It’s been six years since Julie Orringer published How to Breathe Underwater, which was nearly universally acknowledged as a first book of an outstanding new voice. Orringer is a realist who captures character with almost uncanny nuance. Her second book, The Invisible Bridge, risks a lot even as it maintains a classical feel: It’s almost 700 pages; it deals with World War II; it's partly a good, old-fashioned epic about the endurance of character. That’s hard to pull off in an impatient age. Below, Orringer talks about patience, character, and how to learn to write:
Simons: I was struck by the contemporary voice behind How To Breathe Underwater and by the contrasting, classical voice behind The Invisible Bridge. Did you have the sense of honoring or returning to a more traditional writing style when writing the novel?
Orringer: I was reading a string of nineteenth-century novels as I started The Invisible Bridge—War and Peace, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Vanity Fair, Mansfield Park—and I found that I loved contemporary novels that seemed to grow out of the lushness and fullness of those earlier forms. Books like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex seemed to argue that a novel could be contemporary and old-fashioned, at the same time—could have a complicated and satisfying narrative arc and a grand historical scope, and yet still participate in the conversation of twenty-first century literature. The Invisible Bridge moves forward through time like a nineteenth-century novel, but what it’s pulling its characters toward is the horrific disaster of the Second World War. Maybe there’s a kind of contemporary tension in that juxtaposition of linear narrative structure with the illogic and madness of that war.
Simons: What was it like to have such a long time between published books? I remember reading interviews when How To Breathe Underwater came out, in which you were already talking about work on this novel, and your fear that it would take a long time or even never come together. Were agents or publishers pestering during the time it took to write the novel? How was your own confidence level?
Orringer: My editor and agent were incomparably kind and patient during the six years it took me to hand over a draft. All the pressure came from me. I wanted to finish sometime in this life, but I also wanted to take the time to get things right instead of rushing an early draft into print. I did know that the novel was going to take a long time to write, but I also felt like it was important to approach the writing and research with patience, and to let the narrative unfold organically rather than trying to follow some preconceived pattern. At the beginning I’d decided that the novel would take place between 1937 and 1945. Though the historical events of those years were huge in scope and scale, the temporal boundaries made the book feel finite, at least. There were times when I felt daunted by the sheer weight of the revision, or by the historical material itself, but those times were tempered by long days of just getting work done, or by the pleasure of unexpected discoveries in the research. And there was pleasure, too, in the secrecy that came with working on something for so long that no one at all had seen. Of course, I was terrified that it would all be revealed to be a disaster when I finally handed it over to someone—I don’t envy my husband that first read—but it was also a relief to start talking about it and making the necessary changes.
Simons: It must have been intimidating to write a book that addresses World War II, about which so much has been written. How did you trust that you could say something new about that time and place?
Orringer: I hope I have! I did think about that a lot. For one thing, I have to believe that each person who lived through the war lived through it in an absolutely distinct way. Every time we tell one of those stories, it’s as if we’re writing about the war for the first time. Also, there’s not been a great deal written in English about the Holocaust in Hungary. Obvious wonderful exceptions exist: recent Nobel prizewinner Imre Kertész’s Fateless, for example. But not many people know about the Hungarian Jews’ conscription into forced labor battalions, whose work was to support armies intent upon eradicating the Jews and their allies. And not many people know that Hungary wasn’t occupied until March of 1944, when Hitler’s defeat was all but certain, and that its Jewish population survived largely intact until that point, despite strict anti-Semitic laws and widespread anti-Jewish practices; the horribly efficient deportations that followed brought more than half of Hungary’s Jews to their deaths in a matter of a few months.
Simons: There’s a distinct feeling I get from some of your protagonists: I feel big love for them when they do quiet good deeds. I’m thinking of a part of “The Isabel Fish” in which the little sister suffers an injustice in quiet and doesn’t fight back. I’m also thinking of the underspoken way in which Andras carries that big crate to Paris, without making a stink about a burden he didn't ask for. These characters seem to do extra work for others, without complaining. When they handle their pain like that, I get a deep, warm sense of their dignity. Does that idea resonate with you—can you put more words on it?
Orringer: I’m so glad you feel that way, and I hope the opposite is true as well—that you can feel empathy and understanding for the characters when they act in ways that don’t do them credit. In The Invisible Bridge, Andras starts out pretty naïve and has to make a lot of mistakes, some more serious than others—he falls for a woman who’s in trouble with the law, and their relationship ends up imperiling her family as well as his own; he’s forced to deceive her into thinking she’s safe from harm, ostensibly for her own good. Later, the subversive newspaper he writes with a friend gets his entire forced labor battalion deported, and ends up costing many lives. One test of a novel’s strength is whether it can keep its readers engaged even when its characters are at their most imperfect.
Simons: In a 2003 interview with Robert Birnbaum, you said, “One of the things that I resist in fiction is the idea that a terrible experience will lead to some kind of epiphany or positive change in a character.” Can you say more about that?
Orringer: That resistance was something I’d felt for a long time as a reader, but it came out again as a result of a recurring question that arose after I wrote How to Breathe Underwater: whether my mother’s early death from breast cancer had somehow made me a better or stronger person, and/or a better writer. Even if, in some ways, losing a parent toughens you, is that change in any way preferable to not having lost your parent? And if not, to what degree can it really be considered positive, even if it helps you understand other people’s grief or prepares you for future losses? If the question was relevant to the story collection, it’s even more relevant to the novel. I come from a family of Holocaust survivors, which is to say that I come from a family irrevocably changed by the war. The losses are irremediable, the scars are permanent, and the effects can be felt acutely three generations down the line. In The Invisible Bridge, the characters who are survived are changed forever by what they’ve seen and experienced, but the changes are like the changes in a landscape after a flood or fire: devastating, pervasive, and persistent.
Simons: How do you teach creative writing?
Orringer: First I require that my students promise to spend three hours a day producing new work. Then I make them read a lot of published stories and novels that I love. I encourage them to write their own stories from beginning to end at a good clip, without too much self-judgment; then I teach them how to revise carefully, and how to become good readers of their own work and each other’s. That’s the way-oversimplified version. The fact is, everyone’s got to have space and time to do their own thing; it also helps to have a teacher you respect to point out the difference between what’s good and what’s not. Of course, since everyone’s opinion on that distinction varies, it’s good to have a series of teachers with widely varying tastes. And peers whose opinions you respect.
Simons: I once included you in a list of writers and thinkers who I thought might have grown special skills of observation through early loss of a parent. For a link to that blog post, click here. Want to comment?
Orringer: I love being on any list that also includes Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, John Lennon, Tolstoy, and Plato. Does losing a parent early confer special skills of observation? I don’t know. I do think it made me pay attention to other injustices in the world—or to the way in which the world seemed to operate chaotically and unknowably, leaving us to muddle through. It also brought me even closer to my brother and sister; complicated closeness to siblings is a theme that recurs in Woolf’s and Eliot’s work, as it does in the work of a lot of the others on your list. A couple of years ago I taught a class about women and the novel; quite unintentionally, the reading list consisted almost exclusively of women whose mothers had died young. A student of mine suggested that motherlessness might confer on women a certain degree of artistic freedom. Even if she was right, the suggestion saddened me. Whatever artistic benefit that kind of loss may carry, it’s just not worth it. I will say, though, that in people who are already inclined toward artistic expression, maybe suffering an early and terrible loss confers a greater sense of urgency about their work—not just because of the desire to share one’s experience and to express empathy for those who have suffered similar losses, but because it makes one even more acutely aware of one’s own mortality.
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.