Jewish Book Council’s inaugural Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation event featuring debut authors was an excellent opportunity to talk with Alexis Landau, author of The Empire of the Senses, about writing, researching, and possibly extending a fictional Holocaust novel.
Becca Kantor: You recently completed your Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. Could you tell me more about your research, and how your critical examination of interwar literature influenced your novel?
Alexis Landau: There were two starting points for the research. In 2007 the Met had an exhibit called Glitter and Doom, which centered on the artists who were working in Berlin in the ’20s and ’30s, such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. That was always my favorite period in art history. I just loved it. At this exhibit, they had all the paintings collected in one place, and information about the characters and the people who influenced the painters. I got so swept up in it and thought, “I have to write a novel about this time and some of these people and some of these artists.” That idea was always in my mind since then.
During my Ph.D., my professors kept pressing me: “What’s going to be your critical field of interest?” At that point I was writing short stories and working on a first novel that never got published. I became more and more interested in the idea of Jewish identity and assimilation before the Holocaust, in the interwar period. I remember very clearly meeting with my advisor. I didn’t even know if it would be allowed for me to focus on the interwar period, because it didn’t feel as though it were a real category or genre. He was really supportive and said: “Yes! You can do that. That sounds amazing.”
So I started delving into the work of writers of that time and I ended up focusing on Irène Némirovsky, the author of Suite Française. No one had heard of her, even in my department, which was another reason why I wanted to write about her. Her circumstances in terms of being Jewish and in terms of being highly assimilated and well off — a lot of the cultural trappings were similar to Lev’s. The way he would think about his Jewishness was also similar. So that was where a lot of the crossover came.
BK: So much has been written about the Holocaust. You made a more unusual — and very intriguing — choice by focusing on World War I and the political and social climate that led up to World War II. Was this only because of the interests you mentioned before, or were you consciously trying to do something new?
AL: I think it was a combination of both. I definitely started off being more interested in the time period of the ’20s because of the art. That was when the artists were most productive, and by the time Hitler came to power a lot of the art was being banned. I also wanted to focus on World War I because to me that was the starting point for everything unraveling.
As I was writing, of course I could have chosen to fast-forward to the 1930s. But I didn’t want to because it’s such a vast and huge undertaking to write about the Nazi years. I didn’t feel like I wanted to try to do that. Frankly it’s pretty frightening to write about the Holocaust — thematically, but also from a personal standpoint. Like, what can I bring that is new to the table, to what’s already been said?
BK: Each of your characters has a distinct perception of Jewish identity. What were your models for these different attitudes?
AL: Lev is kind of a composite of other writers who were Jewish and writing at that time, like Joseph Roth and Irène Némirovsky. They definitely identified as being Jewish but they weren’t religious, they were very secular. They wanted to be assimilated and were assimilated to a certain extent, but not completely, of course. There was always this sense of not belonging fully, which I think I also have experienced in different ways. And so maybe that is some reflection on my own upbringing.
In terms of how Josephine looks at Jewishness, not being Jewish herself, I read accounts of how the Christian majority would view Jews. Obviously she was more sympathetic than a lot of others because she married one. But in terms of the prejudice in her family — in some circles it was more spoken than in others, but it was always there. So I wanted to capture that with her family.
In some ways Franz’s inability to be fully himself in terms of his sexuality was also a metaphor for him not being able to be himself in terms of his Jewishness. There was a lot of writing at that time in which these racial theories were starting to develop. There was a theorist, Otto Weininger, who wrote a very popular book at the time called Sex and Character in 1903. It equated femininity with Jewishness and with weakness, and not with being strong and masculine. So those kinds of preconceptions were floating around. I wanted Franz to kind of grab on to them and feel ashamed of his Jewishness because he thought it was feminine, or because he thought it wasn’t the male, German way of being.
Vicki is kind of similar to Lev. She would have been more similar, but because of who she falls in love with, she becomes much more on the Zionist track in terms of her identity. Still, she’s pretty conflicted even up until the end in terms of how much she really believes in that project.
BK: Do any of the characters reflect your own relationship with Judaism?
AL: For the first seven years of my life, my parents raised me without a lot of awareness of being Jewish. I don’t really think I fully knew I was Jewish even though my mom is Jewish and my dad is half-Jewish. My mom didn’t identify herself as Jewish. We had a Christmas tree, we weren’t religious in any sense, and the idea of being Jewish was just not in my consciousness.
Then my parents got a divorce, and my dad started dating an Orthodox Jewish woman. She was like: “You’re Jewish, and your daughter is Jewish! She doesn’t know she’s Jewish, what’s going on here?” She started taking me to temple and we would walk there because of the Sabbath; we would have to turn the lights off before the Sabbath; we had kosher plates…All this stuff that I didn’t know about was suddenly in my life and suddenly part of my identity, or supposed to be. My mom still said: “Oh yeah, well, we’re Jewish, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me.” So I grew up with all these ideas floating around about what it means to be Jewish: why you wouldn’t want to be Jewish from my mom’s standpoint, and my dad embracing it much more than he had. I think that informed me to start thinking about Jewish identity— maybe more than other people who might have had a more straightforward type of situation.
BK: What were the challenges in portraying characters with mindsets that are very much of their time while still conveying your contemporary insight into the period? Were some perspectives harder to evoke than others?
AL: One of my best friends, who is an editor, told me: “The most important thing is tone, and getting the tone right, and not having your contemporary voice barge in.” When I was writing, especially in the beginning, I was really conscious of that. I can’t write well unless I understand every aspect of a person. Not just what they’re experiencing psychologically, but also their body in time and space. Otherwise the writing becomes too disembodied, and not real. I would fall into the whirlpools of research where I might spend half a day looking at men’s fashion in the 1920s. But a certain amount of those details really fed my ability to keep going. Otherwise you’re writing in a vacuum, and then I don’t have the necessary confidence. I had to get certain things down to feel that I could move forward.
Making it feel real or feel relatable in terms of readers now, in terms of contemporary issues or even concerns, was one of my main concerns. I didn’t want to float into abstraction, such as Franz is representative of the rising Fascist movement, or Josephine is representative of changing sexual mores at the time. That is just not interesting. What makes it interesting is the humanness of the story, the emotion. Love, death, having children, being married. And those things don’t change, really, over time.
BK: Do you have any ideas of themes you might want to explore in the future?
AL: Yes, I do! Of course, writers generally freak out whenever they have to talk about their next project, but…I have this sense that The Empire of the Senses might become a trilogy. That wasn’t what I set out to do at first. But then I finished it and some time passed, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t feel like I’m done with this story.” And so the next book is probably going to be from the point of view of the son that Lev had with Leah, whom we never met. He moved with Leah to New York when he was about seven. He actually ends up fighting in World War II, because he would have been about twenty, but the focus is going to start in 1946, after the war. The book is probably going to be set in the late ’40s and early ’50s Hollywood. A lot of German artists and exiles lived here in L.A. So I think I’m heading in that direction with my next book, but we’ll see!
Alexis Landau received her MFA from Emerson College and her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Southern California. She currently teaches writing at USC and lives in Los Angeles. The Empire of the Senses is her first novel.
Becca Kantor received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has lived in Estonia, England, and Germany. Currently she lives and writes in her native Philadelphia.
Becca Kantor is the editorial director of Jewish Book Council and its annual print literary journal, Paper Brigade. She received an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Becca spent a year in Estonia on a Fulbright scholarship, writing and studying the country’s Jewish history, and another year in Germany volunteering at the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. She lives in Brooklyn.