The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Anne Raeff

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I met Anne Raeff in 1989, shortly after I moved to New Mexico from Minnesota to attend graduate school. Anne had moved there around the same time, to escape New York. A mutual friend, Cynthia, thought we should meet, but sensing a setup, we both nixed the idea, so Cynthia simply invited us to lunch at the same restaurant. Anne and I spent the entire lunch arguing, about books and critical theory (I loved it; she hated it). Nonetheless, we became friends.

Shortly after we met, we began taking long walks together, a ritual that persists. In fact, a couple of years ago, we calculated that we have walked at least 10,000 miles together. During these early walks, we discovered that—despite vastly different backgrounds—we valued and wanted similar things, among them to write. In fact, Anne had already written an impressive number of stories as well as two novels, one of which evolved into her first book, Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia (MacAdam/Cage, 2002). Once, when she was in Paraguay visiting an old friend, I kept an eye on her apartment, which included bringing in the mail. It was while seeing to this task that I discovered a packet that appeared to contain a returned manuscript. I’m ashamed to admit that I opened it, but not ashamed that I spent the night reading the story collection I found inside. I was enthralled, and though I had maintained that our relationship would never move beyond friendship, it’s fair to say that my resolve began to crumble that night. We eventually moved together to Spain, which is where, away from the scrutiny of well-intentioned friends, we became a couple. That was twenty-five years ago

Three of the stories I read that night appear, in different form, in Anne’s collection The Jungle Around Us, a recipient of the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. The nine stories included are about exile, war, violence, and their effects, with settings ranging from New York and Nicaragua to the Soviet Union and Bolivia. I received this award in 2008, which makes us (I think) the only writing couple to have both won, though certainly not the only writing couple out there, which is why I conceived of this interview: I thought it would be interesting to ask Anne some questions about her book but also about what it’s like to be married to another fiction writer.

This interview was conducted partly over email (often while we were both in the house) and partly on walks.

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The Rumpus: Several years ago, we both read an article in the New York Times about professional matchmakers, all of whom said that the key to successful matchmaking was to put together two people who come from the same type of childhood (suburb with suburb, Catholic with Catholic, etc.). We come from very different backgrounds. That said, we both have a deep interest in the other’s family history, which is important not only for us as a couple but as writers because we both write from a sense of personal history and place. In your case, both of your parents were Holocaust refugees, and their stories figure prominently in your writing. Why are their stories so important to you as a writer?

Anne Raeff: I would say that the complete opposite is true for us: what makes our relationship work, I think, is that we come from such different backgrounds—I grew up in the suburbs of New York, and you grew up in a town of 400 people in Minnesota in a hardware store—which allows us to learn from each other, to explore new worlds. The first time I visited Minnesota I told you it was the strangest place I had ever been that didn’t require a passport. When we walked into your parents’ house, your mother said, from across the room, “Oh, Lori.” Your father, who was reading the paper in the living room, lowered the paper, looked out at us, nodded, and said, “Is that Lori?” Then he went back to reading the paper. The first time we went to Los Angeles together we had brunch at Canter’s, the famous Jewish diner on Fairfax. It was super crowded, filled with mostly transplanted New York Jews, so it was quite noisy. When the waitress came to take our order, you said, in your polite Midwestern way, “Good morning. How are you?” And she said, “Enough of the pleasantries. What do you want?”

Though I grew up in a house with ten thousand books and traveled to Europe and even to the Soviet Union as a child, and the farthest away you had been by the time you graduated from high school was Winnipeg, we both felt constricted by the worlds we grew up in. And so, together, we have worked on making our world as big as it can be, yet where we grew up and our family backgrounds are essential to our writing. Growing up surrounded by the blandness of suburbia, I craved stories, and my family provided them. Unlike most children, I liked being around old people. In fact, the first story I ever wrote was based on a time when my grandmother took me to visit her friend who had Parkinson’s Disease. My paternal grandmother was from Russia. She lived through the Revolution, the subsequent civil war, and World War II. She and my grandfather were Mensheviks, so they left the Soviet Union when Stalin came to power and moved to Berlin. Then, they had to flee Germany, so they went to Paris. From there they went to Lisbon and finally ended up in New York, so she had endless stories to tell, and I ate them up.

