Lauren Fox, SEND FOR ME

Lauren Fox, SEND FOR ME

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Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lauren. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Lauren Fox: Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: I am excited to discuss Send for Me because this book is gorgeous and heartbreaking and just so great. It’s so well-written. It was just really, really great. I loved it. I really loved it.

Lauren: Thank you. Thanks.

Zibby: Tell listeners, if you don’t mind, a little about Send for Me and what inspired you to write it and what it’s about and all the good stuff.

Lauren: All the good stuff. Short answer is that it is about a family, four generations of women, starting in Germany on the cusp of World War II and then jumping ahead in time to Milwaukee in the nineties. It’s about family separation and the twin traumas of the Holocaust and that family rupture. I don’t know if I think that there’s a main character, but I kind of think of Annelise as the main character in the book. As the Nazis are coming to power in the 1930s, she is able to leave Germany with her husband and young daughter, but she has to leave her parents behind. The book is partly about her parents desperately trying to leave Germany and how she, in Milwaukee, is trying to have a life there and trying to bring her parents over. Then the contemporary timeline is about Annelise’s granddaughter, Clare, who discovers a stash of letters in her parents’ basement that were written by Annelise’s mother, Clara, to Annelise as they were trying to leave Germany and how Clare, the granddaughter, is trying to live her life and trying to figure out how to pry herself away from her history and trying to figure out how to be in the world knowing her family’s intense and traumatic history.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I understand that you actually found the letters. I shouldn’t say understand. It’s written in the book. You found the letters that your grandmother — tell the whole story so I don’t mess it up.

Lauren: The other half of the question is what inspired me to write the book. That is what inspired me to write the book. It’s fiction. It’s very much fiction. All the characters are sort of a mishmash of my family. I’m a fiction writer. I made them up, but the story is my family’s story. When I was in my twenties, I found letters in my parents’ basement. My grandparents had recently died. They had been living with us for years, so all of their belongings were in my parents’ basement. I was going through them one day. I found — I still remember this moment so specifically. It was a little brown box with a pink ribbon around it. In it were about seventy-five letters written on this crumbling onion skin paper. They were in German, but they were also in this German script. I can’t describe it. It’s like knife scratches on paper. It’s just up and down. It’s an old-fashioned German script that hardly anyone can still read. I found these letters. This moment stands out for me so vividly in my memory. I just knew that they were going to be important. It was almost magical. I just knew that these letters were going to be a key to unlock questions that I had had growing up.

I knew my family’s history because I live in the world and I had learned about the Holocaust, but they really didn’t talk about it. Trauma affects people in different ways. Some people process and talk about it. My family was so tight and so loving and so connected, but they just did not like — my grandparents gave me little snippets of information throughout my life. I can count on one hand the number of times they talked about it. I was able to get these letters translated. It’s kind of a process. I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. I stumbled on a professor. He was in the German department. He had survived the war. He was half Jewish. He had survived the war in Berlin passing. That was a whole nother story. He took personal interest in my story and helped me translate the letters. It took us about a year. I would go into his office once a week with a couple of letters. He would read them out loud into a little tape recorder. Then I would go home and transcribe them. That is the inspiration for this book. It was really immersive. It was a really immersive project.

Zibby: Then you wrote in the letter in the book to readers that you tried to write it as memoir and then waited almost twenty years. Now you’ve come out with it as fiction. What was it like writing it as memoir? Now I want to read, by the way, the memoir version.

Lauren: No.

Zibby: I don’t want to read it?

Lauren: No one would read that.

Zibby: I don’t care if it’s good or not. I want to know more about your family after reading this. These were the actual letters, though, right, that you interspersed?

Lauren: Yes.

Zibby: How is their story different?

