Zibby hosted a meeting of the Peloton Moms Book Club where they were joined by Pam Jenoff to discuss her latest novel, The Woman with the Blue Star. Pam answered questions about how her career in the U.S. Foreign Service continues to inspire her books, where she draws the line between the real historical stories she uncovers and the fiction she writes, and how she has found time to write eleven novels (hint: she gets up earlier than she would like).


Host: It’s seven o’clock. I see some of the moms showing up. I just wanted to welcome everybody to the Peloton Moms Book Club virtual author chat with Pam Jenoff for The Woman with the Blue Star. It is being special guest-hosted tonight by Zibby Owens. Thank you, ladies, for coming. I’m going to take a quick moment to introduce Zibby. For those of you who don’t know Zibby, she is the creator and host of the award-winning podcast “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” It’s been one of Oprah’s favorite podcasts for two years in a row. She’s the CEO and founder of Moms Don’t Have Time To. She’s formed her own media company and has multiple podcasts. She did an anthology about Moms Don’t Have Time To during the quarantine of COVID. She has another anthology coming out this November. She does all of the things. She has her hands in all of the pies. She does a lot of things with and gives great book recommendations. I hope that you guys will check out her podcast in the future. With that, Zibby, welcome.

Zibby Owens: Thank you. My hand in all the pies, you could’ve have been in my kitchen earlier today. I’m like, were there secret cameras? Thank you for that. Thanks for having me at the Peloton Moms Book Club. I was much more active on my Peloton and have really gotten off the beaten path. I noticed that my dog’s water bowl was on there the other day. I’m like, I wonder how long it’s been there. Anyway, I am thrilled to be interviewing Pam Jenoff tonight, whose book was absolutely amazing, The Woman with the Blue Star. I’m so excited to talk to her about that tonight. This will become a podcast on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” the audio, so just letting you know that, but not the Q&A, just this part. I will read Pam’s bio from her website. Here, Pam, say hi before I launch into everything.

Pam Jenoff: Hello.

Zibby: There she is. Pam Jenoff was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England. Upon receiving her master’s in history from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor. Is that right?

Pam: Very good. Very good.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s ten years of French in school for nothing. Following her work at the Pentagon, Pam moved to the State Department. In 1996, she was assigned to the US Consulate in Krakow, Poland. It was during this period that Pam developed her expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust. Working on matters such as preservation of Auschwitz and the restitution of Jewish property in Poland, Pam developed close relations with the surviving Jewish community. Pam left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked for several years as a labor and employment attorney both at a firm and in-house in Philadelphia and now teaches law school at Rutgers. Pam is the New York Times best-selling author of The Woman with The Blue Star, The Lost Girls of Paris, The Orphan’s Tale, The Kommandant’s Girl, The Diplomat’s Wife, The Ambassador’s Daughter, The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach, The Winter Guest, The Things We Cherished, Almost Home, and A Hidden Affair. She also authored a short story in the anthology Grand Central: Original Postwar Stories of Love and Reunion. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband, three children, dog, cat, lizard, and bird. Welcome, Pam.

Pam: Thank you. Thank you for the warm introduction. I’m such a fan, Zibby, of your podcast and everything you do and all of your lists and everything. You’re a force. We’re so grateful, all the authors, as well as the reader, a consumer.

Zibby: Thank you. I am a fan of yours too and consumed this at rapid speed. I absolutely loved it. I haven’t really stopped thinking about some of the images in the book that have really been haunting me that you described in such detail. I’m not sure who in the book club actually read the book. A lot of people have their videos off, so I can’t see a show of hands. All right, Sue read it, so that’s good news for all of us. Sue and Lauren, Barb, great. For those who might not have read it, would you mind giving a brief overview of the book? Then I want to hear about what inspired you to write it.

Pam: Can I do the second part by way of lead-in? Let me tell you what inspired me to write it, which will set the stage for the story. Is that okay?

Zibby: You know what? You do however you want. I’ll just be here.

