Anne Raeff’s recently released second novel, Winter Kept Us Warm, opens in Morocco, but the story begins decades earlier in post-war Berlin. At the heart of the book is how Isaac, Ulli, and Leo came to be. An unusual love triangle between three friends—a marriage, children, and only one parent. Each of the main characters has a voice, and each of them has their own version of how things unfolded.
Winter Kept Us Warm is a continuation of a short story that first appeared in Raeff’s collection, The Jungle Around Us, for which she won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia, was published in 2002.
When she’s not writing, she can be found teaching high school in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I caught up with Raeff to talk about her new book, her creative process, and what comes next.
The Rumpus: World War II is the catalyst for bringing the three main characters together in Winter Kept Us Warm, but this isn’t a WWII book per se. Of all the possibilities for how these characters could have met, why choose WWII as the story’s starting point?
Anne Raeff: I suppose there has to be a starting point for every story, but for me, that period has had a great influence on my life. My parents were both refugees from the Holocaust, so I grew up surrounded by people who were affected by WWII and all of the issues that brought up. Often it’s the kernel for my stories. In order to deal with the things I’m interested in, I begin with little details from the stories I was told as a child.
This story started with a kernel of when my father came to the United States in 1941. He was drafted, and he was an interpreter at a POW camp. The stories he told me about that time were some of the first historical stories that I heard, so I always wanted to write about that.
Rumpus: Isaac, Ulli, and Leo’s stories first appeared in The Jungle Around Us. Did you know during the writing of it that you’d bring them together in a novel? What was it about these characters that made you want to continue their stories?
Raeff: The stories that are in The Jungle Around Us feature Isaac and his two daughters—not so much Ulli, but the absence of her. The first short story that I wrote that had those characters in it was the “The Buchovskys On Their Own,” where Isaac leaves his daughters for a short time to go to the Soviet Union to do research. After writing that, I decided these characters could be part of a book, so then I started writing a novel. The other stories that are in The Jungle Around Us are things I couldn’t quite fit in the novel, so I made them into short stories.
Rumpus: So the short stories and the novel were written somewhat simultaneously?
Raeff: Yes, exactly. Except for the first one. After that, I didn’t know whether they would be part of the book or a short story collection. I guess that’s true when you write a novel, you end up taking out so much. Sometimes you can save some of it and sometimes you just throw it out.
Rumpus: Winter Kept Us Warm touches on several themes—love and an unusual love triangle, disappointment, displacement, abandonment, identity, and loss of innocence, just to name a few. How would you characterize this book?
Raeff: That’s difficult because I always like to have lots of themes, and my favorite books deal with lots of themes. I think one theme that’s important is the effects of war and violence on the individual life. Beyond that, one of the things I was working with was different definitions of family: what a family is, how people create untraditional families, and also gender roles. In the book, it’s Isaac who ends up being the parent. I wanted to explore what it is like for women who do not want to be, or are not able to be, nurturers or even to carry out their responsibilities as mothers. In addition, of course, friendship and love—and the different types of love.
Rumpus: What was your primary motivation for telling this story?
Raeff: The story started forming in my mind. The characters were coming alive, and I felt like I had to live with them and see where they went. As a writer, I like to pose complicated and ethical questions for readers to think about, but I don’t have any particular thing I want them to believe or learn. I’m just compelled by character and by story. Also, on some level, it’s kind of a way for me to work through these questions.
In the process of writing, I might learn something new about something I thought I was sure about.
Rumpus: While the story of these characters begins in Berlin a year after WWII is over, the book opens in Morocco. Did you write Winter Kept Us Warm in a sequential fashion, or did your writing jump around as much as the book does?
Raeff: I did not write it in order. I jumped around. I started with the story of Isaac and his daughters. I tend to write about as much as I can about one character. The story is told from three points of view. In my first draft, Leo did not figure so strongly; he was on the sidelines without his own voice. I wrote Isaac and Ulli and their stories, and then I realized Leo needed to be included, too.
Rumpus: You’ve talked before about the role running plays in your creative process, and indeed you’re not alone; many writers run, most notably Joyce Carol Oates and Haruki Murakami. In your case, what came first, the running or the writing?
Raeff: I would say the writing probably came first. I’ve been writing since I was very young. Even as a kid, I used to write stories. As an adolescent, I wrote poetry. But I was always active. I rode bicycles a lot, and I walked all over. When I was very young, I liked to go outside and walk around the suburban town I lived in and think. When I got a little bit older, I went to New York, and I walked. I did a lot of my thinking when I was moving. But I didn’t start running until I was about thirty when I broke up with my first girlfriend, which was very traumatic. I met somebody who was a runner and I started running. I’ve been running ever since. The walking and riding bicycles was already part of my creative process, but the running helped focus that even more.
Rumpus: This is your second novel and third book. How do you feel your writing has evolved through the process of writing these books?
Raeff: I think I’ve become more patient as a writer. I’ve learned the importance of revising, and I do it as I go along now. My first novel was in the first person, and writing in the third person has given me more breadth regarding what I can do with my writing. I feel that my writing has become more polished and more complex on a sentence level.
Rumpus: A huge chunk—dare I say, the majority—of your writing and teaching career has focused on immigrant stories, not least this latest novel. Is there another topic you’re itching to attack or do you have more immigrant stories to tell? That is, what can we expect next from you?
Raeff: I’m finished with another book now. It takes place largely in Nicaragua. It is kind of an immigrant story, but it’s also a story about revolution and the failures of revolution. I can’t keep away from these historical themes. So that’s the next thing.
I have some essays I’m working on, in part about my teaching experiences and in part about language. Now I’m starting to think about where to go on a fiction level, but I really don’t know where I’m going to go after this. I’m not going to go all of a sudden and write a dystopian novel about genetic engineering or something. But hopefully, I’ll find something to look at in a fresh way.
Rumpus: What are you reading right now?
Raeff: Right at this moment, I’m reading Pachinko. It’s a book about Koreans in Japan. It starts in 1911 with the Japanese occupation of Korea and then moves to Japan. It’s pretty interesting!