My mother’s family escaped from Vienna and lived in Bolivia during the war. My grandparents were both doctors and very Viennese, and then they ended up in a small town in a distant province in Bolivia. My grandfather was the doctor for the workers who were building the railroad that connected Brazil and Bolivia, so he was away most of the time. My grandmother was left with two children (my mother was twelve, my uncle only two), in a small town near the border with Brazil. She hated it, the heat, the monkeys screaming in the night, but my mother loved it. She didn’t have to go to school. When the war ended, they received visas to the United States. My grandmother suffered from depression, so when we visited them, she was often lying in bed. I sat on her bed and we ate chocolate together, and I listened to her talk about the monkeys.

Rumpus: A follow-up question: Do you think of yourself as a Jewish writer?

Raeff: I am not a good Jew. I wasn’t brought up Jewish. My father was an atheist, as am I. His parents were socialists. He didn’t even know that his father spoke Yiddish until he was twelve. My mother became a Catholic when I was a child. She and my younger sister went to church every Sunday while my father and I went for walks or played chess. We had a Christmas tree, a real one with candles. Every time my maternal grandparents visited during the Christmas season, my grandfather would say, “Is that a Chanukah bush?”

However, the Holocaust shaped my family’s lives and is central to my writing. I have always been interested in the big moral questions. I suppose this is largely because of my family history. My mother told me when I was still quite young that, even though so many people in her family died in the Holocaust, it would have been worse to be a perpetrator than a victim, that on some level she was lucky, we were lucky. I continue to think about this and what it means about humanity—every day. I think it is almost impossible to grow up with those words and not write about them.

Rumpus: I think that The Jungle Around Us could be called a collection of linked stories, some more tightly linked than others. Though most of these stories were written in the last ten years, a couple of them were written much longer ago. To what extent do you consider these stories linked and how much did you consider these linkages as you were choosing the stories for the collection?

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Raeff: Although some of these stories were written over twenty years ago, I continue to write about similar themes, such as exile, both real and metaphorical, and the long-term effects of war and violence, so the stories are definitely linked thematically. I also keep coming back to similar settings—Latin America, Vienna, the Soviet Union, the suburbs of New York. The title, The Jungle Around Us, is taken from one of the stories and refers to an actual jungle, but the jungle in the title is meant to be a metaphorical jungle, the jungle that we both fear and are drawn to, the jungle that threatens yet also protects us. Thus, the book is an exploration of the jungles that surround us whether we are lying awake listening to the cars going by in a New Jersey suburb, wandering through the streets of Leningrad on a cold, winter night, or drinking with a priest who believes in nothing while listening to the insects calling to one another in a town on the edge of the Amazon. 

The stories are also linked more explicitly through the characters. Four of the stories feature the Buchovsky family: Isaac, a Russian history professor and single father, and his two daughters, Simone and Juliet. The Buchovskys and the biological parents of Simone and Juliet, Ulli and Leo, are also the protagonists of my second and still unpublished novel, Winter Kept Us Warm. The Buchovksys made their first appearance in my work and mind in “The Buchovskys on Their Own,” one of the stories in the collection. The other three stories were originally sections in the novel that didn’t quite fit with the narrative, so I reworked them into stories. I have always liked the idea of characters that appear in multiple works like the Glass family in Salinger’s writing.

