Judy Loebl: The focus of today’s event is The Yellow Bird Sings. We have with us the author of the book, Jennifer Rosner, as well as Zibby Owens who will moderate the discussion. The Yellow Bird Sings is Jennifer Rosner’s debut novel translated and published around the world. It’s the story of a mother, a child, and an impossible choice. Set in Nazi-occupied Poland, Róza and her five-year-old daughter Shira, a musical prodigy, flee their town seeking shelter. The day comes when their haven is no longer safe and Róza must decide whether to keep Shira by her side or give her the chance to survive apart. Previous to The Yellow Bird Sings, Jennifer Rosner published a memoir, If a Tree Falls, about raising her deaf daughters in a hearing/speaking world and discovering genetic deafness in her family dating back to the 1800s. Her short writings have appeared in New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, The Forward, and elsewhere. Her children’s book, The Mitten String, was named a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable. In addition to writing, Jennifer teaches philosophy. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her family. Zibby Owens is a CEO, author, literary influencer, podcast host, media personality, and mother of four. She is the creator and host of the award-winning podcast “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Zibby, named NYC’s most powerful book influencer by Vulture, conducts warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide ranging as Alicia Keys and Lena Dunham to Delia Owens and Jennifer Weiner. Please join me in welcoming Jennifer Rosner and Zibby Owens. Hi, there.

Jennifer Rosner: Hi. I’m so happy to be here.

Judy: Thank you for joining us.

Zibby Owens: Great. Hi, Jennifer. I’m excited to do this with you.

Jennifer: Me too. I just want to say how happy I am to be here and also to have Zibby as the interviewer of this conversation. You are such a great supporter of authors and readers and humans generally. I just really appreciate everything you do in the book world and well beyond that.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice. Thank you. I’m really excited to talk to you about this book, which was so great and has such staying power, I think one of the best debuts of the year, particularly with Jewish themes and all of that. Can I ask you some questions about it? We heard a little synopsis. Basically, what inspired you to write this book? What did you hope to achieve by writing it?

Jennifer: The journey to getting to this novel is a kind of an interesting one. As Judy mentioned earlier, I am a philosopher. I was a professor. I had two daughters. They were both born deaf. This turned my world upside down. I had been doing this dry academic writing. I didn’t really love it very much. Then when the deafness in our family emerged, I just needed to start expressing our decisions, my feelings, what we were going through, a lot of fears. I found that kind of writing to be so nourishing. I had never done anything like that. I wasn’t one of those people who had wanted to be a writer since she was a little girl. This personal process and self-expression was so meaningful and nourishing. These little snippets of this eventually became a memoir.

I was giving a book talk actually through the Jewish Book Council. I was describing our journey with our daughters and how we were encouraging their every vocalization. We made a decision to give them hearing technology and to take a listening and spoken language pathway. I was saying how much we were encouraging our children to talk. A woman in the audience described to me her childhood experience of having to be completely silent. She was in hiding in a shoemaker’s attic with her mother during World War II. I couldn’t stop thinking about that woman as a child having to be silenced, as a mother, having to keep her child silenced, what that must have been like. I ended up finding her and interviewing her and then interviewing many other hidden children. That was kind of the seed of the story. It got planted by this person’s comments one day at a book event that had nothing to do with hidden children or the Holocaust or anything, but it resonated so much with me because we were so much in the world of silence and sound. Then learning of this woman who needed to be silenced, it just hooked onto me. I couldn’t let it go.

Zibby: Wow. I think often about having to keep kids silenced during the Holocaust and characters like Shira and Anne Frank and others when I think about how hard it’s been even just to deal with my kids during the pandemic. We have every electronic at our fingertips. Even with all of that, how hard it is just to keep them basically inside and not socializing. Then I think, gosh, with the fear lurking, similar fear today, but obviously on a much different scale, how did they do that? You even had Krystyna, the farmer’s wife, come in and say, “I just can’t imagine how I would keep my son this quiet either. Let me take her for a walk around the chickens,” or whatever. What did you find from all your research? How did people do it? Did they just do it because that was it? Life or death, and so they did it?

Jennifer: For one thing, I think children grew up very, very quickly. They were responsible and careful and conscientious very, very early on when necessity required it. One of the things that was really interesting about my interviews is there were all these different scenarios of people who had been in hiding. There were those who were in cramped spaces and having to be silent. There was a person who was hiding in plain sight on a neighbor’s farm. There was someone who was carried over a ghetto wall in a suitcase, all these situations. There was a man who was in a school attic with his mom and aunt and uncle. There were children at school and playing in the yard. He was inside this attic looking out through these slats and having to be quiet. What was unbelievable about his story was his mother found an atlas and she would quiz him and say, “If you had to get from Odessa to Warsaw, what path would you take? What route?” She taught him how to read while in this attic.

