The Rumpus Interview with Rachel Hall

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Set during World War II and in the decades that follow, Rachel Hall’s debut collection of linked short stories, Heirlooms, follows a family of Jews as they move throughout France and, eventually, immigrate to the United States. Hall’s book was selected by Marge Piercy for the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize from BkMk Press. It’s no wonder Piercy was impressed—Heirlooms is a masterfully crafted collection which interweaves often devastating stories from an array of perspectives, but which all ultimately explore a single family’s love for one another and what it means to leave home and country behind.

Heirlooms is inspired by Hall’s own family history: her mother escaped the war in France with her adopted parents—her aunt and uncle—before eventually settling in the Midwest, where Hall was born and grew up. I first met Hall four years ago at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where I was a student in her “Reading as a Writer” course—a class which, coincidentally, focused on transforming real-life stories into fiction. I remember her telling us the story of her mother’s adoption and how as an infant Hall’s mother stretched out her arms towards the woman who would raise her, crying out Maman as her aunt approached the crib. It was a story that stuck with me long after the semester ended.

Sitting on the floor of her home office in Rochester, NY, Hall showed me photos of her mother’s family before, during, and after the war which helped inspire the stories in Heirlooms. We talked in person and over email about her writing process, the challenges one runs into when fictionalizing real-life events, and what it means to be a “late bloomer” in the literary world.

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The Rumpus: Where were you when you found out Marge Piercy had chosen your book as the winner of BkMk’s G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize? How did you celebrate?

Rachel Hall: I was working in my home office, getting ready for the fall semester when Ben Furnish, the editor at BkMk called to tell me that Heirlooms had been selected for the book prize. I think I kept it together while we talked, but when I hung up, I screamed at the top of my lungs. My family was home and when they heard my scream, they thought I’d hurt myself or that I’d encountered a giant bug. Once I was done screaming and jumping up and down, I called my parents and friends to tell them the good news. Later there was champagne.

Rumpus: You’ve talked openly about how this collection is inspired by much of your own family history, and it shouldn’t matter but I’m curious—how much of this book is true?

Hall: Heirlooms is inspired by my family stories and I used old letters and photographs from family albums as I wrote. Many of the events in Heirlooms did happen in real life. For instance, my mother and her adopted mother fled the Occupied Zone in haste, but I don’t know what happened to them along the way or how they felt, so I invented and imagined. My mother’s biological father was killed in Saint-Genis-Laval as the Germans retreated. In Heirlooms, I tell this story from the point of view of a character who observed the massacre. I had to imagine this character and his life. We know from a report that was filed that a man did observe the massacre, but I can’t know what he was thinking or how this event changed his life.

Fiction allows me to step into the shoes of these characters and I think this brings the reader closer to the events. I guess, too, I wanted to stay out of the stories in a way I didn’t think CNF would allow. People talk about fiction as “a lie that tells the truth,” and I feel like Heirlooms tells a true story, even though I’ve invented parts of it. In her endorsement of the book, Joanna Scott call this “imaginative truth,” and I like that phrase quite a bit.

Rumpus: Did you interview family members for any of these stories? What has their reaction to the book been like?

Hall: I’m lucky that my mother always told me stories of her childhood and my grandparents (her adoptive parents), too, were great storytellers, so these weren’t formal interviews, but I’d heard the stories often and so remembered them. I did one formal interview with my mother, her cousin, and his wife and daughters to gather information for “White Lies,” which was the last story that I wrote and a really tough one because it is centered around this huge lie that the family participated in. For fifteen years, they lied to my maternal great-grandmother, pretending her son was alive and well in California, when in fact, he’d been killed at the tail end of the war. I struggled to understand why and how my family members did this. The interview was interesting because I saw how differently we perceived the event. My cousins thought it was odd, too, but it didn’t bother them as it bothered me. They figured that the family had wanted to protect her with this lie, and while I saw that aspect, I also saw it as creating distance, which I found sad. I think the fiction writer is always curious about people’s motivations and behaviors in a way that other people aren’t necessarily.

My mother has read the entire book and other family members have read some of the stories. There were two stories I was worried might upset my mother in the way that I’d embellished or altered real events. With one of these stories, I tried to avoid writing the part that I thought might be troubling to my mother, but it had to happen. It really was critical that the character inspired by my mother, but not my mother, goes off with a strange man, someone she’s mistakenly thought was her father. I showed my mother these stories soon after they were written and before the collection was sent out. In both cases, she was completely understanding and supportive. “You’re a fiction writer,” she said. “This is fiction.”