Lauren: It’s different in so many ways. The emotional foundation of the story is the same. This is insignificant, but my grandmother’s family owned a butcher shop. My grandfather was a cattle dealer. That’s how they met. I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life. I was like, I’m not writing about a butcher shop. I placed it in a bakery instead. It was much more fun to research. That’s not the significant way that the story is different. I always say fiction writers are like magpies just grabbing bright, shiny objects wherever they see them. It’s such a weird thing to describe the process of taking a true story and fictionalizing it. In a world where there is such a thing as Holocaust denial, I felt a very strong obligation to tell this story, to tell it truthfully. I promised myself I would not change a word of the letters. In the process of reading them, transcribing them, editing them, every word of my great-grandmother’s in my novel is true. Those are her words. Other than that, in order to get into my characters’ heads I had to give myself full permission to imagine them. Basically, the long and short of it is the outline of my family’s story is absolutely true. Then all the details are a combination of true and fiction and research.

Zibby: I’m glad you changed it to the bakery because those were some of my favorite scenes, and all different confections. Maybe you’ve already done this or whatever, but in conjunction with the launch of your book, you need to make all those things.

Lauren: Oh, no. I do not.

Zibby: You don’t?

Lauren: Not me. Someone else.

Zibby: Let me rephrase. You need to find all of those things and have them all displayed. The different confections that you referred to throughout the book, I want to know what they all look like.

Lauren: My grandma was a really good baker. My kids are like, “Mom, the reason your stuff doesn’t turn out is because you’re always like, oh, that won’t matter.” I did not inherit her talent.

Zibby: I know. I’m like, well, we don’t have buttermilk. Let me just google and see what I can throw together.

Lauren: You can make buttermilk. I’ve done it.

Zibby: Yes, I’ve done it too. I made brownies the other day. We didn’t have any vegetable oil, so I used avocado oil.

Lauren: That’s not good. No. I would do the same thing.

Zibby: My kids were like, “Ugh, what’s wrong with these brownies?”

Lauren: You’re like, nothing, they’re great.

Zibby: You got some extra healthy fat in there. Oh, my god, they were terrible. I threw them away. Some substitutions do not work. Like you, the urge to bake does not come with a lot of forethought. It’s just like, let’s do it right now with whatever we have.

Lauren: That’s exacerbated by the pandemic. I’m not going to the grocery store, so let’s make do with this rancid butter that I just found.

Zibby: Totally. We’ll just wait for the next delivery of food from FreshDirect in a few days. Okay, fine, you do not have to bake all these things now. I take it back.

Lauren: Thanks.

Zibby: No problem. What was it like writing this book? First of all, the words — I dogeared all these different sections to show how great you are at even just describing things. Oh, gosh, when you were talking about the heartbreak with Annelise and Max at the very beginning of the book, this is just a scene where, in a teenage love, a guy decides he doesn’t love someone. This is not that big of deal. Yet you write it in such a way. Let me read a couple lines. “Two days ago, she was a perfect composition of face and limbs and breath and heart. Now she’s a ragdoll, lumpy, mismatched, stitched together, and stuffed with old cloth.” Then she keeps going. Basically, she wanted to touch his hand, and he kind of pulled it away. “This moment is nothing, really. Her heart will mend. Even as she can practically feel it cracking, she has an inkling that it will eventually glue itself back together. Maybe it’s even starting right now, the delicate process of repair. This is not a devastation like the ones that will follow, nothing like those great gasping winged monsters of ruin that will come later, the ones that will try to pick her up in their claws and fling her to her death. It’s nothing like those, obviously. But still, years from now in another country with her handsome husband, this life irrevocably left behind her, she will remember it, the smell of coffee beans and cigarette smoke, the clink of dishes and the laughter drifting over from other tables, the sudden rearrangement of their relationship reflected in Max’s face.” So good. Let me find one from later. I probably shouldn’t. I don’t know why I turned this down. Oh, that was funny about the polar bears. By the way, my daughter has a fascination with polar bears. I like when you said — this is much later. You said, “How could you know the heart of your beloved before you married him? Courtship was a confection.” I love that line. “Courtship was a confection. Crisis brought out the best in people or the very worst.” Then you went on to say more. What a line. All of these lines. It’s funny, when I pick up a book from Knopf, I know that it’s going to be beautiful. I know the language. It’s going to be literary and beautiful. I’m going to cling to every description of a detail. This was just so great. Tell me more about your writing. I keep looking because I kind of want to read another passage, but I can’t decide.

