Cournoyer
Congratulations. You effectively accomplished the unthinkable: You made a morally tortured Nazi believable, hauntingly real. You gave yourself an extraordinary challenge: Create a truly devoted Nazi (as is evident in your prologue) and make the reader, for the balance of the book, learn to care about him deeply and believe he would really risk everything to rescue a Jewish child. From a craft perspective, I’d like to learn a little bit about how you accomplished this extraordinary feat. While most of the book is tethered to a tightly wound, tension-filled front story, you mix in backstory chapters with the establishing chapters (mostly) and a few times toward the end before the climax. The integration of backstory chapters has a powerful cumulative effect on the reader. Could you explain your use of backstory?

Badgett
I based the structure on Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, a masterful book. He takes the reader through extensive backstory, which makes the experience of the novel so rich and complex and, ultimately, very satisfying. So I wanted my novel to have that kind of effect, had imagined that effect from the very beginning. I started with the prologue, which seemed to put Gerda and Max and that relationship in context, then began exploring what are subtle, but very significant, moments in the characters’ pasts. It’s critical, when writing something as huge as Nazi Germany, to make sure your reader understands exactly where you as the writer stand and where they stand in relation to the story. Writing a Nazi protagonist can get really tricky. One false move and you’re David Irving. But that challenge is also what spurred me on and kept me going. I loved having to walk the tightrope of the sympathetic-yet-dangerous protagonist. Max also does something very hard for us as mortals to do—he breaks away from his upbringing, from his culture, from his moral context and protects someone he has been programmed to despise. There were times I wasn’t sure what he would decide to do about Magdalene, and I hope that sense of not knowing informs the book and gives the reader a reason to turn the pages. I really had to convince myself that he could just as easily turn her over as keep her in his closet. That was a hard thing for me to do, and even harder for him. But in that tug-of-war, the reader needs some reassurance that his protagonist and champion will come through. That’s another function of the backstory. We get to see Max’s skepticism at work, we get to see him as a questioning little boy, as an aggrieved son, as an angry rebel. And seeing him go through those experiences gives us a sense that he has a moral compass no Hitler Jugend leader can touch. The backstory was also a nice way to bring in the allegorical aspect of the novel, that this is a story about a choice a soldier makes, but also about a choice a country makes. About the way Germany gets misled by Frauenwerk campaigns and set back on track with the Economic Miracle. There is a lot of undercurrent at work in those chapters, from Karin’s experience as a nurse in World War I to Max’s botched gift exchange with his Uncle Otto. In many cases, the backstory chapter has an echo in the present story, a little link that keeps them tethered. The park in Luneburg where Max takes Magdalene is the park where he’s planting trees and gets everyone in camp in trouble in the backstory. This kind of looping not only allowed for me to broaden the novel in scope, but also gave the backstory a pattern that anchors it in the present. Ultimately, I’m exploring the how and why of World War II Germany, and no one can go there without World War I, without the street fights of the Twenties, without the heady days of the Hitler Youth and Bund Deutscher Mädel, and the big rallies and Kristallnacht and the drumbeat of national pride that led to Nationalism, nihilism, and the camps.

Cournoyer
It’s evident that this is an exhaustively researched book. How did you approach research? What sorts of personal experiences—I know you lived in Germany for roughly a year—and scholarly texts helped inspire and inform your novel?

Badgett
I lived in Germany for 11 months, but before that I had traveled there many times and had taken a German immersion summer course through the Goethe Institut in Rhode Island. So I had a background in German culture. As for research, I deliberately avoided journals and diaries. I didn’t want to graft onto my novel someone else’s experience, even subconsciously. I wanted to keep it strictly fictional. I did draw on conversations with older Germans who remember the Third Reich both when I was living in Germany and during a research trip in 2002. (Jenna and Clara, wherever you are, thank you!) I also explored the landscape of the novel during that trip, which helped with the sections in Sylt and Wilsede. I read extensively, particularly Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, not to mention a lot of the critical texts surrounding it. Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning was also helpful. I derived a lot of inspiration from a book by Robert Proctor called The Nazi War on Cancer, and a similar text, what I think of as a companion book, Seduced By Hitler by Roger Boyes and Adam LeBor. Chapter 24 is particularly influenced by Seduced By Hitler. Those two books were a sort of source text for the book, and I am very grateful to the authors. A great book about the history of Munich leading up to the war (which I need to return to my father!) is Where Ghosts Walked by David Clay Large. Frauen and Mothers in the Fatherland, by Alison Owings and Claudia Koonz respectively, were very helpful in crafting Gerda. Again, I think of them as companion books because of how well they illustrate the mind of the female Nazi. I also plumbed the Web for details about uniforms and brand names and the ephemera of daily life. Many online dealers of German militaria (uniforms and shaving kits and medals) were really helpful in capturing the detailed world of Max’s battalion. Calvin College has an excellent online archive of Nazi artifacts, pamphlets, and posters—all things propaganda. Although I was researching strictly World War II, they have an extensive archive of all kinds of propaganda, from Stalin to Mao. It’s difficult, for good reason, to get to a granular level of detail in researching Nazi Germany. The gravity of the Holocaust makes looking up brands of prepared foods and popular songs of the Third Reich unseemly. But I also feel that level of detail is one way of getting at understanding the big “how and why” of Nazi Germany.

