Metz, Julie. Eva and Eve: A Search for My Mother’s Lost Childhood and What a War Left Behind. Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2021, 314 pp.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this memoir?
Julie Metz (JM): Shortly after my mother Eve died, I found a keepsake book she’d kept hidden in a drawer for over five decades. No one in our family had ever seen it, not even my father. In this book, my mother was Eva. The pages, filled with inscriptions from friends, family, and teachers, offered clues to a secret pain my mother had carried as a survivor and refugee who left everything she knew behind in Vienna to make a new life in New York City. At first, I thought I would do some family research for myself, but soon enough it became an obsession. Then, as our national politics swung towards anti-immigration fervor, similar to what had been going on when my mother’s family and countless other Jewish families were seeking refuge in the United States, I saw that my mother’s story was part of a larger history of war and immigration and resilience. I kept the keepsake book close to me, a reminder to keep looking.
TWM: What were the challenges?
JM: As I began this project, I wondered what I would still be able to find so many years later. I had no training as a historian or reporter, just my own curiosity to follow. Readers have described my first book as a personal detective story, so I took heart from that and took baby steps into the past. One obstacle was that my German language abilities are mostly limited to ordering food and asking for directions.
Photo courtesy Shannon Greer
TWM: What were the satisfactions?
JM: I discovered to my amazement—and relief!—that there are huge numbers of historians researching every aspect of Jewish culture in Vienna before the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into the German Empire in March 1938) and during the Nazi occupation. These historians were incredibly generous with their time and resources. I could not have completed my book without their help. Along the way, I visited Vienna twice and began to feel more at home there, in part because I now have contacts. To honor our mother, my brother and I decided to apply for Austrian citizenship under a new law that went into effect in September of 2020. For our family this would be an acknowledgement of past losses and a long-overdue restitution.
TWM: Were there any surprises?
JM: The first surprise was finding documents that had been in our family apartment all along. I cannot fully explain why I hadn’t noticed them before. These included photographs of my grandfather and his best friend hiking (a theme in Eva and Eve), my grandmother’s membership card in the Austrian Jewish mountain climbing club and other papers that all together helped me visualize a lost world. Then more surprises started to pile on. Without revealing too much about the story, I met people via the internet who changed the course of the story in dramatic ways. Serendipity is an understatement. I had worked hard to open the door a crack and then, through so many fortunate connections, it swung wide open.
TWM: You used a particular convention of “In a photo that does exist” and “In a photo that does not exist.” Can you talk about that? Where did this come from?
JM: I’d dived deep into research and the photos I studied painted a picture of how the family lived before the war. But there were still narrative holes I couldn’t fill and there was no one left to tell me what happened between March 1938—when Hitler arrived in Vienna—and March 25, 1940, when my mother and her parents left Vienna. I wanted to understand and feel everything. How did Jews find food? What happened if they needed medical care? How did they stay warm through two exceptionally harsh winters when coal and food were rationed? I used my grandparents’ passports to create a time line and read widely to get a sense of how Jews survived under occupation. One day, while searching for a way to fill those narrative holes, it occurred to me that since I had relied on photographs to describe my family’s world, I might be able to use my imagination to create other scenes as long as I let my reader know what I was doing. The repetition of the phrases became my cue to my readers.
TWM: What is your writing process?
JM: I wish I could say that I have an organized method! I try to set the stage for success by doing some research first. I spent a day reading about women’s undergarments from 1920. Other days were devoted to the pharmaceutical industry, the Italian ship lines, For Eva and Eve, I wrote up chapters as I uncovered new material. I wrote until I hit a wall where I needed more information, and then I did exploration so that I could return to my pages with confidence. This toggling back and forth, it’s a bit of a dance. The final structure—alternating between present and past, reporter narrator and recreation of an earlier time—evolved from my actual experience of discovery. But I’d be lying if I said it was a smooth path from beginning to end. I want to believe that frustration, confusion, and even despair is part of the creative process. But after two books, I feel more patient with this process. As I begin work on a new project that will also have a historical setting, I am once again moving between research and drafting pages. To fight off anxiety (ever-present!) I remind myself that it is just a draft. For me, a first draft is like underpainting on a canvas, a necessary step on the road to editing and revision, which is where the good stuff happens. You might never see those early layers in a finished painting, but they are there, supporting all the work that happens later.
TWM: Do you have a writer’s group?
JM: At the moment I work on my own but I have a select group of friends and colleagues who read early drafts. I’ve been searching for a writer’s group near where I live in the Hudson Valley, so maybe that will happen this year.
TWM: What writers inspire you?
JM: I read widely, fiction and non-fiction, classics and contemporary. Right now, I’m reading The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. It’s the kind of book where you re-read pages just to admire the writing. Every year I re-read an E.M Forster or Jane Austen novel. I read as many novels as I can; they teach me so much about writing non-fiction. Rachel Cusk, Anthony Doerr, Jesmyn Ward, Mohsin Hamid, Emily St John Mandel, Ali Smith, Kate Atkinson—to name a few—I admire their unique approaches to style and storytelling. During my research and writing for Eva and Eve, I focused on books about World War I, the interwar period, and the Holocaust. I especially loved Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, Frederic Morton’s Thunder at Twilight, Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl, Ariana Neumann’s When Time Stopped, and George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile: Stephan Zweig at the End of the World. I think Sarah Churchwell’s Behold America: The Entangled History of “American First” and “The American Dream” should be required reading for all Americans. I was blown away by Elisabeth Asbrink’s 1947, Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, and Jan Morris’s Trieste. I also loved Elizabeth Rosner’s Survivor Café and Sarah Wildman’s Paper Love. And why isn’t Erich Maria Remarque’s The Night in Lisbon read as often as his All Quiet on the Western Front?
TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring memoirists?
JM: I try hard to listen to my voice: the words I enjoy using, my own quirky way of speaking and telling stories. In the end I truly believe that readers may pick up a memoir because the opening paragraph promises to keep pages turning, but they will stay to the end if you offer the gift of your unique voice. This requires honesty and authenticity. There will be so many moments when you have an urge to revise the plot of your life, and find that happy resolution. But real life is messy and so the challenge is to wrestle with all that messiness and find a way to shape your story without sanitizing it. A great memoir tells a unique story, with a universal message, in an inimitable voice. In the end these are the elements readers will remember—but especially your voice.
For more about Julie Metz, visit her website.