Today we have Kim van Alkemade and Lauren Fox discussing their new novels, ORPHAN #8 and DAYS OF AWE. Instead of our typical author to author interview, Kim and Lauren have done something a little different–and we love it. They’ve allowed us to listen in on their conversation. Their novels have a number of similar themes and we think you’ll be fascinated by the myriad ways they intersect–and also by these talented, erudite authors.
Lauren: Our novels are so different, but some of our themes – Jewish history and the legacy of trauma – overlap. Having read your descriptions of the research process and your own family’s history, I’m wondering how you felt learning about the setting and the events that hit so close to home, and how that intimate knowledge informed your writing. Did researching things you’d heard about your whole life, in the form of stories from your grandmother, give you any new insights into your family or your own psyche or the idea (one that I personally think about a lot) that trauma can be inherited?
Kim: My grandfather wasn’t subjected to any medical experiments, so there wasn’t that level of trauma, but yes, learning more about the orphanage and how it was run really helped my whole family better understand Victor’s personality. He was impatient and obsessive about time; he wanted meals to be at exactly the same time every day and everyone ate quickly without much talking. He could be abrasive, even scary. Yet, he’d do anything to help you—I remember him sewing a rip in my nightgown, combing a tangle out of my hair, tying on an apron to help my grandma clean up in the kitchen. I think part of the way he dealt with it was to not speak much about his childhood. He never spoke his father’s name—wouldn’t even let the rabbi say his father’s name at his wedding. My mom and her brothers didn’t even know their grandfather Harry’s name until I did this research.
In this stunning new historical novel inspired by true events, Kim van Alkemade tells the fascinating story of a woman who must choose between revenge and mercy when she encounters the doctor who subjected her to dangerous medical experiments in a New York City Jewish orphanage years before.
In 1919, Rachel Rabinowitz is a vivacious four-year-old living with her family in a crowded tenement on New York City’s Lower Eastside. When tragedy strikes, Rachel is separated from her brother Sam and sent to a Jewish orphanage where Dr. Mildred Solomon is conducting medical research. Subjected to X-ray treatments that leave her disfigured, Rachel suffers years of cruel harassment from the other orphans. But when she turns fifteen, she runs away to Colorado hoping to find the brother she lost and discovers a family she never knew she had.
Though Rachel believes she’s shut out her painful childhood memories, years later she is confronted with her dark past when she becomes a nurse at Manhattan’s Old Hebrews Home and her patient is none other than the elderly, cancer-stricken Dr. Solomon. Rachel becomes obsessed with making Dr. Solomon acknowledge, and pay for, her wrongdoing. But each passing hour Rachel spends with the old doctor reveal to Rachel the complexities of her own nature. She realizes that a person’s fate—to be one who inflicts harm or one who heals—is not always set in stone.
Lush in historical detail, rich in atmosphere and based on true events, Orphan #8 is a powerful, affecting novel of the unexpected choices we are compelled to make that can shape our destinies.
Kim: As I read about Josie’s art and how important her paintings were to her self-expression, and also to the way she related to Isabel in particular, gifting her paintings, I wondered if you had an image in mind or an artist who inspired your idea for what Josie’s painting looked like? It’s such a risk to describe visual art with words, did you struggle with that at all?
Lauren: Because I have no actual knowledge of the art world, Josie’s artistic talent was pure fun for me. Ignorance really is bliss! I had no artistic models or precursors in mind when I conceived of Josie as a strangely striving, oddly ambitious painter and sculptor, so I was able to use her personality (as I constructed it) as the only basis for her artwork. I tried to make her artistic sensibility as frantic and sincere and endearing and potentially borderline as she was – hence the Hello Kitty Mount Rushmore and the Last Tupperware Party.
Celebrated for her irresistibly witty, strikingly intelligent examinations of friendship and marriage, Lauren Fox (“An immensely gifted writer—a writer adept at capturing the sad-funny mess that happens to be one woman’s life” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times) has written her most powerful novel to date. Days of Awe is the story of a woman who, in the wake of her best friend’s sudden death, must face the crisis in her marriage, the fury of her almost-teenage daughter, and the possibility of opening her cantankerous heart to someone new.
Only a year ago Isabel Moore was married, was the object of adoration for her ten-year-old daughter, and thought she knew everything about her wild, extravagant, beloved best friend, Josie. But in that one short year her husband moved out and rented his own apartment; her daughter grew into a moody insomniac; and Josie—impulsive, funny, secretive Josie—was killed behind the wheel in a single-car accident. As the relationships that long defined Isabel—wife, mother, daughter, best friend—change before her eyes, Isabel must try to understand who she really is.
Teeming with longing, grief, and occasional moments of wild, unexpected joy, Days of Awe is a daring, dazzling book—a luminous exploration of marriage, motherhood, and the often surprising shape of new love.