Pam: The Woman with the Blue Star came out May 4th. It’s my eleventh book. I write a lot of books set around World War II and the Holocaust, material that I’ve worked with for about twenty-five years from when I was a diplomat. I’m happy to say more about that if folks want. I have a deep love for the era. The stories I write, they don’t come from my personal experiences or even, really, people that I met. They come from stories that I find when I’m researching. I’m looking for, what am I going to write about next? When I’m looking for an idea, I’m looking for the gasp. I’m looking for the moment. If something will make me gasp after all these years of working with the war, then I’m hopeful I’m onto something that readers will feel the same way about, that will illuminate, that will teach and inspire, that we really haven’t heard about before. In this case for The Woman with the Blue Star, the gasp was the discovery of a group of Jewish people in Lviv, Poland, who survived World War II by hiding in a sewer. I don’t mean that they hid in that sewer on their way out of town. They hid and lived in that sewer for more than a year. Hearing this, I had so many questions. Who were these people? How had they survived? What were their lives like? Who had helped them?

I was particularly taken from an anecdote from the true story, I don’t write true stories, but an anecdote from the true story in which a young girl looked up through the sewer grate and she saw a girl her own age buying flowers. She was so taken by the disparity between her life and the girl above. Her mother said to her, “Someday, there will be flowers for you.” It was this kind of promise. When I heard that, I imagined, what would it have been like if the girl below and the girl above had the chance to get to know one another? What would that have meant for both of their lives? That’s a very long introduction to say that The Woman with the Blue Star is about Sadie. She’s a young Jewish woman who is living in the sewer hiding with her parents. Although, she increasingly becomes isolated. One day, she looks up and she sees Ella on the street. Ella is not Jewish. At first glance, Ella has it pretty good. She’s from an affluent family. She’s not being persecuted. When we look closer, we see that Ella has lost all of her family except for her really horrible stepmother, who is consorting with the Germans, and her ex-fiancée who hasn’t even told her that he’s back from the war. Ella has this really deep loneliness and need. When she sees Sadie through the sewer grate, there’s a very powerful connection between them.

Zibby: Wow. The image of the flowers and that moment, the whole thing was just so random. It’s almost hard to comprehend that two people living on opposite sides of town could have such divergent paths and have to face off with just this barrier between them and the lengths to which people will go. It was amazing, these stories of survival and the way that you put us in that moment at the time and everything. It’s also such a great show of female friendship and what people are willing to do for each other. Tell me a little bit more about developing that relationship between the two girls and how you made that believable and how you treated that, how to get people to relate and yet have it work so well on the page.

Pam: One of the things I love best about historical fiction is taking women who, through normal history, would’ve walked on a very set path and suddenly, through war or catastrophe, they are thrown off that path. They’re tested and challenged in ways that they never thought possible. It’s really fun to see how they grow and respond in those situations. One of those parts that’s super fun is taking women who, through normal circumstances, never would’ve met, never would’ve crossed paths, but because of the war, they do, and seeing what happens with them. Specifically with Ella and Sadie, I like to keep it very real. If you read the author’s note for The Woman with the Blue Star, you will know that I turned in a clunker of a first draft. After eleven books, I handed in a book and my editor was like, “No.” I’m like, “No?” “No.” I had to rewrite this book in five months. Part of what changed was — my first draft was only from Sadie’s point of view. It was only the girl in the sewer. It was my genius editor, who’s always right, who said, “We need to see Sadie’s point of view and Ella’s point of view.” That’s how it evolved. I wasn’t sure. It was difficult to open it up to Ella.

Zibby: I know, I loved in your note how you were like, yeah, we’re going to go there. You had something funny. You said, yep, not going to lie, this is really what happened.

Pam: It was so true, so true.

Zibby: After eleven books, take us back to the beginning. How did you start writing historical fiction? What appealed to you about the genre? How did you tackle the first book and keep getting better and better until we end up with these really vibrant characters today?

