Q and A with Anne Raeff, THE JUNGLE AROUND US
1. The stories in The Jungle Around Us take place mostly in the U.S. and in South and Central America. I know you've traveled extensively and have also lived abroad. Would you say that one of the themes you're most interested in is how being a foreigner - either as an exile or as a tourist - exerts pressure on character, and as a result, often creates internal and external conflicts?
Living and traveling abroad has certainly been a major part of my development both intellectual and emotional, and, thus, has very much influenced my writing. In fact, I began to write seriously when I was living in Madrid in the early 1980s. Though I had traveled with my parents in Europe and even to the Soviet Union, this was my first big adventure on my own. I arrived in Spain with just a couple hundred dollars and a few dozen Spanish words. When I moved to Spain, I preferred reading about people to being with them, but Madrid pulled me into life, and it was there that I learned not only to appreciate stories but to be part of them.
Traveling and living abroad are also an essential part of my life and relationship with my wife Lori Ostlund. Together we have lived in Spain and Malaysia and traveled extensively. Just this summer, for example, we spent a month in Eastern Europe, focusing on Ukraine, where my maternal grandmother was born and lived until she moved to Vienna (where my mother was born) when she was fourteen.
I agree that there are stories in the collection that deal with how a foreign place exerts pressure on a character and, in some way, forces the character to confront something in himself. This has been my experience as a foreigner as well. Traveling and living abroad have exerted pressure on me as a character and as a writer. Yet, in my writing I am equally interested in the conflicts that cause my characters to leave, and, in many cases, flee where they are from and how those places and those conflicts carry over into their lives in exile. My parents were refugees from the war in Europe. Their youths were consumed by the upheavals of war and revolution, and, though I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, the echo of war was always there just beneath the surface, beneath the sound of lawnmowers on Saturday mornings, beneath the call of crickets on hot summer nights. This is what so much of my writing is about—the influence of the place that was left behind.
2. I love that some of the stories feature the same main characters, the sisters Juliet and Simone Buchovsky, in particular - what kept you returning to them as point-of-view characters?
A lot of why I keep coming back to the Buchovskys has to do with the fact that as a writer I am always returning to the stories and conflicts of my own childhood for inspiration. Growing up, my father was the stable and nurturing parent, and I clashed terribly with my mother. Although it is difficult to admit this, as an adolescent I often wondered what life would be like for my sister and me if my parents got divorced and we went to live with my father. I suppose on some level the Buchovskys are my ideal family—a single father with two daughters. My family and childhood also share a lot of details with the Buchovkys. My father was Russian and a professor of Russian history, as is Isaac Buchovsky. We lived in the New Jersey suburbs, as do the Buchovksys. My father loved to cook, and our neighbors did have seven sons, one of whom, our favorite, was murdered, though this did not happen until I was in college. I even have a connection to the name Buchovsky. It was my paternal grandmother's maiden name.
The Buchovskys and the biological parents of Simone and Juliet, Ulli and Leo, are also the protagonists of my second and still unpublished novel, Winter Kept Us Warm. In the book Isaac and Leo meet Ulli, a young woman squatting in an empty apartment that she chances upon, who is scraping together a living acting as an interpreter between Berlin-based GIs and the wide-eyed local girls who are eager to meet them, when they are stationed in Berlin after the war. Though it is Isaac who is in love with Ulli, Leo is the one who ends up marrying her. They all move to New York and Leo and Ulli have two children, Simone and Juliet, yet it is Isaac, and Isaac alone, who becomes their parent. At the core of this novel is the mystery of how this came to be. Thus, the Buchovskys in The Jungle Around Us were first conceived when I started thinking about this novel. I began with the story "The Buchovskys on Their Own." Once I had a sense of who they were as a family, I began work on the novel. The other stories that feature them in the collection were originally part of the novel but didn't quite fit in with the flow of the narrative, so I turned them into stories.
Finally, ever since reading Salinger's Nine Stories and his other work that includes the various members of the Glass family, I have wanted to create characters whose lives spill into other books. My characters are very much a part of my life, and I like to stay in touch with them as I do with close friends who no longer live in the same city as I do, but, when we get together, it is as if there were no time or distance between us.
3. You've published a novel, Clara Mondschein's Melancholia, and you recently completed another novel (mentioned above), but you're also, of course, a short story writer - I can't resist asking this: do you prefer one form over the other?
I don't think I prefer one over the other. They are two very different things. What I like about writing novels is that the story consumes me for years. What I like about short stories is that, even though it has taken me years to complete individual stories, to get them to be as good as they can possibly be, they allow me to work with a wide variety of themes and settings and to experiment with new ideas more easily. Writing a novel is like cultivating a long, intimate friendship. Writing short stories is like having an intensely personal and fascinating conversation with a stranger in a bar or on a train.
4. World War II and its horrific violence are frequent specters in your stories; you write about them with such subtlety - do you do a lot of revising? Were you ever tempted to take on these themes more directly, i.e. set a story in Europe during WWII?
Not only have I been tempted, both of my novels take place in Europe during WWII. My first novel, Clara Mondschein's Melancholia, takes place largely in Vienna in the years leading up to the war and also in a concentration camp. In fact, Clara Mondschein was born in a concentration camp. That book is very explicitly about the Holocaust and the enduring effects of this tragedy on the next generation. Winter Kept Us Warm is also partially set during World War II and the plot largely revolves around the Red Army's invasion of Berlin.
As for revising, yes, I do a lot of revising, but it takes me a while to get to that point because I have a tendency to be impatient, to think that something is finished when it's not. Still, in the end, often because Lori makes me see that a piece is not finished, I do buckle down and revise. My first novel went through at least ten drafts, each one very different from the next. Winter Kept Us Warm also has had many lives and forms. Some of the stories in The Jungle Around Us were written as long as thirty years ago, but when I was putting together this collection, I revised them again.
5. What's next, if you don't mind telling us a little bit about it?
I am currently working on a novel that is set largely in Nicaragua. It is based on the first story in the collection, "The Doctors' Daughter." In the story, two doctors, refugees from Vienna, move with their children to a small town on the edge of the jungle in Bolivia. For the novel I changed the setting to Nicaragua because I have never been to Bolivia but have spent quite a bit of time in Nicaragua. The story was originally set in Bolivia because that is where my mother's family found refuge during the war, so it seemed natural, but for a longer work I found that my lack of knowledge about Bolivia was holding me back. Also, I am interested in the moral issues surrounding revolution and communism, so Nicaragua was more appropriate. The book takes place largely in El Castillo, a town on the Rio San Juan that runs along Nicaragua's southern border. As in the short story, the doctors' daughter, Pepa, falls in love with a boy from the village. The book begins with their story.
Finally, I will continue to search for a home for Winter Kept Us Warm so that the Buchovkys can continue to live on beyond the pages of The Jungle Around Us and my own imagination.
Anne Raeff's stories and essays have appeared in New England Review, ZYZZYVA, and Guernica, among other places. Her first novel CLARA MONDSCHEIN’S MELANCHOLIA was published in 2002 (MacAdam/Cage). Her short story collection, THE JUNGLE AROUND US won the 2015 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and will be published in October 2016. She is proud to be a high school teacher and works primarily with recent immigrants. She too is a child of immigrants and much of her writing draws on her family’s history as refugees from war and the Holocaust. She lives in San Francisco with her wife and two cats. Her website is www.anneraeff.com.
She also has an essay appearing in a forthcoming anthology edited by Lee Gutkind: What I Didn't Know: True Stories About Becoming a Teacher.