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Interview with Tara Ison


Tara Ison is the author of the novels The List (Scribner), A Child out of Alcatraz (Faber & Faber; a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Rockaway (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press; featured as one of the "Best Books of Summer" in O, The Oprah Magazine). Her essay collection, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, Winner of the PEN Southwest Book Award for Best Creative Nonfiction, and her short story collection, Ball, were both published by Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press. The recipient of 2020 and 2008 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, Ison received her MFA in Fiction & Literature from Bennington College. She is currently Professor of Fiction at Arizona State University.

There was a specific psychological experience I wanted to explore, and rather than try to find such a real person – which would have felt exploitative, to me, as a fiction writer – I decided to create the character and circumstance which would offer the strongest narrative, thematic, and dramatic possibilities.

Today I am thrilled to welcome Tara Ison to gilagreenwrites. Like Tara, I have taken a deep dive into the 1930s and 40s, but while my work centers around British Mandate Palestine, Tara has explored France under Nazi Occupation in her new work. I am honored to have her here and thank her for the insights she shares with us today. 

Full disclosure: Tara mailed me a free copy of her book in exchange for this interview. 

GG: Do you consider your novel a Holocaust novel and if not, why not? If so, what do you think when you hear the expression Holocaust fatigue?

TI: It is certainly a Holocaust novel, yes – and it's actually inspired by the story of my stepmother, who as a 5-year-old Jewish girl was sent to live as a Catholic girl in a village in Czechoslovakia.

But this is not her story, at all, nor is it quite right to define it solely as a "Holocaust novel" - I wanted to depict a different perspective and experience, ie, the story of an older Jewish girl child living under a false identity, combined with the specific circumstances of life in France under the collaborative Vichy regime, and how she becomes transformed into a completely different person. I've always viewed the novel primarily as a study of identity, and how fragile the sense of self can become under the influence of extremist ideologies – how a vulnerable mind can be twisted toward fascism. Rather than directly experiencing the nightmares of the genocide, my character undergoes that disturbing psychological transformation – which I hope might illuminate how people become complicit in such atrocities against humanity.

As for "Holocaust fatigue" – I get it. I worked on this book for 25 years, and I understand how overwhelming it can be to feel immersed in those dark waters; I often needed to "take a break" from that world. But I'm privileged to be able to take that break, after all, and I would remind myself of that. I take seriously our responsibility to keep those stories alive. And to listen to the thousands of stories yet to be told, as they all deserve to be.

GG: Do you think Jewish novels are too often associated with WW2?

TI: I think it's almost impossible to tell a Jewish story post WWII that doesn't in some way reference the war, or the lingering trauma. But I think it's a mistake to simply equate a "Jewish story" (and what does that mean, really?) with the Holocaust – thousands of years of Jewish experience offer multitudes of stories.

GG: "And it is a fictional story—I'm not telling the story of one actual person—but I really wanted to honor the experience by understanding the range of experiences and the trauma that so many children went through."

This is a quotation from one of your interviews online. Could you expand on that? Why not choose one real story? How do you respond to those who say there are enough real people we must not forget, why make one up?

TI: It's a good question – I often ask that when I see or read dramatic depictions of real-life events through the eyes of fictional characters. But there was a specific psychological experience I wanted to explore, and rather than try to find such a real person – which would have felt exploitative, to me, as a fiction writer – I decided to create the character and circumstance which would offer the strongest narrative, thematic, and dramatic possibilities. Again, I feel all the stories of real people deserve to be told; but biography is a different kind of art, and there are others better skilled at telling those real-life stories.

GG: "I stuck to my guns on the title because, as you said, I think it works on multiple levels." This is another quotation from you. Could you tell me more? Was there opposition to the title? Were there other options? Did the publisher allow you to make your own decision about the title?

TI: That title means a great deal to me; somewhere in my research I came upon the French phrase "entre chien et loup," or "between dog and wolf," an idiomatic expression for twilight, or dusk, and it just clicked. I love the poetry of it, but I also felt it perfectly spoke to the idea of psychological transformation, and the subtle changes and gradations through which that happens to a person. It also fit into the narrative quite easily, as my character, Danielle, remembers one afternoon early in the occupation of Paris:

Walking on slow Sunday afternoons until the sun began its drop, [Danielle

and her father would] stop on the Pont Neuf, to watch the candles and

lamplights twinkle on in the buildings.

