‘Totalitarian Terror Isn’t Operating On Your Schedule’: An Interview with Jim Shepard

The Book of Aron author on the challenges of implicating Jews in a story about their suffering and the point of fictionalizing the Holocaust. 

Jordan Ginsberg is the Editor-in-Chief of Hazlitt and the senior editor of digital...

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Nazis are easy: They show up—on screen, on the page, in the comments within seconds of publication—and immediately, you root actively for their demise. We may never have more effective, efficient villains, be they those of the historical variety or the modern-day, tank-topped, essentially criminal white supremacist. Nazis stand for whatever we need them to stand for, their unparalleled and undeniable evil one of the greatest galvanizers of heroism we have, at least in art.

In reality it wasn’t so simple. If the Third Reich’s masters were skilled at anything, it wasn’t necessarily utter domination, but the more granular disruption and division of groups that needed, more than anything, to band together. They fought and killed Jews during the Second World War in incomprehensible numbers, but they also managed to turn those same Jews against each other, making villains out of victims. The uncomfortable truth is that some of those people needed less motivation than others to become local antagonists despite the rise of a common, monolithic foe.

These sorts of difficult relationships in times of extraordinary trauma are the heart of Jim Shepard’s most recent novel, The Book of Aron. The title character begins as a small, unhappy child in the early days of the Second World War, his family forced into the quickly deteriorating Warsaw Ghetto, unaware that those miserable moments will be as good as it gets. Family members start to disappear and die; gangs of young thugs and smugglers try to, in almost equal measure, conscript and conspire against him; and the Jewish police, working on behalf of the Germans, threaten him with the loss of the little life he has left if he doesn’t cooperate with their demands. The looming danger of the Nazis is never far from mind, but who has time to worry about that when your neighbors might get you first?

The lone light in Aron’s life comes to be Janusz Korczak, an overwhelmed doctor and orphanage director with whom Aron ends up living, and whose tireless advocacy for the children of the ghetto nearly breaks him daily. He feeds and shelters the sick and parentless as much as he’s able, but he can’t shield them from reality: their time is running out. He turns down multiple offers of freedom because his, he realizes, is not a survivor’s story, one of suffering before valor; it’s a survival story, and you only survive until you don’t.

Korczak is a one of the few historical figures in Shepard’s novel, though the whole book feels upsettingly real—a product, in part, of his famously intense research methods (in the acknowledgements, he lists at least 40 separate print sources, including many diaries and journals, on top of numerous interviews with scholars and survivors). But from Aron’s narrow perspective, that wealth of information behind the story never overwhelms; we’ll always know more than he does, and that’s the worst part of all.

I recently spoke with Shepard in Toronto about the book, about the challenges of implicating Jews in a story about the Holocaust, and what the point of telling Holocaust stories even is anymore. This is a lightly edited version of that conversation.

*

Hazlitt: Beyond the facts and stories of World War II itself and the Holocaust itself, did you acquaint yourself with Judaism much for this book?

Jim Shepard: Yes, to some extent. But to some extent I let myself off the hook by telling myself that one of the ways in which this was going to be an atypical Holocaust text was the main character was not only not going to have a very big family, so he was going to be isolated in that way, but he was going to come from a very secular family, and he was going to be isolated in that way as well. So I had to acquaint myself with a lot of Judaism, but not the way I would have if I were going to write it from the point of view of a rabbi. I was struck when I was doing much of the research of the journals and diaries that it broke down about 50-50—about half the time people were quite willing to rely on religion as a kind of support, and about half the time they were like, “I don’t have time for that.” And I thought, oh, well that gives me an out, essentially.

Not that the Holocaust needs to be thrown into any particular relief—you don’t need to convince anyone that there were absurd and incomprehensible levels of violence—but looking at this horrific violence perpetrated for an ostensibly religious genocide, and reading this book, the people facing persecution are no more obviously Jewish than I am.

