Pam Jenoff's Blog

August 27, 2014

Back in the mid-1990’s, I packed up everything I owned, put my Mazda Protégé on a ship and moved halfway around the world by myself to be a diplomat for the State Department in Krakow, Poland. I was 24 years old and didn’t think twice about whether it was a good idea or safe. Communism had just ended and it was still the Wild East over there. We’re not talking freshly-painted Prague with vendors selling tschotskes to backpackers on the Charles Bridge. We drank our water bottled and our shots of potato vodka straight from the freezer. Our phones, we were told, were likely still bugged, but there probably wasn’t anyone listening anymore.

For the next two-and-a-half-years, I made a life in that distant, unfamiliar part of the world. Only thinking back now can I appreciate the many ways that my once in a lifetime experience changed me. Here are just a few of the lessons I carry with me still:

How to be alone. In Poland, I lived out in the country. My neighbors had cows and chickens and I often heard horse hoofs clopping against the pavement as the farmers went to market early in the morning. There were no cellphones or internet. Sometimes I filled my government-issued house with Peace Corps volunteers in need of a hot shower and some television. Other times, I was by myself and might not speak to anyone else for days. It’s a kind of solitude that helped my writer mind to grow (and in the beloved chaos of our connected lives and the noise of three preschoolers, something I often miss.)

Just go. “Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don't worry. Don't stew. Just go right along. You'll start happening too.” I had not read Dr. Seuss’ And Oh The Places You’ll Go when I went abroad. But I traveled like a madwoman when I was in Poland. Having already seen most of Western Europe as a student backpacker, I was determined to go in the other direction, east, and borrowing from Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, to see the frontier before it was gone. I hopped a train from Krakow to Odessa (24 hours, no dining car) went as far toward the Balkans as the war would permit, traveled to Pinsk (not surprisingly, there was no guide book.) I drove my car so far I reached a sign telling me that I had reached the end of Poland and had to turn back. And I was rewarded with the stories and adventures of a lifetime: I stood on mountains and gazed down on other countries and saw people smuggling vodka in the walls of trains and under their clothes. I drank beer out of great steins with the Solidarity miners hundreds of feet underground while we linked arms and sang hearty songs, and once in Gdansk accidentally stowed away on a ship carrying a bunch of highschoolers to a place called Hel. I also became really good at figuring out how to get back from anywhere.

Appreciation for the abundance. Even as a diplomat, life was harder in Eastern Europe. We couldn’t get many vegetables in winter, and when they were available we wondered what being downwind from Chernobyl had done to the soil. Medical supplies were scarce: the doctor who made house calls would ask for a kitchen spoon because he did not have a tongue depressor, and I had to ask for the lead apron before my x-ray. It made me realize how much we have here and take for granted. Once I came back to America when my mom was in the hospital and was horrified that my doctor brother blew up a rubber glove as a chicken to amuse her. Didn’t he know that medical supplies were precious?


And then it was time to come home. It was been sixteen years since I returned the United States, and while I have very much reentered “normal life” so many of the effects remain. Having weathered winters that lasted October until May, I’m seldom cold. And I still appreciate the value of a good produce department in the supermarket, and the taste of fountain Coke with ice.


But perhaps what stayed with me most were the friendships. So many people opened their homes and hearts to me and I will forever remember their warmth and generosity. And humor. Earlier this spring, I popped onto Facebook to find that the U.S. Consulate Krakow had a posting about one of my books being filmed as a movie in Krakow. I was puzzled (and alarmed): I had not even sold the film rights. I picked up the phone and called the consulate and spoke with a former colleague, Basia, for the first time since leaving many years earlier. I asked about the film posting. She said, “April Fools!” After all those years, they still remembered enough to punk me. I was touched.


Where have you been abroad and how have those experiences changed you?

(originally published with Jungle Red Writers August 26, 2014)
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Published on August 27, 2014 18:13 • 33 views

June 8, 2014

Although I’m not a regular blogger, I’m thrilled to participate in this blog roll on writing process for a number of reasons. (In case you aren’t familiar with the idea – I wasn’t – a writer answers some questions on her blog, and then passes the questions on to another write t answer.) First, I was invited to participate by the amazing Jenna Blum (http://jennablum.com) , New York Times Bestselling Author of THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS. I have long been a fan of Jenna’s work and I’m so honored to be published alongside her in our forthcoming anthology: GRAND CENTRAL: POSTWAR STORIES OF LOVE AND REUNION.

