Interview with Karen Schur-Narula, Author

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Karen Schur-Narula grew up in South America, North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. She studied at Reed College, Schiller International University, and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. These days she divides her time mainly between Thailand and France. Schur-Narula is the author of “Voyage of the Emerald Buddha” and “Like the Gaze of Statues,” and she contributed an essay to Penelope Rowland’s anthology “Paris Was Ours.” Her first novel, “Fatherland,” published in November, 2016, is an epic exploration of one of the world’s most puzzling, painful, and important questions: how do people who are basically good fail to respond to, or even come to participate in, evil? Through the story of Lili, a gifted young Prussian harpsichordist who becomes enamored of “the Führer” at a young age, we see her gradual drift into a world of evil, despite the best efforts of her parents to protect her and remove her from it. Exquisitely written, “Fatherland” is a suspenseful, deeply compelling entry into that world. Schur-Narula recently took the time to answer the following questions for me via e-mail.      

Janet Hulstrand: When did you first start working on Fatherland, and what was your inspiration for telling this story?

Karen Schur-Narula: The idea of the book bit me back in 2003, but it wasn’t until early the following year that I actually began to work on it. As for what inspired me, I’d have to say it all began in Saudi Arabia. I was a four-year old, newly enrolled in kindergarten. Outside on the playground one day, an older American boy referred to my mother by a name that I had never heard before, but that I sensed wasn’t very nice. As soon as I got home, I asked my German mother what a “nadzee” was. That was the day I began to learn about the man who had caused death and lifetimes of suffering for so many.

Of course my mother didn’t tell me everything that day; after all, I was only four. But she told me enough to make me aware of Adolf Hitler.

In the years to come she would tell me more. And I would read countless volumes, in both English and German, about that era. On a personal level, I learned to partition off the two sides of my family. There was the set of grandparents in the U.S.A., and the one in Germany. I loved them both. There was the fact that my father had spent part of World War II in the South Pacific, and the fact that my mother had been bombed out of her house during Operation Gomorrah. Thus, the issue of concepts of right vs. wrong engaged me early on.

However, Hitler was always wrong because of what he had encouraged, wrought, and condoned. Then, back in 2003, I read some information about POW camps located in Germany after the war. It was disturbing to discover what had gone on in several of them. I felt sick; felt that a certain ideal had been betrayed. The germ of the story began to grow. Quite soon thereafter too came the disclosures about the Abu Ghraib prison. So the earliest version of Fatherland was heading in a different direction. But as I worked on it that first year, I soon realized that the crucial part of the story actually came earlier, much earlier: the real issue was how even one person could have been taken in by Hitler, by his demagoguery and despicable discrimination. It seemed vital to tell a story from that particular perspective. That kept me occupied for the following years.

JH: How much of the story is based on either one true story, or a composite of true stories you came across in your research?

KSN: I should say that Fatherland is not based on any particular true story that I came across in my research. At the same time, I could say that it is a composite of everything. There are as many accounts as there were people who lived, and died, during the Third Reich. One odd and frustrating fact: after having come up with the scene that takes place toward the end of the book in Marktplatz, I googled some key words to see if something close to such an incident had indeed taken place somewhere. It had! Not in Heidelberg, but in a small town whose name I did not recognize. I wish I had written it down right away. Because later, when I tried to find the reference again, it was gone.

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JH: One of the things I love about your writing is the richly textured descriptions, in particular of nature, but also of other things–the sensory details of sight, sound, taste, smell that Lili delights in, and that you share with the reader. How hard is it to do that, and when does that happen in the writing process? Do you first block out the story and the dialogue, and then go back in and fill out that kind of sensory detail? And do you have any particular strategies or practices you use in order to be able to do that?

KSN: I’m glad you felt transported into (some aspects of) Lili’s world. Sharing sensory details is an essential part of my writing process. It’s what helps make that other world real for me. My strategy from the very start is to try and put myself into the character enough to be able to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell what is going on there; to put myself into that alternate reality. That way, I don’t have to go back later to fill in those details. However, it can be a disturbing place to be. 

JH: Since many of my readers are most likely not very familiar with the work of Goethe, I’d like to ask you about the importance of Goethe in this book. Lili’s father often quotes Goethe, and Lili herself carries a book of his quotes with her when she returns to Germany. What is the importance of this historical figure in the story of Fatherland? What does he represent, and why he is so important?

KSN: My German grandfather occasionally quoted to me from Goethe. And it was from my mother’s record collection that I first heard Goethe’s poems sung as Lieder, set to music by composers such as Schubert, Beethoven, Liszt.