Well, the Nazis would have said it wasn’t a religious genocide, it was a racial genocide—they had no interest in whether you were fiercely Orthodox or an absolute atheist. They saw it as a racial taint, and for that reason I wanted to have an array of Jews facing the hammer. There’s that moment when the children are standing around in the gang, and I think one of the girls says, “There’s not a good Jew among us,” in terms of observance, and one of the boys, maybe [youth gang leader/smuggler/bully] Boris, says, “The good Jews buy the stuff we bring in.” There was a real resentful sense among a lot of the Jews who were considered before the war began to be outsiders and outlaws that they were the ones keeping everybody else alive, even as they were being judged for it. I wanted to bring that into the book as well, that sense of, he was the boy who never went to school, he was the boy I told you never to hang out with, he was the boy who we all said was going to come to a bad end, and he’s the boy we have to get food from now. And the boy you have to get food from now remembers that history—he remembers he was the one everybody said, “Don’t associate with him.” The way in which the Germans turned everything topsy-turvy was something I wanted to get at as well.

When I was growing up, we had a few Jews in our group of friends, but I was always the least observant, so I was always the one that everyone else could make Jew jokes in front of. I was the bad Jew. But then I got a bit older, and I still didn’t really take offense to it, but it’s strange, into our twenties and thirties, that I’m still the one people make ironic remarks in front of, and I sometimes can’t help but think, “You know what, I’m still Jewish enough that the Nazis would have killed me.”

[both laugh] “I want to make clear, by the way…”

But I’m curious about that too, because in Judaism, even in a more secular childhood like I had, it was still essential to keep telling these stories of hardship and trauma and torture and oppression—to never forget. And so, I promise this is less accusatory than it might sound, but what is the point of continuing to fictionalize the Holocaust in new ways? What I mean is, is it possible to over-fictionalize it to the point that people who didn’t live through it, who didn’t grow up in proximity to survivors, might just see it as a story and not a fact of surprisingly recent history?

I suppose that’s the danger, right? You go from one way in which the subject seems unapproachable, which is Adorno’s way, where nobody can do this, to the other end of the spectrum, which is after Spielberg and Schindler’s List made it a kind of genre, and, well, who needs another one of these? Haven’t we done enough of these? Are we trivializing it? And somehow, we move from, “Oh, nobody knows this story because it seems so unspeakable,” to, “Too many people know this story, too many people know too much about this story, when are you going to stop doing this?” I think whenever you decide to write about extreme suffering, you have to face that question of, “Why is this being done, exactly?” And if you’re creating an aesthetic object, some part of that is exploitation—you want to make an object that will make someone say, “I love that, so thank you for that.” And I’m doing that in some ways by mobilizing past suffering.

If you believe Schindler’s List, the Holocaust is a story of German heroism and Jewish rescue, and that’s a very different story.

The good news is that’s sort of what literature does anyway, and the good news is that literature is theoretically doing that in the service of expanding our empathetic imaginations. If it’s not doing that, I judge it exactly the way you were suggesting in accusatory terms, and I think we can all think of works where we thought, “I don’t think this needed to exist.” When you’re approaching any kind of historical event that involves mass suffering, you have to ask yourself a lot more rigorously, and I’m not sure anybody who does this kind of thing answers it entirely to their own satisfaction. We, at our best, are trying to empathize with other human beings; at our worst, we’re making entertainment out of what other human beings have done, and the two are not very divisible, Schindler’s List being an extraordinarily vivid example of that. On the one hand, Spielberg deserves enormous credit for giving everyone a kind of forced education on what the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto was like, but on the other hand, you follow a lot of attractive Jews and they’re all rescued. If you believe Schindler’s List, the Holocaust is a story of German heroism and Jewish rescue, and that’s a very different story.

I think we all make our decisions not only work by work, but also within works. To use the Schindler example again, when I’m watching that twenty-minute set-piece of the liquidation of the ghetto, I’m thinking, “This is wonderful filmmaking and he deserves an enormous amount of credit”; when I’m watching Schindler’s breakdown scene at the end, when he’s weeping and all of the Jew women are crowded around him, I’m thinking, “This is wretched—this is a terrible, terrible idea, and somebody should have told him this was not working.”

When you’re telling a story that’s based in history, do you feel an obligation or responsibility to that history?