Second, I love to talk about writing process. I suspect that most writers do – it somehow makes us feel less alone and like this crazy road we are traveling somehow makes sense.


1. WHAT AM I WORKING ON?

I’m spending a lot of time getting ready for the launch of GRAND CENTRAL this month, and the publication of my next novel, THE WINTER GUEST, this August. In terms of actual writing, I usually don’t talk about my work-in-process. But I’ll make an exception here: I’m working on my eighth novel, still untitled. Set during the Second World War, it’s the story of Adelia Montforte, a fourteen year-old Italian Jewish girl who comes to Philadelphia on her own and finds herself drawn into the large Irish family who summers next door in Atlantic City, the Connallys. Despite the religious and ethnic gulfs between their neighborhoods back in the city, Addie falls for the oldest of the four Connally boys, Charlie, just as America enters the war. But when the family is ripped apart by unspeakable tragedy, Addie flees, first to Washington and then war-torn London in an attempt to outrun her pain.

This book is very different front anything else I’ve written. For one thing, it is largely set on the home front, where most of my others have been set in Europe. It’s also more complex in terms of the number of characters and settings and such. Frankly, it’s killing me!

2. HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?

I’m not sure how to answer this, because I’m not sure what I consider my genre to be. With my first novel, I set out to just write a story set during World War II but then Publisher’s Weekly called it “historical romance at it’s finest.” My third and fourth novels were modern. I don’t know I write historical or romance or women’s or just plain fiction. I don’t write for a particular genre.

3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

I was sent to Krakow, Poland as a diplomat for the State Department several years and I become very immersed in the task of resolving issues related to the Holocaust and Polish-Jewish relations, such as property restitution, preservation of the concentration camp sites, and anti-Semitism. I also became very close to the Jewish community in Krakow. Those experiences define my writing to this day. I try to illuminate the time period with all its stark and dire choices and the complexities of the people who lived through it.

4. HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?

I start with an idea – usually an image or scene -- and I put down in a word document lots and lots of whatever comes out, in no particular order – throwing up on the page, as one blogger described it. This goes on for months until I have about 150 pages or so. Then the document starts to become unwieldy and I start making charts and chapters and such. It takes me about a year to write a book.

I write in about 2-3 hours sittings first thing in the morning. I prefer to write seven days a week. I also take notes in the evening from research or a book on writing. These notes serve as prompts so I’m never blocked and can start right out of the date the next morning.

I can write on almost any computer during the first stage of putting down words, but I need a big screen when I start to organize and revise. I use a notebook for brainstorming and problem solving. Toward the end of writing a book when I can print out a draft, I like to go away for a weekend to a little beachfront motel and beat the manuscript into submission. I don’t show my work to anyone except my agent and my editor. The first finished galley always goes to my mom.

5. AND THE OTHER PART OF THIS QUESTION, HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS NOT WORK?

Because my writing begins in such a raw state, it takes forever to edit. I wish there was a shorter way but for me there isn’t. Additionally, I tend to have a very bare bones writing style so I have to go back and fill in a lot. Also I frequently write most of the book before realizing that the voice or tense are not right. This requires a lot of rewriting.

PASSING THE TORCH, OR WHO’S NEXT

I’m thrilled to share two very talented writers. Heather Gudenkauf (www.heathergudenkauf.com) is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE and THESE THINGS HIDDEN. Her newest novel, LITTLE MERCIES, will be released on June 24, 2014. We are both published by Mira. We’ve been online friends for years and I was thrilled to have the chance to finally meet her at Book Expo this year.

Tiffani Burnett-Velez (http://tiffaniburnettvelez.wordpress.com), a very supportive fellow author, has been a freelance writer since 1996. She has published a number of short stories and her non-fiction work has appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine, Country Discoveries, Conde' Nast Portfolio, Yahoo! News, and many more online and print magazines and newspapers in the US and Europe. Her first novel, BUDAPEST (LFP 2007) was featured in the New York Book Festival and the 42nd Annual Conference of Jewish Librarians. Her latest novel, ALL THIS TIME, will be released by Booktrope in September 2014.
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Published on June 08, 2014 18:01 • 405 views

June 23, 2011

Foreign Waters: The Experience of Publishing Abroad

England has always been my favorite place in the world – even years before I ever got to go there. Like Jordan, the protagonist in my latest novel, ALMOST HOME, I had a childhood imagination filled with the British mystique of Disney films and Dickens books, cockney accents and gray sooty skylines. When the chance to go to graduate school at Cambridge on a full scholarship fell into my lap, it seemed as though all of my dreams had come true. The reality, as it turned out, was even better than I expected: the two years living among the stone courtyards and cathedral spires, making friends and having the experiences of a lifetime, were among the best I have known.