Pam: Thank you. I was one of those little kids who always wanted to be a writer. It was always novels, never short stories, never poems. I was like, I’m going to write a book. I’m going to write a book. Then all through those many years when I lived in Europe and I went to school, I had plenty of time to write, but I never got started. You know what I mean. You’ve got this project you want to get off the ground, and you can’t. It was always the novel for me. I have lots of novels shoved in drawers. The turning point in my life was actually 9/11. I had worked for the State Department. I came from the State Department. I went to law school. I graduated from law school in Philadelphia. I started working at a big law firm on September 4th, 2001. It’s a big deal. It’s coming up this week. I started on a Tuesday. One Tuesday later, 9/11 happened. I was sitting at my desk at a law firm. I love attorneys. I make baby lawyers. I teach law school. That’s what I do. I think it’s a wonderful profession, but that was the moment when I said, I have a deeper dream of being a novelist.

If I don’t get started — I could’ve been a 9/11 victim. It never would’ve happened. It was that life mortality moment. I took a course at Temple night school in Philadelphia. I teach at Rutgers, but this course was at Temple. The course was actually called Write Your Novel This Year. I started to work on a book. Interestingly, I didn’t set out to write historical fiction, Zibby. I started out with two first chapters in that workshop. One was a historical. One was a present-day. People responded more to the historical, and so that became my first book, The Kommandant’s Girl. I started in that writing workshop, which was a wonderful experience. Just because I joined a workshop didn’t mean I was off to the races. It was five years and thirty-nine publisher rejections before I got accepted on that first book. Bear in mind, I was a new attorney at a big law firm. I had a thousand dollars a month in student loan debt, so I couldn’t just go be a writer. I used to write the books from five to seven in the morning before I went to the firm. That was how it all came together. I will tell you, I always read a lot of historical fiction growing up, so maybe it was fated.

Zibby: People talk about how crazy it is to work at law firms and how you have no time to yourself. That is so all-encompassing. The fact that you could do it simultaneously is particularly impressive. Why did you not give up after forty-eight rejections?

Pam: You know what happened? We submitted my first book, Kommandant’s Girl, everywhere and would get all of these rejections. Then the agent I worked with at the time, he said, “Go write another book. We’ll sell that one first. Then we’ll bootstrap this in,” as if it were that easy. I was diligently working on another book for eleven months. On April 8th, 2005, I was at the firm. It was a Friday afternoon. The caller ID pops up on my work phone. Even then, people emailed. It wasn’t all phone calls. I picked up the phone. It was my agent. I said, “Are you calling to fire me?” This poor guy had not made a dime off of my work. He said no. Then I thought he was calling to yell at me for not finishing that second book. He said, “No, I’m calling to tell you I sold the first book.” It turned out that one publisher that we didn’t even know was still reading it made a tiny, little offer for Kommandant’s Girl, and off we went. I honestly believe that the only difference between me and anyone who’s not published is largely just keeping going. In that original writer’s workshop, there were many better writers than me. That’s not modesty. I’m being straight-up. There were some great writers in that workshop. I think sometimes that the only reason I’m here is just because I kept knocking.

Zibby: If you’re a salesman trying to sell milk, and it’s spoiled milk, it doesn’t matter how many doors you knock on. You have to have something.

Pam: It’s true. Also, I didn’t just keep knocking. I kept doing five AM. It was definitely that, more perspiration than — however Ben Franklin says it. More perspiration than inspiration. I don’t know.

Zibby: So you started on your journey. You got that published. Then fast-forward to today. When you wrote all those other books along the way, was it still those anecdotes every so often and just the stories that you happened to find and hear? You kept taking them, and then all of a sudden, now you’ve written two handfuls of books? It’s amazing.

Pam: I started with Kommandant’s Girl. I actually wound up writing a sequel and a prequel to that book. That was really fun. Then I wrote a couple modern books. I wandered around a few different publishers. I sort of had a long and winding road, but I always came back to World War II and the stories. There were always stories. Look, there are moments when we’ve looked at it and I’ve said, is World War II played out? Actually, I will tell you honestly. It was right after The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Zibby: That was so good. Both of those were so good.

