Ellen Ullman, author of the new novel By Blood (one of our manager’s favorites of 2012 so far) was awesome enough to answer a few questions for us. The first part of our Q&A, below, is all about her book; tomorrow we’ll publish the second part, which is more about technology and writing.
WORD: One of the most compelling things about the book is the Professor’s search for Michal Gershon, in part because he is so driven, but also because his research methods seem antiquated now (days spent at the library, international phone calls, papers being mailed out). Do you think this sort of story could still happen in the age of Google?
Ullman: I think all stories are based in time (and place). There is an atmosphere that inheres in an era. And the atmosphere is as much a player in the story as is a character.
It was important to me to set the story in the 1970s, a very strange and scary time in San Francisco. The Zodiac serial killer was still at large. Patty Hearst, kidnapped by a weird cult, the Symbionese Liberation Army, still had not been found. The police cruised the poorer neighborhoods looking for “suspicious” characters. I lived in the Inner Mission when there was nothing cool about it, and I remember how afraid I was when the cops slowed down to give me the once-over (something like this happens to the narrator). And then there were “the zebra killings,” which were race-based: young black men in a (yet another) weird cult in which they earned a “wing” for each white person killed.
Without the time setting of the 1970s, By Blood would have to be another book altogether. The Gothic overtones would disappear. The sense of looking back from a dark past into a one yet darker — the beginnings of the Holocaust, the aftermath of WWII — would be much weakened.
The theme of searching for a person is a sort of quest in any era. But if the professor performed his search today, he would have to be much creepier than he is in By Blood. It seems these days we don’t get much exercized over digital stalking until a bullied young woman commits suicide or a newspaper hacks into the cell phone of a dead girl.
WORD: What drew you to the story of the Lebensborn?
Ullman: Lebensborn — “Life Spring” — is controversial. Maybe there was a eugenics program called Lebensborn in which “Aryan” women were induced (or forced) to sleep with Nazi officers to produce the next generation of the “race.” Maybe Lebensborn was nothing more than a group of excellent maternity hospitals — as is claimed by those inclined to deny that Holocaust ever happened. Some claim Polish children who looked “Aryan” were kidnapped to be raised as Nazis. Or maybe none of the above is true.
Nearly all the evidence of Lebenborn’s existence is verbal. I am not a professional researcher, but I tend to feel that something called Lebensborn existed. And whatever it was, its purposes where dark.
I knew that the young patient in By Blood would find her mother. But then came the question of her father. I knew she would wonder if her father were an admirable man or a monster. I also knew that this question, like nearly all those posed in By Blood, would not have a definitive answer. Everyone is lying to some extent, if only to themselves. I avoided having a definite answer even for myself. I feared that my own certainty would somehow work itself into the story and force an answer upon the reader. Lebensborn, the unknown of it, seemed to take its place among all the other unknowns in the story.
WORD: Somehow, over the course of the book, I started empathizing with the Professor, obsessive and creepy as he seemed. Did you have a similar experience while writing?
Ullman: I have a small writing office in an old building very much like the one in the book. The neighboring office, on the other side of a thin door, once held a match-making service. I could hear the prospective couples being introduced, then their first attempts at conversation. I told the woman who ran it that I could hear everything. She waved me away saying, Oh, we’re moving in about a month. It was her choice to let me keep listening, and listen I did (or had to, else wear earplugs). This gave me what became the structure of By Blood. The matchmaker turns into a psychotherapist; prospective couples into a young woman analysand. The eavesdropper/narrator is a disgraced professor, and he most definitely does not reveal his presence.
The narrator’s voice came to me on one particular late night. I sat working in the office and wrote what are now the first twenty pages of By Blood, very little changed from that night. The voice came to me and would not let go. I did not want to stay in that voice. I thought: I’ve set out to write a story about a young woman who searches for her origins; she will find them in post-war Europe; this narrator seemed to be taking me on a big detour. I was afraid the book would be 700 pages. And it seemed utter madness to have a narrator who could not see the characters.
Nonetheless, I could not escape him. I felt his need for connection, also his inability to do so in the presence of another person. He was damaged as a human being, which creates sympathy or perhaps pity.
If he were a monster, that would be so much harder. I don’t mean creating sympathy for a Hitler or a Stalin. But I greatly admire writers who can accomplish the incredible feat of making you care and root for villains. For instance the serial killer in Patrica Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” And the Roman Emperor Hadrian in Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian,” which was particularly difficult for me. Duras, speaking as Hadrian, calls the Jews pesky people who would not submit to his rule. The frieze on Hadrian’s column, still standing in Rome, depicts the the Roman Army’s triumphant return with the booty they brought back from their victory over Jews. I can’t say that I, personally, came to empathize with Hadrian but marveled at Duras’s ability to make me climb inside his head.