Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pam Jenoff--There and Back Again: The Travels That Shape Us

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  We have to start the day with a huge shout-out to REDS Hank Phillippi Ryan and Julia Spencer-Fleming for their Anthony Award nominations for THE WRONG GIRL and THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS! REDS totally ROCK!

And to make our day even better, we have a great post today from the author of THE
KOMMANDANT'S GIRL, Pam Jenoff. Her new book is THE WINTER GUEST (waiting for me on my doorstep this morning!) It's a stirring novel of first love in a time of war and the unbearable choices that could tear sisters apart.

Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor. Though rugged, independent Helena and pretty, gentle Ruth couldn't be more different, they are staunch allies in protecting their family from the threats the war brings closer to their doorstep with each passing day.

Then Helena discovers an American paratrooper stranded outside their small mountain village, wounded, but alive. Risking the safety of herself and her family, she hides Sam—a Jew—but Helena's concern for the American grows into something much deeper. Defying the perils that render a future together all but impossible, Sam and Helena make plans for the family to flee. But Helena is forced to contend with the jealousy her choices have sparked in Ruth, culminating in a singular act of betrayal that endangers them all—and setting in motion a chain of events that will reverberate across continents and decades.


Booklist calls it "...Brisk, romantic and emotionally satisfying," and it's just the sort of book I love. So I am, as always, curious about the influences that led to the story.

PAM JENOFF: Back in the mid-1990’s, I packed up everything I owned, put my Mazda Protégé on a ship and moved halfway around the world by myself to be a diplomat for the State Department in Krakow, Poland.  I was 24 years old and didn’t think twice about whether it was a good idea or safe.  Communism had just ended and it was still the Wild East over there.  We’re not talking freshly-painted Prague with vendors selling tschotskes to backpackers on the Charles Bridge.  We drank our water bottled and our shots of potato vodka straight from the freezer.  Our phones, we were told, were likely still bugged, but there probably wasn’t anyone listening anymore.

For the next two-and-a-half-years, I made a life in that distant, unfamiliar part of the world.  Only thinking back now can I appreciate the many ways that my once in a lifetime experience changed me.  Here are just a few of the lessons I carry with me still:

How to be alone.  In Poland, I lived out in the country.  My neighbors had cows and chickens and I often heard horse hoofs clopping against the pavement as the farmers went to market early in the morning.  There were no cellphones or internet.  Sometimes I filled my government-issued house with Peace Corps volunteers in need of a hot shower and some television.  Other times, I was by myself and might not speak to anyone else for days.  It’s a kind of solitude that helped my writer mind to grow (and in the beloved chaos of our connected lives and the noise of three preschoolers, something I often miss.)

Just go.  “Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don't worry. Don't stew. Just go right along. You'll start happening too.” I had not read Dr. Seuss’ And Oh The Places You’ll Go when I went abroad.  But I traveled like a madwoman when I was in Poland.  Having already seen most of Western Europe as a student backpacker, I was determined to go in the other direction, east, and borrowing from Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, to see the frontier before it was gone.  I hopped a train from Krakow to Odessa (24 hours, no dining car) went as far toward the Balkans as the war would permit, traveled to Pinsk (not surprisingly, there was no guide book.)  I drove my car so far I reached a sign telling me that I had reached the end of Poland and had to turn back.  And I was rewarded with the stories and adventures of a lifetime:  I stood on mountains and gazed down on other countries and saw people smuggling vodka in the walls of trains and under their clothes.  I drank beer out of great steins with the Solidarity miners hundreds of feet underground while we linked arms and sang hearty songs, and once in Gdansk accidentally stowed away on a ship carrying a bunch of highschoolers to a place called Hel.  I also became really good at figuring out how to get back from anywhere.

Appreciation for the abundance.  Even as a diplomat, life was harder in Eastern Europe.  We couldn’t get many vegetables in winter, and when they were available we wondered what being downwind from Chernobyl had done to the soil.  Medical supplies were scarce: the doctor who made house calls would ask for a kitchen spoon because he did not have a tongue depressor, and I had to ask for the lead apron before my x-ray.  It made me realize how much we have here and take for granted.  Once I came back to America when my mom was in the hospital and was horrified that my doctor brother blew up a rubber glove as a chicken to amuse her.  Didn’t he know that medical supplies were precious?

And then it was time to come home.  It was been sixteen years since I returned the United States, and while I have very much reentered “normal life” so many of the effects remain.  Having weathered winters that lasted October until May, I’m seldom cold.  And I still appreciate the value of a good produce department in the supermarket, and the taste of fountain Coke with ice.

