author of The Second Winter
OP: Most novels set during the Second World War tend to focus on Germany, England, and the United States. What made you want to write about a family in Denmark in the early 1940s?
Fredrik is based very loosely on my father’s uncle, who was a member of the Danish resistance during World War II. When I was five years old, I came across a photograph of “Fredrik” when we were visiting Denmark, and I vividly remember the impression it made upon me. This man was a literal giant. He could have wrapped a hand around my body. I asked my dad who he was, and my dad told me the story of his uncle, lifting him onto his motorcycle at the end of the war and driving him through the streets of Copenhagen, showered in confetti, for the victory motorcade. As a young kid, I couldn’t quite comprehend what it meant that Fredrik had resisted the occupation—I just had a vague sense that he carried a pistol, snuck through the dark, and, as my dad told me, spent his nights with his eyes wide open, too scared to sleep. The more I learned, the more complex Fredrik’s story became. He took amphetamines to keep himself awake. He died just after the war from leukemia, contracted no doubt because of the stresses he was under. He was everything a hero should be. But he had also been sent away by his parents when he was twelve or thirteen to live on a farm, because he apparently had some sadistic tendencies and had killed family pets. And, most confusingly, he was married and had two children. It was in the contradictions of this heroic savage as father that the idea of the story was born.
When I set out to write The Second Winter, I wasn’t attempting to write about the war or even about Fredrik. Fredrik’s story gave me the language to create a metaphor. For me, the power of the novel lies in its deeper meaning: In the eyes of a child, fathers do inexplicable things—they steal, they kill, they rape. To some extent, this innocent confusion is not lost, at least not entirely, even as we grow older and place in context the things we do as adults. For me, this was the pleasure and challenge in writing the novel, to convey this beast as a man whom we not only relate to but in some measure love.
OP: You paint such a vivid portrait of Denmark and the characters that populate The Second Winter. Did you do a lot of research before you began writing the novel?
Most of the imagery from the novel comes from my own memories—people I met and places I visited as a child. My father immigrated to the United States when he was fifteen, and as I grew up, we made many trips back to Denmark in the summers. Likewise, as a kid I became fascinated with the idea of Germany occupying Denmark, and I grew up on these stories told by my father, which took on the stature of myths in my mind. I believe that it is these personal memories, even if sometimes second- and third-hand, that lend the novel its verisimilitude.
That said, it was also very important to get the history and atmosphere right. The beauty I discovered in writing historical fiction is that it gives a writer cultural reference points that have become a language of their own. I was able to invoke certain icons or truths—such as Nazism or the Star of David or King Christian on his horse—that a reader will understand to mean more than just these few words or images; then to manipulate those icons in a way that gave depth to the story. For example, the fact that Hermann Schmidt, who takes the photograph of Polina, is a Nazi predisposes a reader to think of him as a bad man, which I was then able to use to my advantage in demonstrating that he might also have some good in him with which a reader can identify. In any event, this exercise only works if the writer gets the history and atmosphere right.
OP: The Second Winter has so many moving parts, with a large cast of characters, and it covers more than five decades. Did you have any writing tricks or quirks to help you wrangle all that time?
Four years is a lot of time in which to fit various pieces together. No tricks—just hard work. The initial draft of the book materialized in a matter of weeks, as though I were channeling it. Putting it together into its present geometry, though, took countless hours longer.
OP: Fredrik and Polina are both such striking characters, yet they are so dissimilar. How did you approach each character? Toni Morrison once spoke about how she had to scale back one the characters from her novel, Pilate from Song of Solomon, so that she didn’t overwhelm the story. Did you ever feel that way about any of the characters in your novel?
What a wonderful question! The quick answer is the simple truth: A writer cannot write about anything except him or herself. This is a tautology. Even the different viewpoints that you might think you are depicting ultimately are just different sides of yourself. So both Polina and Fredrik are me, and in this sense neither could actually overwhelm the story. Not many critics would complain that Picasso used too much blue paint.
At the same time, my approach to the story was to write it with many facets—a literary manifestation of Polina’s pendant. To some extent, it is each of the primary characters’ story, Fredrik’s, Polina’s, Oskar’s, and even Amalia’s and Angela’s. The challenge for me was to find the balance that would create a consistent voice throughout. This meant placing an emphasis on the plot and on themes, as embodied in the characters, rather than choosing a single character as the primary mover of the story. My guess is that some readers will think this is Fredrik’s story, some Polina’s, some Oskar’s. I have my own thought about whom it belongs to. I will leave it to every reader to decide how they view these different voices.
OP: Music and photography both play important roles in your novel. Are music and photography important to your work as a writer?
Another wonderful question! You are making me think! I do tend to think visually. When I set out to write this book, the one rule I made for myself was to create a world the reader could see. I wanted the characters to act, and for those actions to speak entirely for themselves. I did not want to explain anything or rely upon internal monologues for meaning or insight into thoughts or emotions.
One of the starting points for this novel was the conception of Polina. I am a man, not a woman. That doesn’t mean that I cannot write about women, even from a woman’s perspective, any more than a woman cannot write from a man’s. However, I did not want to try to write outside myself. I wanted to be honest in terms of defining who Polina was to me. She starts the novel as a photograph, which is a two-dimensional piece of art. She gains more depth than any other character, in that we get to see her as a child, with her motivations revealed. Then she transcends that singularity back into a piece of art.
Music is also something that is very important to me—not necessarily specific pieces, but in its elements. Sound and rhythm become melody. Again, when I set out to write the novel, I wanted it to evoke sounds as well as images to readers. I wanted readers to be able not just to see this world but hear it. I love movies. I wanted this book to be read as sort of a film written in the mind of a reader.
One of the strongest elements of a film is its soundtrack. Think of The Royal Tenenbaums without the music. It would still be beautiful, but it would have a different power. A novelist does not have the same tool available. You can mention a piece of music—like I did by invoking “Heart and Soul,” which everyone knows. But for the most part the music I saw for the novel’s soundtrack were its sounds. Think of Hermann in the angry cacophony of the bar, then walking outside into the insistent blurry hum of the rain, then the cadence of his footsteps, then the titter of Polina’s distant laughter. I was as aware of these contrasts and sounds and echoes as I was of the visual imagery I was creating as I wrote each section of the book.