About The Author
Until the publication of her novel, The Invisible Bridge, American-born writer Julie Orringer was best known for her short stories, which have appeared, amongst other places in The Paris Review, The Granta Book of the American Short Story and McSweeney's, as well as in an acclaimed collection, How to Breathe Underwater. She is a 1996 graduate of Cornell University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she held a two-year Creative Writing Teaching Fellowship, and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her novel, The Invisible Bridge, which has been longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize, is an epic story of love and war set in Paris and Hungary before and during the Second World War, and movingly tells the story of the Hungarian Holocaust, the forced deportations and life in the labour camps. Julie lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Ryan Harty, who is also a writer, and their son, Jacob.
Frances Gertler caught up with her to find out more about the challenges of switching from the economy of the short story to the vast scope of an epic novel, about the comparative dearth of fiction about Hungary in the second world war and to ask her what we can expect next from this versatile writer.
Questions & Answers
Comparatively little fiction has been written about Hungary during World War II. Why did you choose to write about it?
In part because of a family connection -- my mother was Hungarian, and The Invisible Bridge originated from her father's experiences in France and Hungary before and during the war. But I was aware, too, of the dearth of fiction about Hungary in wartime, and found it a compelling subject. Hungary wasn't occupied by the Germans until March of 1944, which meant that the experience of Hungarian Jews was quite different from that of other European Jewish populations. By the time the Wehrmacht invaded, news of the camps had already reached the Western world. Most Hungarian Jews believed the war would end before concentrations and deportations would begin in Hungary, but, tragically, that was not the case.
Paris is also a very potent force in the novel. You write lovingly about architecture and Parisian architecture in particular. Are these passions of yours?
Quite unoriginally, I fell in love with Paris upon my first visit there twelve years ago, and for all the usual reasons: the architecture, the art, the quality of light, the parks, the patisseries, the cafés, the bookstores... I could imagine how my grandfather, a young architecture student, might have felt he'd arrived in the city of his dreams. Before I began writing the book, though, I didn't know much about 1930s architecture specifically; it became a subject of fascination. In Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb of Paris, there's a wonderful small museum devoted to the 1930s, and the surrounding streets are filled with marvellous examples of the work of Pingusson, Perret, Le Corbusier, and their contemporaries. It was thrilling to discover that place and to walk streets that still looked much as they probably did when those buildings were constructed.
Theatre and ballet are also important in the novel and the reader can almost smell the greasepaint backstage. Could either of these have provided an alternative career for you had you not become a writer?
I spent many hours as a child dancing around the living room to the soundtrack of A Chorus Line, and studied ballet for about eight years, but I don't think I was in any danger of becoming a professional ballerina. I love the theatre and was in many plays (and even wrote a few) as a high-school student; it was great fun to draw upon some of those experiences for the novel.
Your short story collection was published to justifiably huge acclaim, the stories economical and raw, powerful and evocative. Each one of them feels as if it could have been a novel. Was it the desire to give your characters more space that led you to a longer form?
In a sense, yes; as I wrote the stories in How to Breathe Underwater, I moved toward longer and longer forms. But in the case of The Invisible Bridge, I think it's more accurate to say that the material itself determined the choice of form. Once I began to learn about my grandfather's experiences before and during the war, and then as I researched the Hungarian forced labour service and uncovered more about the inmates' experiences, I knew the book would have to be a novel. I was also aware that it would span seven years and thousands of kilometres; a long form seemed inevitable.
Again, your stories have very contemporary settings and situations. You didn't just change the form of your writing but also chose to write about the past. Was this a deliberate attempt to challenge yourself, or did the interest in the subject matter come first?
The interest came first, but the challenge was an attraction too. The war years had been a shadowy subject in my family's history throughout my life. I wanted to know what had really happened at that time; I wanted to learn the fate of my grandfather's oldest brother, who was killed in the war, and also to know more about Hungary's role in the European conflict. It would have been possible to learn those things simply through conversations and research, but leading a character through his own experience of hope and loss made me understand more deeply what it might have been like to survive that cataclysm.
Underground newspapers produced by inmates in forced labour camps play a pivotal role in the story. Can you say more about them?
While researching forced labour camps at the National Jewish Archives in Budapest, I came across a box of newspapers produced by camp inmates. It was stunning to learn that those documents existed, and even more surprising to find that the tone of the articles was darkly comedic -- that they poked fun at every grim aspect of life in the camps. I was working with a translator, a young Hungarian medical student whose sense of humour matched that of the newspapers, and together we made our way through dozens of those documents, marvelling at their audacity and wit. I knew they had to be part of the novel, and I wanted my protagonist to play an intimate role in their production.
With its many settings -from Paris before the war, to Hungary before and during the Occupation and the Ukrainian work camps - what kind of research was necessary to give them such a strong sense of historical accuracy and make them come alive the way you have?
I spent time in many of the novel's settings, gathering a kind of sensory library that I might draw upon for the work. But I also had the benefit of being able to talk to men and women who'd lived in those places and survived the war. Newspaper archives were another invaluable source, as were radio broadcasts, letters, photographs, autobiographies and museum collections. A fellowship at the New York Public Library provided, among other priceless benefits, access to a rare trove of maps; I could trace the 1937 Paris Métro stops, learn what refreshments were offered at the International Exposition, find out where to hear jazz or have a drink at night, and how much it might cost to stay at a tourist hotel.
How much of the story was planned at the outset - for example, was the central character Andras always destined to fall in love in Paris but have to return to Hungary? Did you know at the outset who would survive the war and who wouldn't?
Very little of the story was planned at the outset. I began with Andras's departure for Paris, and I knew, of course, when the war would begin and how it would end, but I had to discover the characters' stories as I went along. I had no idea that Andras would end up falling in love with someone nine years his senior, a Hungarian expatriate with a complicated history of her own; I didn't know the fate of that relationship, or of Andras's family members. It felt essential to be surprised myself in order to maintain a sense of mystery and discovery for the reader.
Both your stories and your novel display a particularly strong sympathy for the young and the pain and confusion of entering adulthood. Is this a theme you consciously return to?
Not consciously, though I became aware of that connection between the novel and the stories as I was writing. Though my own experience of early adulthood was, of course, profoundly different from my protagonist's, there were many times when his fears, frustrations and confusions mirrored what I felt when I arrived in San Francisco as a young woman, fresh out of school, raw and jobless and unused to city life. It was something of a shock, though, to write through the time in Andras's life when the ordinary pain of early adulthood ran up against the large-scale anguish of the war, and to consider what it might have been like to have all one's expectations for the future subsumed by an enormous force beyond one's own control.
You've written these powerful contemporary stories and now an epic historical novel. What's next for Julie Orringer the writer?
I'm working on another novel, this one about the New York journalist Varian Fry and his attempts to help Jewish and anti-Nazi writers, artists and intellectuals escape occupied France in 1940 and 41. I've been researching this new project for a couple of years and have recently begun writing. There's a great feeling of freedom in having blank pages before me again. But I hope it won't take seven years this time to finish the book.