Zibby speaks to bestselling author and repeat MDHTTRB guest Cathleen Schine about Künstlers in Paradise, a dreamy, captivating novel about an Austrian family of movie stars and musicians who flee to LA during WWII; decades later, during the pandemic lockdown, their stories are finally passed down to the next generation. Cathleen talks about the Jewish immigration experience, the beauty and allure of LA then and now, and her own lockdown experience. She also shares her best advice for aspiring authors and reveals what books she’s read recently and loved.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cathleen. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Künstlers in Paradise.

Cathleen Schine: I’m really happy to be back. It’s good to see you.

Zibby: It’s good to see you too. Thanks so much. We were just talking about LA weather and all of that. Your book, of course, opens with somebody who has never set foot in LA or the US, basically, except for New York, looking and seeing what this craziness that is LA is all about. It’s perfect to have you sitting there for this interview. Tell listeners a little about the Künstlers and how they came from Vienna and the whole idea for this book and all of that.

Cathleen: The Künstlers are a Jewish family who live in Vienna. The father’s a composer and pianist. The grandfather has a department store. The mother is an actress. They live a high-bourgeoisie life in Vienna until the 1930s. Then the Anschluss happens in 1938, and the Nazis come into Vienna. They have to get out. They do. They have to leave their lives behind, as so many people did. They end up in Los Angeles. They joined a community of German-speaking, mostly Jewish — not all — artists, intellectuals, writers, composers, conductors, architects in Los Angeles. People have said, why did they go to Los Angeles which was, at that time, not exactly a locus of high culture? One of the reasons was they could get jobs there because of Hollywood. Hollywood reached out to Jews in Europe trying to help to get them out. There was something called the European Film Fund that helped sponsor people. That’s how the Künstlers arrive in Los Angeles. They arrive in Santa Monia. They are just stunned by what LA is. The first time you come here, it is kind of stunning, and particularly, coming from the atmosphere that they were coming from in Vienna. The book starts out with them arriving in Los Angeles and becoming part of this community.

Later on in the book, Mamie, the eleven-year-old daughter, we now see her as a ninety-three-year-old grandmother living in a little house in Venice. Her grandson comes. Julian is her grandson. He’s twenty-four. He comes to help her out because she has hurt her wrist. He is just going nowhere. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s just drifting in New York. His parents basically ship him off to help Grandma. Then the lockdown comes. It’s Grandma Mamie, this wild, eccentric, artistic woman in her nineties, and Julian, this at-loose-ends twentysomething, and Mamie’s helper, Agatha, stuck together in this little bungalow. Someone said to me, horror or comedy? I hope it’s more comedy than horror, but there’s a level of horror on both their parts. Oh, my god, I’m stuck in this house with this person from another generation. Then to fill up the time and also because she sees that her grandson is just drifting and to try to give him some sense of where he comes from and what life can really be like, Mamie starts telling him stories of her life in Los Angeles, in Pacific Palisades, Santa Monia in the forties where she was part of this community of very, very famous people, many actors and actresses and directors, but also musicians and composers. That’s how they make their way through the pandemic.

Zibby: Amazing. Going back to when the family first came over, you detail their windy path through Europe and then on the steamship going across and the not waving of the handkerchief and all that. Is there a boat? Did you base this on a particular boat that was waylaid in the harbor as Germany invaded Poland? Was there a ship like that?

Cathleen: Yes. Actually, there was. I got some of that information from — there’s a wonderful book written by a woman who was very important in the Hollywood community named Salka Viertel, who wrote a memoir about it. She was a very close friend of Greta Garbo’s. Some rumored she was Garbo’s lover. Who knows? She and her husband had already moved to LA, but she had come back to Europe to do some research on a film that she was hoping to write for Garbo. She ended up on the last boat out. The descriptions of the ship and of the extra four hundred people getting on just to get out as soon as they realized, most of them Americans, they realized war had really started, starting out in France — by the time they got to England, the war was on. Yes, that’s based on a real ship.

