by Claire Guyton
What inspired “Dialogue”?
As the daughter and granddaughter of victims of and refugees from Nazi Germany, I have always been haunted by the Holocaust. At night, when I was a child, the moonlight cast daggers and swastikas on my bedroom walls. Germany was a black-and-white place to me, and Germans seemed a different species altogether – inscrutable and dangerous.
When I was in graduate school I met my first German-Germans, as opposed to the German-Jewish people I’d known my whole life. And you know what? I really liked them. They were, astonishingly, a lot like me. We shared interests and values, and even mutual attractions.
When I got my first teaching job, at Boston College, I met my future husband. He was German (German-German, not German-Jewish!) and neither inscrutable nor dangerous. We clicked right away. Jörg introduced me to German-Jewish dialogue, in which children and grandchildren of Germans—often Nazis, sometimes perpetrators—and children and grandchildren of victims of the Reich, came together to tell their stories.
For years, Jörg and I attended these dialogues, and through them I developed empathy and understanding for the ultimate Other: these were simply people struggling to come to terms with the past, just like me. Sometimes we struggled to connect, to comprehend each other, but mostly there was catharsis in the encounters.
The inspiration for “Dialogue” came to me one summer in Berlin. Jörg and I were participating in a dialogue group there, and we met a young German who appeared to be stoned on antidepressants or some other sort of drugs. This young man stood up in front of, oh, fifty or so people at a gathering of sympathetic Germans and a handful of Jews, and said, “I just found out that my grandfather was a guard at Treblinka. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Jews.” Then he fell silent. Indeed, we all fell silent. What is there to say after a revelation like that?
That young man, whose name I have forgotten, was the inspiration for Ute. He got me thinking: What would it feel like to find out your grandfather was evil, a mass murderer? And, what does it feel like on the German side of the fence? I decided to explore those questions in my writing, and that’s how “Dialogue” came to be.
Tell us about your writing process – either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this story.
I squeeze in writing when I can, often late at night or during my lonely office hours when students don’t show up. As the mother of two children, one with special needs, and the holder of a day job, I can only write sporadically. I might spend two hours writing after the kids are in bed if I’m not too tired, or I might wrangle a couple of hours of blessed solitude out of a Saturday morning. “Dialogue,” though, was something of an exception; I sat down and wrote half of it in one day, and I finished the first draft a few days later. That’s unusual; typically I work on a story for at least a year, setting it aside and going back to it, revising and tweaking until I feel I can let it go. “Dialogue” was ready to submit in a couple of months.
It’s hard to speak about the composition process in any other way than “When do I do it?” because to me, it is a mysterious process: The writing just takes over. I will say that my feel for prose is like my feel for music; in both there lies an elemental rhythm, a tonal resonance. Both can be syncopated; both can be contrapuntal. My finished products seem “musical” to me. The writing in “Dialogue” is relatively spare, or clipped, and in a minor key—the music that comes to mind when I think of Ute is that of John Jenkins—because Ute is so dislocated.
Raymond Carver said a writer should follow the command “No tricks.” Do you keep any quotes or reminders at your desk? Or just at the back of your mind while you write?
I don’t keep any quotes on my desk, but whenever I am working on a piece of writing I set a goal for myself. It might be, “Finish first draft by June 18th,” or it might be, “Write three pages a day, five days a week.” I type up this goal using cool fonts and colors, and I print it out and tape it to my office wall. When I find myself lagging, I just look at that paper. Sometimes I even meet the goals, at the expense of a good night’s sleep.
If you were to write a book on the craft of writing, what title would you use?
Oh, Boy. No, really. Oh, Boy. But I’m terrible at titles; just ask my agent.