Lauren: Now I just want to sit here and have you read to me from my book. This is weird. It’s very satisfying.

Zibby: I love this too. Let me just read this one passage. So interesting as we talk about men needing to be strong emotionally and this whole “man up” thing that people are finally rising up against, essentially. This was an ode to the tenderhearted man, which is great as I have some of those in my life. You wrote, “Julius knows he is tenderhearted. He comes from a long line of tenderhearted men, fathers who cry when they hold their babies for the first time, who tiptoe into darkened bedrooms just to touch the soft cheeks of their sleeping children, husbands who at times are filled with so much lighthearted gratitude and affection for their tired and faithful wives that they will, without suppression or regret, pull those surprised wives into their arms and hold them for a moment. Sternness is not in his nature. Discipline is not his forte. He has never tried to be something he is not.” Beautiful. You know everything about this man now. It’s great.

Lauren: That was easy for me. That was easy because I come from a long line of just that kind of man, my grandpa, my dad, really unusual men of that era, just so soft and lovely.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Tell me about writing and your learning to write like this and your writing of this particular book and just how you craft your sentences and all of that.

Lauren: It’s so funny because I think about this question while I’m writing. Of course, every writer is like, how will I capture this in the interview that is yet to come? I think about this all the time. Then also, I have no idea. There’s some weird alchemy that happens. It’s not like it isn’t a ton of work and laborious crafting, but there’s also just this — it’s the only time in my life when time goes by and I don’t notice it, is when I’m writing. It’s a weird thing to try to describe the process of writing, which I’m sure you know. Also, this story has been living with me for over two decades. I really gave myself permission and also just was so in the moment of this story. This is my fourth novel. More so than any of the previous three, I was so immersed in it. The first version of this novel was, as we said, a memoir. It was composed of lots of really, really short scenes, some of which were half a page long. I really gave myself permission to try to craft the sentences. I spent a long time on the sentence level part of the story. That carried over to the novel. My last three novels were much — I wouldn’t say they’re lighter because the last one I wrote is about a woman and the death of her best friend. It’s not like the subjects were lighter, but my writing style was a little more contemporary and light. This one, I just really allowed myself to write it the way I wanted to write it and craft the sentences with as much time — my last book came out six years ago. It took me a long time to write this book. I don’t know if I can describe it on a more granular level because in some ways, it’s just a distant memory.

Zibby: That’s okay. Where did you like to write? Did you outline it? How did you structure the story?

Lauren: I always outline because it gives me this probably false confidence. I feel like if I outline the plot, then at least I know step by step where I’m going. I’m free to change it, but at least I have a map. I forgot the first part of your question. How did I structure it?

Zibby: Also, where did you do it? Were you at where you are right now at this desk, or were you somewhere else?

Lauren: Exactly. Right here at this desk. Also, back in the days when my kids were in school, not upstairs in their bedrooms in school, I had the house to myself from eight AM to three PM. That was my writing time. I could just walk around. My floors were very clean because I would sort of Swiffer and think, just wander around the house, pace and walk and think. A slightly messier version of what you see is where I write.

Zibby: Swiffer as ultimate writing aid. I like that. Ode to the Swiffer, essay coming next. How old are your kids?

Lauren: They’re eighteen and thirteen, so they’re all grown up now, kind of.

Zibby: I have a thirteen-year-old upstairs and two other ones also in school, so I get it.

Lauren: That’s really fun.

Zibby: Really fun.

Lauren: They’re old enough to do it on their own, but it still sucks.

Zibby: Yeah. Are you working on anything else now?

Lauren: Just Swiffering. No. I am not working on anything else right now. I think it was Rick Moody who said writing a novel is like burning down your house. You have to rebuild from the ground up. I have a couple of ideas like tumbleweed floating around in my brain. Right now, not much else. This one was such an exorcism for me. Because it’s my family’s story and because I sat with it and it lived in my head and my heart for so long, it’s really weird right now to feel like, what’s after this? I have no idea.