I do. Which is not to say that I’m absolutely shackled, since history is filled with controversies. The writers I most care about that write about that sort of thing believe that they have a responsibility to the facts, but they also recognize that, as politicians have taught us, facts are pretty malleable things. And there’s a fair amount of debate about some basic things, so you have room to maneuver. You can say to yourself, “This expert says A, this expert says B, that gives me a choice,” or you can say, “This expert says A, this expert says B, and on balance I’m more persuaded by A, therefore I’m going to go with A”—you can do any number of things. Most of the historical novelists and fiction writers I admire will say things like, “Of course it’s okay to conflate two minor characters to make a single minor character, but it’s not okay to have somebody do something unambiguously that we know he didn’t do.” There’s no hard and fast set of rules, but it does feel like there’s a certain ethical common sense that comes into it. And I think I do try to operate in those areas where there is some ambiguity, because without that ambiguity, you don’t have any room to maneuver.

But you also have to give yourself the freedom as an author to tell a story any way you want to tell it.

You do, and one of the ways that I’ll do that is by, although I’ll often have a number of central figures that are quite historically well documented, also having figures that are wholly invented, and that gives me complete room to maneuver.

So, I’ll now admit the opposite of what I was accusatorily suggesting before: I grew up going to Hebrew school, I was Bar Mitzvahed, went to museums and memorials, and this book is the most vivid the Holocaust has ever felt to me. And I think it’s because, like you said, there’s no clean hero arc or narrative; there’s no sentimentalism. In this book, if someone makes it out alive, it could be random. Or they sold someone out. Or they sold themselves out. And that to me is much more affecting, and a much more rare thing to see done in this kind of fiction.

I think that’s exactly right, and I think there’s a way in which, when you’re confronting these stories, you begin to realize that the randomness interacts with the complicity in the situation in infinitely changing ways. So when you confront somebody who says, “Yeah, I was in Auschwitz for a year and then came out,” if you know anything about this world, you think, “How did that work?” There’s even a moment at one of the points where Korczak is refusing to be saved, where he says, “When we meet each other after the war, and we say, ‘How is it you managed to survive?’ what are we going to say to each other?” That’s a very brave thing to ask at a moment like that, but it’s also an inevitable thing. Part of the reason survivors almost never talk about what happened is obvious—it’s sheer trauma. And part of the reason, too, is very few people came out of it without having experienced and done things that they hoped nobody would ever know about. How do you not in a situation like that? And we don’t have the right to say we’re going to pin those people down and find out what they did. I hope one of the things a text like this does is get at the infinite complexity bordering on impossibility of judging somebody in that situation.

As for Aron, he gets involved with complicity with the yellow police, the Jewish police, partially because he’s trying to locate his family—at what point do you say, “I’m going to be so principled that I’m not going to try to save my family”? Well, isn’t that heroic. [laughs] Thank you for not trying to save your family. People made those kinds of trade-offs all the time, and you can see why they would be so seductive. I was at a dinner party last night, and some people were asking me about the Judenrat and the Jewish police and how I could possibly have any sympathy for them at all, and I said, if I said to you right now that you can save five people in this room and everybody else has to die, you would be horrified and you would recoil and you would say you could never make such a choice. But then if I let you think about it all night, you would probably in the middle of the night think, “Well, you know, Ethan has five children, and he’s totally healthy. Frank has no children, and he’s not doing very well. Why, if somebody has to die, shouldn’t it be Frank?” And as soon as you do that, you’ve done it for you think a pretty good, human reason, but you’re on an astonishingly slippery slope.

Given all the historical options, plus your own autonomy as a writer, how did you decide this was the Holocaust story to tell?

