Our January selection for Bas Bleu’s Bluestocking Book a Month 2018 package isn’t for the faint of heart: Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle not only tackles the desperation of life in Europe immediately following World War II, it does so from the points of view of three non-Jewish German women. The titular characters are virtual strangers when they come together, linked only by a pre-war promise made by one of the women to their husbands, a vow to help the wives and children survive if the men were killed in an attempted coup. Recently, Jessica Shattuck took a break from her national book tour to answer our questions about the importance of studying “ordinary Germans,” building strong connections between disparate characters, and the role of WWII stories in 2018. (We’ve endeavored to avoid spoilers, but proceed with caution!)
Bas Bleu: You wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in March 2017, titled “I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi.” How old were you when you became aware of her past and its significance?
Jessica Shattuck: I grew up knowing that my grandparents had been “ordinary Germans” and that my grandfather served in the Wehrmacht during the war. And I was always ashamed of this. But it wasn’t until I spent a summer interviewing my grandmother at length about her life before, during and after the war that I learned she and my grandfather had joined the Nazi party in the late thirties to lead a kind of agricultural education youth camp.
BB: The women at the core of your novel are the widows of well-to-do German men who organized to rise up against the Nazis and were executed for their trouble. In reality, what was life like during and after the war (if they survived) for the families of known resisters?
JS: It varied greatly. Some of the families of executed resisters were harshly penalized: children were separated from their mothers, even put into orphanages like the one the character Martin is sent to in my book; mothers and other family members were sent to prison or to concentration camps. Other families suffered few official consequences. The Nazis had a perverse reverence for “Aryan blood lines” so sometimes if a given family was descended from, say [Otto von] Bismarck or Frederick the Great or some other Nazi celebrity, this worked in their favor.
BB: Marianne, Benita, and Ania are three very different women, drawn together by necessity during World War II. Theirs is not an easy relationship with neatly tied-up happy endings, which, frankly, feels like a more accurate depiction of adult female friendship (minus the war!) than we often see in literature or on screen. Their relationships with one another are set into motion and guided by the war, yet also seem to transcend it. Were you ever tempted to make their friendships with one another “tidier”? Or was that tension and nuance always intended to form the core conflict of your story?
JS: I knew from the start that these three women were not going to have neat, tidy friendships. It didn’t feel organic to their personalities or to the time and place. They came together as virtual strangers with tremendously different backgrounds and life experiences. They had a lot of work to do to understand and get along with one another, and in some ways that work is what ultimately makes their connections so strong.
BB: Some authors would use the trauma Benita suffers during the war as her character’s single defining characteristic and motivation. Yet Benita proves in many ways to be the most surprising character, with more complexity than even Marianne gives her credit for. Was Benita’s arc set before you began writing or did you “get to know her” as you went along?
JS: I definitely got to know all my characters as I went along: I never start with an outline or definite plot (though sometimes I wish I did!). I do often conceive of scenes or happenings that function like lighthouses in the distance—I write toward them. I knew from the start I wanted Benita to fall in love with Franz Muller and be forced to grapple with or ignore the moral questions that his past poses.
BB: In September 2017, you published a thought-provoking essay on Literary Hub, “What We Can Learn from ‘Ordinary’ Nazis.” Have you received any pushback, either during the writing of the book or after its publication, from people questioning why you would focus on—or even empathize with—Germans who were complicit in wartime?
JS: I was nervous about that when I was editing the book, and wanted to make sure to clarify that I was writing from the German point of view in an effort to understand and learn, not to forgive or excuse. However, so far anyway, I’ve gotten very little of that kind of pushback. I’ve had some really moving exchanges with readers who are Holocaust survivors or descendants of Holocaust survivors who found the book helpful to their own desire to understand how the Holocaust happened. I think people are really hungry for new stories and new perspectives from that time, which sometimes feels in danger of becoming two-dimensional.
BB: It seems most recent novels set in Europe during World War II focus on the Holocaust, for good reason. Yet The Women in the Castle only touches briefly on that aspect of the war. Why?
JS: I wanted to write a book that reflected my own family’s experience of that time and that drew on stories and questions I grapple with as a half-German. So the book is set at the edges of the Holocaust rather than in the darkest epicenter. This is, after all, where many if not most, Germans lived. And I’m fascinated with what it was like to live in that fringe, how people of that time were able to turn a blind (or willfully blind) eye to what was happening, what stories they told themselves to normalize the horrific. I think it’s vital for us to look at this if we are serious about honoring the promise “Never Again.” In some ways, if we see the German people of that time as one-dimensional monsters, driven by hate and without empathy, we let ourselves off the hook of self-examination.
BB: World War II ended in 1945, more than seventy years ago. Why do you think American readers continue to engage so deeply with novels set during that conflict?
JS: I think WWII is the closest Western civilization has come to a kind of apocalypse. It is our starkest cautionary tale. And there are so many corners and threads of it to explore—we’re still only beginning to chronicle the range of experiences of that time.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
JS: The Little House on the Prairie series had a huge influence on me—I was obsessed with the “olden times” as a kid. I also loved all King Arthur stories, especially those by Mary Stewart, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, John Steinbeck’s Knights of the Round Table, and above all, when I was in seventh grade, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Honestly, I don’t know why I was so fascinated by Camelot.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
JS: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink. As far as classics, I adore E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, [Charles] Dickens’s Bleak House, Anne Petry’s Passing, all of which are real page turners.
BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?
JS: Writing The Women in the Castle really turned me on to historical fiction and also to the fallout of WWII—and its effects on the generation(s) who lived through it. I plan to hop across the pond to 1940s and 50s America in my next book…
BB: Thank you, Jessica Shattuck, for sharing your time and insight…and for providing our readers with such a memorable and thought-provoking novel.
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