Cournoyer
You said something that really struck me: You said that post-War Germany reminded you of your Civil-War obsessed hometown (Lexington, Virginia). Could you expand on that statement?

Badgett
I can’t remember who said it—maybe Allan Gurganus—but a Southern writer said, “The losers have all the good stories.” The South lives in the shadow of the sins of the Civil War, from the long history of racism to the weird concomitant nostalgia for “simpler times.” The legacy is a long tradition of literature that grapples with race and identity and poverty in ways other regional fiction in the U.S. doesn’t. But the relationship between your individual experience as a “good” person and your violent lineage is something that stays with you. I found the same relationship in Germany today. There is this huge shadow, under which people feel such collective shame. And yet there are people who cling to racism as a form of group identity. In the mix of that, in the gray area, are those who want to feel a sense of pride in their country without being aligned with the nostalgic racists. Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” I think that’s true in a sense in both war-torn places. Also, both the South and Germany had their wars fought in their back yards, between their barns and farmhouses. That does something to a place, marks it. I don’t mean in a ghostly metaphysical way. I mean that you can find minnie balls in your Southern garden just as you can find old bombed-out apartment buildings in Germany. Wars leave themselves felt, particularly when your people are on the “wrong” side of them and especially when there’s such a stark, defining racism underscoring the conflict. 

Cournoyer
Well, it’s definitely a “big” book, not only in length, but also with regard to its unique perspective, its thematic fearlessness. I’m not sure Pale Mother, given its many unique distinctions, lends itself readily to comparisons. That said, forgive me for asking: Could you compare Pale Mother to other works of literature? Or perhaps you could discuss other works of literature that have inspired you either before or during the many years of writing Pale Mother?

Badgett
Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance gave me the courage to explore the extensive backstory. I knew that something as overwhelming as Nazi Germany would need deep roots. So putting my characters in their pasts as well as the present of the novel was very important to me. I wanted to avoid any kind of direct psychological explanation for my characters’ actions, though. Just because they have backstory doesn’t mean all the answers are there. Lolita was important to me, because of Nabokov’s brilliant crafting of Humbert’s point of view. Getting inside that twisty brain really intrigued me. I was deliberately looking for villain-told stories, which is why I delved into that for my critical thesis in graduate school. [“Who is the Enemy?”] I think it goes back to being Southern as well. We have all the good stories. Anna Karenina had a huge impact on me, not just in the way Tolstoy creates scope and resonance, but also in that Anna is sort of a villain for her time (although Tolstoy clearly didn’t write her that way). What I’m saying is that Anna is an adultress who gives up her son for the sake of her lover. Now, of course, everyone gripes that she gets “punished” for her stained morality, but really I think the beauty of the book lies in the humanity in which Tolstoy portrays Anna. He clearly wants her death at the end to be a loss for the reader. I also love DeLillo and Bellow and Saramago and Marquez and Roth. Ha Jin has such a deft hand. Frank Moorehouse’s combination of humor, good fun, and serious big-book scope in Grand Days was very inspiring. I read Vargas-Llosa almost out of compulsion, because he’s always doing something that interests me, a weaving of personal and political that feels very brave and forthright and utterly without apology. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a wonderful book that gives the kind of breadth and scope I find appealing. Alice Munro writes short stories that have the effect of novels on me. I’m not in the camp that believes women can’t write serious fiction. Shirley Hazzard, Ella Leffland, and Pat Barker have all written serious novels about World Wars I and II. Leffland’s The Knight, Death, and the Devil is one of the books I explore in my critical thesis.

Cournoyer
I know you to be a voracious and incisive reader of literature. But you also have a background in cinema. Pale Mother seemed to be very “cinematic” to me. The shifting points-of-view, the structural loops (even within paragraphs), the graceful shifting of “focal lengths” (even within paragraphs), the breathless, flowing-down-a-mountain feel of many of the scenes that are balanced with evanescent moments suggest the work of a filmmaker, as much as they do a novelist. Can you explain your background in cinema and what, if any, influences it has had on your writing?