This man describes his time in hiding during the Holocaust as being cocooned in love, which is such a testament to that mom. It is so incredible what people did, and their ingenuity and their creativity. That was part of what inspired me to have the mother character, Róza, be telling stories. They’re working on reading and music and other things because this is how they got through that time. My editor initially said, “I can’t even keep my kids still dealing with the one snow day. How can they function in that barn for what’s essentially almost a year and a half or something?” That’s what she was encouraging me to set out to do, is to say, how can you hide? What happens? How do you use the bathroom? How do you brush your teeth? How do you function like this over this amount of time and get through? In listening to the stories of the hidden children, there was just so much resilience and intelligence that came into play. It’s very, very inspiring and humbling.

Zibby: It also almost reminds me of that book Room. Although, they didn’t have to be as quiet most of the time, but just what parents can do when it’s just you and a child and limited materials. You just have to make do with your imaginations. It’s quite remarkable. I also felt like, how were you able — I felt fully like I was in this situation after I read this book, that I knew what it was like because you described it so well. Did you get all that from the people you interviewed? Did you ever try to bury yourself in hay? It felt very much like you had experienced it yourself.

Jennifer: There’s two things. I didn’t bury myself under hay. Although, we do have rabbits. We have a lot of hay around. I could’ve done that. I do know what hay really feels like and smells like and how it pokes at you. Every writer brings strengths, weaknesses to their work and has to compensate for things that are harder for them and has an easier time with certain things. I think that, honestly, being a mom of deaf children enabled me to really slow down when it comes to sensory experience which enables my ability as a writer to be descriptive of sensory occurrences. I think that is something. I spent a real lot of time, what would it sound like? What would it smell like? How did it feel? Really slow. That’s what I think enabled the sense of really being there, because of the way I was able to harness — we had done so much work with our children about not just hearing, but seeing and getting every sensory perception in order to gain as much information about the world as possible. I think that training actually has really helped me as a writer.

I also did a lot of travel for this novel. I had written a draft of it. I interviewed the hidden children, many, many. Then I set all their stories aside because I wasn’t going to write any of their particular stories. I thought maybe they would write them or maybe their children or grandchildren will write those stories. I set them aside. I wrote a story out of my imagination. Then I felt I really should do some kind of crosscheck here because I’m here in Western Massachusetts imagining the convent and the barn and all these other things. I just want to make sure I’m okay. I found a guide who was just this amazing man. He read my manuscript in advance. Then he planned our trip. Actually, my eldest daughter came with me. We went to several places. We went to this area of farmland where you got to see how it would really be to try to hide someone in your barn. Initially, you think of a farm and you think they have a lot of land. It might be fine, pretty safe.

For community reasons, the houses were very close together. The barns were right there too. Then the land you had was in these narrow swaths going back, so you didn’t actually have a lot of space from your neighbor. Your neighbor’s kind of right on there. It was very hard to keep anything private. In fact, even when we were there looking around, people were wondering who we were and asking questions. You could see that people were very curious, and hiding someone in your barn would be really hard. He took us to several convents, but one where Jewish children had been hidden. This was really interesting too because I had sort of concocted a bit of a grand convent initially, stone. Then he said, “We’re a pretty poor country. It’s brick here.” There were all these sensory details there, the smell of soup as you walk in and the way your feet move on the floor and what the partitions were like where people were hidden and all this kind of sensory information that was so incredible to have as a novelist. He also took us, much to my daughter’s chagrin, to this area of primeval forest. Since my character was going to be hiding in the forest in winter, I insisted that we go in winter. We’re tromping around. It’s freezing cold. My daughter keeps saying, “Why didn’t you set your book in Greece? What are you doing?”

To see the denseness of the forest, to see how someone could possibly dig a burrow in that situation and, again, all the ingenuity that came to — those people survived in the woods, and in family camps and all these things that happened. There was travel. I also got to go to Tel Aviv. I met a violin maker who’s this amazing man who reclaims violins that were salvaged from Holocaust times. He rebuilds them. They’re played around the world in orchestras. Just so many things that really enriched my novel. In addition, I consulted with so many people. There was a forest tracker because I had to figure out how my character could move through the woods, and a mushroom forager and a nun and all these different people, but most importantly, a master-class violinist because of Shira being a violin prodigy. I needed to understand how that was going to work out, what she would play. When would a piece be played? There was a lot that went into this journey of understanding what it must be like to be hidden in this barn and then move to a convent or into the woods. Each step took a lot of research.

