“The true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burdens of the past.”
Gendler, Annette. Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, 2017. 233 pages, $16.95 list, paperback.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write your memoir?
Annette Gendler (AG): On my first trip to my grandparents’ hometown in the Czech Republic in 2002, I felt so many undercurrents that I could only sort out by writing. I have always been conscious of the presence of the past in our lives. The memories we inherited, that are not our own, shape our lives. The more we understand where these memories came from, the more meaning we find in our own lives. That town felt so familiar to me even though I had never been there before, and so I set out to piece that past together that had been so influential on my life and my husband’s.
TWM: What were the challenges?
AG: Writing my own love story was the hardest thing about writing Jumping Over Shadows. Not so much in terms of conceiving of Harry or myself as characters — I’d done that before in shorter pieces of memoir and in personal essays — but how do you write your own love story without being soppy? It was challenging to convey the subtle feelings between two people. I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how I managed it, but whatever I did, it seems to have worked because so many readers see the book as a love story.
TWM: How did a fellowship with VCCA help? Your time in the Oak Park attic? (I love Oak Park!)
AG: I wrote the first draft of the second part of the book, namely my own love story, during my first residency at the VCCA. My children were still young then, and without that two-week residency, I don’t think I could have written that draft, or if I had, it would have taken much longer. Sequestered at the VCCA, I could live with the book I was trying to write, and I think this is necessary for any larger work. You have to inhabit its world, and that is not possible in a household full of kids. During those two weeks, I didn’t have to worry about feeding myself, let alone others, or running a household, or dealing with my day job. At meal times, I was surrounded by other writers and artists, and I found it inspiring that we were all diligently pursuing our own projects. I met one of my best friends there, a visual artist, who has a similar background. We later even did an event together.
By 2014/15, when I was writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park (Illinois), the manuscript was done, or so I thought. I spent most of my time in that drafty attic studio researching agents and publishing houses, and submitting the manuscript. It honestly was a frustrating time as a writer. Eventually, through the interaction with one editor, I realized another rewrite was necessary. I accomplished that rewrite over the summer of 2015 working at the Writers WorkSpace in Chicago, which sadly had to close last year due to the pandemic.
TWM: One of the things that struck me was the fluidity of borders and nationalities. Did you grapple with that during the writing process?
AG: Not in terms of myself but in terms of the audience. I grew up in what was then “West” Germany, and thanks to my grandmother’s stories and studying history, I was very aware of the shifting borders of Europe in the 20th century. Growing up during the Cold War, the threat of another shift in borders was real and came to fruition in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. While I was writing, I often referred to maps. I even included one in the book to make it easier for readers to grasp the geographic situation. Nevertheless, just as with the historical context, I aimed to provide just enough detail on locations and borders so readers wouldn’t get lost, but I was careful not to overdo it, as that can easily get boring and distract from the story.
TWM: At what point did you realize you needed to return to Europe for onsite research?
AG: I finished the first draft of the manuscript in 2008, meaning I had written everything I could about the story of the past as well as my own story of the present. I knew where I had holes in the narrative and needed more information. Back then, my mother-in-law was still alive, and we were going to Germany every summer. So in June 2009 I took a side trip to Liberec (formerly Reichenberg) in the Czech Republic to do my research. I arrived with a list of locations to visit, such as the crematorium, where I found the family grave. I also visited the public library there and read their collection of newspapers from 1938, which helped me render that time in the book. That 2009 visit became the last chapter in Jumping Over Shadows.
I am happy to offer a bonus to your readers, namely the chapter Hitler’s Visit (click to download) that was ultimately cut from the book. It is entirely based on my onsite research, and my grandmother’s story of walking down the street to go see Hitler.
TWM: How long did the actual writing process take?
AG: That’s hard to say because I didn’t work on it continuously, and it’s difficult to pinpoint the beginning. The story of my great-aunt and grandparents has its origin in my MFA thesis, which I completed in 2007. The very first essays in that collection go back to 2005. I consider the origin of the book to be a remark by one of my MFA thesis advisors, who urged me to write my own story, because “the story of the past is only interesting in as far as it resonates in the present.” I thought the manuscript was done in 2012 but when I couldn’t find a home for it, I did another rewrite in 2015. It was published in 2017. So you could say it took me ten years, on and off. I am, however, very happy with the end product, and I think that is crucial.
TWM: Which authors inspire you?
AG: I find authors inspiring who take me on a quest, however nutty it might be, and who also manage to share the stories of others while they share their own. Quite often, they are experts in another field, like Edmund De Waal, who’s really an amazing ceramic artist. I greatly admire his The Hare with Amber Eyes for its span of centuries, countries, continents and familial ties. I just finished Owls of the Eastern Ice, written by ornithologist Jonathan Slaght—I did not want that book to end! He made me interested in fish owls and their habitat, and I’m not an animal person. That is gifted writing!
Peter Hessler is a writer whose work I’ll read, just because he wrote it. I discovered him before I traveled to China, and I read all of his books about China before and after traveling there. I feel I saw and experienced way more of China than I physically did myself thanks to his memoirs. Ted Kooser has always been a great example for me because he managed to have a career in insurance while also becoming poet laureate of the United States. I love his quotidian poetry, but I love his book of essays Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps even more. I reread it every year, and I always feel it makes me see.
In terms of storytelling in memoir, Frank McCourt is my favorite. Even though Angela’s Ashes could be a singularly depressing story of a family’s descent into abject poverty, which it is, his storytelling is so powerful that so many episodes from that book have stuck in my mind. After reading Angela’s Ashes, I will always see a soft-boiled egg as a gift of food to be savored.