 1923, when the French takeover the Ruhr."

Marianne knows throughout the novel that what is happening in Germany is wrong and must be stopped. What do you hope we find in her?

She’s in a way the most fierce and pure moral character, and that becomes complicated in its own ways, but she is a resistor in her own right. She's not just a widow of somebody who was a resistor and she definitely is someone who saw and recognized the evil as it unfolded, very early on. You start from that place with her and, in a way, she's easier to like. But as the story goes on, there are also complications.

It's uncanny how prescient this is, given current events unfolding today in the western world. Do you see a reflection of what you’ve been writing for seven years?

Certainly when I started writing this book seven years ago, I can't say that I anticipated today, the rise of Donald Trump and all of the conversations we're having around things that are unfolding as they are. This subject has always been of great interest to me. As I began to write about it and look for other books on the subject and find fiction that was out there about the time immediately after the war and about ordinary Germans' experiences during the war, I realized more and more that there really wasn't much that existed. We have so much World War II literature in this country, and certainly in Germany, but a great deal of it is told from the perspective of victims or from the strongest, darkest agents in the epicenter of the Holocaust. All of this gray area has not been as explored. I felt like there was a lot of opportunity to go to new places with that.

Normally with historic fiction, we can intone or infer similarity but not see such distinct parallels. This build up of right wing fear has been present for a while in the west. When you were writing the novel, did you weave that in?

I do think that there are some strange parallels between now and pre-war, or 1930s Germany, that I did see even before the Trump campaign and the income inequality that we have here that led to many people feeling really disenfranchised and wanting dramatic change. I think it is very similar to what it was like in the early '30s in Germany. The economic situation was terrible and there were many people who were feeling totally outside of the political system and thought they basically had no opportunity. There are these crazy pictures that you may be familiar with of this woman pushing a wheelbarrow full of Reich marks because they had become so devalued.

After World War One, there was a feeling of downtrodden 'how are we ever going to get back on our feet?' and the feeling of victimization. That circumstance is so different than what we have here in America now, and yet I think that feeling of victimhood is something that has been brewing in certain segments of American society for a while as well.

With the travel ban today, there are parallels. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism and hate that stirred up in 1930s Germany and the anti-Semitism was directed at Eastern European Jews who had come to Germany and were "taking people's jobs." That's one example of a parallel. I don't want to say history is exactly "repeating itself," but can it? Is this resonance uncanny?

How did you balance writing about the Holocaust itself and the events leading to the Holocaust?

It is interesting because it's really a book written around the edges of the Holocaust and there were times where I wondered, "do I need to go into that black darkness more than I do?" and I actually worked on some chapters that were set in a concentration camp, and ultimately chose to remove them. It's really hard to do that justice and it feels like it's very present in people's minds in a way that is horrific, but also really important. We know those images and those stories are out there, and hopefully people have absorbed them. I ended up with a small segment that hopefully connects you to what you already know.

You lost your mom at a young age. Has writing this book provided you with solace and answers about her story?

It has. I lost her in high school, actually. I started interviewing my grandmother extensively when I was in college.

My conversations with my grandmother started with the basic question of what was my mother's childhood like? What was my mother like as a child? What was it like to grow up in post-war Germany?

And then they went back and forth in time from what was it like to be in the war and to be German? What was it like when you found out how horrible what you had been a part of was? When these images of the Holocaust and what you Germans enabled came to the fore, what did you do? What did you think? How did you live with that? There are of course a million questions I wish I'd asked that I didn't, but it started with wanting to know about my mother's childhood and then the more I heard, the more I wanted to know the big picture questions of 'what did you know? What didn't you know? How did you grapple with what you found out?'

What did she say?

My grandmother was very insistent that she didn't know what was happening during the Holocaust. But then when asked, ‘what did you do when you did know?’ her answer was complicated. Her first response was, ‘we at first thought it was propaganda because that's what Hitler had told us it was when we started seeing these images of the liberation of Dachau or Buchenwald. We thought they were pictures of German soldiers in Soviet gulags and that's what Hitler had said and so we thought this was more Allied propaganda.’

Which brings us to journalist David Frum’s recent article in The Atlantic talking about how autocracy begins.