Zibby: Tell me about the decision to have the male owner of the barn, Henryk, come and visit her each night right next to her daughter and how that decision got made in the novel. How was that okay? There was some noise involved with that. How do you think they got away with that?

Jennifer: That’s a very good question. Let me say that while I set most every personal story aside, when I made decisions like this, I wanted to make sure that they have happened. This is a scenario that I heard about in a less than entirely clear way. There was a woman, nearly eighty or whatever, who was talking to me about her experience being hidden. She was quite young in the barn with her mother. There was a farmer who she believed visited every night. She didn’t totally know what was happening. Although, actually, I’m going to try to find it because I think it’s really incredible and moving. She wrote a poem as an adult. You know poetry, how something in your experience will just show up for you. I have it on my phone. This is this woman who said to me that he came and they talked about the news. She thinks maybe he loved her mother. It’s called Wild Strawberries. This is her poem. It’s very short. “Sometimes under cover of darkness, Mr. R would visit. I would see my mother’s silhouette, her long hair down her back, and in the dark, the outline of Mr. R’s powerful shoulders as he sat opposite her on the straw-covered attic floor. He would talk in hushed tones. I sat beside my mother but apart from them feeling a vague excitement mingled with fear. He would bring sweet wild strawberries in the night.” I was also very much aware of how much sex was traded in the Holocaust, traded for survival. The scenario felt realistic. I wanted this to be a blurry situation.

This family, the couple, the farmer and his wife, they’re risking their lives. They’re risking their families. I think the wife is, in many ways, righteous, but yet she gives eggs and bread to the child, not to the mom. She knows something’s happening in the barn. There’s a question of whether it’s kind of a relief that it’s happening and that there’s some pressure off her. I wanted it to be a really blurry scenario. I wanted it to be, you wonder whether he fell in love with her, Róza, in the barn or whether it really was just payment of a sort. I thought it would create, obviously, tension, but also questions about how we respond in times with the challenges that we’re faced with. We make a lot of moral judgments of people and how they respond in circumstances, but we’re not necessarily faced with those same challenges. We want to believe we’d be one thing. Sometimes we might be a modeled thing. I think often, people were modeled in their reaction, both good and bad. I learned that one criteria for being accepted into Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, is that there was no sexual predation of any sort. I also learned that there were many people who were candidates and then rejected for this reason, that there had been, so just a lot of blurry stuff. The noise is a really good question, actually, about noise in the barn. Maybe the only thing to say is that she was trying to keep as still as possible and trying to hope that it wasn’t going to kill them all. It’s very complicated.

Zibby: Yes, it’s very complicated. I feel like you left it a little ambiguous because there was one stretch where he didn’t visit as often, and she was missing that. She was welcoming him back when eventually he did. There was sort of a question mark. It’s almost like — what is that called? The Stockholm syndrome? You fall in love with your abusers after a while.

Jennifer: That was also part of the blurriness I wanted there because her body responds even if the situation is quite horrible. I had gotten some reactions of people upset about this. I was like, but this is what happens because we are bodies also. It happens even when the situation is very hostile. Your body can respond. Then people feel guilty for having responded, but it’s something that happens. I wanted the complexity to be there.

Zibby: Tell me about the decision to have music be such a part of it. I feel like this all gels with the sound and your daughters and your music. You take it away from there.

Jennifer: There are so many parts of this. The first thing is that my father, who I lost a year ago, he played violin every single day. He was a very dedicated violinist. He wasn’t a prodigy or a virtuoso, but he played daily. It was really infused in my life because I heard it every day of my life. He also composed some music. It seemed to me that it was a way of him somehow connecting to his Jewish roots through the music he was writing as well. Then I studied opera. He and I made music together. I saw the connective power of music. I also have to say that it links to something else, a few things that are dealing with the deafness in my family. When we looked back at our family tree, I eventually discovered these great-great aunts who lived in a little shtetl in the 1800s who were deaf. The one substantial story I learned about them is that when they went to sleep, they would tie a string from their wrist to their babies at night so that in the darkness if the baby cried or fussed, they would feel the tug and they’d wake to care for them. This string in the darkness was such a model of connection and mothering. I had felt in many ways unheard by my mom except when I sang. Music was one of those times when she really attended. I wanted a string so badly between my daughters and me. I wasn’t sure if it was in my repertoire. I chose violin not just for my father, but because it was a string instrument. I wanted Shira to have this connective string that moved through. Her mother plays cello. Her father played violin. Her grandfather was a violin maker. There was the string instruments and string moving through the story for very personal reasons all through.