Zibby: That’s okay. What did your family think about this book? It’s, in part, your whole family’s story.

Lauren: My brother’s just reading it now. It’s been radio silence on the other end, so I’m eager to hear what he has to say about it. My mom has read it three or four times. She’ll be like, “Honey, I’m reading it again. I’m crying again.” My parents are just like, what a great job you did tying your shoe. They would support me no matter what. My mom and I talk all the time, but not so much about this. I think she feels really pleased that I’ve taken on this project. I think she feels like our family story has been honored in a way by the writing of this novel. I hope she feels that way.

Zibby: It’s true. It has. All these lost stories, time is going by. What’s great about this book — I read a lot of Holocaust-era stuff, as most Jewish people do/are, and also just readers in general. I find this time period very — I’m drawn to it. I keep trying to understand it. I never will. I’m like, it must be different. They must have felt different. The thing about this book is you’re like, no, nobody felt different at all. It was just like as if we were there. You write about it, even little things like the objects. There’s one part of this book where Annelise is feeling guilty about it, but even mourning her chandelier or something like that. When so much has been lost, how can she mourn the beautiful things that she used to have in her life, or a special carpet or anything? Her life before was very much like lives today, all the details you had. That’s one of the things I found that set this book apart, is the detail, you’re crawling on your knees feeling the carpet fibers type of detail versus, life was fine when I walked back and forth to the bakery. That doesn’t sound right. I’ve read a million great other books. I’m not trying to say anything. There was just something about how real it felt and how it could so easily be right here, right now.

Lauren: I’m thinking a couple things as you’re saying that. One is I came to this book when it came to light that families were being separated at the border and that children were being put in cages. I was like, oh, this is still so relevant. How is this still so relevant? I think that the fact that it’s such recent history and we’re still trying to — it’s a futile attempt to try to figure it out, but that’s what this book is, an attempt to process it. The past is still with us. It hasn’t gone away. I thought a lot about those physical details because our lives are made up of those domestic moments, the lines of a vacuum cleaner as you vacuum your rugs and the beautiful lamp that you have that has a crack down the middle. Our lives are made up so much of those physical details. Those really weren’t any different. I did so much research on this time period. Really, what it comes down to is it was just our lives without the technology.

Zibby: I think about even the ashtray with the two dogs with their backs together, oh, my gosh. I feel like now I’ve seen that. If I saw it in a store, I’d be like, oh, that’s that one.

Lauren: That’s the one. Somebody said fiction writers aren’t any more insightful than anyone else, they’re just really good at observing. I actually feel that way. I’m just looking at stuff and seeing weird things. That’s my writing process.

Zibby: There’s also this inherited trauma which people talk about and which comes, obviously, from not just Holocaust-era survival stories, but from many ways that people have had family members go through things or pass things down. When there’s something around you even if it’s not spoken about, what does that do to future generations? Here, even when you talk about — now I’m forgetting the name of the granddaughter.

Lauren: Clare.

Zibby: Even the fact that Annelise’s granddaughter, Clare, goes through this whole moment where she’s going to weddings and feeling left out and wishing, how do you find the love of your life? and all of that, maybe there’s something to the heaviness that she doesn’t even realize she has that she’s carrying around with her and that’s informing everything. What do you think?

Lauren: Absolutely. I was reluctant to write the present-day character because, weirdly, it almost felt too easy, that part. The inherited trauma, I feel that. It’s kind of hard to describe because it’s so much in the air you breathe when you inherit this kind of history. I’m just going to pivot and talk about my personal life because so much of me is in Clare. I’m super close to my mom and very strongly feel this obligation to take care of her in a way. I used to joke when I was in my twenties that all I wanted to do was move back to Milwaukee, have a couple babies, and just hand them straight over to her. Of course, I wasn’t joking. That is what I did. There’s a feeling when you inherit this kind of rupture that you want to write a new story of your own. I tried to piece this together for years. What part of my psychological makeup is whatever? What part is just me? What part is what I was given? In some ways, it’s the same for everybody. What’s the difference between who you are and who your family is and what they gave you? Maybe that’s just intensified for people who inherit a particularly difficult history. I wondered it for years. Was I just depressed, or was I feeling this familial, generational trauma? I guess it can be both. I still don’t really know. I just think the question is really interesting.

