Annette Gendler’s mem­oir Jump­ing Over Shad­ows pulls read­ers into the dra­ma of World War II with its fam­i­ly tale of an ill-fat­ed mar­riage between a Jew­ish man, Gui­do, and his Chris­t­ian wife, Resi; inter­wo­ven is the equal­ly grip­ping con­tem­po­rary love sto­ry of Gendler — Resi’s great-niece — her Ger­man Jew­ish boyfriend and even­tu­al hus­band, and her con­ver­sion to Judaism. See the full review.

Amy Spun­gen: Annette, please tell us how you came up with the idea of your mem­oir Jump­ing Over Shad­ows. Was it some­thing you toyed with writ­ing about for years or did you seize upon the idea and go for it full steam ahead?

Annette Gendler: My first trip to my grand­par­ents’ home­town in the Czech Repub­lic in 2002 is the ori­gin of the book. I felt so many under­cur­rents there that I had to write about because I write to under­stand. I knew that what had hap­pened there in the 30s and 40s had pro­found­ly affect­ed my life, and while I knew most of the sto­ries, I didn’t know them well enough to recon­struct the sequence of events. When I pre­sent­ed a col­lec­tion of essays on the family’s past as my MFA the­sis in 2007, one of my advi­sors remarked that the past was only inter­est­ing in terms of how it affect­ed the present. That’s when I under­stood the full scope of the project, name­ly that I had to tell my own sto­ry in jux­ta­po­si­tion to the sto­ry of the past. It took me anoth­er five years, on and off, to write my own sto­ry and com­plete the sto­ry of the past.

AS: Was it daunt­ing to con­sid­er how much research need­ed to be accom­plished to flesh out your sto­ry? The amount of time and effort that must have gone into trav­el­ing to places like Reichen­berg in order to con­duct research and beau­ti­ful­ly recre­ate them for your read­ers was impressive.

AG: Thank you but it was not daunt­ing at all. I love that stuff! The beau­ty of this kind of fam­i­ly his­to­ry mem­oir is that it is valu­able in and of itself to my fam­i­ly and me; I did the research for myself and in return got a book out of it.

AS: Did telling your own sto­ry come more eas­i­ly, giv­en your prox­im­i­ty to the sub­ject (being the sub­ject, real­ly), or did you find that writ­ing the Annette – Har­ry Gendler sto­ry had its own challenges?

AG: Writ­ing my own love sto­ry was the hard­est thing about writ­ing Jump­ing Over Shad­ows. Not so much in terms of con­ceiv­ing of myself or Har­ry as char­ac­ters — I’d done that before in short­er pieces of mem­oir and in per­son­al essays — but how do you write your own love sto­ry with­out being sop­py? Con­vey­ing the sub­tle feel­ings between two peo­ple was real­ly hard. I wouldn’t be able to tell you exact­ly how I man­aged it, but what­ev­er I did, it seems to have worked because so many read­ers see the book as a love story.

AS: The title of your mem­oir is both intrigu­ing and evoca­tive. It’s based on a spe­cif­ic obser­va­tion by Harry’s father but seems to apply more broad­ly to the themes of the holo­caust and for­bid­den love. Can you tell us why you chose Jump­ing Over Shad­ows” as the title?

AG: Com­ing up with this title was tru­ly a group project; it was not my work­ing title. I wrote about how it all hap­pened in How to Come Up with a Book Title, but briefly: My pub­lish­er didn’t like my work­ing title and I wasn’t mar­ried to it, so the copy edi­tor brain­stormed a few titles and sent me a list. It so hap­pened that I had just read an essay by Ann Patch­ett about how she came up with the title of her first nov­el, The Patron Saint of Liars. I used her focus group tech­nique with my mem­oir stu­dents, and they argued for the title Jump­ing Over Shad­ows. When one of them point­ed out that she felt it implied an active pro­tag­o­nist, I knew this was the right title. I love that it comes organ­i­cal­ly from the book, that it’s based on a Ger­man idiom and thus encap­su­lates the mul­ti­cul­tur­al aspect of the book. I also appre­ci­ate that it can be inter­pret­ed so many dif­fer­ent ways by the reader.

AS: Could you tell us a bit about your writ­ing process? There are prac­ti­cal­ly as many meth­ods to writ­ing a book as there are authors to write them, but it’s always inter­est­ing to see what works…or doesn’t!

AG: What works for one writer doesn’t work for anoth­er. Com­mit­ting to writ­ing ear­ly in the morn­ing made a huge dif­fer­ence in my devel­op­ment as a writer. I churned out the first draft of Jump­ing Over Shad­ows dur­ing a res­i­den­cy at the Vir­ginia Cen­ter for the Cre­ative Arts. While there, I employed Hemingway’s method of pro­duc­ing at least 500 words per day but also call­ing it a day when I’d reached a good point and when I knew where I’d con­tin­ue the next day. How­ev­er, big chunks of time entire­ly devot­ed to writ­ing hap­pen only rarely in my life, so the dai­ly prac­tice of putting pen to paper, even if it’s only to do my Morn­ing Pages (I’m a firm believ­er in that prac­tice) makes all the difference.

AS: Do you feel like you are done with the mem­oir form now or do you see writ­ing anoth­er down the road? Please tell us about the writ­ing projects are you work­ing on now. When can read­ers expect to see some­thing new from you?

AG: Mem­oir is my favorite genre but I don’t think I’ll write anoth­er book-length mem­oir myself; my life, thank­ful­ly, isn’t that dra­mat­ic but you nev­er know, right? I do have a children’s book ready that is based on a true sto­ry that hap­pened to my moth­er-in-law as a hid­den child in France. I only have to find a pub­lish­er! I’ve done all the research for anoth­er children’s book that would also be his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and I have anoth­er adult sto­ry that I’d like to pur­sue that most like­ly will also turn into his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, so that might just be my new genre.

AS: What would you advise some­one prepar­ing to delve into their fam­i­ly his­to­ry in hopes of writ­ing a memoir?

AG: Start small. Find one sto­ry, one occur­rence that you find com­pelling, per­haps because it affect­ed you per­son­al­ly (the past, after all, is only inter­est­ing in terms of how it affects the present!), and then work on shap­ing it into a sto­ry. Down the line, sev­er­al small projects can turn into a book — that’s how it worked for me — but it is best to learn how to write by focus­ing on mak­ing a short piece work.

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance writer and edi­tor, lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois. 

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.