This week, Pam Jenoff, the author of six novels blogs for The Postscript on writing a prequel to her first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl. The Postscript series is a special peek “behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy little extra something to add to a book club’s discussion and a reader’s understanding of how the book came together.
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Six years ago, I published my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl, which told the story of Emma, a young Jewish woman struggling to survive in Poland during the Second World War, while spying on – and becoming involved with — a high ranking Nazi official. Following the publication of its sequel, The Diplomat’s Wife, which followed Emma’s best friend Marta in the aftermath of the war, readers continuously asked, “Will there be another book?”
I was not sure how to answer: I had told the stories I wanted to tell about these two women, and going forward in time beyond the 1940’s didn’t feel much like the historical fiction my readers love so much. Then I had an idea: why not write a prequel to The Kommandant’s Girl? My first novel alluded to a rich history of an ill-fated romance between the Nazi official Georg and his first wife Margot, who was Jewish. I “discovered” that they had met at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and so began The Ambassador’s Daughter.
Writing a prequel as not easy. It is always difficult when writing historical fiction to balance the need for accuracy (which savvy readers demand) and the creative imperatives of plot, narrative arc, tension, etc. Here, this challenge was compounded by the need to remain consistent with and true to a future history already written in the subsequent two books. I was also initially worried about keeping suspenseful enough a story whose final chapter seemed to have already been told. But there proved to be boundless mysteries to explore in the dark years before The Kommandant’s Girl, with twists and turns that continually surprised me.
The idea of going back in time proved to be exciting. The period just after the First World War is such rich historical ground for storytelling, with the whole world being rebuilt. I had some trepidation, though, as to whether the many readers who love the myriad novels that have been set during the Second World War would follow me back in time. Fortunately, readers seem to be discovering this earlier era, as evidenced by the popularity of recent novels such as The Paris Wife and books about Fitzgerald and Zelda.
Perhaps my favorite part of The Ambassador’s Daughter is the final third, which follows Georg and Margot back to Berlin. It was inspired by some research I had done for an earlier novel, The Things We Cherished, into the Jewish community of Weimar Berlin, where Jews were facing important questions Zionism versus assimilation, and what their roles were to be in the new order of Germany and Europe at large. It is simply fascinating to explore their perspective in light of the tragic events to come.
My next novel, The Winter Guest, will return to the Second World War and twin Polish sisters who find an American paratrooper downed in the woods. But I’m very grateful to have taken this detour back in time with The Ambassador’s Daughter to learn the story behind the story.
Pam Jenoff is the author of several books of historical fiction, including the New York Times bestseller The Orphan’s Tale. She holds a degree in international affairs from George Washington University and a degree in history from Cambridge, and she received her JD from the University of Pennsylvania. Her novels are inspired by her experiences working at the Pentagon and as a diplomat for the State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. She lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia, where she teaches law.