Zibby: Tell me a little more, if you are willing, about why you didn’t feel like you felt heard by your mother.

Jennifer: It’s really complicated. My mom has a hearing loss that isn’t, supposedly, linked to the genetic deafness by my husband and I having recessive genes. We’re not totally sure about how it all links. She too grew up with some hearing loss which I think caused her to retreat in certain ways. I think it’s an energy saver. It’s conservation for deaf people sometimes. I think it’s also that a variety of things that happened in her own childhood caused her to be more turned in and not turned out. I think she loves me dearly, but just wasn’t able to be as attentive and focused. It was intermittent, which is very hard for children. You think you sometimes have it, and then it’s gone. It’s very hard to hold onto. It was something that was quite hard. Like I said, it was funny, when I sang, it was like everything stopped and she was right there. I sang a real lot. I studied voice. It was a thing I really took on because that connection meant so much to me. When it came to creating these characters, the transportive power of music and connective power of music, it was right there as a subject matter.

Zibby: Then with the book being divided into three parts and having three basic identities for Shira as she goes through different stages of her hiding and her travels culminating in this fantastic ending, tell me about the division of her time in those ways and how you even renamed the character. In each section, you refer to her as the new name, not even her original name, which I thought was really interesting. Tell me about that.

Jennifer: Thanks. I thought it was really important for us to remember now that we’re in this age where we can find anyone — if you want to see your fourth-grade friend, you just go on Facebook and put their name. There she’ll be. People lost the thread of not just their families, but themselves. I was really struck by this. I was struck by it emotionally. I went to the Holocaust Museum in DC and saw this, almost like a program where there were these pamphlets of people. They would have a face and it would say, “Do you remember me?” It was this literal question. If you could tell me that I’m Ana whatever from this village, then I would be able to go back and find my family and figure out where I come from and who I am. It was just incredible. It resonated with me also as a philosopher. What we are as we persist in time and when we shed particular things, are we still that same person? What does it mean to be a self over time, and especially in a situation where all these things have to change? Your name changes for your safety. Not everyone got to have their name buried in a jar that got unearthed later. A lot of the time, they just changed their name and they forgot the other one. They were five years old. They don’t know their mother and father’s actual name. They just knew them as Mama and Tata.

All of that way in which the threads can get frayed or broken completely I felt was really interesting and important because later, there was really no way back. You couldn’t figure it out. People were just lost. It was incredible. That was an important point for me to see that this is what happens in war. It happens especially in a brutal way to children because the thread gets lost and then they can’t quite be connected and find their way back. That’s part of what I did with that, with the different names. I also wanted it to be linked to the fact of so much religious confusion. Your name gets changed to a Catholic name. You’re put in a convent. Now you’re praying to this god. You’re listening to these psalms. I wanted even the music — there was the chaotic Jewish music beforehand and then the orderly music of the convent. It was soothing to her. There were many hidden children I’d read about who ended up in other settings where they clung onto the orderliness or the Mary statue or something that felt like some kind of anchor or mother figure or something just to orient and reorient. Then later, it’s so confusing to figure out who you are and who you were and how to be now. I wanted all that to be up in the air because I saw that very clearly, especially in some of the people I interviewed. They either never quite found the thread or they imposed a new thing. I’m going to be a Jew. I’m going to Israel. I’m going to whatever. That’s what they did, but it was like an imposition in a way. They decided it by fiat rather than an organic development.

Zibby: Obviously, I had thought about it, but your book just put this in such stark black-and-white details of how hard it is to find somebody and how many people have just drifted and even the near-miss type situations that must have happened all the time. It just is heartbreaking. I think that’s one of the things about this book. Every part of it, you know logically reading it, has actually happened in real life magnified millions of times. The depth of that suffering and those emotions just makes this book even more powerful riding on the coattails of that collective trauma. One of the questions actually from the chat — you started talking a little bit about your philosophy background. What type of philosophy do you teach? How has that affected your writing? It sounds like it has.