Rumpus: This year we celebrate our 25th anniversary. Throughout the course of our relationship, we have both been fiction writers, which has not always been easy. You saw success first with the publication of your novel Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia in 2002, and then I published two books, and now your second book is coming out. Along the way, we have struggled to balance the need for writing time for both of us with the need to pay the mortgage, which has led one or the other of us to occasionally ask, “Don’t you wish that I weren’t a writer, that I had some big, money-making career instead?” Yet I think that, overall, our shared love of writing has been a good thing. There are a lot of writing couples out there, so perhaps you could talk about some of the hardest aspects of both wanting and working toward the same things and some of the benefits that have come with this as well.

Raeff: I often say, when I am feeling frustrated by the difficulties of the whole publishing scene, that I wish I could go back to Madrid in the early 1980s, where I lived for almost five years and wrote the first version of what would become, twenty years later, my first published novel, Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia. During that time I thought only about the writing. I suppose in the back of my mind I, naively, believed that if I wrote something, it would get published, but I was not focused on the end product, just on the writing. I wrote at my desk in my attic apartment with slanted ceilings that looked out over the terracotta rooftops of the oldest part of Madrid. I wrote on a portable, manual Hermes typewriter. I miss that sound, the sound of the keys in the middle of the night. That period was essential to my development as a writer and a person, but if I were to go back to that time when I was a “purer” writer, I would lose what was and continues to be an even more important key to my development as a writer, you. Since we have been together, we have figured out how to write and be writers together. We have been each other’s readers, often sole readers, editors, and critics. We have learned from each other and guided each other. Together we have explored the world, pushing ourselves to travel to and live in places that challenged and inspired us both as people and writers, such as Malaysia, where we spent a year and a half, Morocco, and, most recently, Ukraine. I don’t think that I would have been so adventurous without you. I don’t know whether I would have continued writing without you to keep me going.

Now for the hard things: when we were both struggling and learning, getting rejection letter after rejection letter, we suffered through it all together, encouraging each other, making sure that neither of us gave up. Now you have had more publishing success than I have. You have won many prizes and your first novel was published by a major New York house. You won the Flannery O’Connor Prize—first. And though I am thrilled to have won such a prestigious prize, there is a part of me that feels strange about it, maybe even wishes that I had won a different prize, my own prize. You also are very active in the writing community. You have made many friends in the writing world, and though I now know them too, I know them through you. When my second novel was rejected by pretty much everyone, it was really hard for you. This happened right around when your own novel came out, and it was hard for you to be excited about it because I was going through such a difficult time. And, though I was really happy about your book, I was feeling so bad about my own book that sometimes it was hard to show you how proud I was of you. That has been the most difficult part. Enough said, as you would say.

Rumpus: We often say that we both have the ability to make big changes easily though sometimes are challenged by making smaller ones). On New Year’s Eve of 2005, for example, we vowed that by the end of the year, we would be living in a city again. At the time, we were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we had deep roots: we were business owners, had a house, and, most important, were surrounded by a circle of dear friends. By May, you had a teaching job lined up in San Francisco and moved here soon after while I stayed behind to liquidate our store, pack up our house, and put it on the market. For several years after that move, you were the main breadwinner, teaching high school at a job that easily demanded 60 hours of your week and left you exhausted on the weekends with no time to write. During this same period, I taught far fewer hours and had time to finish my story collection. Did you resent the time that I had for writing? Do you regret that move and the heavier demands that it made on us financially as well as on your writing, or do you view that period positively?

Raeff: First, I do not in any way regret our move to San Francisco. Though it was difficult to leave behind our close friends, I love living in San Francisco and feel that this is really where we belong. I love walking with you from one end of the city to the other. I love being near the ocean. I love being able to pick up a pound of chicken feet for dinner on the way home from work. I love our street. We know all our neighbors and talk to them regularly. Just this morning the woman next door gave me some of her chicken adobo to have for my lunch. We go to the theater here, to concerts, to readings and museums. I love walking up hills and the smell of eucalyptus trees. I love the fog. We talk about how when we’re old ladies we will still carry our groceries up the hill that leads to our house and people will say, There go those two old ladies, still walking, still together.