But perhaps what stayed with me most were the friendships.  So many people opened their homes and hearts to me and I will forever remember their warmth and generosity.  And humor.  Earlier this spring, I popped onto Facebook to find that the U.S. Consulate Krakow had a posting about one of my books being filmed as a movie in Krakow.  I was puzzled (and alarmed): I had not even sold the film rights.  I picked up the phone and called the consulate and spoke with a former colleague, Basia, for the first time since leaving many years earlier.  I asked about the film posting.  She said, “April Fools!”  After all those years, they still remembered enough to punk me.  I was touched.

Where have you been abroad and how have those experiences changed you?

DEBS: I found so many similarities between Pam's experiences and my own traveling and then living in the UK. (Ask me about nylon sheets and coin-fed heaters, for starters...) And I brought home many of the same lessons as Pam.  

What about you, REDS and readers? Tell us your stories!


  1. No traveling abroad stories, although yours are certainly stirring and memorable.
    But I've really got to get my hands on The Winter Guest --- there's just no way I can pass up a book with twins as the central characters . . . .

  2. You were so brave to pick up and move halfway around the world (on every dimension). Did you speak Polish? Was there an ex-pat community? Are you a twin??

    Your story reminds me how real experiences make the best compost for rich tales. Congratulations on the new book!

  3. I was sent to language school for 9 months in Arlington, VA to learn Polish but it wasn't until I was there that I became fluent.

    There were only eight Americans at the consulate and a handful of other expats; no real community. It was a fishbowl - people would comment if they saw you out running in sweatpants.

  4. And I'm not a twin but I have twin girls age 4.

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  6. Blogger Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

    This is so amazing..and kind of makes me cry. Thank you.

    Yesterday we were talking here about the one perfect thing, and it made me so aware of the need to appreciate all the "things" in my life--and today, this just underscores that feeling.

    Hurray for your new book--and someday, Basia will not be teasing you!

  7. Pam, that's an amazing story - something I might have done 20 years ago, and before marriage and kids.

    Actually, I kinda/sorta did, but on a much smaller scale. My first job post-college was a clerk for the Small Business Administration in their Disaster Relief branch. When Hurricane Marilyn struck the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in the fall of 1995, and they said "want to go do field support?" I said, sure, why not (I was 21, I had loans, and when was I ever going to do it again?). I worked 13-hour days in a warehouse for a month, drove in San Juan traffic (which was terrifying for a young girl - hadn't these people grasped the concept of stop lights?), ate food from a streetside vendor, went snorkeling in the Carribean, hiking the only rain forest in the US (El Yunque) - all by myself with a native local hire on my very amateurish Spanish (out in the hinterlands, few people spoke English). Then I went off to St. Croix, learned to scuba dive, flirted my way into the British Virgin Island (Yost Van Dyke) for New Years (yes, pre-9/11), and stood on the eastern-most point of US territory (next stop, Africa).

    Came away with a great appreciation for the conveniences of home life, but two photo albums of great memories. =) But nothing like yours, I'm sure!

  8. I think your experiences sound pretty amazing, Mary Sutton!

    Mine pale compared to yours and Pam's. But when I was twenty-five, I saved up for a year, then packed a suitcase (never did want to carry a backpack) and traveled all over the UK by myself until my money ran out. Then, after I came back to Texas, I met a Scot in Dallas, knew him for six weeks, and a few months later gave up my job, my apartment, my cat, and my car, went to Edinburgh, and married him.

    Now I think I was crazy to do either, but I'm certainly glad I did. I gained a wealth of experience that changed my life and my perceptions in so many ways.

  9. Pam, I think it's so interesting that you have twin girls. That must have helped you imagine the relationship between the twin sisters in the book.

  10. Wait until you REALLY get a movie deal! (Which I'm sure you will -- I adore your books.) Good for you for taking the road less traveled

    For me, spending three weeks in Japan was amazing/fascinating/life-changing. We went with just 2 weeks notice, as Noel was training puppeteers for Sesame Street Japan at the last minute—but we had the BEST time and still have many friends there.

  11. Great post, Pam. I had a reverse experience. As a child in the 50s I went to stay with a family in Vienna. In England food was still rationed. This family lived on a farm. Do you want some cheese they asked. I told them I loved cheese. At home we had a small sliver in sandwiches. They cut me a huge wedge from a round of Swiss cheese. Food was abundant and good. And they had been occupied all through the war. What an eye opener.
    But like Deb I had a coin gas fire in my dorm room at college.