Lauren: That in mind, I always find the process of historical research daunting. I’m scared I would get some small but crucial detail wrong (and only find out about it much too late). But you create an utterly believable landscape of two historical periods. Was it a scary or difficult undertaking for you? Did you have readers who could give you a personal take on New York in the 1950s (if not New York in the early 1900s)?
Kim: The most important person in my research was Hy Bogan, who wrote The Luckiest Orphans. I was lucky myself to have had the chance to meet him on a few occasions. Once, we went to the site of the old Hebrew Orphan Asylum together and he gave me a tour (it’s a playground now) and shared his memories. Many of the details in the novel come from those conversations. In the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, I read the original hand-written architect’s proposal for the orphanage, and that also provided many details. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum was hugely inspirational, as well as Anzia Yezierska’s novel Bread Givers, which I bought in the museum gift shop. After a while, though, all of the research started to feel like memories to me, and I could imagine myself in these places.
Kim: I was so impressed with the way you managed the shifts in time, moving back and forth over the year since Josie’s death. I never felt the need to actually keep track of the time, I just trusted that you were leading me through the year. Using the present tense helped anchor me in the now of the novel, but it didn’t even appear until 16—did that feel like a risk for you?
Lauren: I started with both the visceral understanding that grief is not linear, as well the ambition to try something with this novel that would be different from what I’d done before, structurally. I had the idea of this novel as moving forward in time on the surface – so, the book is more or less the year in Isabel’s life after Josie dies – and then I thought that the deeper structure of the novel would be a spiraling back in time. (When I put it that way, it sounds a little nuts.) I kept a tight rein on the timeline, that’s for sure. I was constantly worried I’d screw up a small detail, and the reader would say, “What? Hannah was twelve in the last paragraph, and now, five minutes later, she’s ten-and-a-half?” My editor and I both worked hard to make sure that didn’t happen.
Kim van Alkemade is the author of the historical fiction novel Orphan. Her creative nonfiction essays have appeared in literary journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, CutBank, and So To Speak. Born in New York, NY, she earned a BA in English and History from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is a Professor in the English Department at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania where she teaches writing. She lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
She spent eight years researching and writing Orphan #8. It all began with her interest in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, the institution in which her grandfather, Victor Berger, and his brothers, Charlie and Seymour, grew up. Her greatgrandmother, Fannie Berger, worked at the orphanage, first as a domestic and later as a counselor. Many of the characters and events in Orphan #8 were inspired by her family history.
Lauren: Let’s talk about endings. Without giving anything away, I think I can say that our books share a certain feeling of ambivalent closure. I want to ask how you decided to end your book the way you did, but since that might ruin the experience for those who haven’t read the book yet, instead I’ll ask how you feel about writing endings in general (if you can answer that without giving too much away), and whether, by the end of the book, you felt like you could see Rachel’s future beyond the pages of the book. (I always think it’s funny when people ask me what happened to my characters after the book ended. It’s a book! It ended! But I’m also guilty of it myself, not to mention flattered when readers want to know, because it means they’ve made a deep connection with the characters.)
Kim: I always write to an ending. I know where the story is going the entire time, but I don’t always know how I’m going to get there! The ending you read was my original idea for the novel, but I changed it a few times because I couldn’t figure out how to work up to it. When I figured that out, it fell back into place. I don’t know what happens next! People have asked about a sequel, but Rachel’s story is over for me. It was about her coming to terms with her past and choosing how to integrate her past into her actions in the present. Once she did that, the book was over. But people can imagine what they like!
Kim: I also appreciated your ending (without giving it away). It reminded me of Ann Patchett’s novels, where you have enough information to make a reasonable projection, but the story ends when the main conflict has been resolved. Did you write towards that ending or did it evolve as you explored the story? Do you sometimes feel pressured to wrap things up more neatly? Did you ever worry that introducing Cal as a character so early in the novel would lead readers to see Isabel’s evolution as more romantic than psychological, which is how I read it?
Lauren: I am a pretty rigid outliner – I have to conceive of the entire novel before I can really start writing it – but this was my first experience of writing a story where I wasn’t totally certain of the ending ahead of time. I had lots of ideas for different possible conclusions, but then I got to the point in the story where the book does end, where certain, but not all, aspects of Isabel’s life are wrapped up, and it just felt like the right place to conclude – the moment where a little bit of light comes in. I never feel pressured to wrap things up more neatly, although if you look at certain bok review websites, you will see that some readers would definitely like me to tie up my endings in neater bows! But that’s not really my conception of fiction, of what it’s supposed to do and how it can embrace complexity. In that vein, I thought about Cal and the potential for his storyline with Isabel to feel too much like a romantic arc, but there are so many other things at play in her world, I didn’t worry about it too much.