Zibby: Me too. I feel like it’s hard to get around. It’s in there. It’s just hard to sift out, if we use our baker’s analogy, as we turn that little flour thing. That’s as close as I’m getting to baking today.

Lauren: Thankfully.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Lauren: Whenever I’m asked that question, I have the same answer. I say it to myself all the time. Look up from your phone. Look around. Pay attention. I’m always head down looking at my phone too like we all are. I often wonder what the next generation of writing is going to look like because I feel like the most important thing to do is to pay attention to the world and be really just wide open to it, eyes and ears and all senses. Look up. Pay attention. This book has been a part of me for over two decades. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Work as much as you can. I don’t write every day. I would love to say that I do, but I can’t. I don’t. As much as possible, put your butt in the chair even if it’s terrible. Often it is, but the writing process, it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be work. You have to do it every day. Well, you don’t have to do it every day, but you have to do it as much as you can.

Zibby: All good advice.

Lauren: And read. Read so much. I’ve heard people say, I’m a writer, but I don’t like to read. You can’t. You have to read. You have to be a part of the conversation with other writers and other readers. That’s my favorite. I’ll take an hour during the day and just read and be like, nope, it’s my job, I have to, as you well know.

Zibby: I do that too. I’m the same way. I’m like, yeah, sorry, I’m just going to sit here.

Lauren: It’s work.

Zibby: It’s work. Do you have a genre you like the most?

Lauren: Right now, I’m reading a lot of historical fiction because those are the conversations I’ve been having. I was never particularly drawn to it before, but I’m loving it now. I love contemporary fiction. I’m so Catholic in my taste. I have one book in my office, one book in the living room, and one book upstairs. I’ll just read wherever I am and whatever is good.

Zibby: I’m the same way.

Lauren: I know you are.

Zibby: I’ve now made this into my work or whatever, but I’ve been like this forever. There’s always a book . It’s very comforting to know that no matter where you are in your own life, you can escape into someone else’s in a moment’s notice.

Lauren: Completely. You’ll never be bored. You can tune everything else out.

Zibby: Bored, lonely, forget it.

Lauren: I know. It’s a secret. You’re never bored or lonely. Why doesn’t everybody know that?

Zibby: I know.

Lauren: My kids are like, “I don’t like to read.” Okay. It’s their rebellion.

Zibby: I asked my son who’s six and is obsessed with the iPad because obviously with COVID, that’s what happens, I’m like, “You used to like to read last year.” He’s like, “Yeah, but it’s not as entertaining.” It kind of broke my heart. How can a graphic novel even compete with the bells and whistles of his video games?

Lauren: Just pretend you don’t care. Just act like that’s fine. Then he’ll be like, maybe I should read.

Zibby: I do restrict the time somewhat, so I’m hoping that — I don’t know about you, I’ve never wanted to force reading on my kids because I don’t want it to seem like one of those things. I never want to be like, now you have to read, but maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know.

Lauren: No, I don’t either. How can you? My kids, they don’t do anything I say anyway, so that wouldn’t go over.

Zibby: Good point. Very good point. Lauren, it was great chatting with you. Congratulations on this beautiful novel. I’m really excited for you. I hope it finds a home with lots of people because it is quite different, I feel, than the widely written-about time period. I feel like this book is different. It really stands apart. I hope people delve into it and meet your lovely women.

Lauren: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Lauren: Thanks. You too.

Zibby: Bye, Lauren.

Lauren: Bye.

Lauren Fox, SEND FOR ME