One of the things I was drawn to, and I was chided for it by a reviewer in The New York Times, was all of those people whose stories don’t appear to be important enough to be the center of a narrative. There’s a reason that Schindler was at the very center of that story, and there’s a reason that the Jew who’s at the center of the story is Stern, and there’s a reason that Anne Frank is on every school curriculum. And I very much liked the idea of those figures that everybody would say, “Oh, we barely knew that kid, and he was always trouble anyway”—that that kid would be at the center of this, and that the narrative would suggest that it was a shame that those people got swept away as well. And I also liked the idea of trying to demonstrate to the reader that the experience of a catastrophe like that for everybody in it was not, “Our whole lives have been leading up to this genocide”; it was, “We had our own narratives going, and they had nothing to do with this.” So, conceiving of it as a sort of miserable-boy coming-of-age story, and then realizing—and having the reader realize—that there isn’t enough time to come of age, seemed to me a really nice way of rendering the way that kind of totalitarian terror isn’t operating on your schedule. It’s not waiting for you to get your life together so it can swoop in. And the way everything goes smash up against it, the experience for the people who are in the middle of it is, “Wait! I haven’t even worked out this argument I was having with Aunt Rose!” Well, Aunt Rose and you are both going to the Camps, so that argument is now null and void.

Sometimes there’d be a line that was perfectly congruent with my emotional life that came directly out of one of the diaries, something like, “I liked him—like me, he had no future.” I’d find that and think, “Oh, good, so people haven’t changed.”

That sense of everything being shut down as irrelevant is very poignant to me, and something I very much didn’t see enough of in the texts that I did encounter. They were so interested in working backwards from the fact of the genocide and saying, okay, who was ready for it, who wasn’t, which seems to me in some ways profoundly ahistorical. And it’s also a way the Jews are often blamed: Why didn’t you see this coming? Who did see it coming? Who didn’t see it coming? Whoever got out Germany was just smarter than those who didn’t get out of Germany.

Or they were in on it.

Or they were in on it. I’m always struck by the way historians will say, “Frank was wise enough to get out of Poland at the last minute, Bill was not.” And you think, “Frank had money, and Bill didn’t.” To be fair, some people had the money and stayed around, and some people had no money and got out anyway. But that’s usually not the way it’s portrayed.

Aron, as a character, is this miserable kid, and maybe he’s a bit of a brat, he’s a bit anti-social, he’s small, maybe he’s dull, but these are all things he’ll likely grow out of if given the chance. But he’s young, and this is his lot in life as far as he can tell, and we know as readers that this is immature and unsophisticated and he’ll get there eventually. His world is so small, though, and it’s physically getting smaller as the ghetto shrinks, and even though he knows the Nazis are out there, the bulk of his anxiety and the fear he feels is the result of other Jews, primarily [Jewish policeman] Lejkin and Boris. I wouldn’t exactly call them villains, but was it a challenge writing a story about the Holocaust that required you to implicate Jews as antagonists?

It’s a bit of a challenge, because there’s always that delicate ethical situation, but the historical record is so clear on this—that the Germans had to in some ways enlist surrogates because they simply didn’t have the manpower. And part of what I wanted to get at was how diabolically good they were at suggesting to their victims, Jews and otherwise, that they would be infinitely splitting hairs, and that it was in your best interest to figure out whether you wanted to be this close or this close or this close. So the architects of the Jewish Final Solution, people like Heydrich and Eichmann especially, once Hitler’s desire to exterminate became clear to them, figured out on the fly how useful this was, and then began to aggressively put it into practice: If we can make clear to the Jews that there’ll be workers, there’ll be special workers, there’ll be policemen, then we can infinitely play with that in terms of a means of control. So Eichmann would do things like, as he was shipping Jews out of various cities, he would go to the head of the Judenrat and say, “Listen, I don’t want to kill Jews, I don’t want to ship them away, but I need some kind of compensation. How about this: you give us 10,000 trucks for every however-many Jews, and you pick the Jews.” And the Judenrat would then start battling among themselves and start bargaining—”Well, we don’t have 10,000 trucks, what about 3,000 trucks”—and the whole time, while Eichmann would be bartering and pretending he was arguing in good faith, he’d be shipping more and more and more people out. Meanwhile, other Jews would be saying, “They’re getting rid of all of us while you’re arguing!” And the Judenrat would be saying, “We’re trying to help. We’re trying to do what we can.”

