I am thrilled to feature Memoirist Annette Gendler in this interview about her new memoir, Jumping Over Shadows. Annette and I met online and in the B2B Cyber Conference where we participated in two memoir panel discussions.
In a love-conquers-all story, Annette Gendler takes the reader through the complexities and sacrifices of marriage between a German woman and a Jewish man. She skillfully interweaves the multi-layered story of her great-aunt who defied tradition and married a Jewish man before World War II in Czechoslovakia– sending repercussions into the next generation–with her own love story.
My full review of her memoir can be found on Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThings and Riffle.
I asked Annette a few questions about her memoir.
Interview with Memoirist Annette Gendler
KP: Jumping Over Shadows is a multi-layered love story between a German woman and a Jewish man in 1985 Germany. What makes this story unique is how you weave in family history and show how the past affects the present. What are the main takeaways you want to convey through your story?
AG: There are two: One is that you can make an impossible love work if you share the same values and if what is “impossible” comes from the outside and is not an issue between the two of you. The second is that it is important to understand the past because it shapes the present world we find ourselves in, and most importantly, it shaped those who raised us, and thus it shaped us
KP: Your ability to bring the past alive with graphic detail- both the history of World War II Czechoslovakia, the geographical places and the characters—kept me turning the pages. Please share your research process and how you were able to recall the details so vividly?
AG: I just detailed my research methods in this article: Filling in the Blanks on my Jewish Family History. For all historical parts of the story, I combined stories I’d been told, interviews with living relatives, written family memoirs, as well as digging into history books and visiting archives, and traveling to the actual locations. I am also fortunate in that my grandfather was a great storyteller and his memoirs, on which I based a lot of the story from the past, are rich in detail. The metaphor of the Flying Dutchman, for example, that I used for one of the pivotal chapters, came from him.
KP: As with any memoir, there are sensitivities related to family issues, such as revealing the resistance to your marriage by Harry’s parents. How were you able to reconcile these differences and forge ahead with telling your story? How has your family reacted to the publication of your memoir?
AG: I am lucky that, as time went on, I developed a warm relationship with my in-laws, so there really were few sensitivities to deal with once I began writing the story. This older generation is now deceased as the book came out, and it is, of course, a lot easier to write about dead people than it is to write about living people. That being said, my immediate family has read the book and loved it. I never send anything out that features my husband or another family member without them being okay with it. I was most apprehensive about how my siblings would react, as the story of the past is also their immediate inheritance and they knew all these people. Thankfully, both of them found my book to be a treasure for them. In general, I have found that people like being featured in your writing as long as you do them justice and as long as they understand that it’s your version of events. Being written about is a validation most people welcome.
KP: You spent a year as a writer-on-resident at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. I would love to hear about this experience and how it helped you complete your memoir.
AG: The memoir was actually already complete when I became writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home. However, I spent a good amount of my time in my attic studio there trying to get it published. That residency was a wonderful validation of my life as a writer—in fact, it helped me take myself seriously as a writer because all of a sudden, I was being interviewed and articles were written about me, and I had to call myself a writer. I also loved the community aspect of being writer-in-residence—I had a lot of visitors, friends and family and acquaintances who’d never visited the Hemingway Birthplace Home before. As part of the residency, the writer-in-residence offers a public program. I taught a memoir workshop there, a truly great experience—it was a fun way to meet locals, and what a treat to hold a writing workshop in the 1900 salon of the Hemingways!
KP: As you describe in your website, many of your essays are published in mainstream publications and literary journals. Your photography has been featured in magazines. What role have these creative activities played in completing your memoir? At what point did you decide to compile your stories into a memoir?
AG: While the book did begin as a collection of essays that was my MFA thesis, the process worked the other way around: I wrote the book and then I tried to see which chapters might work as standalone stories, and then I tried to get those published. Thrown Out of the Family Home was published in the Wall Street Journal, several other excerpts, such as Giving Up Christmas or Becoming a Proper Jew in the Kitchen, were published in Tablet Magazine.
KP: You teach memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago. Do you have some favorite memoir writing tips to share?
AG: My main tip is: Start small. Don’t attempt to write a book; find one story that you find compelling, and learn how to tell that well, then see if you can find an audience for it by getting it published. If you can’t, a short memoir still has value for your loved ones. Once you’ve figured out how to tell shorter stories, you will have found your voice as a writer, and if you so choose, you’ll have the skills to embark on writing a larger story.
KP: I see that you are very busy with marketing activities. Can you share what is working for you and how you have found your target audience?
AG: You are right, I am very busy with book publicity, but it is too early for me to tell what is working for me in terms of actually selling the book. In very general terms, I can say that at this point, the personal approach works has worked best. The fact that I had several excerpts of the book published in Tablet Magazine before the book even came out was my best indication that this was where my target audience was to be found.
Thank you Annette for sharing your story of how your past shaped your experiences. I also appreciate your insights into the memoir writing process. You’ve had a fascinating journey with valuable lessons for all of us on the importance of preserving family memories and showing how understanding the past can change the narrative of our lives in the present.
Annette Gendler is the author of Jumping Over Shadows, the memoir of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burdens of the past. Her writing and photography have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, Bella Grace and Artful Blogging, among others. She served as the 2014–2015 writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois, and has been teaching memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago since 2006. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. After 15 years of working in consulting, she left the corporate world a few years ago and now does communications work for her children’s former school, in addition to pursuing her own creative projects. Born in New Jersey, she grew up in Munich, Germany, and lives in Chicago with her husband and three children.
History was repeating itself when Annette Gendler fell in love with Harry, a Jewish man, the son of Holocaust survivors, in Germany in 1985. Annette’s great-aunt Resi had been married to a Jew in Czechoslovakia before World War II―a marriage that, while happy, put the entire family in mortal danger once the Nazis took over their hometown in 1938. In the end, their marriage did not survive the Nazi times.
Forty years later, Annette and Harry’s love was the ultimate nightmare for Harry’s family of Holocaust survivors. Not only was their son considering marrying a non-Jew, but a German. Weighed down by the burdens of their family histories, Annette and Harry kept their relationship secret until they could forge a path into the future and create a new life in Chicago. Annette found a spiritual home in Judaism―a choice that paved the way toward acceptance by Harry’s family, and redemption for some of the wounds of her own family’s past.
How about you? How do family stories impact your life? Have you written about them?
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