My mother has been involved with the book from the start. Besides telling me stories of her childhood, she’s been on-call if I had a question about the historical events or details such as the music they might have listened to, movie stars of that time. She has also gone through the book, checking for errors in my French and correcting them. Several summers ago, she traveled with me to the Bay Area, where we were able to visit the first house she lived in in the States. I’d seen photographs of my mother as a girl taken in front of this house, which looked castle-like to me—made of white stucco with a swirled staircase. We were lucky to catch the current owners at home and they let us in. It was nothing like I’d imagined it. It was a very modest home. Tiny, even. We also saw her elementary school just a short walk from the house. Seeing these places was really helpful for crafting the stories set in California.

Rumpus: I’ve heard you say before that growing up, you listened to your mother talk about the war so often that at a certain point, her stories became your stories too. What did you mean by that?

Hall: I think as the eldest child—and a girl—I was pretty enmeshed with my mother. I was also the first in the family to be born in the States, to be a real American, so I think there is a way that the stories were meant to connect me to her past even as she wanted me to have a very different kind of childhood. And I absorbed them completely. I imagined being there, sticking up for my mother when the older girls bullied her at school in LePuy. I imagined her sadness when she was told her father had died, when she learned they were moving to America. I also had recurring nightmares growing up, in which I had to hide from Nazis. I guess because my mother and I are so close, and these events not so long ago really, that it felt easy to imagine them—even to imagine them happening again.

Rumpus: The art on the cover of Heirlooms is a painting by Charlotte Salomon, who herself tragically died at Auschwitz. How did you first come across her work?

Hall: I learned about Charlotte Salomon in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, where I saw an exhibit of her work Leben Oder Theater, which is amazing and beautiful and also haunting since it’s her only work. She was newly married and pregnant when she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered. Some of her pieces in Leben Oder Theater are frenzied with repeated images. Others have bold colors and clean lines and remind me of Matisse. Salomon also used a lot of writing in her paintings. I was thrilled when my editor at BkMk also liked this image and was willing to work with the people at the Charlotte Salomon Foundation to secure rights.

Rumpus: I first read “Jews of the Middle West” when you shared the first draft, an essay, in our “Reading as a Writer” class my sophomore year, and then I heard it again when you read the revised fiction version at the Rochester Visual Studies Workshop pub fair this past fall. What was your process like as you wrote that piece and the rest of the stories in this book? Do you tend to write a lot of your stories as essays first?

Hall: It’s funny that you ask this. While I usually start out writing fiction, two of the stories in Heirlooms actually did begin life as essays. The first one, “Saint-Malo, 1939” was part of a longer essay I wrote about motherhood. I find that I can figure things out in essays and explore them in a way that fiction doesn’t allow. I don’t think I could write “Saint Malo, 1939” until I’d lived motherhood—the incredible responsibility and fear and the fierce attachment and protectiveness—and taken some time to examine the institution of motherhood.

“Jews of the Middle West” began as an exercise, you’re right. I’d always wanted to write about my first job, which was at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Columbia, Missouri. I’d been thrilled to get that job and then grew to hate it. And there were some characters there—the regulars and the other servers, a baker who dragged in these huge speakers from his van and listened to heavy metal while he made donuts. It was a great setting, but nothing interesting really happened there besides the usual rudeness and annoyances of working in service. So I had to fictionalize, make something up—some event—if I was going to keep writing and make it at all interesting.

Rumpus: I’m mesmerized by the structure of Heirlooms, how each story ends up wrapping around to the same set of characters, their shared family history, told from various points of view. It’s not common to find a collection of standalone pieces that tells such a unified overarching story put together. Did you initially set out to write a collection of stories that were linked?

Hall: I didn’t intend to write a collection like this. Several years after writing “Saint Malo, 1939,” while I was struggling with a novel that I’ve never finished, I wrote “The Cemeteries of Saint-Malo.” I wrote it in a happy burst, a rare and wonderful thing. It was only then that I realized that I had the beginning and end of a linked collection. I didn’t write the remaining stories chronologically—I moved around a lot depending on what interested me at the time.

Rumpus: Did you travel to France at all to do research while you were writing this? I imagine it would be hard to write about characters living in another country if you’re not familiar with its culture.