That doesn’t seem to me villainous, exactly, but I do mean for people like Boris to be … if you imagine a spectrum, it’s the anti-social types that are actually more powerful once the Germans turn the social system on its head. I did want the anti-social types to be everywhere from Aron—who’s anti-social, but please, he’s not exactly a thug—to real thugs. There were people who wouldn’t think twice about caving your head in, and they had an advantage. In fact, they were instructive in some ways. There was that scene where Boris essentially kills another little boy as a way of warning the rival gang off, and you’re horrified by it, as Aron is, but then you think, well, we had no more trouble from that gang—there’s a certain efficiency to this. And then there are the figures like Lejkin, who are anywhere from quasi-operating in good faith—“The Nazis aren’t going to kill everybody, why should I be one of them? Maybe I can mitigate a few people’s situations as I do their bidding”—to not operating in good faith at all—“Somebody’s got to survive, why shouldn’t it be me? I’m smarter than they are, I’m more resourceful than they are,” whatever. The fact that you make those roles visible is, I think, not all that problematic, depending on the way you do it and the suggestions you make about how essential it was, how common it was. But certainly, for those people who want to suggest there was no implicated behavior by the victims at all, then it becomes slightly problematic.

For characters like Lejkin and Boris, what does the story look like from their perspective? Something like the Holocaust can bring out the best in some people, but it can also bring out the worst, and chances are…

I have enormous sympathy for Boris the last time we see him, when he comes out along with all the other Jews who are forced to watch the children march by, because for me, he’s standing there with his arms folded, thinking, “I could have saved Aron if he’d been less stubborn. We could be right now preparing an attack on Gestapo headquarters, which would have been a lovely way to strike back. Now we have no way of doing that. We’re all just waiting here.” Boris, I’m sure, is going to be a member of the uprising—he’s going to go underground before the Germans can get to him. The likelihood is he’s not going to survive that, but he’s going to go down the way he wants to go down. What would it be like telling his story? There are a lot of versions of that story—a lot of, “I fought with the underground, and then I fought with the partisans, and I was ferocious.” There’s that Daniel Craig movie, Defiance, about the Bielski partisans, based on a memoir, and they were exactly that kind of boy. You didn’t mess with them, and they would mess you up when they were teenage boys, and then they were in perfect position to be ruthless when they needed to be ruthless, as soon as they needed to be ruthless. They understood very, very clearly that they had no friends other than themselves, and that left them in this utterly ruthless position. And then, of course, what makes them a major Hollywood movie is that even they have this enormous generosity and they take all these people into the woods and so on. But the boys who didn’t do that, who simply machine-gunned anybody who came near them, Daniel Craig’s never going to play them.

Lejkin would be a harder figure to imagine writing at the center of a story, because ultimately, he was a fairly repulsive human being. And he did end up, as I have him do in the novel, taking over the yellow police, and he thinks the Germans might spare him up to the very last minute, and of course, that didn’t work out, because the Germans had nothing but contempt for the yellow police.

I was listening to an interview you did a few years ago where you were talking about your novel Project X, and you talked about drawing from versions of yourself at different ages to inform character development in that book. So here, whether in Aron or anyone else, are there elements of autobiography?

Oh, very much. Especially in the early going, Aron sounds very much like me. I wanted to make sure there were no locutions or ways of thinking or being that were completely anachronistic, and that’s how the immersion in the primary sources operated—it wasn’t so much to give me an emotional core, it was to ratify that these emotional cores existed back then as well. But I had to make sure the ways in which he expressed his dissatisfaction were congruent with the ways people were doing it back then. And happily—unhappily for the people I was reading about, but happily for me—there were a lot of voices that would come across where I’d think, “Oh, that sounds so familiar: I’m the only person in my family who’s a total fuck-up.” There was an awful lot of that. And sometimes there’d be a line that was perfectly congruent with my emotional life that came directly out of one of the diaries, something like, “I liked him—like me, he had no future.” I’d find that and think, “Oh, good, so people haven’t changed.” [laughs]

You need to be absolutely ruthless in terms of what’s serving the emotional needs of the story, and that means that an infinite number of wonderful anecdotes or wonderful details are not getting in.