Zibby: I thought it was funny — you have such a sense of humor in such an understated way — in the book, where the grandfather, who, by the way, I kind of love — they were saying they were not happy about it. They were saying, we’re so lucky. We’re lucky we got out. He was like, yes, we’re lucky, lucky Jews.

Cathleen: The lucky, lucky Jews.

Zibby: Exactly. Look at us. I do feel like the way you wrote about his relationship in the family and to the daughter and even their acquisition of English and how they settled in and his tobacco-smelling — I could smell this grandfather so clearly the way you wrote him. He’s hanging back on the beach when Mamie first sees the ocean. She’s carefree and running all over. He’s just sitting back on the bench. I’m like, this is such a perfect view of how they saw this new world and how they could see their roles in it. Some people just could dive right in and do whatever. Then others were so entrenched in the old way of doing things that they were happy to just sit back and be like, I don’t think I can engage here. It is so wild how many families were displaced like this. What was it like? It’s not the easiest thing traveling to a new place, especially when you can’t go back.

Cathleen: I read a lot of memoirs while I was writing this. For some people, it worked out wonderfully. They found a way to fit in and to find work. For other people, the upheaval was just something they never got beyond. I also thought, with a child, with someone who’s eleven or twelve years old, they can pick up the language easily. They’re just able to integrate more quickly. For the grandfather, he doesn’t even want to. He doesn’t want to give up the Austria that he grew up in and that he believed in. Even when all these horrible things are happening, he still thinks they’re an aberration and where he grew up and what he loved is the best. I thought that just typified a certain kind of older person, a kind of older person that I’m rapidly becoming. I’m glad you brought that up because I liked their relationship. Then I liked the relationship between Mamie as a grandmother and her grandson. I think there’s something very special and very interesting and profound about relationships between children and their grandparents. Skipping that generation, they can see each other better. They’re not all caught up in whatever rebellion is going on at the moment or trying to separate. They can see each other as individuals much better than — when you’re looking at your parents, you’re seeing “my parents.” When you’re looking at your grandmother, you’re seeing Grandma, but you’re also seeing this individual human being. That was very interesting to write about that relationship. As one of my friends said, the reason grandparents and grandchildren get so along is they have a common enemy.

Zibby: Yes, I’ve heard that. So true. I was really close with one of my grandmothers. I loved them both, but one in particular who was a big storyteller the way that Mamie is becoming. I identified with that.

Cathleen: You’re lucky. I had a grandmother too. It’s something you keep with you forever. It’s wonderful.

Zibby: Unmitigated love too. No — what are the words?

Cathleen: No expectations. No judgement. It’s just, oh, my grandchild, you’re perfect, and I love you.

Zibby: So many writers have written about the pandemic in different ways, addressing it, not addressing it, writing it into it. The pandemic is a centerpiece in that that’s what’s created this whole thing for you in the book. How did that happen? Were you sitting in the pandemic and thinking, how could I make this into powerful fiction? How did you decide and when did you decide to use this as a narrative tool?

Cathleen: I was very interested in this community of émigrés, and so I had started thinking about them, researching them, reading about them. I wanted very much to write about them, but I really didn’t know how. I had started some of the “Mamie as a child” stuff, but I didn’t want to write just historical fiction because one gets sort of caught up in too much detail. I just wasn’t sure what to do. I knew what I wanted to write about, but I didn’t know what it meant or how it fit. The lockdown came. I was just sitting in the garden and thinking, that’s it, I can’t write this book. I’ll never write another book. I’ll never write another word. Everything is terrible. Everyone in New York is dying. Every time I’d call my mother, I would just hear sirens in the background. I was feeling terribly guilty because LA was quiet. The two cities experienced the pandemic so differently. LA, there was no traffic. There were no helicopters. It was absolutely quiet. No cars on the streets. You could hear all the birds and the bees. It was beautiful. New York, just sirens and fear and death.