Even nearly two centuries after his death, Goethe is still one of the most revered cultural figures in Germany. (There are Goethe-Instituts, promoting the German language and cultural cooperation, in over 90 countries around the world.) It was Goethe (and his friend, fellow writer Schiller) who helped usher in the Golden Age of German literature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Aside from poetry, prose, drama, memoirs, literary criticism, and letters, Goethe wrote on several aspects of the natural sciences, and politics. His ideas and reflections have certainly influenced the thinking of generations, outside Germany as well. In short, he was rather intriguing.

Goethe does play an important role in Fatherland, held up by Lili’s father to be a voice of caution from the civilization that many would say was in the process of dying during the Third Reich.

JH: Music is of course also very important in this story. Lili is a gifted harpsichordist: there is a scene in which she is at a concert being performed by a special SS orchestra that I think touches on one of the most deeply disturbing aspects of  the story.  “For some time [she] was aware of nothing but creation of the exquisite. Truly, these men were masters. As the last moment of the first piece, Telemann’s Trumpet Concerto in D major, came to an end, it must have been apparent to everyone in the hall that these officers, the most elite of the Reich, were also men of heartbreaking sensitivity. Lili sighed. They had touched purity, and shared it with all present.” Can you comment on this? How do we come to terms with the fact that sometimes the same people who are capable of recognizing and creating such transcendant beauty, such sensitivity, are also capable of  disconnecting themselves from an understanding of beauty, of “purity,” so well that they are able to practice the most unfathomably cruel and  inhumane behavior toward each other? We know this can and does happen, but it is so difficult to understand how it is possible…

KSN: That is a question that has long haunted me. Part of the answer might indeed lie in your term “disconnection.” But it could be the other way around: that those people have the disturbing ability to disconnect themselves from their callousness, their brutal behavior toward others; that they assign non-value to those toward whom they can then be cruel and inhumane. And thus, at other times, they feel free to appreciate or even create something like beauty.

We in the 21st century do tend to look at the Third Reich from the vantage point of hindsight. But in the scene at the concert, I think it is important to consider that at that point, in the autumn of 1937, not even the SS musicians themselves would have had an inkling of the mass horrors that were to come, that indeed many of them were to be part of a few years later.

Although some of the injustices of their regime were already blatant, on that particular evening they would still have been performing the music without that as yet unfathomable element of evil. Also, I like to hope that at least one musician was already giving sound to heart-searching doubt, and that perhaps this was a note of the purity that Lili believed she was hearing.

JH: It would be nice to be able to read Fatherland with a sigh of relief that those terrible times are past. But as the world seems to be entering a period of rising nationalism, and the threat of international instability is ever-present, it is perhaps better to read this story as a warning of some kind. Did you have anything like that in mind when you wrote it? And even if you didn’t, what do you hope your readers will take away from reading Fatherland? Are there any lessons for people, in our increasingly interconnected world, to take away from it?

KSN: Certainly when I began Fatherland, and even for many years during the process, I often wondered who would want to read yet another book about the Nazis and their virulent agenda, even if I thought it was still important enough for me to spend years working on it. After all, the world as a whole seemed to have moved forward a few paces. Those overtly belligerent days of nationalism and deadly racism would surely not return. Yes, there was still far too much strife and suffering in far too many places, and the world was by no means perfect, but at least the Nazis seemed to belong to the past.

Well, for several years it was my head that was buried too deep in the past. When at last I looked up, I was dismayed to realize that nationalism, and much more, was most definitely on the rise. Now it seems as if Lili’s lessons in Fatherland are indeed still relevant, in a disturbing way. It is like a very bad joke.

What can readers take away from Fatherland? Something useful, I hope. As you say, our world is increasingly interconnected, on so many planes. For the health of our planet and our children’s children, it is vital that we humans get our priorities straight.

No race, religion, gender, or ethnicity should hold itself above the others. It is our shared humanity that must unite us; life is too short for anything else. It might be an interesting exercise if each of us were to choose one of our most fundamental, most precious of premises, and consider, seriously, honestly, that it might be wrong.

JH: What are you working on now?

KSN: A novel that is not set in the Third Reich.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer, in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY.

 

 

June 9, 2017 at 4:04 pm Leave a comment

Et voila! La Maison #Renoir is open to the public!

La Maison Renoir, a corner of the living room

Some things are just so momentous that it’s hard to believe that they ever really will happen. Christmas morning is like this for many children (at least it was for me). And yesterday in Essoyes I again felt some of that feeling of Christmas-morning wonder-and- joy that I haven’t felt in quite the same way many times since I was a child.

Because yesterday, the Renoir family home, which has been under an intense process of renovation for the past year, was at last ready for visitors–and right on schedule!

You have to realize how amazing this is, first of all. This is how the house looked a few short months ago when I visited there with Mayor Alain Cintrat.

Honestly, when I first heard, last year around this time, that the house was going to be totally renovated, with climate control, an elevator, and other major improvements made, and that it would be totally furnished with period furnishings that would have to be gathered  from various places, all inside of year, I didn’t say anything negative of course, but I thought, “No way. How are they going to do that?”