Jennifer: My work has been in the area of moral psychology and in the nature of self. In the academic realm, it’s really quite abstract and theoretical. That bothered me a lot. It’s about the self, so you think that we should be able to relate to that. The work I did before really moving into more writing had to do with the ways in which there can be ambivalence in the self. I edited this anthology called The Messy Self. It was about how we can have these warring factions within and warring desires. We might want something, but we might not want to want it, and all this conflict and ambivalence and fracture. I think it has really affected my work as a writer because especially, for instance, when Róza makes this decision to give her child up for her safety so she’ll live — and yet she carries this shame or guilt. It’s inevitable to take it off your shoulders. You go to a family camp, and someone else brought their child along. Maybe I could’ve made it. I could’ve made it to that camp with my child. I didn’t have to give her up. Then you see at the family camp that maybe some children die because there’s danger there too.

There was no exact answer here. Everyone was just doing anything and everything they could, the best decision they could make. Then the daughter will be in the barn and gets upset and makes a loud chirp and then carries this forever thinking, if I hadn’t made that chirp, maybe I’d still be with my mother. My mother sent me away because I was too loud. If I could’ve been quieter… The kinds of ways in which our minds do this thing where we can carry — even when I say I was given up so that I could live, my mother gave me away so I could live, sits in the same mind with, if I hadn’t made that chirp, maybe I could’ve still been there. We do this all time because we can draw walls in our minds. What it is to be a conflicted self? What it is to have self-deception? All these kind of things are an undergird in emotional experiences that I was trying to include in the novel.

Zibby: It’s also, what does it even mean to be safe? What does it mean to live? There was one part where she’s saying, safe is with my mom. What do you mean keep me safe? I was safe. I was with her. I feel like that’s what kids long for. That’s what they know. To have all that taken away and say, no, no, now you’re going to go with a bunch of strangers to a convent and take away all of my love, but you’ll be alive, what five-year-old would take that choice?

Jennifer: Yes, I know. I think it’s just so complicated because everyone will do their best and tries to make the life that they’re given to make as much sense as possible, but there are these emotional pulls that are so deep and profound. It was also why, as I was writing this and there were children being separated from their parents at the border, I’m thinking to myself, we’re going to lose the thread, as we have. There’s 540 who can’t be put back together with their parents now. If in seventy-five years someone interviews them for their novel and they sit down and say, I’m still in this acute pain because I was separated back then when I was five — that’s what I learned having these interviews with people who have made these beautiful lives for themselves, but the pain of that time, it’s endless. It doesn’t go away. It’s right there under the surface. That kind of emotional complexity is what I really wanted to capture and how difficult it was.

Zibby: You did. You captured it all. All these themes that you bring up are so thought-provoking and speak to a whole generation. What does it mean to have a generation of people in pain growing up? Then the effects on them raising kids. I remember in college I did some report about children of Holocaust survivors and what it meant to grow up as them with parents who had such trauma in their own lives. Then I think about even now which is, again, not the same, but just a period of time where people feel at risk. What does that do? Whether or not to send your kid to homeschool or leave the city or all these decisions parents have to make now, it’s still, what do you do? It’s like you have to make your own way again. There are not clear guidelines. Do you trust officials? There’s just a lot of in a way.

Jennifer: Yeah, it’s very complicated. I remember interviewing one man who, I went to his home and you see that he has really built this beautiful life. He showed me pictures of his grandchildren’s bar mitzvahs. It was all this healed world. Then we sat down. The interviews took quite a long time. I’d be there for five hours or something. By the end — first of all, we’re both in tears. At one point, we were talking. He had been shifted around in these different ways that were very trying as a young child. While we were talking, it’s almost like his eyes shuttered over. He just said to me, “If you told me my mother was in the other room, I wouldn’t go in there.” It’s just, there was so much pain, that’s all, and longing that went for so long, unmet in this case, longing and then rebuilding something over it, but there’s a hole there.

Zibby: What do you think about inherited trauma? I know I was kind of throwing that around. Someone in the chat is asking about it as well. What do you think about it?