I realized as I was sitting in the garden smelling the jasmine and feeling guilty but also thinking, god, it’s so beautiful, I realized that this was something I had encountered in a lot of these memoirs, the émigrés coming here, loving LA, being so happy to be near a beach, to take a walk on a beach, and being safe, and at the same time, feeling this tremendous guilt for the family and friends they left behind and for their world that was completely destroyed at that same moment. Once I made that connection and that bridge happened, I realized how Julian would fit in and that Mamie could be telling him these stories which would be for someone — he’s a rather callow youth to begin with. This is something that could make him grow. I also felt that these stories needed to be passed on. I could help pass them on through Mamie passing them on to Julian.

Zibby: I love that. That’s amazing. You did write again. All was not lost.

Cathleen: I did. I really thought, this is it. I’ve hit a wall. I’m too depressed. It’s too awful. I worried. I thought, should this ever be over, who’s going to want to read about it? Then I thought, look, this is where I am. This is what I’m thinking about. This is what I’m obsessed with. This is what I have to write about. Whether people read it or not, this is what I’m doing. I think I found a way to deal with all of that that was not just, we’re all victims, and everything’s terrible. I think I found a more meaningful way and, I hope, a more funny, a more readable way to deal with it.

Zibby: Also, the whole, if we actually survived the Holocaust, we can survive anything. We’ve gotten through worse than this.

Cathleen: Boy, you are Jewish. I have a T-shirt that says, this too shall pass.

Zibby: I think people would be shocked how often I’ve thought about the Holocaust, probably every single day. What would this be? I think about it all the time.

Cathleen: Especially now with all the political — there were so many political echoes here in the United States. That was rather frightening, actually. You kind of can’t help but think about it, especially for me, in a situation like that where everyone in the world was at risk. At the same time, they’re not comparable. They’re not the same.

Zibby: No, they’re not the same. It’s totally different.

Cathleen: Yet there’s a bridge. There’s a link in the way —

Zibby: — I didn’t mean to minimize the pandemic in any way.

Cathleen: I know you didn’t mean it.

Zibby: They were both terrible. One was manmade versus — well, you know what? I’ll drop this.

Cathleen: Let’s talk about the weather.

Zibby: Changing gears. Why was it thought to be bad for you to have a house by the water in LA?

Cathleen: Isn’t that so odd?

Zibby: Yes.

Cathleen: Actually, I think I read that in the same memoir by Salka. There’s fog. There’s a lot of fog in Santa Monia. It was just considered unhealthy. All of the very successful directors or producers or people or actors and actresses who did have houses on the beach, it was like, well, they have air conditioning and thick windows, so the terrible air, the miasma from — whereas now, we think it’s so healthy and wonderful to be near the water and breathe all that nice ionized air. I thought that was really interesting and funny. Salka Viertel and her husband lived in this house that they also — she turned it into a kind of salon for this community. It’s very moving reading about all the different people who came to her house. She had a Sunday open house. It was a way for people to network, to find jobs, for the émigrés to find each other. It was amazing what she accomplished as a woman giving Sunday parties. She was so influential. She’s a very interesting person. She inspired Mamie in some ways.

Zibby: Now I want to go read her memoir.

Cathleen: It’s really good. It’s really interesting.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Cathleen: I had started thinking about a book, but I can’t start another book quite yet. I’m still sort of waking up from this one. I’m working on book reviews, which is a perfect way to not be doing what I was doing. It’s very hard to get these German émigrés out of my head. It’s like, oh, but I have a book by Heinrich Mann that I haven’t read yet. It’s as if I’m still doing the research. I can’t stop. Eventually, I will emerge, but I’m not quite ready to move on to the next book.

Zibby: You could do something else with that community.

Cathleen: I could. Maybe. I don’t know. It’s true. I hate to leave them behind.