Watch the colors change, Danielle, he'd say, pointing to the sky, look how

beautiful. Look at all the shadings, always changing, from silvery lemon,

over there, to that deep sapphire, look how it's turning to ink. It's like a

painting. We're 'entre chien et loup' at this hour. Now look carefully,

and you show me the moment when day changes to night, when the light

turns to dark. Can you see it?

And she'd look and look but could never see exactly when the shift

happened, when the dog became the wolf. And that didn't change,

the twilight sky, just because the Germans were there."

But my publisher had some concerns about the title - he felt it was a little long and complicated and might misdirect people to thinking it was a different kind of book. But the more we talked about it, the more comfortable he felt – and I'm so happy we kept that title. I can't imagine another for this book.

GG: Could you talk about the publishing process? How long did it take you to get the book published? Did you go through any rejections that gave you doubts about your work? Did you debate about self-publishing? Feel free to throw in some advice for new authors.

TI: Bringing this book into the world was a long and difficult journey – a lot of No's over the past fifteen years! Several people thought it might be a YA book (which it is not, although I think an adolescent reader could get a lot out of it), or wanted me to totally revamp it as a YA novel – which I had no desire or understanding how to do. Others said they were "uncomfortable" being "inside this girl's head" as she goes to the dark side – which told me I was doing something right.

With each No I did do some serious thinking, and to try to understand why they felt the book "didn't work" – maybe they were right…? But each time I went back to the book, I was simply unable to make changes I didn't feel were right. It's why I'm so grateful to Ig Publishing, who supported my vision for the book from start to finish; I can't imagine a better home for it.

As for self-publishing – that's a whole other world I know little about. My first novel, A Child out of Alcatraz, was published in 1997 by the US branch of Faber & Faber, Inc; they closed their doors several years later, just as e-books were becoming a thing. So I put it up on Kindle myself, which isn't that difficult to do. I have friends who have self-published their books (hard copy and virtual) to great success – but they also did massive research into the self-publishing industry; one told me the whole self-publishing process was much harder than writing the book. So, I'd certainly advise doing a lot of homework and due diligence before going that route.

GG: Why did you particularly choose France? Do you have any background in Europe?

TI: I knew I didn't want to set it in my stepmother's Hungary/Czechoslovakia, because that world, history, and culture felt so distant from my knowledge at the time. I've always been a Francophile – I was fortunate to spend an undergrad year there on a Rotary scholarship - and I had a vague idea about the "Vichy Government that collaborated with the Nazis," so I decided to set it in France. But as I researched, I realized I had little idea how that collaboration worked, what it really meant. The specific experience of living in occupied (but not "conquered," as Vichy like to claim) France became absolutely essential to the book; the country itself undergoes a transformation of identity that mirrors what my character experiences.

GG: How did you go about portraying an authentic Catholic family? Did you use Catholic beta readers?

TI: No beta readers, but I did start by speaking with friends of mine who are Catholic to learn more about their experiences of the faith. And it became another dimension of my research, because I had to truly understand how my (Jewish) character comes to embrace the religion with such devout fervor, what it offered her, meant to her. So, books, documentaries. I went to a Latin Mass several times, both in the US and in France – it's a fascinating experience, so emotional and sensual. I can appreciate its power.

GG: You mention you are returning to the short story form. Are you turning to a different subject or to a collection?

TI: I'm working on stories for a new collection – many of them are inspired by folklore or fairytales, or work as a kind of pastiche of classic works of literature. But most of my stories share a common theme – characters lacking in self-awareness and understanding and consumed by a need they refuse to acknowledge…until the suppressed emotions erupt in some pretty negative behaviors.

GG: Is there a reason you decided to write the story from a girl's point of view as opposed to a boy? Do you think there is something in the novel that reflects a particularly female experience?

TI: There are certain specific female experiences – developing body, first period, the societal expectations and limitations on adolescent girls – that are central to the novel, dramatically and psychologically, that I would have been unable to explore from a boy's POV. While I want my male characters to be as complex and multi-dimensional as possible, I do gravitate toward writing from the female experience; I can tap deeply into my own psyche as well as depicting aspects of "woman-ness" I feel are still under-represented in literature.

GG: Is there anything else you wish to share with us?

TI: Just my appreciation and deep gratitude for the opportunity to discuss the novel, and to everyone who has taken the time to read the book, and respond so positively – it means a great deal. Thank you for your time, Gila!

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Thursday, 18 April 2024

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