Interview with Jenna Blum, author of The Lost Family

Jenna Blum, a 20+ – year Grub Street teacher and New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us (Harcourt, 2002) and The Stormchasers (Dutton, 2010), has just published her third novel, The Lost Family (Harper, 2018). Already it has been heaped with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and more. The Boston Globe calls it ‘wrenching and chilling,’ and I couldn’t agree more. Blum is a master at revealing the lasting effects of trauma. And her ability to place her reader on a New York City street, or a New Jersey suburb, in the ‘60s-80s is impeccable. Not to mention the fact that her three main characters are as real to me as anyone can be.

Told is three sections, the book begins in New York with the life of Peter, a survivor of Auschwitz who lost his wife and twin daughters to the Nazis. He buries his grief in his restaurant and looks to start a new life by marrying June—the subject of the second section. The marriage is miserable, but produces their daughter Elsbeth, the focus of the third section. Each character is mesmerizing, but what got me was how they were all haunted by Peter’s dead family even though he refused to talk about them. The tiny scraps that do come to light are so slim it’s hard to believe they take up as much room as they do—but that is Jenna’s incredible strength. The focus is not on what Peter endured, but on what his family must live through afterwards. You won’t want to put this book down. We at Dead Darlings were thrilled when she agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff:

Most of our readers are writers—and we want to know: Jenna, are you an outliner or a pantser?

As my Grub novelists will tell you, I’m definitely an outliner—and I make them outline their novels for our workshop. We spend the first half of workshop talking about other elements of craft, the second half diagramming the outline on the board, which looks satisfyingly like writer math. The reason I do this, for myself and others? I’ve been teaching at Grub for 20+ years, and 99.9% of the problems I see with novels is structural. You know how you’re reading a great book and suddenly, about 50 – 100 pages in, it falls off the continental shelf? The underlying structure has weakened. Outlining novels helps ensure that the writer keeps the momentum of the story going throughout the novel; it helps cull out repeat scenes, plotlines that don’t need to be there, and other unnecessary slow-down elements. The hat trick, of course, is to make this look effortless during the read.

What I just described probably sounds both terrifying and constraining, but I promise it isn’t. My outlines are laundry lists of scenes, nothing more. When I start a novel, I list as many scenes as I can see on sheets of typing paper, tape them together, and tape them to my study wall. The outline generally extends from ceiling to floor—and in the beginning, when I don’t know what much of the book will be, it consists of a lot of question marks. As I get into the book and limber up, those question marks get replaced by scenes. As I revise, many of them get scribbled out and replaced by new scenes. It’s immensely satisfying—and helpful—to have this map of what Herman Melville called “the deep-sea voyage” of writing a book. It shows you how much work you’ve done and progress you’ve made. And this sort of structural mindfulness may save novelists 800 pages of dead ends.

How long did it take you to write this book?

It took me about 3 years to write The Lost Family: 3 months to write the rough draft, the rest of the time revising. This is fast for me; it usually takes me 5 – 10 years to write a novel because I research extensively. For The Lost Family, I’d already done much of the wartime and PTSD research with my other books, so my research consisted of creating the menu for Peter’s restaurant, Masha’s (by which I mean I not only made up the menu items to be time- and German/Jewish-specific, I kitchen-tested them all!) and creating image boards and Spotify playlists for each era, so I could fully immerse in 1965, 1975, 1985. That was a delight.

I understand that Peter’s character was inspired by a survivor you interviewed years back. Can you tell us why his story had such a profound impact on you?

I had the ineffably great privilege of interviewing about 5 dozen survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation in the late 1990s, and all of their stories are indelibly etched on me—although I swore I would never use any of their specifics for my novels, because they don’t belong to me. And I haven’t. But Peter’s story was indeed “inspired by actual events,” as they say on TV—in this case, a Holocaust survivor I interviewed who had been a chef in his native country, survived several camps, and then was fired from his job as a busboy in the States because his tattoo upset the American diners. I thought this a particularly cruel irony—to have survived the unimaginable and made it to a safe place, only to find yourself still imprisoned by not being able to convey to anyone what you had been through, what it had really been like. I started thinking about the next chapter of the survivor’s story: the refugee chapter. How difficult it would be to emigrate and assimilate, having lost everything and everyone you loved. And how difficult it would be for the new American family to understand what the survivor had gone through, no matter how hard they tried.

Quick follow up, because I’m in awe of the amount of research you did to write this book. What was the hardest part about immersing yourself in this history? And what surprised you the most?

I didn’t have a hard part about immersing myself in this book—the immersion part is always the thing I love most, that travel into another person’s perspective, era, country, mind, skin, and experience. What a great escape!, whether you’re reading or writing. The hardest part for me is always putting down the research and getting my @$$ in the chair. The thing that surprised me the most about The Lost Family research was what great writers chefs are. I read several chef memoirs to create Peter’s work life and outlook, from Anthony Bourdain to Jacques Pepin, Marcus Samuelsson to Julia Child to Gabrielle Hamilton. It perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me that they are such wonderful storytellers; I’ve done a lot of kitchen work in my career, to support my expensive writing habit, and I know chefs live off the normal time grid and off the box and are often colorful characters. But I just loved devouring these wonderfully personality-full memoirs—and teaching myself to cook a level up.

