Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ten Questions from Tara: Interview with Alex Rosenberg

Welcome. You’re here to promote The Girl from Krakow, a historical fiction. Tell me, please, what was the inspiration behind this story? How did it come to you?

The Girl from Krakow: A NovelThe Girl from Krakow is set in the period from 1935 to 1947 in Europe—from Barcelona all the way across to Moscow. It’s mainly about one young woman but the story in part traces the real lives of five people I knew growing up, and whose experiences shaped my take on that period of 20th century history from an early age. I helped tell the real story of one of these people in a memoir published about 25 years ago. Then, after thinking about what wartime really meant to people who experienced it, I had to write my version of what happened to them, less constrained by the actual trajectories of the real people but faithful to their fates as I saw them.

We focus a lot on heroines here on Book Babe. Tell me what makes your heroine strong.

Rita, the girl from Krakow, starts out strong enough to want to live her own life in a time—the ‘30s--that made it difficult for women to do so. And then things get infinitely harder. Once the war comes her challenge is sheer survival. The choices she faces are fraught, the burdens they impose are tragic, the threats she faces are universally mortal. But it’s not enough for Rita just to survive. She has to understand her fate in a Europe destroying itself by war, in which whole nations are gripped by madness, consumed by delusions, and make millions their victims. And she has to carry a secret that could lose the Allies the war. All that makes her a heroine in my book at any rate!

Did any particular woman in your family or life help inspire some of her (or their) traits?

The bare bones of The Girl from Krakow are based on real events that happened to real people. What happens to Rita is inspired by my mother’s own experiences in the war. The qualities and character that enabled her to survive under terrible and very dramatic circumstances animate Rita and drive her trajectory. My mother lived a long life after the war, a life she never should have had much reason to expect to have. She made it a life worth living. I wanted Rita to have the same chance, so I had to give her much of my mother’s strength, optimism, and intelligence.
Was there any particular part of this story that was the hardest for you to write? Tell me why.

A great deal of The Girl From Krakow is set in Poland and Germany during the war. These are hard times for us to conger 70 years on from the 1940s. Hardest were the scenes in Warsaw Ghetto when Rita has herself smuggled into it, searching for her son. Readers have reacted strongly to those passages, some can’t bear them, others find them gripping. Capturing the horror in details and sensations, describing what she sees and feels, was difficult. These are scenes too easy to write about in familiar terms of outrage, and much harder to convey in ways that enable people to viscerally feel the catastrophe.
What kind of research did you do when you penned this novel? Did anything surprising come up in your search? (Perhaps something you had no need to put in the book but stayed in your mind nevertheless?)

I am afraid I did no research for this book. I have spent a lifetime reading about these times, from the early ‘30s through the war and afterwards, not just in Germany and Poland, but in France, Spain and Russia. All of what I retained came flooding back as I wrote. I don’t think the span of years and places would have come together in a story if I had set out to stitch one together from systematic historical research.
What would you like readers to gain from reading your book? Is there a strong moral? Do you hope they will laugh, learn something about a particular subject/person, ponder a point?

I started out writing this book with a story to tell, and a set of views about what those years really mean for human history. Readers have recognized these views in Rita’s thoughts, her actions and the ideas that emerge in her relationships with others—men, women, family, friends, strangers. These ideas are controversial ones—Darwinism and atheism, especially. Readers have reacted to this “message” both favorably and unfavorably.

But once I began writing the “message” became less and less important to the story, and now I think people can and should read the novel without feeling any need to take sides on whether Rita’s way of making sense of it all is one they can share. The Girl From Krakow is a thriller, not a work of philosophy.

Your book takes place in Europe. If I were a tourist, what would you recommend I see in this town/country? 

Think of all the settings in The Girl from Krakow: Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow, Krakow, Heidelberg. They are all in their different ways destinations. For history, especially parts of it we know less about, Warsaw, Moscow, Krakow, are magnets. Warsaw was rebuilt after the Germans razed it to the ground in 1944. But Krakow survived intact and is one of the most authentically central European cities to survive 50 years of Communism. The vast church rising over the main square is wonderful. For fun and pleasure, those cities can’t beat Paris and Barca’. When I go back to these two places, I try to visit the sights that figure in this novel, Barceloneta and the beach at Barcelona, the left bank and the Cremerie Polydor restaurant in Paris. Of all the places in The Girl From Krakow, the one I love most is Berlin, a city that nowadays combines the gaiety of Paris with the history of the 20th century in a way that makes it endlessly interesting.

Moving on to personal things...if you could time travel to absolute any time and place in history, where and when would you go and what is it that draws you to this time period? What would you do whilst there?

There are two moments in history worth being there for, just to share the joy. Paris on the 25th of August 1944 and Berlin on the night of November 9th 1989. Watch the faces of the people you can see on Youtube from the wartime newsreels and the video footage from the nightly news programs on TV. You’ll feel so jealous you weren’t there.

What would I do if I could be transported back to those events? Sing, drink, kiss strangers, feel that sometimes the arc of human history really does bend towards justice.

There are so many books out there nowadays... What makes your book stand out from them?

The author is not the best person to answer that question. I know what I want people to find in my book more than in others. But what if anything does stand out to readers is for them to say. Here’s what I hope: readers will find it’s a better way to think about the meaning of what happens to us than the ways we have inherited from our traditions, our culture and our history.

I’m a dog mom, so I always ask this. Do you have pets? If so, tell me about them and do provide pictures.

Alas, my sainted yellow lab, Meg, died a few years ago. We still talk to her many times a day. Our memories and our frequent travels have made it impossible to share our lives with another dog, though wherever we go, it’s the dogs we remember most, and keep pictures of.


Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Duke University and the codirector of the Duke Center for Philosophy of Biology. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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