Jonathan Arlan recent­ly spoke to Jes­si­ca Keen­er about her moody and cap­ti­vat­ing nov­el, Strangers in Budapest.

Jonathan Arlan: Annie and Will are Amer­i­cans liv­ing in Budapest in the 1990s, not long after the fall of Com­mu­nism. They are ide­al­is­tic and hope­ful about start­ing a new life in the city, and about the pos­si­bil­i­ties that could open up to them—there seems to be a boom hap­pen­ing all around, cul­tur­al­ly and finan­cial­ly. Yet it remains just out of reach. What was it about putting these peo­ple in this very par­tic­u­lar place and moment in time that appealed to you?

Jes­si­ca Keen­er: The mid-1990s were a unique time in Hun­gary. Because Com­mu­nism was no longer the orga­niz­ing struc­ture for the coun­try, there was a tremen­dous sense of free­dom and release, but also of uncer­tain­ty and fear. When old struc­tures are dis­man­tled, what will replace them? When old ways are no longer the norm, what is the norm? My char­ac­ters, Annie and Will Gor­don, are also attempt­ing to dis­man­tle some­thing in their lives and reach for some­thing new and untried. They quick­ly learn that change is not so easy — it takes time and it’s evo­lu­tion­ary. Budapest, with its con­flu­ence of con­flict­ing and oppos­ing impuls­es, per­fect­ly mir­rored exter­nal­ly what I was try­ing to cap­ture and reveal inter­nal­ly about my characters.

JA: You spent time in Hun­gary in the 1990s. What were your ini­tial impres­sions of the city? How do you think those mem­o­ries informed Annie and Will’s expe­ri­ence in the novel?

JK: I’m a Boston native, and when I vis­it­ed Budapest for the first time, I was smit­ten by the sim­i­lar­i­ties between the two places — the archi­tec­ture of the build­ings, the street­car sys­tems, the rivers that run through each city. Budapest has the Danube. Boston has the Charles. There are even paths that cut through the hills of my town in Brook­line (which is just out­side Boston) that are very sim­i­lar to the ones in Buda, the hilly side of Budapest. When I was liv­ing in Budapest, many of the build­ings were rid­dled with bul­let holes. It was a con­stant reminder of human destruc­tion. I vis­it­ed the Jew­ish dis­trict and was haunt­ed by the old syn­a­gogue that was emp­ty and in dis­re­pair. (It has since been ren­o­vat­ed.) At the time, no one talked about the Jews or how the coun­try sent 800,000 Jews to death and work camps. This haunt­ed me for many rea­sons, but fore­most because my father fought in World War II and his army divi­sion helped lib­er­ate Dachau. I cre­at­ed Annie and Will to explore one way in which peo­ple man­age their lives after expe­ri­enc­ing or wit­ness­ing violence.

JA: Have you been back to Budapest since?

JK: No. But, now that my nov­el is fin­ished and out in the world, I would love to return. It’s a beau­ti­ful city. The syn­a­gogue has been restored. There’s a memo­r­i­al on the Danube that hon­ors the lives of Jews slaugh­tered on the river­banks of the riv­er dur­ing World War II. I want to see those changes and more. At the same time, I’m con­cerned about the polit­i­cal shifts going on there. Human­i­ty is messy.

JA: The Jew­ish under­ground move­ment is a fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ter in the long his­to­ry of Jews in Hun­gary. In the nov­el, two Hun­gar­i­an friends of Annie and Will had been involved in the move­ment dur­ing World War II and are now liv­ing in the Unit­ed States.How did you first learn about the under­ground? Why was it impor­tant to incor­po­rate this piece of his­to­ry into the book?

JK: When I was liv­ing in Atlanta, I met an old­er Jew­ish woman, Han­nah Wein­stein Entell, who had worked for the under­ground, pro­vid­ing food for pris­on­ers of war. Han­nah was born in Vien­na and escaped Aus­tria in the 1930s. I was tak­en by Hannah’s zest for life, her pos­i­tive ener­gy, her inter­est in peo­ple, and her for­ti­tude. She also intro­duced me to George Fried­mann, a Hun­gar­i­an Jew who escaped the Ger­mans dur­ing World War II. He, too, had an amaz­ing life force that inspired me. In my nov­el, there is a minor char­ac­ter, Rose, who once worked for the under­ground and sets things in motion for Will and Annie. I incor­po­rat­ed this aspect of his­to­ry into my nov­el as a reminder that peo­ple are com­pli­cat­ed and not what they appear to be on the sur­face. Peo­ple who have lived through unthink­able strug­gles and walk by us every day. As a Jew, I feel an acute aware­ness sur­round­ing this idea of hid­den stories.