But a lot of people have said, “All this research, how do you not let the research overwhelm?” And part of it is it’s such a narrow prism, such a narrow focus—if I’m doing an omniscient narration about the Warsaw Ghetto, I instantly have a whole different set of responsibilities, and suddenly I have much less justification for leaving stuff out. But if I’m doing one boy’s version, I have every right to say to myself, “Yeah, there’s an amazing heartbreaking story of what happened to Czerniaków right before he killed himself, but my character doesn’t know about it, and it’s not getting into the book.” But if I’m doing omniscience, then you have to tell that story, and that’s a different kind of book and a different kind of pleasure. I just read with Anthony Doerr in Dallas, and that’s what All the Light We Cannot See is, and there’s a reason that book is so popular—it says to the reader, “Anywhere you want to go, I’ll take you.” That’s a really powerful readerly pleasure that I, in my perversity, almost never provide. [laughs] But I think I provide a different kind of pleasure: I’m going to give you as full a sense of one person’s experience as possible, as limited as it might be, and the payoff, one would hope, is something as wonderful as you saying that this is the most vivid sense of the Holocaust you’ve ever had. But the adjective is “vivid,” it’s not “comprehensive”—it’s not, “Now I understand better than anybody else the whole sweep of this subject.” Because, as hubristic as it is to try to imagine one person’s view of it, it seems to me even more so to say, “I’m going to give you the whole Warsaw Ghetto, every nook and cranny.” One of the books in my bibliography is The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City by Barbara Engelking, and it’s the most astonishing work of scholarship I’ve ever seen. It’s everything you could possibly find out about the Warsaw Ghetto: maps of where everybody lived, lists of every store, where the mortuaries were, where the factories were, everything—and even so, despite being so comprehensive, you come away from it going, “There’s so much I don’t know. There’s so much you can’t know. There’s so much we’ll never know.”

Speaking of which, as someone who doesn’t read much historical fiction, right before The Book of Aron, I read City of Thieves by David Benioff, which takes place during the siege of Stalingrad. And I read an interview with him, and he said he was once taught by Ann Patchett, and her advice when writing a book like this was to choose one book as a reference, study that book as well as you possibly can, know it inside and out, and don’t be tempted to do further research, don’t overreach for that tang of authenticity.

And what book did he choose for the siege?

Well, he failed miserably.

[laughs]

He ended up reading dozens of books.

I’m not sure how the one-book theory would work, really.

But you famously do lots of research for your fiction—has it ever occurred to you to try to limit your research?

No, what occurs to me is to remind myself over and over again that almost everything I’m going to be learning is not going to get in, and that’s okay—and that’s very hard. When I work with my students, there’s such a pack-rat mentality, such a sense of, “I did all this work, I want something to come from it.” It’s very hard for them to let their research go. And there’s also the sense of, if it seems objectively like a good detail, shouldn’t it go in? And, oh my god, almost everything seems objectively like a pretty good detail. But no, it shouldn’t, because in fact, you need to be absolutely ruthless in terms of what’s serving the emotional needs of the story, and that means that an infinite number of wonderful anecdotes or wonderful details are not getting in. And that means that some are, but if there are sixteen or sixty-six of a certain kind of anecdote, I’m choosing one of those. Sometimes it’s not even the best one—sometimes the best one is a little too elaborate, or the best one is a little bit too much like something else. As long as I’m saying to myself, as I’m doing all this research, “Now, you know almost none of this is going to get in?” then I’m not making bad aesthetic choices. And that means I can read a huge amount if I want to, because I’m not saying, “Oh my god, what am I going to do with all this material?”

One image that stuck out, and it got progressively worse every time throughout the book, was these kids just blanketed with lice and bedbugs. I don’t know what it says about me, but that struck me more than a kid getting gunned down in the street—it was such a powerful symbol of this little thing that’s just not getting better.