So I was very happy to learn, more than a decade after I returned to the States, that my first novel, THE KOMMANDANT’S GIRL, would be published in the United Kingdom. “It looks like we’re going to do well in Britain,” my agent said weeks before publication, and I received the news with the vague happiness of a new author, not quite sure what it meant. I gladly accepted an invitation from my publisher’s London office to come over for a visit at the time of the book’s release. But I certainly did not expect, upon landing on the ground there, to be confronted with the news that we had hit the U.K. Top 50 Chart. I was now officially, “an internationally bestselling author.”

Though my books have since been published in eight or nine different countries (or maybe more – I never quite know until a few copies of a foreign edition show up on my doorstep, months or sometimes years after publication), the U.K. remains my bestselling market by a long shot. It’s a fascinating experience, as publishing overseas is different than in the U.S. in so many ways. (I’m using the U.K. as the basis for comparison here, since that is the overseas market with which I’m most familiar; things surely vary elsewhere.) First, the covers are not the same; for example, the British book jacket for KOMMANDANT’S GIRL (they dropped the “The” from the title) had an image of a woman kissing a Nazi with a big swastika emblazoned on his sleeve -- something which never would have worked in the U.S. but took off quite well over there. And sometimes the titles are changed entirely: ALMOST HOME will be released next month in Britain as THE OFFICER’S LOVER. The U.K. publishers just have a sense that different things work to sell a book there and it seems that they are almost always right.

Marketing and publicity are different too. Book signings and tours are far less prevalent, unless you are J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Instead, radio interviews on various stations including the BBC are popular. Supermarket chains, such as ASDA and Tesco, are a far more important venue for selling books than they are in the States. And there seems to be less emphasis on the pre-publication reviews that we have here, such as Publisher’s Weeky and Kirkus, and a shorter lead time to produce a book; in some cases my books have come out months earlier in the U.K. than the U.S. (a really strange dynamic that results in lots of American friends pressuring me to bring back British editions so they can get an early read.)

There are challenges to publishing in a foreign country too. I think the British book trade can be wary of the influx of books from the States, and a few readers who post online reviews seem to have a particular brand of bile for American authors they dislike or whose writing about things English they perceive as inaccurate. (I always take a sound drubbing on this, no matter how many British friends and editors review my work before it is published.) A handful of my beloved Cambridge friends can sometimes be a tad snobby about my books, which they see as too commercial. And it can be hard too navigate the murky world of foreign publishing from such a great distance away.

But despite the occasional speed bump, the U.K. remains one of my very favorite venues in which to publish. The editors and other publishing folks who guide me through the process over there are brilliant and relentless in their promotion of my work and their efforts have paid off mightily. The readers who do like my work are as passionate as any I have encountered elsewhere and I love receiving e-mails and letters from every corner of Britain. And there’s nothing more fun than strolling around London, popping into each bookstore to visit my books. Being whisked around my favorite city in the world in a black taxi on my way to an interview, I feel like that bright-eyed student again, arriving from America for the first time, pinching myself in disbelief once more.

(originally published at Beth's Book Reviews on March 1, 2010)
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Published on June 23, 2011 17:49 • 282 views

June 19, 2011

The nasty e-mail was not what I expected.

For months before my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl, was released, I braced myself for the backlash that would inevitably come from writing about a Jewish woman (Emma) who becomes involved with a Nazi. To my surprise, no one seemed bothered by that. Instead, the irate reader wrote to angrily ask: how could I possibly say that the Sachenhausen concentration camp was near Munich, when it was in fact near Berlin?

I paused, considering the question. To be fair, I hadn’t depicted the camp there. Rather, Krysia, a Polish character who had never been to the area, had simply made the comment erroneously. But other e-mails came, too, from readers taking issue with my portrayal of various historical details: An Orthodox Jewish family would never have named their daughter Emma, one wrote. A secular Jew like Emma’s husband Jacob would not have worn a yarmulke, insisted another. Thankfully, there were only a few negative e-mails, dwarfed by hundreds of positive messages. But they were enough to make me wonder, how far are we as writers obligated to take the “history” in historical fiction?