Pam: Both of those books were so epic. I looked around. I’m like, well, it can’t be done any better. How do we do this? I looked around. Then there were still stories to be told and a great appetite with readers. Some of my books have been modern. I wrote one book that was set on the home front during World War II which I particularly love. It’s called The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach. Then back to stories during the war. It’s just that little nugget of history that sets me off. If I think it’s amazing and I can do it respectfully, then that’s where I start.

Zibby: Did you ever think about this being YA or middle grade or anything? You know how sometimes when you have a protagonist who’s younger, now all of a sudden, that means you’re in the YA category? This is maybe too talking-shop situation.

Pam: No, it’s true.

Zibby: I read part of this out loud to my daughter who’s eight. She likes me to read whatever I’m reading that night to her before we go to bed. Not to say it’s for an eight-year-old, obviously. This is a lot of complex themes and everything. She was really interested because it’s someone close to her age going through something. I don’t know if you had considered it.

Pam: It’s a good point. Actually, my favorite books are kids’ and YA because I think those authors are just deities. Twenty-five years ago, I worked at Borders for a summer. I was like, can I please work in the YA section? I love those books. I don’t have the voice for kids and YA. For some reason, my protagonists tend to be younger. They tend to be that age of women. When Kommandant’s Girl came out, Publishers Weekly called it historical romance at its finest. I was like, romance? It doesn’t even have a romance. I don’t really always love the genre thing. My books can be read by YA. It depends on the parent’s sensitivity. One of my eleven-year-old twins has read three of my books already. That’s fine. They’re very PG-13. There’s not a lot of graphic anything. I write my books so that my mom can read them. Most of them are pretty okay for the younger set. I’m happy if they read them, yes.

Zibby: Where was your family around World War II? What’s your personal story?

Pam: Interestingly, all four of my grandparents are from that area known as the Pale that could be Poland, could be Ukraine, could be Russia based on what year it was. When I lived in Poland, I was there for almost two and half years. I would always try and take trains east to see where my family was from. It was very, very difficult. All of my grandparents — I should say great-grandparents in some cases because three of my grandparents were born here. All of my grandparents and great-grandparents were in America by the time the war happened, so I lost no blood family in the Holocaust. My one grandmother whose story is fabulous, her family fled Russia for China when she was two. She lived in China for twenty years. She came to America by way of Japan, Hawaii, San Francisco, and across. I wrote about her story in the Grand Central anthology. I sort of borrowed her story. I didn’t lose family in the Holocaust. When I lived in Poland, I became extremely close to the elderly survivors who were still living in that part of the world. They were like grandparents to me as well.

Zibby: Wow. I was chatting with a woman today whose grandparents also — they were born around the time — let me see if I get the dates right. Anyway, they were born there. Her parents were born in DP camps, both of her parents, in different camps. She actually also had really interesting stories about — I don’t want to give anything away, but babies and having families in the Holocaust time and era and all this stuff. I should put you guys in touch at some point.

Pam: That would be amazing.

Zibby: Having lived through these characters’ eyes and all of it, the mom, the dad, Lily, Sadie, what did you learn about the period? Even though you’ve read eight million things about it, I’m sure, and written and all this stuff and researched and met people, where did it take you that you hadn’t expected?

Pam: Obviously, the sewer was kind of a revelation to me, but it wasn’t just this sewer. First of all, it brought together people who were from really different backgrounds who didn’t know each other above ground. They’re suddenly living in this cramped space. The detail of their lives — there were books. How did they have light? How did they celebrate the Sabbath, observe the Sabbath, and all of those things? The other piece that I really took away from this was the man who helped them. There was a fellow in real life named Leopold. In my book, he’s Pavel. He was a sewer worker. He was not a particularly honorable person. He had been a thief before the war. He met this family. Originally, he agreed to help for money. Then they ran out of money, and he still kept helping. He and his wife would go to all these markets around the city to get food without attracting attention and just risk their own family. He was a great hero. He died not more than two years after the war. He and his daughter were riding bikes. A truck came barreling toward them. He pushed his young daughter out of the way to save her life. Even then, he was a hero. It’s these individual stories that are really so moving.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Do you already know what story you’re going to work on next?