Jennifer: I’m no expert on that, but I just feel like it’s cellular, probably. That’s what I think. I think it’s cellular. Also, I think about this as a mom of two children. Both were born deaf. My first one, it was such a surprise. It sounds like it shouldn’t be because my mom had hearing loss, but my mother had hearing loss supposedly due to mastoid infections. There was this hidden family tree that had asterisks of deaf people, but I had no idea about it. A call from the hospital and say my daughter failed the test, and my dad’s like, “I’m sure it’s fluid,” that kind of thing. I think that what happens is your whole body goes into a mode of, how are we going to deal with this? I know that my older daughter absorbed so much of our reactivity to her. Whereas my second daughter, by then, I just flung her over my shoulder and kept singing. I knew by then that whether she could hear it or not, she was going to get it. She saw my face. She felt my body. She felt the air. She knew what I was doing. She kind of knew as much without her sound as with it, but I didn’t know that the first time. I do think that you can just see. What do they say about the oldest child and the first pancake and all that stuff? I think that they do feel your reactivity. They’re so sensitive and so smart. There’s both the cellular, but there’s also the transference, inevitably. We’re all doing our best and trying not to and putting on our calm, brave whatever. Of course, they’re much smarter than that. They know everything. I can’t hide anything in my family. My kids know it all. I think that it’s quite real, is what I’ll say, inherited one way or another.

Zibby: Yes, the ability of kids to pick up on emotions and yet not pick up their clothes is crazy. Tell me a little more about writing this book. You said you didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. Yet here you are with a memoir and children’s book and a novel and all of it.

Jennifer: I know. I found it all out when I was forty, that I loved writing.

Zibby: We’ll take you.

Jennifer: Thank you. That’s a thing, the vicissitudes of life. Really, because of Sophia’s deafness and then just trying to journal that experience and then learning that I love this — I love this so much. I love it a lot more than logically constrained analytic philosophy writing. The memoir, I think I really needed to express all those things. What I love about writing so much is that you think you’re writing about one thing. Then it all gets turned on its head. When the work is coming out, you realize — for instance, I thought we were working on whether our children would hear. Ultimately, when I examined all that stuff with my mom and all the strings and etc., it was whether I would hear them. I think that’s what this was all about. It was all a big question of whether I could hear, not whether they could. I didn’t know that at first. Someone would say, “What are you working on?” I’m like, “It’s about raising our daughters in a hearing/speaking world and whether they would –” It’s just interesting. There’s so much self-discovery. What I love about it is that I’m connected to subconscious things in a way that I never could be if I just went along without sitting down and be quiet and trying to write. I really value it very much and feel so lucky to be doing it. I stopped doing those big, high-powered academic tracks to be on the floor with my kids anyway, and thank god for that, and then got to be writing in between. My process is I write in between. Right now, everyone’s home, so between all of that, I try to write. That’s been sort of true the whole time as they were growing up. Now they’re actually seventeen and twenty, so it’s not nearly like it was. Although, they do still want to me to make every meal, it seems like, but they can make their own. That’s good. It’s just been like that. I’ve been writing in between things and being the on-call audiologist and the on-call etc. all the time, but have managed to do this writing which, to me, is such a gift of self-expression.

Zibby: Writing a novel is not the same. There’s one thing where you write with your emotions and to sort out your feelings and even just to chronicle your experience for whoever’s benefit and to share with others. There’s all these arguments for why your memoir came into the world. I see all of the parallels, of course. Just teaching yourself how to write fiction, that’s pretty impressive. Did you take any courses? Did you google “how to write a novel”? What did you do? Most people have several failed novels tucked away in drawers before they come out with something. Was this just your first out-of-the-gate smash hit?

Jennifer: It’s my first novel. When I met that lady at the book talk for my memoir, that was in 2010. This thing’s been batting around a really long time. While it is my first memoir, maybe someone else would’ve written — I mean my first novel. Someone might have written three or four of them in this time. I don’t know. For me, since I am self-taught, I kind of shot my wad with that PhD in philosophy. I can’t really go back and get the MFA, which I would really love to do. I don’t see how I can do that. I went to Bread Loaf for a session. I went to Tin House for a session. They’re these writing workshops in the world. Had some really wonderful teachers. I just read a lot. That helps. Reading helps you become a good writer.

Zibby: What do you like to read? What are your favorite genres or authors?

Jennifer: I have to say that at different times given whatever I’ve been trying to write, there are certain reads that have made a huge difference for me. During the course of writing The Yellow Bird Sings, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was this book I just wanted — I could’ve wrapped it around myself with a cloth and carried it around. There’s just something about the sentences, the sentence-by-sentence beauty of his writing. The structure of that novel is like that box where the jewel is. It’s just a beautiful thing to examine. I’ve read it many times because I was reading it as a writer, not only as a reader. That was very, very meaningful. There have been a lot of books. Toni Morrison’s work, Marilynne Robinson’s work, these are writers you read and just are studying how they put that together. How do you incorporate that magical element in that special way? How do you have the ordinary rise to the extraordinary? Marilynne Robinson takes the most ordinary thing. You’re reading and you think — . There are writers like that who have been really influential. I remember while I was working on my memoir I kept going back to The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I kept going back to her ex-husband’s book, Jonathan Safran Foer’s work. There was sort of an experimental quality to it that I was interested in. There was a looseness. I was going from philosophy writing to literature and wanting to stretch. You go to different books at different times for different things. That’s how it is for me.

