a Paris Writers News interview
In this far ranging dialogue, writers Mary Duncan and Julia Mary Lichtblau talk about the French Holocaust, the role of family history and research, the move from reporting to fiction, and the importance of community for writers. Julia Mary Lichtblau's short story, "Désolée, Monsieur", won the Best Paris Stories Editorial Committee Prize.
Mary Duncan: Many people are not aware of the Vel d'Hiver and this part of World War II history. How did you learn about the French Holocaust and what prompted you to make it a focus of your short story?
Julia Mary Lichtblau: My interest in the French role in the Holocaust and the fate of French Jews under Vichy stems from family lore, as well as my own interest in French history. The Lichtblau family (my father’s) was Jewish from Vienna, one of those bourgeois, assimilated families you read about. They managed to get out in 1938, eventually making their way to New York. My father came through London. My uncle came through France, staying with the Paris branch of the family, who lived on the Boulevard Flandrin. I grew up hearing all sorts of alluring, fragmentary stories about my uncle’s passage through France and la famille Lichtblau. The head of the family Lucien had been a WWI veteran, who lost his leg at Verdun. A son, Michel, was either insane or mentally disabled and in an asylum. His daughter supposedly married a Comte de Peraldi. The last contacts between the branches of the family were in the 1960s, however.
When I was living in Paris in the 1990s, I got a call from a genealogist from a cabinet généalogique seeking the heirs of someone named Régina Lichtblau, a name I’d never heard. I ended up having a number of conversations with this man and telling him what I knew about the family. Eventually, he revealed that the défunt was not Régina, but Michel, and the inheritance in question was a number of apartments on the quai Henri IV and elsewhere. I then understood that he represented other branches of the extended family making sure that there was no one of comparable consanguinity to challenge their claim. My father and uncle decided not to get embroiled in a court case, but this incident gave me a real pang, a sense of heritage lost. Not that I personally felt entitled to these apartments, but it gave a concreteness to the losses –of property, status, place, belonging, and of course, people--that my family had experienced in Vienna before I was born.
In your story, you stated that France had sealed all records regarding confiscation or loss of property during World War II for 100 years. Have those who lost property had much recourse?
I have not researched the jurisprudence on restitution in detail, but I know there have been many challenges in French courts over la spoliation des Juifs, that this subject has come up at high levels of government in recent years, and that it remains a controversial subject. These cases become more difficult to resolve as the people most directly concerned die.
Paul Groenberg is a conflicted character who seems to lack direction. In some ways he's not very sympathetic. When you were developing this protagonist, what were you trying to convey or illustrate?
Paul is caught between two countries, two cultures. He’s American, but he has inherited a love of France, the French language, and a nostalgia for a deeply alluring way of life lost in the war. He is suffering for his father, his father’s lost prestige, and unfulfilled musical career, as well. He also feels that he never measured up to his father or to the beau idéal of the Groenberg family’s pre-war life. He thinks getting the apartment back will avenge his father, help him resolve his identity issues, and assuage his unrequited love for France. His marriage to a very unsentimental Frenchwoman, far from soothing his pain, adds to his inner conflict about his identity.
Twice you quoted Joachim du Bellay's poem, "Happy is he who, like Ulysses, makes a great journey..." How did this poem come to be a part of your short story?
I went to French schools in Abidjan, where my father was serving as an American foreign service officer, in the 1960s. This was one of the poems I had to memorize. Like Maurice—and probably everyone who goes through the French system—I never forgot it (well, the first stanza, anyway). The notion of wandering and coming home seemed to fit the story.
How is the digital age and the rapid changes in the publishing industry affecting your writing? Have you made any changes in how you approach selling or marketing your work?
I, of course, research publications, contest opportunities, to submit online, communicate by email etc. The Internet, not to mention, social media, test discipline ferociously. We’re all changed in countless ways, whether we like it or not. I’m trying to build a publication record the old-fashioned way—writing short stories, working on a novel, trying to get shorter fiction and non-fiction pieces published along the way.
As a journalist, I lived through the transition to the Internet and saw how readily (foolishly) the news business gave away its products for free. The digital age has exposed the difficulty of putting a value/price on creative work. Once the means of production and distribution became frictionless (or semi-frictionless), no one wanted to pay for creative work. I’m hoping by the time my novel gets published, book publishers will have figured out a more viable economic model, one that enables them to stay in business and writers to make something off their work.
For fifteen years, you were a journalist for Dow Jones and Business Week in New York and Paris. Do you still write for other publications in addition to your fiction writing? How do you bridge writing between different genres?
I have written some short essays. Other than that, I periodically do financial writing, but I have not gone back to financial journalism since leaving BusinessWeek in 2003 to focus on my kids. The news business used to be an incredibly fun way to make a reasonable living. There was a wide-eyed kid side to it. I don’t get the feeling that’s the case any more. I have ideas for reported stories all the time, but I know what it’s like to be a freelance journalist. An enormous amount of (unpaid) work goes into preliminary research for a pitch. I’d rather put that energy into my fiction at this point.
You have won other prizes for your short stories. Why have you chosen the short story form instead of writing novels?
I’m also working on a novel, actually. But like most fiction writers, I’ve started out writing short stories. They are so difficult to get right, especially if the background is complex. The present in a short story has to be, well--present. It's a humbling challenge. But not every good story wants to be a novel.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I can’t say I had an epiphany. I came to NY in 1982 to do my MFA in dance at NYU. I took a class in dance criticism with Deborah Jowitt, the Village Voice dance critic. From the first class, she encouraged my writing. I ended up leaving dance at the end of that year and became a journalist, which I loved and did for 15 years. But the part of me that loves language and voice and character was always frustrated by the pressures of daily or weekly news.
Where do you live and write? What is essential for you to be productive?
I live in Brooklyn, NY, one of the most vibrant writing communities in the U.S. and maybe anywhere. I need a place out of my house to work and a friend or friends I can share work with.
Are you involved with the writing community and other writers?
I have several writing nuclei. Bennington College, of course, where I got my MFA. I have a writing group made up of classmates in New York. I met Alice Mattison,a Bennington professor, who ultimately encouraged me to go there, at the Paris Writers Workshop. I also took wonderful workshops at Humber College in Toronto and have remained in touch with Joseph Kertes, a distinguished writer, and dean of Creative Arts there. And of course, I have writing friends in Brooklyn.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
It’s a non-linear process, which is hard on us linear types. Find a writing friend whose forte is complementary to yours.
Julia Mary Lichtblau's short story "Désolée, Monsieur" was awarded the Editorial Committee Prize in the 2011 Paris Short Story Contest. "Désolée, Monsieur" will be published in the Best Paris Storiesanthology this month, and as a Kindle singles on Amazon.
A former journalist for Dow Jones and BusinessWeek in New York and Paris Julia's writing has appeared in numerous literary reviews including Ploughshares blog, Narrative, The Common Online, Pindelbox, and Tertulia. She has an MFA in fiction from Bennington College and is currently working on a short-story collection, Foreign Service, and a novel, Sweet Melissa.
Mary Duncan, university professor, is the author of Henry Miller is Under My Bed. She owns an archive of original Henry Miller materials and is on the Advisory Board of the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. An early patron of the Shakespeare and Company Literary Festival in Paris and the founder of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Moscow, she created the Paris Writers Group in 2008. She is currently writing a book about a street in Paris where several French literary figures lived and worked. Her research uncovered two Jewish boys who lived on the same street and were swept up in the Vel d'Hiv. One survived and one perished.