'Heidegger's Glasses' by Thaisa Frank is a book for those of you that love WWII novels - and those that don't. This is Ms Frank's first full length novel and she has done an amazing job! The characters are well developed and the plot is well thought out and written. There were times, in the story when the tension was palpable and times when I was blown away by the resilience of characters who could make good times even in the middle of hell. My favorite part was the 'letters from the dead' scattered throughout the book. They really added that extra punch to, and created the perfect atmosphere for, the story.
Thaisa is here today to tell us about the process. yay! So I'm turning the blog over to her. Welcome Thaisa Frank:
The Imagination and History in Heidegger’s Glasses
It often surprises people to learn that I wrote over a fourth of Heidegger’s Glasses before I did any conscious research. Indeed, my imagination led me to research rather than the other way around.
Although I didn’t know it, Heidegger’s Glasses began over seventeen years before I knew I was writing it. I’d come out with one collection of short stories and was working on a new one, when I heard a woman’s voice from deep below the earth. The time was Germany during World War II and she lived in a mine transformed into a cobblestone street with gas lamps and a canopy of sky that had a sun that rose and set. The woman was in a huge room where people answered letters to the dead.
I could feel her claustrophobia and desperation. I even knew her name--Elie Schacten. And I was compelled to write sixteen pages describing her world. But then I stopped because I knew this world had so many strands only a novel could do it justice and I only knew how to write short fiction. I could even hear the sixteen pages like a few musical notes surrounded by hours of silence.
I wrote other short story collections, but the sixteen pages kept turning up as if attached to springs. They turned up on the bookshelf. They turned up in a tax pile. They even turned up inside a flyer from my son’s school--a long flyer, pleading for ecologically-packed lunches. At some point they began to feel like a letter from the woman herself, asking me to tell the story of the mine during WWII. At times I saw her profile bent over a letter.
A few years ago, someone at a Christmas party told me that the philosopher Martin Heidegger had a revelation that was caused by his own eyeglasses. As soon as I heard this, I heard the title Heidegger’s Glasses and knew I was going to write a novel. I had no idea what it would be about and didn’t remember those sixteen pages. Like a reckless diver, with the title Heidegger’s Glasses as my oxygen tank, I plunged into the world of the imagination and found myself in a large underground mine during WWII where people answered letters from the dead. While I was writing Heidegger’s Glasses the original sixteen pages stayed hidden. But when I got the page proofs from my publisher, they sprang out again. I read them over and realized they were the DNA for the entire novel.
They also were the DNA for a lot of the research: After I wrote the sixteen pages, I began to do the kind of unwitting research that many writers do when they’re drawn to a subject but have no idea they’re going to write about it. During that time, I read anything I could find about World War II. I read about rescue operations, ghettos, people in hiding, methods of torture. I studied maps of each concentration camp. I was particularly drawn to a book called The Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege. Except for some photographs, this book consists solely of material written by Jews or the Reich in chronological order They detail the dissolution of Lodz where 200,000 Jews were forced into slave labor before deportation to extermination camps.
The diaries or poems in the book, originally written in code and deciphered, were written by the inhabitants of the ghetto. These are interspersed with decrees from the Reich about food rations, work hours, and deportations. Since the decrees are reproduced as photocopies, one has a sense of reading them as a prisoner in Lodz--crowded against other prisoners, clamoring to see a notice on a bulletin board. They describe a tightening vise, giving the book a sense of momentum.
The diaries were full of detail and extraordinarily well-written. Many were by distinguished writers enlisted by the Reich as official Scribes to chronicle life in the Lodz ghetto: The woman in my original sixteen pages had been living among Scribes, so this was an interesting coincidence.
I was especially drawn to one Scribe, a famous Austrian writer named Oskar Rosenfeld with an unusual depth of vision. His sensibility created an important character in the novel---a colleague of Heidegger’s who was forced to become an optometrist and eventually shipped to Auschwitz.
About one-third into the novel, I began to research hard facts concerning the war. I was mostly interested in dates, particularly after Germany lost the battle of Stalingrad. One day, however, I was surfing the web and came across an article about Operation Mail or Briefakton. This program, designed to reassure relatives as well as disguise the Final Solution, forced prisoners in camps to write letters to relatives praising the conditions in the camps. They often wrote these letters when they came off the cattle car and were about to be shot. Most letters were lost in the chaos of the war and never received or answered. As soon as I discovered Operation Mail, I realized that these letters could be the letters from the dead that the Scribes in Heidegger’s Glasses had to answer. This was the pivotal moment where fact could merge with fiction and the opening where all the inchoate research I’d done fell into place--as did the original vision of the mine.
People often wonder why a mere title made me think I had found a story. The simple answer is that I felt a resonance when the title Heidegger’s Glasses occurred to me. Perhaps unconsciously I heard all the music that surrounded those original sixteen pages. But I wouldn’t have heard that music if I hadn’t studied Heidegger and known he was an enigmatic figure in World War II--both a Nazi and a critic of the party. The revelation about his glasses that he wrote about in Being and Time didn’t allow him to see the madness of WWII.
Over time, my original vision collided with history in many surprising ways. And this reified my belief that the imagination is part of the world, and reaches people and groups who are distinct and sometimes far away. The imagination has uncanny instincts that allow it to leap beyond the limits of experience. It can find doors to other centuries, read forbidden books, and meet improbable people. Writing Heidegger’s Glasses has been an adventure in discovering the fluid boundaries between the life of the imagination and the facts of recorded history.
(more about Thaisa at www.thaisafrank.com)
Great post Thaisa! And here's a taste from page 200:
He was seared by his memory of the cell, where he'd floated to the ceiling, and Goebbels's eyes and the Commandant's hair-pulling and gunshots and blood on the snow - all of which he'd endured to save Elie Schacten's life.