Our readers LOVE this one. What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing The Lost Family?

Originally, Peter’s story was set in 1945, because this is where I had left his character in a novella I wrote for a post-war anthology called Grand Central. In that novella, Peter is fired from his job as a busboy at the Oyster Bar because of his tattoo, and he wanders disconsolately through the terminal trying to get up the nerve to kill himself and join his beloved wife and daughters, whom he lost during the war. That was how the novella ended (mind you, the anthology was subtitled “Original Stories of Love and Reunion,” and readers were like, Who the hell wrote THIS story?). Everywhere I went on tour with Grand Central, readers asked what happened to Peter, so I thought his 1945 experience the natural jumping-off point. But my agent pointed out to me one day that Peter was a bit of a sad sack (you have to imagine this being said to me in a French accent, which imbues everything she says, brilliant anyway, with a great authority). “Why don’t we meet him when he’s had a little more time in the U.S., is a little more successful? Give him a sexy era.” So I switched Peter’s section to 1965–which pleased me greatly because then each section of the novel was set ten years apart, and I am a great fan of symmetry. Plus, 1965.

Moving along to content. The bits of Peter’s past in Germany that you describe are heartbreaking and vivid. Page wise, they take up only a small portion of the book. This was incredibly powerful, and I keep wondering: Why did you leave the lost family hovering in the background, instead of writing a section that focused on Peter’s time in Germany?

Thank you; I’m glad you find Peter’s backstory powerful. Yet although it’s the catalyst for the emotional turbulence of the novel, it’s not the novel’s story. That would have made The Lost Family a war novel, and I wanted it to be a consequence story; a refugee story; a diaspora story, and a family story. The war stories have been told and continue to be told, ingeniously and crucially. But the refugee story hasn’t been told as much, nor how trauma effects an entire family, and that was the new story I wanted to tell.

June seemed profoundly unhappy, even from the first time we meet her. Why didn’t she run away with the tennis pro? Surely Sol would have taken care of Peter and Elsbeth.

June has great conflict with marriage, and particularly her marriage to Peter, whom she loves but with whom she’s not especially well-matched and who is emotionally inaccessible to her. But June has enough respect, fondness, and love for Peter as a person that she won’t abandon him when he’s down—and although her moral compass is a few degrees off center, she knows what’s the right thing to do.

‘Don’t forget the children of survivors,’ was a plea from one of your readers. Why did that resonate with you? And why didn’t Elsbeth dig deeper, even secretly, into her father’s life before she was released from the eating disorder clinic?

I was at a reading in Florida, having just described working with Peter’s character and story, when a reader came up to me with tears in her eyes. She said, “I”m so glad you’re writing the survivor’s story—but I implore you to write about his family. My husband is the son of a survivor, and we revere my father-in-law, we loved him, but he is emotionally locked down, and my husband has suffered his entire life because of it. Please write about this man’s family.” I had already written a short story about Peter’s daughter, Elsbeth, called “Synesthesia,” and I felt the Universe had given me a Godwink through this reader to continue exploring how Peter’s trauma would feel to and refract through his American wife June and their daughter Elsbeth.

Elsbeth is 15 when we meet her in The Lost Family. She knows the basic shape of his experience—not through her parents, because Peter won’t discuss his war years and June honors this troubling compact, but through Peter’s cousins, who assume a grand-parental role in Elsbeth’s life. This is Sol and Ruth, American Jews who sponsored Peter after the war and have helped him get established; Ruth in particular tells Elsbeth about her dead half-sisters and Peter’s first wife, Masha, but June hears her doing this and puts a stop to it. The family dynamic is much about secrecy, so Elsbeth doesn’t have much agency in finding out more about her father’s past. She has fantasies about her half-sisters, that they’ve come back to life and she’s hiding and protecting them; she’s gone to the local library and looked up the camps her father was in, but beyond this, with a teenager’s self-involvement and lack of journalistic skills, what else can she do? Realistically, not much.

Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

Right now I’m reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, which is a delicious and intellectually nutritious read like all Meg Wolitzer novels. I recommend them and also Tara Westover’s extraordinary memoir Educated.

About Jenna Blum: Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of the novels Those Who Save Us,  The Stormchasers, and The Lost Family. Her novella “The Lucky One” was published in the post-war anthology Grand Central. Jenna is one of Oprah’s Top 30 Women Writers. She is based in Boston, where she earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University and where she taught creative writing and journalism. She was the fiction editor for AGNI Literary Magazine, and has taught writing workshops, in particularly the master novel workshop, for Grub Street Writers for over 20 years.