Lauren Fox is the author of Still Life with Husband. She earned her MFA from the University of Minnesota in 1998, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Seventeen, Glamour, and Salon. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband and two daughters.
Lauren: One of the things I really liked about Orphan #8 was the shifting perspectives and points of view from chapter to chapter. At times I felt the tension of the early Rachel chapters, when she was a child in the orphanage and undergoing these traumatic experimental procedures, was almost unbearable, and then, just in time, you’d switch to adult Rachel (who was, of course, dealing with her own conflicts and plot twists). That was all very smoothly and adeptly done on your part. Why did you decide to write the book this way, with different timelines and points of view? What were the challenges this approach presented?
Kim: I took this novel apart and put it back together more times than I can count. I would get myself really confused. I had dividers with tabs. I had post-it notes on the wall. I had an outline. And then I would scrap it all and reorganize again. I’m glad about how it worked out in the end, but I’m not in a hurry to try that again. I originally had the different time periods in third person past tense and third person present tense, but once I got to know Rachel well enough to start really hearing her voice, I realized I needed to change those chapters to first person past tense. Oh, and I changed her name while I was at it so I’d know what version of the novel I was in. It sounds crazy now that I describe it!
Kim: I really appreciated the pessimistic sense of inevitable loss that permeated Isabel’s family, particularly her mother’s personality. The legacy of the Holocaust is such an overwhelming influence on Helene, and the way that influences Isabel was really interesting. I see it in Isabel’s constant awareness of time slipping away, of happy moments receding into the past. It seems difficult for her to enjoy the present. Perhaps Josie’s manic energy is the antidote to her mother’s pessimism—or at least Isabel thinks so, at first. Did you see it that way?
Lauren: Yes! Although I am always extremely hesitant to conflate fiction and my own experience (an occupational hazard when you write in the first person and your characters pretty much look like you), I will say that I lifted Isabel’s family history and her perspective pretty much directly from my own life, and that sense of melancholy and imminent loss does kind of pervade everything. And I felt like Isabel would be deeply attracted – in a way that is probably beyond her understanding – to a vibrant best friend who doesn’t see the world that way.
Lauren: The themes of betrayal and forgiveness run through the novel. Rachel is, for lack of better terms, both sinner and victim, at various different points in the story, and she has to reckon with both roles. I love how her depths are revealed through her relationship with the desire for revenge, on one hand, and also guilt over her past actions on the other. Is this a big theme for you? How did you decide to complicate her in this particular way?
Kim: Thinking about Rachel and how she was wronged echoed my own experiences of feeling so aggrieved that I couldn’t let something go. It is possible get stuck in a strong negative emotional place, and I wanted to see how far I could take that before Rachel had a crisis. I also didn’t want her to be only a victim—I really don’t see her that way. She has a right to her anger, but for her, revenge is seductive but unproductive. It’s only if she can find a way not to see herself as a victim that she can make different choices. I like the complicated emotional terrain I explored with Rachel.
Kim: One of the most affecting scenes in the book for me is Claire’s bee sting, how it crystalizes the personalities of Isabel and Josie through action, how it raises for Isabel her first doubts about Josie. But mainly because the scene is so wonderfully realized: dramatic yet naturalistic, hectic yet focused. It let me really know Isabel as a teacher. I think women’s professions are not always explored in such depth. Was there an event or incident that inspired you to write this scene?
Lauren: No, nothing in particular inspired this scene; I just knew that I wanted to show the point at which things turned, both for Josie and for Isabel. And, well, I’ve been on my share of field trips these past few years with my children, and they do often feel like distilled little dramas, like passion plays, which I thought was kind of perfect for this particular heightened moment in the novel.
Lauren: This was your debut novel, which is so wonderful and exciting. What’s on the horizon for you?
Kim: I’m working an another historical novel now. It intersects with the orphanage but from a completely different perspective, so it is not a sequel in any way, but it is inspired by the research I was doing while working on Orphan #8. I’m getting to learn about a completely different set of historical topics, which is exciting for me, and the protagonist is male instead of female, so that is a fun change of perspective.
Kim: I could personally relate to Isabel’s fear about love being “foolish and inevitable” and how she was “just waiting to be shattered by it.” I really appreciated you exploring a character with this perspective, and yet how you gave her the humor and resiliency to not be stuck in pessimism. I wonder, is the next character you are creating anything like Isabel?
Lauren: I don’t quite know yet! The next novel is in the very earliest stages. Maybe my next protagonist will be a grim robot assassin on a mission to save the world… but more likely, he or she (oh, let’s face it, she) will have personality elements that feel both unusual and accessible to me – so maybe there will be some pessimism mixed with humor, the play of dark and light. I really like that combination, and I feel like, if I have a world view, that’s probably it – that sadness and humor go hand in hand, illuminate each other, and shed light on something elemental. I guess the robot assassin can wait until book five.