Badgett
I have a BA from Hollins University that I say is in Film, though it’s actually in Theater Arts. Details, details. It was a film concentration, and very much a film degree, though I also worked extensively in theater as well. I had been a fairly serious poet in high school (well, for a high school student) and had an independent study in poetry with a colleague of my father’s who, literally, would cross out an entire poem, circle a line, and say, “Start there.” After that intensity, which I loved and craved, I started in creative writing at Hollins, which was, well, less rigorous. I suppose in hindsight, we were only freshmen in college, for pete’s sake, but I came to the workshops with this slash-and-burn mentality, even quoting some of Susan Kaplan’s great lines. Examples: “This is an unpopulated cartoon” and “What, exactly, is it you want me to see when I read this?” You get the idea. That just didn’t jive with the nurturing warmth of the program. So I switched to film, or, more accurately, was drawn into it by a great professor by the name of Klaus Phillips. He also started me on the whole Germany bent, because he took a group of film students to Munich, Berlin, and Koblenz every January to meet German filmmakers. I went three times. As far as film goes, I was really drawn to the idea of composition that moved. I wanted to be a cinematographer, which, at the time, would have made me one of three in the U.S. But whatever—that was the kind of barrier I liked. I went to Germany and interned on a film, and was so impressed by the smart, strong women who worked as camera operators and producers. There was a joke on the set that whoever wasn’t a gay man was a tough-ass woman. There was some truth to that, and it was great. Exhilarating. I also sat in on classes at the Hochschule Für Film und Fernsehen, and my favorite class was one in which a whole auditorium of people watched the student films and critiqued them. The critiques were tough and exacting, and I loved it. I think I just really wanted to be a part of storytelling that moved. And I loved movies, particularly German ones. Wings of Desire made me want to shoot dreamy, deep films in black and white for Wim Wenders. A film called Das Alte Lied, or The Old Songs directed by Ula Stöckl was a very poetic exploration of the complications of being a post-war German. I love the strange world of Anita Dances of Vice directed by Rosa von Praunheim. Not to mention Herzog and Fassbinder. When I first started working on film sets, I felt completely at home. Even the craft service food excited me. When I came back to the States, I worked on a movie called Olanda’s Wish, which was wonderful because that’s how I met my husband. (Oh, wait, you know that part.) But when it came to actually working on subsequent projects, the reality of being a woman set in. I don’t mean I couldn’t lift things or do the physical labor. I mean I was passed over a lot just for being female. The camera assistant jobs went to the boys. I had a couple of job interviews in which young male directors were perplexed by me wanting to be grip or gaffer. They’d say things like, “Don’t you want to be a production secretary?” or “We really need someone to sew costumes.” My favorite was a guy who said, “Wow, I’m really surprised you know about film stocks.” Well, yeah. I studied film stocks and filters and scrims and lighting ratios the way he had studied Hal Hartley and Quentin Tarantino. It was pretty frustrating, and after a while, the allure of moving around apple boxes and working craft service while the boys rigged complicated lighting grids and dolly tracks on camera cars got old. Pretty much, if you aren’t doing anything key on a film set, it’s the same labor as working in a warehouse or road constuction. (And in the “independent” film world of the 1990s, it just didn’t pay you as well!) So I started writing stories. And the stories turned into screenplays, then into novels. And then I just started writing novels. I still love movies and moviemaking. I think I’m deeply influenced by so many movies and great performances. The idea of representing a story visually still lives in my storytelling, even if it’s on the page and not on the screen. I really admire how much director/writer/producers have to keep in their heads. It’s almost like conducting an unruly orchestra of four year olds. Everything goes wrong. Everyone thinks he can do better, even some jerk holding a stopwatch and a clipboard. But there’s a kind of beautiful thing about a collaborative creative effort that you don’t have with literature. And the immediate connection a viewer has with the screen is hard to capture in literature, but I try. I really try.

Cournoyer
I know you’re often asked about the name you gave the girl, Magdalene. Could you explain that choice?

Badgett
Yes, probably one of the most-asked questions next to “Did Nazis really stop smoking?” I chose Magdalene because I wanted the two sides of her to be very stark in contrast. Magdalene. Silber. Very Catholic name coupled with a very Jewish name. I wanted to capture the sense that she’s really caught between two worlds—sort of stuck in a crawlspace, if you will. I also chose Magdalene because she is the patron saint whose relic lies in the Frauenkirche in Munich, as well as a slight nod to Magda Goebbels. As for Jesus and the ho, well, she’s not a sexy redhead with a thing for the Christ, and Max ain’t no Jesus, so that’s not really in here intentionally. I hope a scholar applies that one day, though. That would be really fun.

