You’ve been working on this book for five years. Presumably, then, you’ve bored several hundred people at holidays and cocktail parties, talking about your novel that’s “almost” done.

Czeslaw Milosz once said that when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished. The same could be said of writers and parties.


So after you explained what your book was about—a German family in the Third Reich—what’s the question you got asked the most?

Probably “How much research went into the novel?”


Why do you think people ask that?

I used to assume it was because they were actually curious about how many hours I spent at the library, reading books about World War II or translating documents from my German father’s childhood. So I earnestly informed them of such matters until their eyes glazed over. (See first Q&A above.)

“How much research…?” can get dull answers, but it’s irresistible too, and I’ve posed it myself after other authors’ readings. I once asked Julie Orringer something similar about her novel The Invisible Bridge. She includes so many beautiful scenes of architecture school in 1930s Paris, and I wanted to know how she did it. But it wasn’t the research that made those scenes so memorable. It was her writing. Instead of teaching me facts about the era, she transported me.


Was it hard to write about another country and another time? Especially a time—World War II—that has appeared so often in literature?

For many years, I thought it was impossible. I figured I would have to a) become fluent in German, b) live in Germany, c) read two million pages of historical accounts, and d) eat a lot of knödel. And then I gave birth to a son, and it dawned on me. I wasn’t writing about the Third Reich. I was writing about motherhood in the Third Reich. I was writing about children who grew up in the house where I myself had played as a girl, on long visits to my father’s childhood home. I was writing about a woman whose voice I already knew, from letters that had been hidden for fifty years. No one had told her story, or my father’s. Or mine.


Talk about those letters.

My father’s mother died in childbirth in 1942. My grandfather remarried quickly, to a woman named Grete, and later was deployed to Weimar, where he worked as a radiologist in an army hospital. Grete wrote him cheerful, warm, but worried letters about his sons and he kept them, until he deserted Weimar and fled home west, to escape the advancing Russian army. En route, he stayed at a house in Thüringen, where he buried his gun in the garden and stuffed the letters in an attic wall. The letters remained undiscovered until a couple renovating the house found them decades later and contacted my uncle, who still lived at the same address on the envelope.

When my son fell seriously ill as an infant, my parents flew out to San Francisco and my father helped me translate the letters, while recounting what he himself remembered from the time. It was a very moving moment, sitting together during this difficult period in my life and looking into the sorrows, dangers, and abiding parental love in my father’s boyhood.


Abiding parental love—at the same time countless innocents were being murdered by Germans.

Yes. That is the paradox that has taken me thousands of pages to explain to myself. Fortunately, my wise editor helped me cut it down to about 370.


Did you need to know the end of your novel when you started writing it?

My first draft of Motherland was narrated by a gay man who’d grown up with the main character. That man no longer even exists in the book. Where did he go? Where did my own dream vacation to Peru vanish to when I had my first baby? Shimmering behind every novel are the stories the writer does not tell for the sake of fully dedicating herself to this one. I had a final chapter in mind, but it changed many times. Do you need to know the end of a life in order to live it? The answer is yes and no, right?


MARIA HUMMEL is the author of the poetry collection House and Fire, winner of the 2013 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, and two novels: Motherland (Counterpoint, 2014) and Wilderness Run (St. Martin’s, 2003). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in PoetryNew England ReviewNarrativeThe SunThe New York Times, and the centenary anthology The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons.

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One response to “Maria Hummel: The TNB

  1. I love the opening of this piece. Brilliant! I feel I’ve been there so many times before!!!
    Having said that, I think that boring people with tales of your book’s progress is a great way to bounce ideas off an (albeit unwitting) audience.

    See more about me and my books and writings at The imAgine RooM http://daveynorthcottauthorwriter.wordpress.com/
    and follow me on twitter @DaveyNorthcott

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