It is an issue that I continually wrestle with as a writer. Sometimes, I choose to stay accurate (keeping the geography of Krakow in tact was particularly important to me.) Other times the needs of plot and narrative thrust dictate that history be bent, such as reducing the approximately eighteen months between the German invasion and the creation of the Krakow ghetto to six weeks. (I felt better upon reading recently that the true story of the Von Trapp family was similarly cut from twelve years to a few months in The Sound of Music.) I have found editors to be similarly sensitive to historical detail – with my second novel, The Diplomat’s Wife, we spent much time debating whether a bus would have had doors in 1946 London and would it have cost a two pence or five pence to ride. Though my latest novel, Almost Home, is modern romantic suspense, I struggled with the same issues, both in terms of the historical back story and also with the accuracy my depiction of Jordan’s life as an intelligence officer required.

I’m mixed about the intensity readers seem to place on “real life” details. I’m not saying that historical writers should not be diligent in their research with the goal of creating a realistic time and place. And a historical world, like a fantasy realm, should have rules in order to be believable. But this is fiction, not memoir. But at the same time, there seems to be a “gotcha” mentality that can at times feel, well, a tad adversarial and perhaps take away from the author-reader connection.

On one hand, I’m glad that my readers are intelligent and pay attention. I do think a degree of accuracy is important to create and keep the trust that is necessary between the author and reader, and I’m glad my readers care as much as I do.

(originally posted at Diary of an Eccentric March 11, 2010.)
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Published on June 19, 2011 19:20 • 129 views

June 17, 2011

(Originally posted at Love Romance Passion,February 18th, 2010.)

After the publication of my first novel, The Kommandant's Girl, I was thrilled to be invited to speak at a number of events, ranging from small book clubs and library gatherings to larger fundraisers. I gamely accepted every invitation, participating in well over 60 events. By the end of the year, I found myself exhilarated but also, well, a little burned out. I realized then that promoting oneself as an author is an important, but time consuming job of its own.

As an author, there is nothing I like better than meeting readers in-person. But these days, with two jobs and a baby at home, I'm much more selective as to the invitations I'm able to accept. I think for most authors, there is a cost-benefit analysis that goes deciding whether to participate in an event. So if you are planning one, the following are my brutally honest tips for maximizing your chances of getting an author to attend:

Ask about timing.

Consider the author's schedule. For some authors that also have a day job, an evening appearance may be the only option. Does the author prefer an early evening in order to get home to put her kids to bed or a later evening to allow her time between work and the event to eat and regroup? For example, I get up to write at five a.m., so staying late at an event is often not feasible. Also, to the extent you have control over the date, consult early with the author about whether some days are better than others.

Keep it short.

Even if your book normally meets for two hours, understand if the author may only be able to stay for the first forty-five minutes or an hour, and start promptly. This will also give your group a chance to candidly discuss the book further after the author has left.

Consider location.

I am far more likely to be able to travel to an event that is fifteen minutes from my house than an hour and a half away. Perhaps offer to meet at a restaurant or coffee shop closer to the author's residence. Of course for a remote author, phone or videoconferencing can be a great alternative.

Have food.

Shallow, perhaps, but true. I spent a lot of nights during my first year as an author choking down a salad in a supermarket parking lot because there was no other option for managing dinner between work and a book event. I was always so grateful for the hosts that had light appetizers or even dinner.

Think about group size.

While small, intimate gatherings are fun, it is almost always more beneficial for the author to have a slightly larger turnout. Consider merging with another book club or reading group for the night to ensure a good crowd.

Plan promotion.

Are you going to advertise the event? Have books for sale? If so, discuss these things with the author when extending an invitation. For most of us, writing is the way we make a living and we are usually thinking about how an event can support book sales. I am frequently asked by inviting groups if I have books to sell. I don't, but I'm so grateful when the group can arrange with a book store or the publisher to have them on hand for people to buy. And I am always happy to promote an event I'm attending on my website and Facebook.

Contemplate contingencies.

I kept participating in book events almost until the day my son was born, and when I couldn't attend due to early labor contractions, the group I had to postpone was very understanding. Another group however, expected me to travel in a dangerous ice storm rather than reschedule. Take unexpected events into account!

I hope these suggestions don't sound demanding or petty; that couldn't be further from what I intended. I love participating in book events and meeting readers and plan to keep doing so as much as my crazy schedule will allow. Hopefully armed with these insider tips, you will have a great deal of success in bringing authors to your future events. I welcome your comments (and invitations of course) here or through my website www.pamjenoff.com.
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Published on June 17, 2011 17:51 • 84 views