Right, and the loss of truth.

When you've lived for many years with no gold standard for truth, how do you come back to get your feet on the ground?

 

What do you hope this book does? How do you hope it reaches us?

First of all, I hope people are drawn in: by the characters, to the human experience, and to the plot. I love books that are plotted. I hope it's a good read. I also really hope that I can contribute to our understanding of those gray areas around the edges of the Holocaust. I think that we're ready to deepen our understanding of that time from a very distancing black and white horror story to something that warns, wow, this could happen again. This is how this happens. And I hope I help people picture that.

You are our first GenX interview around emerging ideas. As GenX becomes the grownups of our time, what does our generation bring to the table?

I don't know if I can define us. I think that GenX makes me think of white middle class people, but obviously that's not GenX.

You are right about that. Culturally, John Hughes fed our pipeline in North America. What else do you see?

When you said you wanted to talk about GenX, I started to think about the movies and the books that defined us. I started thinking about the trifecta of John Cusack movies that I loved when I was a teenager and I thought a little bit about what I really loved about them and what it was that was so particularly Gen X about his character in those movies. I mean The Sure Thing, Say Anything, and Better Off Dead. He was a real anti-hero, and made it sort of appealing. He also was self-deprecating and a real underdog. His trademark really was a kind of uncertainty and he made uncertainty intelligent – I think that is what our generation brings to the table.

Unlike the Boomers, and certainly unlike The Greatest Generation, we are not a group. I'm speaking in a huge generalizing way, but I think that we are very aware of nuance and complication and we don't like making large pronouncements. I think that may be why there's an absence of GenXers in politics today, because politics has traditionally demanded the sort of Reagan idea of the strong leader who has a real vision and this is how it is.

Obama was the first of our generation who brought this forward [born in 1961 so technically a rising boomer]. When you talk about the President saying he's uncertain, it doesn't sound very good, but Obama’s level of consideration and complexity that he brought to bare on different topics and different problems that arose – I think is very GenX.

I think we need to turn that around and start seeing that as more of our advantage and skill set – as opposed to a disadvantage – because I think in today's world, it's really important to be looking at things in a complex, see-both-sides nuanced sense. I think that's something that we can bring to the table as GenXers.

We're not the 'look at me' kind of generation. I think of GenX, and maybe this is partly because of having gone to a big public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a huge multi-cultural force that was emerging when I was in high school. Even when I was in college, the African American Women Authors was the most popular lecture class at Harvard. In high school, my favorite book was For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf. One summer, I worked on this cultural curriculum project where we all came together with members of the community to talk about different kinds of multi-cultural curriculum pieces we could add to elementary school programs.

I'm not sure what it all came to be, but it was basically a big “multi-culti” conversation and with it we came to understand that the PC vision of multiculturalism was complicated. We went through the washing machine of 'what does it mean to be a part of a multicultural society?' and were all mixed up and turned around and had to sort ourselves out. I think that's real experience that GenX has to offer.

Your Favorite cocktail?

An Old Fashioned.

Your Favorite book of GenX?

I loved Beloved and I think it was big for many people of our generation. I was probably twenty or something when I read it.

Favorite road trip?

I did the ultimate GenX road trip to drive across country and back with my boyfriend – now my husband.

Did you like writing historical fiction?

I loved writing historical fiction. I would love to write more of it now that I've done it. It always seemed daunting to me before but I found that I became addicted to the research and I'm still researching the book, even though I'm done writing it! I love trying to really inhabit another time and get into the different sides of the questions and the narrative of history.

Most ludicrous thing about GenX?

I think that the level of navel gazing we do as GenX parents is ludicrous and we make ourselves completely crazy with these ideas about how we are affecting our children as if we are the only thing that is going to shape these little lumps of clay that we created. I am totally guilty of it but I can also step outside of it and say, ‘wait a second. There are so many things that are going to shape these children.’

You see, maybe GenX needs a bigger sandbox?

What does that mean?

Maybe if we were given more responsibility we would drop the kid obsession.

Good point. Then we wouldn't be trying to control our children and shape them into these perfect little beings. I know.

Me too. I hope this book makes its way across the nation. It's important.