Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Conversation with Julie Orringer

Photo: Stephanie Rausser

The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer's first novel, is one of those books that steals the hearts of readers, even when those readers are experienced bookstore staff members whose hearts are accustomed to literary charms. Pam Grange, our events coordinator at Kepler's, says this about The Invisible Bridge

"This book is astounding in its magnitude and depiction of an international tragedy told on an intimate scale. The writing drew me in so completely that I could actually feel Andras's feelings-the terror and uncertainty he suffers as a result of the war, as well as the joy and happiness he experiences in his art, his true love, and his family. I LOVED this book! It's right up there among my favorite books of all time, and it will remain in my thoughts for a very long time to come."

To celebrate the paperback release of The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer will be visiting Kepler's on Tuesday, May 24th, at 7:00 PM. For more information, please follow this link.

Megan Kurashige: You've published a number of short stories, including a collection, How to Breathe Underwater, but The Invisible Bridge was your first novel. It's such a broad and deep story, enormous in its range of characters and the detail of its historical setting. What made you decide to tell this particular kind of story? How was it different from working in a shorter form? Do you feel there are certain strengths or weaknesses to either?

Julie Orringer: I love the short-story form, and when I was working on How to Breathe Underwater I thought I might want to work in that mode forever. But when I came across the material that gave rise to The Invisible Bridge, I knew it couldn't be translated into a twenty- or thirty-page story. It had to be a novel, and a long one at that. The material was compelling enough to make me want to take the plunge. The form was a matter of narrative necessity. I loved working at greater length, getting to know the characters more deeply and seeing them transform over the course of seven years and hundreds of pages. The  novel seemed to demand longer continuous periods of work. But it was just as unforgiving, from the perspective of pacing and economy, as the short story; nothing can be wasted in either form.

MK: You've said that you were inspired to write this novel partially by events from your grandfather's life. What was it like to consider the realities of such a difficult point in history on such a personal level, even if those personal events were a starting inspiration that grew into something quite different?

JO: That was the hardest part of writing the book--coming to understand what my grandparents and their families suffered during the war. It was terrible to hear about the conditions of their lives and the uncertainties they faced; I tried to imagine, for example, what it might have been like for my grandfather not to meet his own daughter until she was a year and a half old, and never to have known, for all that time, whether she and her mother had survived or not. I think I have a different understanding now of both human cruelty and fortitude.

MK: You manage to communicate so well how enormously devastating historical events affect the lives of individuals, and how people manage to carry on being incredibly human despite them. I think novels like yours help those of us who aren't personally familiar with such events to discover the intimate reality of them. Was it difficult to balance the recreation of a historical environment with the kind of story that makes us feel like the characters are real people who exist at this moment?

It was difficult at times to know how much historical detail to include, and how to integrate that information into the story. In the end I decided that the best approach would be to let the history emerge as the characters experienced it--day by day, through newspapers and radio and overheard conversation on the street, through the appearance of planes in the sky and tanks on the boulevards. I wanted to preserve some element of suspense, of surprise; though we know how things turn out in Europe, the characters discover their fate as they go along.

Your writing is such a pleasure to read. Did you have any specific thoughts on how you wanted to book to sound and feel in style and structure before you started? What was the most difficult part to work through?

I didn't have a particular sound or style in mind; I wanted to write in a tone that would admit both gravity and levity, and to use a structure that would proceed more or less like a nineteenth-century novel at first, but that could break open later on into a more contemporary mode. The most difficult sections to write were the ones that took place in forced labor camps in Hungary and Ukraine. I wanted to capture Andras's shock and grief, and I wanted to render the details of the camps clearly but without overdramatization. In the end I learned that the details spoke for themselves; I just had to get out of the way.

MK: Can you share something about what you're working on now? I've read that you're writing a novel about Varian Fry, who was an American journalist involved in WWII. What's it like to be immersed in the same time period, but within a completely different story?

JO: It's great--it feels liberating to be in a different character's world but to know most of the historical background already. Fry's story was fascinating not only because he saved so many lives, but also because he had to make impossible moral decisions. What makes one surrealist painter worth saving, and not another? How can life continue after one has been faced with choices like those? The psychology of it is endlessly fascinating.

MK: How can stories change the world?

Fiction is an empathy engine. It drops us directly into other people's lives. Who hasn't emerged from the grip of a great novel and walked through the familiar neighborhood streets as if seeing them for the first time, through someone else's eyes? No other medium can do that-not with the same potency, not with the same intimacy.

You can visit Julie online at her website. And you can follow her on Twitter.

1 comment:

Kati Griffith said...

I wondered how Ms. Orringer got the feel of pre-war Budapest so well. Now I know that her grandparents lived there, but I'd love to know more. Did they tell stories? Did they leave written records? Did she travel there? I was born in Hungary myself and I admire her book.