I even asked someone at the Office de Tourism, sometime during the month of July, what the reopening dates were scheduled to be, just to be sure, and when she told me, I said. “Hmmm. So I guess they’ll have to start the work right away, right?”

Wrong. “Mais non,” she said, smiling. “It’s almost August, you know.”

So. You know how everyone makes fun of the French for taking so much time off? Long, and many, vacations? Long lunches?

Well. They did it. And they did it beautifully and wonderfully well. And they did without giving up those vacations and long lunches that make life so much more pleasant to live.

So, think about that now, Brits and Americans, okay? 🙂  They did it.

Yesterday was the day it was finally ready for viewing. And it is so beautiful. Take a look at this!


Yesterday the honored guests were the residents of Essoyes. The mayor was there all day long, cordially greeting everyone as they arrived. A friendly, cheerful, efficient team of village employees and volunteers were there to greet people, and show them how to use their audiotour kits, which offer commentary in French, English, and several other languages. (I wasn’t able to listen to the whole thing yesterday, but I listened to enough of it to know that it too is very nicely done: it tells the story of the Renoir family, how they came to be in Essoyes in the first place, how and why they loved it so. You can read some of that story here also, if you like.)

And, as of today, the house is open to the general public.

Great pains have been taken to decorate the rooms in the way they might have been, or– to some degree, by relying on photographs, bits of old wallpaper discovered in the renovation, and so on–even how they actually were in 1905, when the Renoirs were living there. The impression given is that the members of the family have just stepped out for a walk and will be back anytime. Some of the original furniture is there, on loan from Sophie Renoir–the great-granddaughter of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his wife, Aline–who was the last one to live in the house. Period artifacts gathered from other sources give a wonderfully detailed feeling of what a real home of the period, and in this case what the Renoir home, in this period, would have been like. It is a wonderful experience to see it.

For the summer months three original works of Renoir on loan from museums in France: a landscape painted in nearby Loches; a bust of Madame Renoir; and a painting, Jeune femme au mirror, are on display as well.

During the weekend of July 22-23, all of Essoyes will invite visitors to come and, along with them, enter into the spirit of 1905, as they celebrate Essoyes a la belle époque. You can find out more about that, and many other special events planned for the summer, including a Renoir exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Troyes, here.

You’re going to want to come for a visit this summer, aren’t you?

I thought so! 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer, in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY.

June 3, 2017 at 2:02 pm Leave a comment

A very special spring in Essoyes

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Fields of wheat and rapeseed, springtime in Champagne.

Springtime is always a busy time in agricultural communities, and this year is no different in southern Champagne, as local farmers tend to their crops–primarily wheat, rapeseed, and of course grapes for champagne. It was once again a rough start to the year for grape-growers, with exceptionally warm weather followed by a couple of weeks of early-morning frosts. Not good for the grapes! We’re holding our collective breath that the result will not be too disastrous for too many vignerons. Last year was hard enough! 😦

Meanwhile, in Essoyes, excitement is mounting as the time for a plethora of department-wide celebrations planned for this, the Year of Renoir, draws near. The excitement begins on June 3, when the Renoir family home in Essoyes will open to the public, and will continue on June 23, with the official inauguration.

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La Maison Renoir, under renovation. It opens to the public June 3!

This has been a massive project for a village of only 750 citizens to take on. It is happening thanks to extensive help from various arms of the French government, plus numerous generous donations of time, money, and in-kind donations given by individuals, contractors, and other entities. It has required courage, imagination, foresight, a lot of hard work, and phenomenal amounts of determined persistence and patience from the mayor,  the members of the conseil municipal, and many others I’m sure.

But it’s happening. Yay, Essoyes! 🙂

The excitement continues when, during the weekend of July 22-23, Essoyes will turn itself into a 1900 version of itself in Essoyes a la Belle EpoqueThere will be a circa 1900 carousel, a circa 1900 wedding, a circa 1900 school exam given in a circa 1900 classroom. There will be women washing clothes in the village lavoir, and a great many people dressed in period costume. It’s going to be fun! If you can come, do!

There are lots of other special events planned over the course of the summer as well, including Un Autre Renoiran exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Troyes, showcasing more than 50 works of art on loan from museums around France;  and a weekend of cinéma en plein aire in Essoyes July 28-29, thanks to the cooperation of the Maison Pour Tous in neighboring Landreville, which has moved its regular summertime festival of outdoor film to Essoyes for that weekend, in honor of the Year of Renoir. (You can find out more about many of the Year of Renoir events that are being planned here.)