Hall: I lived in France for a year when I was in college, and that experience informs the stories in all kinds of ways—the dialogue, the food, and descriptions of seasons and weather, details that add flavor and texture. I’ve been back to France a number of times since then. I’ve also spent time in Israel and the Bay Area which was helpful in describing those settings.

I had a big map of France on my study wall while I was writing this book with important places marked. I read a lot, too, history about life in France during the German Occupation, about the Resistance, and the immigrant experience in America after WWII. I also read a lot of diaries and memoirs by people who had lived through the war. A truly remarkable one is The Journal of Helene Berr. Berr, was a student at the Sorbonne before Jews were forbidden there. A gifted writer and scholar, her descriptions of her daily life during the Occupation are vivid and surprising. For instance, she talks about a German soldier holding open a door for her, a Jew, branded as such with a yellow star on her coat. I gasped out loud when I read this. Journals and letters are great for the writer of historical fiction because they reveal much about a particular time—its inconsistencies and texture. Another book that was really helpful was Joseph Joffo’s A Bag of Marbles which is remarkable, a beautiful and moving memoir, and should be better known in this country.

Rumpus: Something I loved about Heirlooms was the way it made me think about who we tend to classify as a victim of the Holocaust—and those that weren’t sent to concentration camps, but still suffered through the war and its rippling aftereffects. Even though the family at the core of this book survived the war in France by moving frequently and pretending to be Protestant, their losses in the face of Nazism still came in the deaths of family members, hunger, and rape, to name a few. But I was still surprised that the only mention of a concentration camp came through the perspective of another character, unrelated to the family, and in America no less. Can you talk a little about that decision to forgo writing about concentration camps in Heirlooms? Was that a conscious decision?

Hall: It wasn’t really a conscious decision. It was more that I was tracing my family’s history and the camps thankfully aren’t a direct part of that. At the same time, I think it’s important to remember that there isn’t a single Holocaust narrative. How could there be when it impacted so many people? My character Magda West lived through the camps, and in a way is still living through that experience, though she denies it and never speaks of it. She wants to forget the past because it was so painful, but of course, that doesn’t really work. She’s different from the Latours, who pass on their stories, albeit with some critical omissions.

Rumpus: You recently donated some family artifacts that inspired this book to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. What was that experience like?

Hall: Shortly after I completed Heirlooms, my mother learned that the Holocaust museum was interested in her letters and photographs for their archives. My husband, daughter, and I met my mother and stepfather in DC and spent several hours with the director of the museum, going through my mother’s albums and telling her story. It was really moving to share our family history and to know that these papers and photos will be a part of the museum and available for scholars interested in the Holocaust in France.

Rumpus: Heirlooms will be your first published book, and you’ve joked in the past about being a “late bloomer” with your writing. I almost laughed when you told me that because, as one of your former students, I just don’t see it. You’ve had stories and essays published in well-known literary journals, won SUNY’s Chancellor’s Award (twice!), started and received recognition for the SUNY-wide literary journal Gandy Dancer. Why do you think there’s so much pressure in the literary world to publish a book early on in your career?

Hall: Thanks for laughing at my sense of myself as a late bloomer. That’s instructive for me. It’s true that I’ve had a number of professional successes over the years, including publications, prizes, etc, but the book remained elusive. I have another collection of stories that was finalist in three different contests, and what I know now is that I should’ve kept sending it out. Maybe I will again, I don’t know.

In this career, the book is the marker of success. Often it’s what one needs to get an academic job and to keep an academic job, to get invited to festivals and to conferences. Even if we read on tablets and screens these days, the book is still the big time. And who doesn’t want to hit the big time early rather than late?

Rumpus: Do you have advice for any other “late bloomers” out there?

Hall: As I mentioned before, I gave up on a previous collection even though it was selected as a finalist for book prizes three times. I should’ve been much happier about being a finalist and much more confident in that manuscript. Don’t give up, is my advice. And push on, especially when you get some recognition.

Rumpus: I know Heirlooms hasn’t even been released yet, but what else can we expect from you in the future?

Hall: I’ve begun a novel based on the Kent State killings. As I said, I’m drawn to the past for material. I’m also working on a collection of stories about teenagers and technology.


Kathryn Waring is a first-year instructor and MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. She is Assistant Essays Editor at The Rumpus and can be found on Twitter at @k_waring105. More from this author →