As I wrote, I thought about all the immi­grants who have come to Amer­i­ca to escape oppres­sion. My grand­fa­ther came through Ellis Island in order to escape the Russ­ian Czar, and I exist because of this deci­sion my grand­fa­ther made. It takes enor­mous courage to speak up, to risk your life and flee. My char­ac­ter Edward Weiss is a fight­er for jus­tice. He is in pur­suit of the truth. I want­ed read­ers to encounter some­one like Edward in my book and think about how dif­fi­cult it is to actu­al­ly stand up and take action against wrongdoing.

JA: The rela­tion­ship between Annie and Edward is both ten­der and, in some ways, trag­ic. What do you think they see in each other?

JK: Recent­ly, at an author event, a per­son in the audi­ence observed that both Annie and Edward drink a lot of water in the nov­el. (My nov­el takes place in the sum­mer and heat is a fac­tor.) The per­son com­ment­ed that she thought Annie and Edward were both thirst­ing for life. With­out giv­ing away plot points, I think Annie is drawn to Edward because he’s able to tap into her life force — her most authen­tic self — some­thing she found hard to do. Edward is drawn to Annie because there is some­thing about her that reminds him of his dead daugh­ter. Get­ting to know Annie is Edward’s sec­ond chance to love his daugh­ter with more empa­thy and com­pas­sion, some­thing he failed to do when she was alive.

JA: At one point, you draw an inter­est­ing com­par­i­son between Vien­na and Budapest — both for­mer cap­i­tals of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an empire. You write, In Aus­tria, rem­nants of great­ness left imprints like fos­sils.” In con­trast, Budapest is messy, worn-down, and full of ener­gy — it is tak­ing risks. Was the nov­el always set in Budapest? How dif­fer­ent do you think it would have been if you’d set it in Vienna?

JK: The nov­el was always set in Budapest and truth­ful­ly I could not envi­sion my sto­ry set any­where else — cer­tain­ly not Vien­na. This is because Vien­na is a much dif­fer­ent place. It has immense wealth. It dom­i­nat­ed Europe at one point. Aus­tri­ans speak Ger­man, not an uncom­mon lan­guage glob­al­ly. Hun­gary is much more insu­lar because of is lan­guage, which most peo­ple don’t know. Budapest is like the poor coun­try cousin to Vien­na. It has to prove more to the world in order to be heard and rec­og­nized. At the same time, Budapest is more mys­te­ri­ous, intrigu­ing, and haunt­ing — that word again. This is the atmos­phere I want­ed to cap­ture in my novel.

JA: I’m curi­ous about Annie and Will, Edward, and Stephen. They are very dif­fer­ent peo­ple, from com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent back­grounds — dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions, dif­fer­ent coun­tries. But they’re thrown togeth­er in this sto­ry in a way that feels organ­ic and almost inevitable. How did these char­ac­ters come togeth­er for you?

JK: I’m glad you asked this ques­tion. I want­ed my sto­ry to be multi­gen­er­a­tional, to encom­pass the life cycle from young to old. It’s why I also have a baby in the sto­ry (Annie and Will’s infant son). I want­ed to show that his­to­ry is some­thing that is passed on in our per­son­al, domes­tic lives as well as our cul­tur­al and social lives. I’m also inter­est­ed in what peo­ple can learn from each oth­er despite dif­fer­ences in age, reli­gion, or expe­ri­ence. Often we learn the most when we meet some­one we think is very dif­fer­ent than who we are. Usu­al­ly, we find the com­mon denom­i­na­tor through a meet­ing of the heart. My char­ac­ters are dif­fer­ent on the out­side, yet they are each push­ing hard to come to terms with who they real­ly are.

JA: What are you work­ing on next?

JK: A nov­el set in Boston, in present time, which deals with spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, mar­riage, and love.

Jonathan Arlan is a writer and edi­tor cur­rent­ly based in Kansas City. He is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished trav­el mem­oir Moun­tain Lines: A Jour­ney through the French Alps.