Zibby: It’s so funny. When I started my podcast, I had never — I took a lot of English in school and all of that, but school was a long time ago at this point. As a grown-up, when I’ve been reading, I wasn’t reading, as you said, as a writer. I was just reading and enjoying and whatever. Author after author would say, no, when I take apart the book and I take apart the structure and I analyze this and I analyze the — I was like, you do? Really? Do you think that the authors intended it that way? It turns out, yes, they did. It seems so obvious now, but it’s really part of the process. You have to have that whole perspective on the project and the in-depth research, as I guess .

Jennifer: It’s interesting too because in the course of writing this novel, I would read the draft just for verbs. Let me just think about the verbs. Are these the best verbs? Are they active? Do they have the power I want them to have or the passivity I want? That kind of thing, and just the verbs. Then I would read just for setting. Do you feel you’re in the barn? Do you feel you’re in the woods? Can you really feel that with that sound? How do I make this vivid? How do I make it feel this way? There’s those ten years.

Zibby: Wow, that’s great. That’s amazing. Good for you, however long it took. Did you ever want to send it out? Did you ever feel like, okay, this is good enough, or did you know you wanted to keep going? Then how did you end up selling it?

Jennifer: No, I never felt it was good enough. I think that’s the philosophy training too where it’s so critical. I’m trained really critically, sadly. In fact, the beauty of some writing environments I’ve been in is that they would have this thought where if you hear someone’s new writing, you would just say what’s working. I was like, that’s amazing. We’re talking about what’s working? I’ve never even done that before. I always used to talk about what isn’t working. It’s a beautiful thing. It actually helps you improve greatly. Somehow when you hear what’s working, that stuff rises and the other stuff falls. It’s a really great thing. It’s a much more healthy world for me. I’m so happy to be in it. I worked on it a long time. I ended up sending it — it was kind of a circuitous route, as many, many publishing routes are. I had had an agent for my memoir. She wasn’t sure about this novel. We decided to part ways, so I was un-agented. There was an editor who had passed on my memoir but had written the nicest note. It was the loveliest fail. She thought the writing was beautiful. She loved the story, but she just felt she couldn’t make it big enough for her. That was Amy Einhorn who publishes really big books. She loved it, but she couldn’t take it. I said, “What about just Amy Einhorn? What if we just sent it to her?” My soon to be ex-agent was like, “I can’t. I don’t think it’s ready,” whatever.

I was like, okay, so I sent it myself to Amy. I said, “Look, Amy, you passed on my memoir, but I remember it was such a nice rejection. Would you consider reading it?” She said, “I will read it.” She accepted it un-agented and then said, “So now you need to get an agent.” Then I said, “If you’ve accepted my novel, I’m pretty sure I can get one.” I did. That’s how it happened kind of in a backward way. Obviously, if my ex-agent, had she sent it to Amy, she would’ve taken it. She didn’t, so I sent it myself. Amy and I, we worked on it. It wasn’t done yet. I think I had written every single moment of the entire book. What jumps in time now, I had written a lot of that story, the whole New York story. There was a second daughter. She couldn’t bond to her. There was all kinds of stuff on the cutting floor. Amy said, “I think the heart of the story’s in the barn. I really care about this daughter, not that daughter,” that kind of thing. It took shape that way where we really expanded the barn and this journey during the war only and then made a move to the later years.

I do want to say, it’s always hard in these conversations because you never know if there are people who haven’t read. You don’t want to do any spoiling, and I won’t. I just want to say that in making a decision about the ending, a lot of it had to do with respecting what I’ve learned from interviews of reunifications and how complicated they are. My daughter character is five when you’re really invested in her life. That’s a very simple time compared to being nearly thirty. What that really would be like, to be true to it, to be fair to it, to give honor to the people who struggle with the complexities of finding someone after so many years and having such complicated emotions about it, wanting to make sure to give that honor and not just wrap a big bow around something that’s complicated, that leads me to say that in the thing I’m working on now, there’s some revisiting of this concept.

Zibby: I was about to ask that, so thank you. Jennifer, what are you working on now?

