Interview with Karen Schur-Narula, Author

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

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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.

 

 

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