Finding My Perspective in Unexpected Places
“To read well is to take great risks, to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.” This is a quote by George Steiner.
He goes on to say that the task of the literary critic is to help us read as total human beings. I feel the same might hold true for writers. To write well often means to take great risks and make vulnerable our identities. Sometimes we must lose our self-possession in order to write as total human beings. We must, in short, slip out from the comfort of our own skin and inhabit others’.
It is somewhat ironic that in the past few years to write as a total human being I have had to slip out of my own skin and into the feathers or pelts of animals for my fantasy series about owls The Guardians of Ga’Hoole and then The Wolves of The Beyond. Oddly enough, I found this tremendously liberating. To do this, I would first have to learn all about the habits, habitats, and behavior of a particular animal. You see, even though this is fantasy, if I am to move the reader to a state of willing suspension of disbelief, there must be a compelling veracity about the animal. And yet at the same time I am telling a story in which I want an emotional resonance that is deeply human.
A recent article in the NEW YORK TIMES addressed this question of perspective, pondering how Woody Allen could write such great roles for women. Cate Blanchette, the star of Woody Allen’s recent film BLUE JASMINE, spoke of Allen’s ability to capture the voice of women. “Often you can write more closely about your own perspective and experience of the world through a character of a different gender,” she said.
Well for me it was writing from the perspective of a different species.
THE EXTRA (Candlewick) is a different kind of story entirely. It is not fantasy at all, but historical fiction. THE EXTRA tells a story that fell between the cracks of history during the Nazi Holocaust. It is not about a Jewish girl, but a Roma (Gypsy) one. It is based on a true story about how Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, went to an internment camp where gypsies were held as prisoners and took several of them to use in a movie she was making.
It might seem odd that as a Jew, and one who has lost distant cousins of my generation in the holocaust, I would choose to tell a holocaust story from a non-Jewish perspective. Indeed in a book that has no Jewish characters. Three years ago, in my book ASHES which is set in Berlin in the early 1930s during the rise of Hitler, I made a similar decision. I told the story from a gentile girl’s perspective. I felt that I could write a more powerful story if it came from an unorthodox angle.
I think the best Holocaust novel I ever read was SOPHIE’S CHOICE, which was narrated by a gentile man. So why did I find this gentile voice so moving? It is mysterious like art itself. But I think it is the choice that William Styron made to use the young, naïve Southern male as the narrative channel for this story of ultimate horror that gave it a kind of distance that, in the end, made it so powerful.
I, too, must have subconsciously sought a distance. There are many stories and many voices for telling them, but the voice of Lilo in THE EXTRA and that of Gaby in ASHES were the ones that whispered in my ear with an insistence I could not deny. It was a great risk. I let loose of my own identity, and watched my self-possession dissolve.
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