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March 28, 2011

An Interview with Sarah Blake, Author of THE POSTMISTRESS --- Part II

Posted by Stephen

Author Sarah Blake discuess her World War II novel The Postmistress in Part I of this special interview, and what it's like writing about war in post 9/11 America. A book club favorite, The Postmistress is in stores! Click here for Part I.

postmistress.JPGQ: Some of your characters pose this debate in religious terms. Iris, the postmistress, sees herself as doing God’s work by making sure the mail moves without a hitch, helping to maintain the divine order that underlies reality. But another character says, “There is no God, only us.” Does war have a unique way of crystallizing these kinds of spiritual questions for us?

A: The story Thomas tells Frankie on the train was told to me, roughly as is, by a woman I sat next to on a plane long before I knew that there was going to be a Frankie in my novel, long before I had begun to collect and research stories like this one of escape from the Nazis. And I remember thinking my god, at every point this man could have as easily been killed as helped, and at each point he was stopped and then simply walked through another gate, to freedom. On the one hand, it seemed that if there was an argument for divine providence or intervention, then here it was. On the other hand, it seemed equally a story about the terrifyingly random nature of human generosity --- each man at every checkpoint could have decided not to let Thomas through. At each point, Thomas’s fate lay in the hands of another human being. Thomas’s luck holds until he runs into the last checkpoint, which leads Frankie to decide as she says to Max her editor, “it’s nothing but an empty sky up there.”
That story was seminal for me in putting together the questions of accident and design I was wrestling with in the novel. That said, of course, war doesn’t crystallize anything for those who go through its trauma --- it immobilizes, if often numbs and mutes. I can raise this question because I am off the battlefield.
Q: One of your characters is convinced that the Germans are about to land on Cape Cod at any moment. How close to being right was he?
A: Though there is no evidence of a German U-boat beaching in Cape Cod, there were numerous close calls. As early as February of 1941, Germany’s Admiral Donitz ordered a feasibility study of a surprise U-boat assault on the East Coast, and by January of 1942, the first U-boat rose successfully undetected into the channel of New York Harbor. That same submarine went on to nearly run aground on the sand-spit of Fire Island.
Throughout most of 1942, German U-boats ran so close to the Eastern Seaboard that they watched the dark silhouettes of people walking up and back along the beachside promenades against the lights of hotels, cars, and houses. The high hulls of the tankers steaming towards Europe with food and supplies were lit up as well, making of them fantastic, easy marks. Of 397 ships sunk by U-boats in the first six months of 1942, 171 were sunk off the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida, some within view of people on shore.
Q: What sort of research did you do for this novel --- about the history of radio, America in the pre-war years, the Blitz, and the stories of the Jewish refugees?
A: This book took me eight years to write; in part because as the story line grew, it took me deeper into libraries and museums. I read countless books on the years between 1932 and 1945, of history, of autobiography, of speeches and news articles. I read the novels written during those years as much for colloquial speech as for dress and mannerisms. I thumbed through a decade of Life Magazines. I saw as many movies made during those years as I could. I interviewed a postmaster, a midwife, several journalists, and a Navy sub commander. I spent hours in the Museum of Radio, the National Postal Museum, the National Archives, and the Holocaust Museum here in Washington DC.
Q: You have a Ph.D. in Victorian literature, and at one point your narrator calls Iris “a Dorothea Brooke for a snappier fiction,” in reference to the heroine of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Do you see the influence of Victorian fiction in your own work?

A: Yes, very much so. I’ve always loved sinking into the whole worlds Victorian novels hold --- complete with many characters talking or arguing the issues of the day. But Henry James’s complaint lodged against the nineteenth century novel, that it is a “loose baggy monster,” captures perfectly the troubles and strengths of the Victorians. Victorian novels often move laterally --- progressing sideways at a slow walk rather than hurtling forward. Middlemarch, for example, was giving George Eliot trouble in the writing, until she realized she could put the two novels she was working on together and bound them in the frame of a town, of Middlemarch. The Postmistress, no matter what I did, kept expanding sideways like this, the three story lines sidling off from each other, until I found a way to train them together --- using the radio broadcasts to travel back and forth between the stories and the places.

Q: Frankie observes at one point, “Every story --- love or war --- is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.” What does she mean by that? How is it connected to the Greek myth of Theseus?
A: Literally, Frankie writes this after the doctor has been killed by a taxi --- an American’s accident in London --- because he is not looking in the direction he should be. But it is her ironic realization too by the end of the novel --- you can’t see what’s coming even when you are looking. She thought she was bringing the doctor’s letter to Emma, and instead she is bringing the news of his death. This is her realization when she responds to Iris’s telling of the story of Theseus. If Theseus had remembered to change his battle sails, his father would never have died. For Iris, the myth exemplifies the horror of accident, the necessity for vigilance. For Frankie, the myth brings home to her that these accidents, these human mishaps, are the reasons stories get told. They are the story. That is the pathos and drama of being human.
Q: There’s an epigraph from the famous World War II reporter Martha Gellhorn at the beginning of your book: “War happens to people, one by one. That really is all I have to say, and it seems to me I have been saying it forever.” Does that quotation echo your own intention with this novel?
A: Absolutely. I was very much influenced by Martha Gellhorn’s reporting --- by her mix of outrage and matter-of-factness, and above all else by her capacity to see each and every person she interviews or puts into a story, as a human being first.