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March 24, 2011

An Interview with Sarah Blake, Author of THE POSTMISTRESS --- Part I

Posted by Stephen

Author Sarah Blake discuess her World War II novel The Postmistress in Part I of this special interview, and what it's like writing about war in post 9/11 America. A book club favorite, The Postmistress is in stores! Win a copy on here.

postmistress.JPGQ: Why did you decide to set your novel in the period immediately before the United States was drawn into World War II?

A: To be honest I fell into writing a World War II novel by accident. The Postmistress started with a picture in my head of a woman in a small post office in Cape Cod, looking down at the letter she is supposed to deliver in her hand, and simply pocketing it instead. In order for her action to have some kind of narrative consequence, I knew I had to set it quite a ways back in the past, and I simply chose WWII because I had some letters from then between my grandparents. But I also wanted to write about WWII if I could, without the straitjacket of hindsight, so I thought it would be easier and more interesting to imagine the time before everyone was sure where they were headed, before the war had crystallized into “The Good War,” as it came to be called and our participation in it was certain --- a time when Americans were still going on with their lives, and the war was safely “over there.” I thought questions of responsibility and our involvement with other people’s conflict and sorrow could be better imagined with the freedom of uncertainty.

Q: How did the events of September 11, 2001, influence this novel?

My husband and I and our two sons had moved to Washington DC a month before the attacks, and our youngest was seven weeks old. At the time I was reading about the German U-Boats along the coastline of the Eastern Seaboard, and of our refusal to dim our lights, not being convinced that the threat warranted that kind of measure. We had hired a Russian woman to look after our baby in the mornings, and September 11 was her second day of work. I remember coming downstairs and seeing her standing in front of the tiny television, shaking her head, saying darkly, “This is the beginning. They will come to poison us next.”

I remember thinking how Russian, and took my baby from her; but then the two of us stood side by side in silence watching, the truth of what we were actually in the middle of sinking in slowly, and in layers. My husband was in Maryland at the University without a car and the Metro shut down, and no phone, and as the day wore on, I had that first initial shock that everyone must have to some degree or another during an emergency --- that the fabric had torn, the systems had evaporated. There was no overseer. We were in fact, on our own. In truth, he was not in danger; it was a matter of worry only, and he made it home in the end because our nanny’s husband, also Russian, knew all the back routes in and out of the city and simply got in the car, drove to the University of Maryland, and found him having never laid eyes on him.

But that weird silence, and the subsequent days afterward in DC --- the F16s flying overhead, the tanks downtown --- brought home to me how terrifying and how confusing it must have been immediately after Pearl Harbor, when no one knew whether we were in danger from an air attack from Japan. The unreal question, Are we in danger? Right now? was on everyone’s lips in DC, and I thought repeatedly of those U-boats in so close without our knowledge. Who could say? That day certainly showed me enough to be able to imagine Frankie’s understanding during the Blitz --- in war there is no protective curtain, nothing between you and it. And that is what she’d like America to understand.

Q: “Get in. Get the story. Get out,” Edward R. Murrow instructs his reporters. But Frankie can’t manage to do that. She comes across a war story that is too much for her. What is it that overwhelms her? Are war reporters today any better equipped to cope with the emotional and spiritual impact of what they encounter?

A: When I was researching Frankie’s character, I asked one of the journalists I spoke to who had covered Bosnia and the first Gulf War, what was difficult about returning home. He said he realized he had been in danger of becoming numb, of becoming what he called a “tourist to other people’s suffering.” Frankie refers to the story of the postmistress and the widow as the war story she never filed. It was too much for Frankie because she realized that the stories she was writing, the truths of war, were not stories --- they were people. And the question she keeps being asked, What’s the story? sounds more and more to her to be heartless and beside the point. She returns from Europe with too many unfinished stories in her hands, ironically the very thing that propels her up to Franklin to give Emma Will’s letter. There, faced with one more person touched by the war, a person who doesn’t know what has happened yet, Frankie goes mute. She can neither be the ending nor bear the ending.

I can’t speak for war reporters today, but one of the most influential pieces of reporting written while I was working on The Postmistress was not about war at all. It was Nicholas Kristof’s heartbreaking story of the death in childbirth of Prudence Lemokouno in 2006 in Cameroon. Kristof was reporting conditions for laboring women and watched as she died needlessly—for lack of blood and because the doctor had gone home --- though Kristof had given blood to save her. In the end, all Kristof could do was report. His pieces called to mind Martha Gellhorn’s anguish over refugees during WII: “In the end we became solitary stretcher-bearers, trying to pull individuals free from the wreckage. If a life could be saved from the first of the Gestapo in Prague, or another from behind the barbed wire on the sands of Argeles, that was a comfort, but it was hardly journalism. Drag, scheming, bullying and dollars occasionally preserved one human being at a time.” Both of these journalists inspired Frankie’s anguish and rage.

Q: You’ve commented that this isn’t so much a war novel as it is a novel about how we cope with the knowledge that there is war and suffering in other parts of the world while we calmly continue to go about our daily routines. It’s about how we deal with the news, and what we do in response to it. Today it’s Afghanistan and Iraq and Darfur. In decades past it was Sarajevo and Vietnam. And in the late 1930s and early 1940s it was the suffering of the British under German bombing, and the plight of millions of European Jews. Is it simply human nature to put out of our minds suffering among people that we don’t know, or that we feel we can’t do anything about?

A: Anyone who has had a death in the house knows that surreal double-life that occurs when the world goes on outside the house, groceries are bought, and people walk up and down talking on the street outside, while someone is dying in the world inside the house. This doubleness, and the isolation it can create, is something I have thought about a lot. I suppose I have often tried to imagine not only the terror but also the disbelief that war victims and refugees suffer --- that they are invisible to, or seem to be invisible to, the rest of the world. That someone simply is killed, just like that. While life goes on.

I don’t know if it’s necessarily human nature to put suffering out of our minds when we can’t do something about it --- it seems more complicated than that, since we often can’t keep ourselves from looking. Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others probes this terrain quite usefully. She remarks that too much emphasis is placed on remembering and perhaps more emphasis needs to be placed on thinking. The hard part seems to me what do we do about knowing what we know?