A couple of weeks ago an open community meeting was held at the mairie, at which a handful of people who have volunteered to be in charge of various aspects of planning for Essoyes a la Belle Epoque reported on their activities and progress to date, and let those attending know how they can help. I was once again impressed with “my” little village: how organized, how dedicated, how ambitious, really, people can be, and are. There are a lot of details to attend to! This is going to be a lot of work! But here everyone was, planning, pitching in, organizing, thinking ahead. Wow! What a great town!

I think it’s all going to be a lot of fun, and though I am always telling people what a great place Essoyes is to visit (because it is!) I think that is going to be even more true this year. 🙂

Meanwhile, aside from all of that, there are the usual spring events to keep people busy. For example, last weekend it was the Foire aux Vins, a local celebration of viticulture. I wasn’t able to go this year, but here’s a picture I got last year. (No. I was not drinking champagne before I took this. It is out of focus simply because I’m not a very good photographer. But you get the idea. Banners. Costumes. Herald trumpets. Champagne!)

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Then there are the “flowers of spring.” Essoyes is a three-flower village (if you don’t know what that means, well, you really just have to come to France and see if you can figure it out, or ask someone about it).

And though wildflowers don’t count for the three-flower designation, they certainly are very pretty. I wrote about them here last year. This year I will simply say that the last couple of weeks have seen a lot of whites and yellows. And this week there were some pinks and purples coming onto the scene, pinks and purples of such intense hues that spotting them almost inevitably makes me smile–smile at the beautiful audacity of nature.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer, in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY.

May 24, 2017 at 4:05 pm Leave a comment

France Has a New President

…It’s a big job this very young man (only 39 years old) has before him. But I think he has the brains, heart, strength, courage, and conviction to do a good job….

Continue Reading May 9, 2017 at 9:11 am Leave a comment

Back in Essoyes again…

First of all, how nice to be welcomed back after long weeks away! The Facebook message from my friend Desirée expressed enthusiasm that I was back in France again, and added, “…at 6:30 pm there is a short film in the community hall that the Maison Pour Tous and the kids put together. You are welcome to join us…”

Continue Reading April 25, 2017 at 11:05 am Leave a comment

The Women’s March: A Rare (and Wonderful!) Display of Unity Around the World

…I want to say how grateful I am to the many French women, Frenchmen (and other men), and children who joined us in marching through the streets of Paris to express our solidarity
with those who have already felt slighted, threatened, or otherwise badly treated by the new president of the United States…

Continue Reading January 23, 2017 at 5:29 pm 2 comments

A Peek Ahead at the Year of Renoir

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This year is the Year of Renoir not just in Essoyes, but throughout l’Aube, the département in which Essoyes is located, in the Champagne region of France.

Essoyes is situated just a couple of hours southeast of Paris,  very close to the border of Burgundy. Could there be a more perfect location? Well, many of us don’t think so.  🙂

In any case, why is this the Year of Renoir? And what will there be to see and do in l’Aube this year? I’ll be posting details of upcoming events from time to time, but for now I just want to give you a peek at a few of them, and suggest that you might want to mark your calendars for a visit to Essoyes–and Troyes–in 2017!

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The Maison Renoir in Essoyes, currently undergoing a major renovation. It will open to the public in June. Photo by Janet Hulstrand.

The opening of the Renoir home, currently undergoing a 600,000 Euro renovation, is the big, central event, and the reason the département has decided to designate this year the Year of Renoir. This is the home in which Pierre Auguste Renoir and his wife, Aline Charigot–who was born and raised in Essoyes–lived with their family much of the time, from the late 1800s until Renoir’s problems with arthritis forced a move to the South of France. This is also the home in which Jean Renoir spent many of his happiest times as a boy.

The house will open to the public on June 3. This is a very exciting event indeed: until recently the house was still being used as a summer and weekend home for Sophie Renoir, a great-granddaughter of the painter, and her family. A few years ago the village purchased the home, and the renovation now underway will offer visitors to du côté Renoir, an interpretive center dedicated to educating visitors about the life of the Renoir family in this village, a much more complete, and more satisfying, sense of their life in Essoyes at the turn of the twentieth century.

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During the weekend of July 22-23, the village will recreate life in Essoyes in the year 1900. And throughout the summer there will be special events planned in Essoyes, in the surrounding area, and in Troyes, which is a wonderful city to visit at any time in any case. One of these events is a Renoir exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Troyes, which will include, among other things, a famous portrait of “la belle Gabrielle,”  who, as a cousin of Mme. Renoir, beloved nanny of Jean Renoir, and one of Renoir’s favorite models, is perhaps the second most famous Essoyenne, after Mme. Renoir herself.

I’ll be posting soon about other events being planned, including a weekend celebrating the work of Jean Renoir. And you can find details of upcoming events as they are being released by the département de l’Aube, here.  So stay tuned!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer in Paris for Queens College, CUNY.

 

 

 

January 15, 2017 at 11:08 am Leave a comment

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