Now, to answer your other question, I did not resent the time you had for writing. Perhaps if I had been working at a job that didn’t feel meaningful, I would have, though I hope I would have been able to accept that writing goes in cycles, that sometimes you are more focused on writing and sometimes I am the one who is more focused. But, it is not so interesting to talk about what would have happened. What did happen was that I loved my job teaching high school and continue to love it. In fact, teaching is what keeps me going when I feel despondent about all the rejection that comes with being a writer, and because I was devoted to the school and my students, I did not feel that I was being kept from writing but rather that I was being drawn into something equally meaningful and creative.

My first job in the Bay Area was as a Spanish teacher at a charter school, City Arts and Tech High School, otherwise known as CAT. Two years in a row a few other teachers and I organized a trip to Nicaragua. For most of the students, this was their first trip abroad, for some their first time out of California. One of the stories in The Jungle Around Us, “Carlito on Pink,” was inspired by these trips and by my students at CAT. I’m no longer at CAT, but two summers ago, one of the teachers and I returned to Nicaragua, partly because I had started writing a novel that I hoped would be set there. We spent most of our trip traveling up and down the Río San Juan, which was the most traveled route from the East Coast to California during the Gold Rush and also the site of the first attempt to build a transcontinental canal. While we were there, the Nicaraguan government, in partnership with a Chinese billionaire, was working on another plan to build a canal across Nicaragua, though—fortunately, for it would have been an ecological disaster—the plan seems to have been abandoned. It took us about twelve hours by slow boat to travel down the river from the town of San Carlos on the shore of Lake Nicaragua in the western part of the country to San Juan del Norte, where the river empties into the Caribbean. About a third of the way down is El Castillo, a town that can only be reached by boat. This is where my next novel takes place.

I now teach English and history to immigrant students from Mexico and Central America at a charter high school in East Palo Alto. My students today, like my parents, are refugees from violence and injustice. They are the same age that my parents were when they immigrated to the United States. It is this interaction between the past and the future, between my life and theirs, that gives birth to stories. Teaching has taught me how to imagine other people’s lives, and spending so much of my time with young people keeps me young and hopeful about the world and the future, yet it also ties me to the past, to my own adolescence as well as my family history. In fact, I have written extensively about my teaching experiences, essays that have since become a memoir that explores, among other things, this connection between teaching and writing. I don’t think I would be a writer if I were not also a teacher.

Rumpus: This interview would not be complete without a question about cats. When we met in 1989, I had a cat. You hated cats. When we moved to Madrid, initially as friends, I missed my cat terribly, and once a week we went to the palace grounds to feed the stray cats that lived there. You worried about what would happen once we moved home, where my cat, Cleo, awaited me, and I made it clear that, if need be, we would live separately. How did you finally come to your senses about cats?

Raeff: I was raised without pets. My father had asthma and was terribly allergic to cats, so we were never allowed to go near them. I wouldn’t say that I hated cats, but I was prejudiced and ignorant about cats and about animals in general. Yet, when we returned to Albuquerque after our sojourn in Madrid, Cleo and I bonded almost immediately. She sat calmly in my lap while I wrote. She woke us up early in the morning by banging on the shades beside the bed. The only way to get her to stop was to get up, go into the kitchen, and stand there watching her while she ate. I was usually the one who went with her since I had to get up early to go to work. On the weekends, once one of us had watched her eat, she would let us sleep a little bit more. Somehow this routine didn’t annoy me. That’s when I knew that there was no going back.

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Author photograph © Dennis Hearne.


Lori Ostlund’s novel After the Parade (Scribner, 2015) was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize; was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick; and was a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award and the Northern California Book Award. Her first book, a story collection entitled The Bigness of the World, won the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, and the California Book Award for First Fiction. Stories from it appeared in the Best American Short Stories and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. Lori has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award and a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is currently at work on a second novel and a second story collection, stories from which have appeared or are forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, the Southern Review, New Stories More from this author →