Alex­is Lan­dau recent­ly com­plet­ed her PhD in Lit­er­a­ture and Cre­ative Writ­ing at USC, where she cur­rent­ly teach­es writ­ing. The Empire of the Sens­es is her first nov­el. Orig­i­nal­ly from Los Ange­les, she lives there with her hus­band and two chil­dren. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

One of the first ques­tions many peo­ple ask me about the book is if it reflects my own fam­i­ly his­to­ry — if it is, to a cer­tain extent, my fam­i­ly sto­ry. And the answer is resound­ing­ly no. I was actu­al­ly drawn to write this detailed gen­er­a­tional sto­ry because there is such a lack of sto­ry in my own fam­i­ly. I am an only child, and my par­ents are estranged from all of their rel­a­tives. My grand­par­ents have died, and even when they were liv­ing there wasn’t much con­tact. The con­cept of hav­ing an extend­ed fam­i­ly, of aunts, uncles, and cousins was and still is a for­eign one. I often won­der about my fam­i­ly — where they came from, what my great grand­par­ents were like, but I received vague blur­ry answers that nev­er felt sat­is­fac­to­ry. The facts changed to the point at which it didn’t seem to mat­ter any­more — some­times my father’s fam­i­ly was said to have emi­grat­ed from Rus­sia, some­times Lithua­nia or Poland, some­times even Ger­many. The lack of infor­ma­tion was often cou­pled with a shrug, because no one seemed all that inter­est­ed in talk­ing about it. The few sto­ries that do exist are more recent mem­o­ries that my moth­er and father recount­ed about grow­ing up in the 40s and 50s and even these sto­ries are not told often. Any­thing before the post­war peri­od is pret­ty much a blank. So in my desire for some kind of fam­i­ly sto­ry, I decid­ed to cre­ate one, and this desire for a bet­ter under­stand­ing of my past, even if it wasn’t my past, but a past, is in part what shaped the writ­ing of this book. 

Why I decid­ed to focus on this par­tic­u­lar peri­od in his­to­ry is anoth­er ques­tion I’m fre­quent­ly asked. In 2007 the Met had an exhib­it Glit­ter and Doom about the artists who were work­ing in Berlin in the 20s and 30s, such as Otto Dix and Max Beck­mann. This was always my favorite peri­od in art his­to­ry and dur­ing the exhib­it, while view­ing all the paint­ings col­lect­ed in one place, and infor­ma­tion about the peo­ple who influ­enced the painters as well as the painters them­selves, I became so swept up in it and thought, I have to write a nov­el about this time and place — such an intense, fore­bod­ing but also incred­i­bly cre­ative peri­od in Euro­pean his­to­ry.” Then the sec­ond start­ing point occurred dur­ing my time as a grad­u­ate stu­dent in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture and Cre­ative Writ­ing at USC — I had to choose a crit­i­cal field of inter­est which is sep­a­rate from one’s cre­ative work, and I became increas­ing­ly inter­est­ed in the idea of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and assim­i­la­tion dur­ing the inter­war peri­od. It seemed cru­cial to under­stand what it meant to be Jew­ish before the Holo­caust, giv­en how after the Holo­caust, and after the birth of Israel, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty under­went so much change and rede­f­i­n­i­tion. I remem­ber very clear­ly meet­ing with my advi­sor. I didn’t even know if it I would be allowed to focus on the inter­war peri­od, because it didn’t feel as though it were a real cat­e­go­ry or genre. But my advi­sor was real­ly sup­port­ive and said: Yes! You can do that. That sounds amaz­ing.” So I start­ed delv­ing into the work of writ­ers such as Kaf­ka and Joseph Roth, and I end­ed up focus­ing on Irène Némirovsky, the author of Suite Française. No one had heard of her, not 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 cir­cum­stances (the pro­tag­o­nist of The Empire of the Sens­es), which increased my inter­est in her life as a Russ­ian Jew­ish writer liv­ing in Paris between the wars. 

Also, in terms of begin­ning the book at the start of World War I and end­ing the book in 1928, I want­ed to focus on this time peri­od not only because it was such an explo­sion of art and cre­ativ­i­ty, but also because dur­ing this time in Berlin, there were so many forces under­min­ing the sta­tus quo, in terms of sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der, as well as the polit­i­cal cli­mate, and I was excit­ed to con­vey all of these inter­sect­ing and some­times con­flict­ing cul­tur­al cur­rents through the char­ac­ters and the choic­es they make. 

The Top Five” books that inspired me while I was writ­ing The Empire of the Sens­es:

1. Suite Fran­caise by Irene Nemirovsky 

2. My Bril­liant Friend, The Sto­ry of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Ele­na Fer­rante (a tril­o­gy fol­low­ing the evo­lu­tion of a friend­ship between two women in Naples Italy, from the 50s to the near present day) 

3. Ene­mies, A Love Sto­ry by Isaac Singer (a won­der­ful­ly fun­ny and insight­ful nov­el about Jew­ish refugees liv­ing in New York after the war)

4. The Radet­zky March by Joseph Roth (an epic gen­er­a­tional nov­el about the fall of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an empire)

5. Glit­ter and Doom: Ger­man Por­traits from the 1920s by Sabine Rewald and Ian Buru­ma (a fan­tas­tic col­lec­tion of paint­ings by artists work­ing dur­ing this peri­od, who were still reel­ing from World War I and try­ing to under­stand and define a new era of unprece­dent­ed sex­u­al­i­ty and artis­tic freedom) 

In the New York area? See Alex­is Lan­dau live at JBC’s Unpack­ing the Book event on Feb­ru­ary 24th at The Jew­ish Muse­um. Find out more infor­ma­tion here.

Relat­ed Content:

Alex­is Lan­dau is a grad­u­ate of Vas­sar Col­lege and received an MFA from Emer­son Col­lege and a PhD in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is the author of The Empire of the Sens­es and lives with her hus­band and two chil­dren in Los Angeles.