Even for someone like myself who’d read a lot of Holocaust histories, without having immersed myself in the ghetto histories, I hadn’t realized how much the quotidian misery overwhelmed everything else. Texts like Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness helped reorient me to the notion—The Pianist does this a little bit too—that survival in those sorts of situations is an endurance test. It’s not simply the way it’s rendered in Schindler’s List, which is one dramatic disaster after another that you have to avoid, and you either avoid it heroically or you avoid it by luck—where what the Holocaust consists of is, they shot everybody over there, they set everybody on fire over here, they blew up everybody over here, and you managed to avoid each one. It’s much more like, you have to stand there for twelve hours when you have dysentery—can you do it? The lice and the vermin were one of those revelations. Of course you hear about that, but when you immerse yourself in those journals and diaries, you realize how hard it was. And lice is something that doesn’t allow you to think straight, because you’re not just crawling with stuff, they’re biting you, you’re itching—this is something you want to somehow put an end to.

And you can’t hide it.

It’s humiliating! And if you’re a boy, and you’re interested in girls, it’s even more humiliating. And I think, in fact, I didn’t do an adequate job rendering how absolutely obsessive people were about it, because I think I finally felt like it was going to get in the way of the reader’s pleasure, that it was going to get in the way of the narrative, and people were just going to go, “This is ridiculous, all they ever talk about is lice.” But I tried to make it at least more of a presence than I’d seen it anywhere else.

It does lead to at least that one nice moment, though, where Aron says to one girl, “Oh, you seem pretty clean.”

And “pretty clean” means “not consumed with lice.” You’d be pretty impressed with somebody who didn’t seem to be absolutely crawling with lice. “I don’t know how you do it!” But there were sacrifices that had to be made, and I tried to make that clear as well. These kinds of decisions would come up, where the Germans would set up delousing stations, and some of the delousing stations were delousing stations, and some of them, everybody got on trucks and you never saw them again. And when you’re judging the Jews, maybe you think, “Oh come on, now who would show up for a delousing station that the Germans set up?” But sometimes it was a delousing station! And you’d think the Germans would have a stake in delousing everybody—why would they want everybody covered with lice? They had to deal with them.

As dark as this book can be, there are also these moments of humor and levity, and I feel like that’s unavoidable when you get the chance—and I saw this in Benioff’s book too—to use these great Eastern European slurs. You know, “He told her to go screw herself with an onion.”

One of the ones I got from my research was the bitter mom who says, “Sure, it’s easy to screw on somebody else’s sheets!” What a great Polish locution.

And with that in mind, maybe this is the wrong word to use, but was this ultimately a fun book to write?

No, it wasn’t. But there were certainly times when solving certain problems was fun, and there were certainly times when I could appreciate the comedy, and the comedy was fun, and scenes were fun to write. Like the battling between the father and the mother: “If anything ever happens to him because of your decision, I’ll never touch you again.” “Well, you don’t touch me now.” Or the boys saying to the girls, “Maybe we’ll let you join our gang,” and the girls saying, “What makes you think we’d want to join your gang?” Some of those exchanges were fun.

For all the research, for all the interviews to get everything as right as possible, are authenticity and verisimilitude valid ways to measure the success of a book like this?

Well, that’s one way—writers are looking for any kind of gratification. So I will value enormously the email or letter from a writer I admire who says, “You did an amazing job with this.” I will also value enormously in a different way the survivor who writes me to say, “I don’t know how you got it so correct.” And I recognize they’re not exactly the same kind of gratification—I recognize they’re related, and I’m distressed if I get the opposite reaction from either constituency. And of course both reactions come from man-on-the-street responses as well, but I tend to get fewer man-on-the-street response because I’m not a very well-known writer, I’m not mainstream in that way, so I tend to hear from writers and from people who have a stake in whatever it is I’m writing about. Verisimilitude is certainly one thing, because I’m trying to respect the history, and I’d be distressed to hear that somebody thought I had it all wrong—of course, when you write about that stuff, you do hear from the nerds periodically who will say, “You know, it was a Thursday, it wasn’t a Wednesday.”

Those noted Holocaust nerds.

Exactly. [laughs] But I wouldn’t say verisimilitude is exactly the highest value, for obvious reasons: I’m writing a novel.

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