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.