  12. First of all, yay Hank & Julia - congratulations!!!

    Wow, Pam - you and I had such similar experiences. In the mid-1990s I set off for Vietnam - where Communism was waning, luxuries (and many basics) were lacking and my heart and mind were captured in ways that linger to this day. I lived in Vietnam for 4 years and feel so lucky to have experienced such a unique time period. My first novel takes place in that part of the world and my WIP has found its way there too. I can't wait to read your novel. It sounds wonderful!

  13. Hank and Julia, I want to congratulate you both again on being nominated for the Anthony. Those of us who have read your amazing books already have you on the winner's pedestal.

    Pam, I wish that I had been as brave and adventuresome as you. I love the Dr. Seuss quote, and I think it should be engraved on every college campus building. Your experience is a teaching moment for all young people and even for us older life travelers, too. The Winter Guest is a definite must on my TBR and to-buy lists. The cover is absolutely gorgeous, and the story is just my cup of tea.

    Thanks, Reds, for another great post to inspire and more wonderful reading to embrace.

  14. Compared to Pam I have not been very adventurous in my I travel. I have visited and studied for very brief periods in the comfortable places of my imagination.

    However once, on the way to take part in a seminar in England, I took a train to a small town in Denmark and settled in for a few days. I hadn't made any arrangements ahead of time, but I hoped to visit a grown-up baby I'd never had the opportunity to get to know. I had met her when she was a teenager and wanted to get to know her a little better if she felt the same. Without any expectation I called and invited her to meet for coffee. It was the loveliest and most personal time I've spent with her. And although we have had many visits since then, that one brief time that we were together walking and exploring gardens, cathedrals, and schools she had attended… well it made all the difference.

  15. I love all of these stories of adventure and how they changed each of us and in most cases contributed to our writing...just go!

    Really honored to be able to chat with such an esteemed group of writers.

  16. How exciting, and well-deserved, for Hank and Julia! I hope no one ever makes me choose between you, though. Such a hard job.

    Pam, what a great story you have to tell, with wonderful memories. My middle daughter is about to turn 30, and is planning to travel the world for the next year, starting next month. Some of her plans have changed and I'm not current on the whole itinerary, but she is still planning to rent a small apartment in Barcelona for several months as part of it.

    I want to come back as either you or my daughter! Such brave young women.

  17. I spent my senior year of college working on a dig in Tuscany, unpacking the findings in Pisa, and going to school in London. During that time I traveled to Scotland, Germany, the south of France, Paris, Vienna and Rome. It was a life-changing experience.

    I agree with Shakespeare:
    Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits... I rather would entreat thy company/ To see the wonders of the world abroad/ Than, living dully sluggardized at home,/Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness.

  18. Congrats to Hank and Julia.

    I can't imagine committing to a long-term assignment like that in a foreign country, although I did leave my insular midwestern home at 17 for college in NYC, which was in so many ways a foreign land.

    And then there was my first summer in Florence, where I lived with a widow who spoke no English (the better to force myself to learn Italian, but I still don't know whether "making the bed" is an English idiom or translates into Italian). Four weeks in a country that no one in my family had ever even considered visiting, and it took five days for a letter to get from me to them, or vice versa.

    You're right-- you get a totally different perspective when you take on native coloring, even if it's only skin deep. Can't wait to read that book.

  19. I have traveled all over America, and lived in several places but never abroad. However, my twin daughters did and I think we will all love your book.What a wonderful life you have led.

    Bourne Morris
    Author,"The Red Queen's Run"

  20. Such great stories! And Julia, LOVE the quote!

  21. I never did anything close to that. I'm a wimp. :)
    I am always in awe of those who can and have just picked up and left behind everything and everyone. Just not enough or ANY pioneer genes left in me.
    The book sounds great.
    And congrats to Hank and Julia. ;)

  22. I love hearing about the travels in America - the one thing I wish I'd done more...

  23. Thank you all for your lovely good wishes..yes, I am so happy and delighted! xoxoo

    Julia, what play is that from?

  24. Congratulations to Hank and Julia!

    Out of curiosity, is Jenoff a Polish name? I was not sure. I can imagine what it was like living in Poland.

    I travel a lot. One of my memorable experiences was living in England. They speak the Queen's English, which is different from American English.

    It was a marvelous learning experience for me living in England, riding on the train from London to Edinburgh and other places in the UK. In America, we ride trains in shorter distances on the West Coast compared to the UK and Europe.

    Another experience I had was visiting Germany. Even if I was told they speak English before I left for Germany, still everything is in the German language, especially the road signs or if you are trying to find your hotel walking from the train station. And the next surprise was eating in a restaurant with friends, including one whose first language was German. None of us could communicate with the waiters because they spoke Turkish!

    For me, travel is an opportunity to learn. Different people have different experiences.

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