Pam: Here’s my rule. I don’t let myself start a new book until one is finished. You can’t play with that shiny, new toy in the corner until you clean up your toys. That’s very important, but I never take a break. I’m pretty much right back into it once I’ve got that idea. I am working on a book inspired by a true story of the only known train sabotage of a train on the way to Auschwitz. There was a train going from Belgium to Auschwitz that was sabotaged to try and rescue people. That’s what I’m looking at fictiously in my new book.

Zibby: What happened in real life?

Pam: They did get some people off, but obviously, there’s great cost. My book looks at both the people who were on the train — again, my characters are fictious. It’s both people who were on the train and people who were engaged in the sabotage.

Zibby: Rachel, in the chat, is very excited about this.

Pam: Thank you. It’s not going to be out until early 2023. I’m going to be honest. That sounds really far away to you, and it sounds too close to me.

Zibby: It’s close. You have to step up, step on the gas here.

Pam: It’s close. I’m trying to hustle. I’m hustling. Five AM writing has become four AM writing. That’s not a place I like to go.

Zibby: Yeah, the fours are tough.

Pam: Right? It’s a crazy difference. I’m telling my kids, five is awesome, but four is terrible.

Zibby: It’s a fine line. In a minute, we can bring all the questions in from the chat. As you all are listening, if you have questions — there’s already a lot in the chat, but add any questions in here. Everybody’s so excited. We can ask crowdsourced questions tonight. Did you know the ending of this book at the beginning? I did not see the ending coming until the end.

Pam: Let me say this. I’m sure you’ve heard this, Zibby.

Zibby: Oh, someone just asked the question in the chat. I did not get that from the chat.

Pam: That’s hilarious. Great minds. Here’s the thing. You know this, probably, from other writers. There’s these two types of writers: the plotters and the pantsers. The plotters are the dear souls that write everything sequentially. They make it look nice before they move on. That’s not me. I’m a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants. I throw words at a screen in a random order. It’s terrible. The reason I’m telling you this is I’m never sure — if you say, did you know at the beginning what the ending is? there isn’t really a beginning or ending for me. It kind of all happens at once. It’s very hard for me to go back chronologically and think about what I knew when. I often know an opening scene. I often have some idea where I wind up at the end. In between, there’s one or two scenes that I call high moments. They’re little lighthouses that help me get along the way. I probably knew how the book was going to end, roughly, but maybe not who.

Zibby: Got it. So did you go back and write the prologue later?

Pam: I’ll have a rough sketch of the prologue. If you read that prologue and you really don’t know who is speaking, per se, I don’t necessarily know that either. I’m throwing down those words. Someone once said that the plotters use scaffolding to build, but the pantsers, it’s like an archaeological dig where you’re picking up an object and dusting it off and trying to see what’s there. That’s how it works for me. It’s sort of immersive in that way.

Zibby: I like it. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Pam: I do. I think there’s three things that are really key. One is discipline. This probably goes to the moms not having time to read. Discipline is, you know when your best writing time is, and you really have to protect is very zealously. Even after all these years, not my beloved mom or my sainted husband who’s downstairs taking care of the puppy and the kids right now, nobody says, why don’t you go take some writing time? People just don’t say that to us in our lives. You have to, this is mine. You have to do that a little bit and be flexible and pivot like we all did with COVID. That’s one piece. Be disciplined. Second piece, be tenacious. That goes back to that writing workshop and me knocking on the door until it opened. I think that makes a really huge difference even when lots of people said, why don’t you give this up? It isn’t going anywhere. The last piece is ability to revise. This is where having been an attorney comes in helpful. When you’re an attorney, people mark up your work. You have to fix it. As a writer, if you can take that feedback from your editor, your agent, your trusted writers, whoever you’re getting feedback from, and make the changes in your own way — often, they don’t give you solutions. They only give you problems. You have to figure out the solution. Think ability to revise.

Zibby: I like it. Excellent. Amazing. Thanks, Pam, for chatting. We’re going to keep chatting with everybody here, but for the podcast portion, I’m going to turn it off and free you from that. Hold on, I’ll say goodbye.



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