Jennifer: I started with these two characters that are completely new and different. It’s after the war, which I think is important because you know there are people who don’t want to even pick up a novel that’s set in the Holocaust, which is a fact of this novel. I joke now, I think it should be called post-war. Just so you know, it’s post-war. It’s right after the war. There’s a boy and a girl, a brother and sister. I wanted to explore something I learned from someone I interviewed. She went after the war and she would find Jewish children in Christian settings and transport them to Palestine. That was British Mandate, Palestine at the time. This was also a very complicated thing for each individual child. In terms of rescuing Jews after the war, it makes total sense as a population-management issue. As a human individual-to-individual issue, it was really complicated. I wanted to explore that. One thing that happens is that these children end up in a kibbutz in Israel. There’s this violin prodigy. We’re going to circle back. You’re going to see the middle and end that you don’t see here because I really want to do it . I didn’t want to dishonor some real things that I felt were very important to give their space and not tack on a weird second novel on a first one kind of thing.

Zibby: I love that. If anybody has more questions, feel free to put them in the comments. I feel like I tried to weave in most of them already. If there are any more, please feel free. By the way Jennifer, a lot of people are encouraging you to go back and get your MFA.

Jennifer: They are? I can’t see. Okay, I found the comments now.

Zibby: While we’re waiting to see if any more comments come in, with questions I should say, I was wondering if you had any advice for aspiring authors in case there are any out there listening?

Jennifer: Yes. My advice is persistence and faith. Just keep going back. Having enough faith that whatever it is you write each day, whether it looks like it has no relationship to the thing you wrote yesterday, whether it doesn’t seem like it’s very good, I really do believe that the mind is this incredible web and that these things are related and if you give yourself the freedom and the chance in that you keep going and keep persevering, that it’s going to show up there. You’re going to see it. I’ve always been really fascinated by how people can take cards of plot, almost, and shuffle them one way and you’d have one story and shuffle them another way and you’d have another story. We just have to understand that our mind connects dots. If you’re there putting out your moments, moment, moment, moment, they will relate to each other eventually if we just give ourselves that trust to keep doing it because it does take a lot of work. It takes a real lot of work, but you can do it if you stick with it, I say after ten years.

Zibby: Are you still singing?

Jennifer: No, I haven’t sung as much. My husband is very upset about it, actually. He’s always saying, “Why aren’t you singing?” I sing in the shower. There’s been some times when I thought of joining some groups around here, but I also get kind of picky. I like to choose what I sing. This is also why sometimes it’s hard to be in book groups because you’re like, I want to choose what I read, even though if you just go along with it, you find all these amazing things that you wouldn’t have. I probably just have to give myself the chance. Maybe after this conversation, I’ll get an MFA, join a singing group.

Zibby: You have a lot on your to-do list.

Jennifer: I’m inspired.

Zibby: Naomi from the audience is asking if your children read your books.

Jennifer: They do. They read everything. My older daughter actually read my novel in draft several times and had really awesome advice, actually, plot ideas, etc. My younger daughter said she was afraid to read it because if she didn’t like it she’d hurt my feelings, so she took her time and then finally read it and said it was good. That made me happy. They do read it either immediately or eventually.

Zibby: Excellent. I think that’s all the questions that came in. If anybody has any more questions, please feel free to ask. Just a reminder, you can get a copy of The Yellow Bird Sings here at the link in the comments through the JCC. There it is if anybody wants to buy a copy, which I would highly recommend if you don’t already have one. This book is beautiful. Your writing is beautiful. Whatever magic you did analyzing texts and verbs and structure and everything, it worked. It was really great. Congratulations.

Jennifer: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to talk to you, as I knew it would be. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Thank you.

Judy: Thank you so much, both Jennifer and Zibby. It was a wonderful, wonderful conversation. In fact, somebody asked the question about, who was the narrator, the person who did the audio?

Jennifer: I love her. Her name is Anna Koval. She’s British. I was lucky because Macmillan let me kind of audition a few different audio narrators. I chose her. It was one of her first, maybe her first audiobook. She’s been an actress, but she hadn’t done audio narration. I just loved her because she was sensitive, emotionally astute, but also let the language speak for itself. Sometimes you audition someone and it seems so dramatic. You’re like, do we really have to add that much drama? I’m not sure. I was really thrilled with her. I thought she was fabulous.

Judy: That came in at the very end. I saw that, and I thought that was a great question. I don’t know if people know that you had the opportunity to pick the author. That’s so interesting. Thank you both for being here. It was an excellent event. Thank you, everyone at home, for joining us.