Cournoyer
Magadelene is a strong-willed girl. Outwardly, she’s nothing like a “child in distress.” Could you explain your characterization for her?

Badgett
We’ve had Spielberg’s innocent girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List, and we’ve had Anne Frank, and we’ve had wide-eyed moppets of all backgrounds and styles from the Holocaust. I wanted a little girl who was only sort of aware of the danger around her, a girl who’s just four. And the more I wrote her, the more I liked how she ribs Max and drives him crazy. I think anyone who has been alone with a four-year-old will identify. She’s really not an innocent sweetheart who needs to be rescued because she’s such a darling. She needs to be rescued because everyone does. Even Max.

Cournoyer
Max is one of the most morally complex characters I’ve seen in literature in a long time. It’s highly unusual—well, come to think of it, I can’t think of another example—to see an American novelist approach a Nazi in this way. (I think you address a lot of these so-called “controversial” issues in your essay about inimical characters, “Who is the Enemy?”) Cynthia Ozick once said she’d never visit Germany. I mean, there’s a real potential for controversy surrounding your book. What would you say to the Ozicks of the world?

Badgett
I have tremendous respect for Cynthia Ozick. But I think she’s a little simplistic here. I don’t know if the controversy will come more from the fact that Max is such a strong protagonist, or from the fact that I am neither of Jewish nor German extraction. I think there’ll be a sense that this isn’t my story. My feeling is that all wars, all horrors like slavery and the Holocaust, all struggles belong to all of us. Needless to say, I did a lot of thinking about being a stupid girl in the wrong neighborhood. I hope the research, the depth of the characters, and the extensive backstory lend themselves to a deeper reading of the book than just this simplistic idea that you can’t write from the inimical point of view with sympathy. There was a terrible thing about that in the New York Times recently. The reviewer for Rebecca Miller’s new movie, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, said that you can’t write a monster with sympathy, you have to choose between the monster and the saint. I whole-heartedly disagree. I knew a lot of great, smart, well-read, brilliant racists growing up. Generous teachers, kind and loving neighbors, great friends. These were good people with terrible blindspots. Like New Yorkers who smear Southerners or African Americans who hate homosexuals. I wonder where we get this idea that there is such a thing as all good or all evil and that we’re always on the side of the angels. It’s everywhere right now, and we should try to fight it off. I think you learn more if you’re dealing with bad gone good than if you always see good inevitably triumphing. (That said, “good” and “bad” are overly simplistic modalities.) If we never delve into the motivations of the inimical perspective, everything is at a stasis. No one changes or learns or grows. I think a former racist who comes to terms with that racism and changes his worldview is a much more compelling story than a liberal white girl who never questioned her lack of racism, never saw people for anything but just as people and wrote a book about how racism is bad. It’ll be interesting to see what Iraqi novelists have to say about us in a few years. We have a whole presidential cabinet that thinks torturing humans is no big deal. I can’t predict what will come of this, but we’re getting really close to being under that shadow as Americans. Yet I doubt most of the people I saw at Target today are worried about being branded historic “evildoers.” Of course, here in Bellingham, most of them were blameless Canadians. But the point is this: I’m sure there’ll be some sort of historical reckoning. I sort of hope so for the sake of the rest of the world and for the sake of history. I don’t want to live in a world in which the conclusion is that torture isn’t that bad. (And don’t get me started on those who overlook, out of convenience, the obvious reasoning behind the Geneva Conventions.) But being that brand of historically wrong evildoers will be a sad awareness for Americans who are so accustomed to being heroes. We made Superman. We love ourselves a lot. We’re almost French in how much we love ourselves. Most of America has written off our racist past as just that—in the past, relegated to history. We tend to see problems in how we overcome them. Yes, we had slavery, but we ended it! Yes, true, we went into Vietnam, but we left! Deliberate torture is a big one, too. It won’t go away any time soon unless we stop it. And as long as we’re electing these people, we’re all Southerners now. We’re all Reich-era Germans. All of us.

One last thing: When I write about Nazi Germany, it won’t look, feel, or smell like Günther Grass’s or Hannah Arendt’s. Just as my portrayal of slavery in the South is very different from Alice Walker’s. But that’s one of the sacred qualities of literature. The variety of voices, the different takes on experience. Nabokov didn’t write in English because he was American or British. There’s room for everyone.

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Structure & Point of View in Pale Mother - An Interview with Frances Badgett