Zibby: There are a million stories in every —

Cathleen: — That is true. Sometimes I look at all of my books and I think I would like to take some of the characters from all of them and just put them together and see what happens. I’d have to figure out the chronology, though. The ones who were very young when I first wrote the book would be pretty elderly now. On the other hand, they’re characters in a book. I can make them any age I want. That was a realization I had with this book. I was running back and forth to my neighbor’s to check her orange tree to see when the oranges were actually out because there’s an orange tree in the book. I didn’t want to have it have oranges at the wrong time. Then at a certain point, I thought, you know what, it’s my orange tree. I made it up. It’s magic. It has oranges all the time whenever I want it to. It’s a magic orange tree. It was a great revelation to be the boss of your characters, which is not entirely true. They kind of get to say what they want to say. You have to listen. The orange tree, I thought I could boss around a little bit.

Zibby: That’s so funny. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Cathleen: That’s such a hard and good question. Part of me wants to say read really good books, really good classic books. Part of me wants to say just sit down and write. The most important thing is when you’re writing, not to judge it as you’re writing, to write what it is you want. Get it down, however bad you think it is. Then go back. I still have to tell myself that. Sometimes I’ll type out a sentence, and I’ll think, worst sentence written. Then I’ll delete it. Then I’ll type out the next sentence. I’ll think, nope, that’s the worst ever written. Then I’ll delete it. Sometimes I have to resort to a pencil or a pen and just keep going. Keep going. Then at a certain point, you stop. You look back, and you make it better. Don’t be a perfectionist as you’re writing. That is paralysis. For me, that’s really the worst. That’s something you have to fight all the time.

Zibby: Yes, that is very good advice. Any other books to recommend? Anything you’re reading now that you love or LA-based books like yours that you think are amazing?

Cathleen: I can show you the pile.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness.

Cathleen: I’m reading A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, which I never read when it came out a million years ago. I just reviewed a collection of Maxine Hong Kingston’s work, which is amazing. This book is really good, One Hundred Saturdays by Michael Frank.

Zibby: I loved that book.

Cathleen: It’s wonderful.

Zibby: It’s so good.

Cathleen: It’s beautiful also.

Zibby: Beautiful book.

Cathleen: I’m reading something — I’m actually reviewing it — called After Sappho, which is quite interesting and good and odd, along with a novel by Heinrich Mann and another thing by Anna Seghers, I think her name is. There’s a book called Transit about leaving Germany that is in my pile. Then there’s a million books on my iPad that I’m working my way through. Oh, I know. I just read Thank You, Mr. Nixon by Gish Jen. It’s wonderful. I haven’t read any contemporary fiction for years. Because of doing this, I don’t like to read contemporary fiction. I started reading that. It’s wonderful. It’s very, very funny and smart. That was a treat because it was the first piece of fiction I read just to read, not because I was doing research or still stuck in Germany in 1933. That was excellent.

Zibby: Have you read a book by Julie Metz? Now I can’t remember the name of it. It takes place in Vienna during the Holocaust. I’ll send you a copy if I — it has an orange here. She was on my podcast. I’ll look it up and send it to you. Since you’re doing this deep dive, I’ll send it to you. It was very interesting. He worked in a factory. I loved it, but now I’m forgetting everything because I’m very tired.

Cathleen: I forget the names of my own characters. I have a list here of the names of the characters in case I forget as we’re talking.

Zibby: I hope you’ll come do an event in the store in Santa Monia at some point. We would love that.

Cathleen: I think that would be great. Congratulations on all of that stuff. It’s really exciting.

Zibby: Thank you so much. I’ll follow up. Thank you so much. This was wonderful. I wish I was sitting here on the beach right now and not freezing here.

Cathleen: You could be freezing here.

Zibby: That’s true. That’s a good T-shirt. You could be freezing here too. Bye. Thank you.



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