It began with another book, “The Sunflower,” by Simon Wiesenthal, who was a concentration camp prisoner. He was called to the bedside of a dying Nazi officer who wanted to confess what he had done and be absolved by a Jew. There have been a lot of arguments and discussions by philosophical and religious leaders about whether Wiesenthal did the right thing, which was not to forgive this Nazi. He says: “It is not my place. I am not the one he committed the wrong against. Those people are dead, and he can’t ever be forgiven.” What if that same kind of request was made not during the Holocaust but 70 years later? I began to come up with this fictional account of a reclusive woman, Sage, who bonds with an elderly man in her home town, who is everyone’s favorite citizen. He’s been a teacher, a Little League coach. Then he confides his secret.
How did you go about writing about a subject covered so well in books such as Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” or Elie Wiesel
I do nothing without help. A lot of historical detail was given with great care to me by survivors. The story of Sage’s grandmother, Minka, is a compilation of many of their experiences. I had a real sense of personal responsibility. I wanted to do them justice. Also, I was lucky to have two connections in the Washington area. Peter Black, the senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, helped me come up with a timeline for Josef so you understand how a German boy might have blossomed into a bigwig at a concentration camp. Eli Rosenbaum, director of strategy and policy for the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section of the Justice Department — basically, he’s this country’s Nazi hunter — spent a lot of time helping me understand what he does and why he does it. He says, “Does it seem right that we’re throwing people out of our country because they don’t have the right documentation, but we allow people who committed crimes against humanity to live within our borders under assumed names and assumed passports?” When I was creating my character Leo, I created him in Eli’s image. He really is a modern-day superhero.
Because Sage is a baker — just like Minka’s father — you learned to bake bread for this book. A bit of leavening research, perhaps?
Do you know what I’m doing right now? I’m making the recipe for Minka’s buns, the ones her father made her. There’s something about baking that’s almost magical. It takes the right combination of ingredients, the right temperature, for something to happen. At one point Minka asks: “What does a family have to break apart in order to be together? Bread.” I really love that metaphor. Also, it’s among the most delicious research I’ve ever gotten to do.
This novel endows a rather magical power to the art of storytelling.
I think storytelling is transformative. I can create a story; I can cobble together a plot, make it sound pretty and give you characters that are well-developed. But you don’t have a story until you have readers or listeners. They bring as much to the equation as you do. That’s really the magic of a story.
Burns is editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between.” She teaches creative writing at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales.
On March 5 at 7 p.m., Picoult will be at Sidwell Friends School, 3825 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Call Politics & Prose for details, 202-364-1919.