I don't know why, but when I think of Jillian Cantor, I think of us in a way cool shop in Tucson and then sharing lunch with other writers, and I always smile. Of course, I also think of her brilliant novels, including the critically acclaimed THE HOURS COUNT and MARGOT, a Library Reads pick. Her latest, THE LOST LETTER, is about a mysterious love letter connecting Jewish families from 1938 Austria to 1989 Los Angeles, and it is phenomenally good.
I'm so thrilled to have Jillian here. My blog is always your blog, Jillian!
Tell me what was haunting you that lead to this extraordinary novel?
My grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s a few years ago. And though I was just a baby when it happened, my great-grandmother (my grandmother’s mother) died of the same. When I was younger, my grandmother would often talk about how she worried about losing her memory as she got older, as her mother did, and then, it happened to her. Little by little at first, but eventually all of her short term memory became virtually non-existent. What stuck with me, though, was even after my grandmother grew worse and worse, she would always seem to know me when I called her. She couldn’t remember my husband or my kids, but she would hear my voice and she would react with excitement, in the same way she would when I’d called her when I was kid. And over the course of a five-minute conversation she might ask me the same question five times, but she would also talk about the distant past in such clear detail at times. I’d tell her a story about one of my babies and she’d counter with a story about her own baby (my mom) as if it were vivid and had just happened. So I was thinking a lot about memory, about what we lose and what we keep, and what it means for someone to forget who they are but also if there are things you can never really forget on some level. The Lost Letter begins just after Katie moves her father into a memory-care facility in 1989 and she takes his prized stamp collection to be appraised (though she has no interest in stamps). She desperately wants to hang onto and understand her father, to keep from completely losing him as his memory disappears.
I always am curious if a new novel means a new way of writing. Was it for you? Do you, like I do, always feel that you've forgotten how to write, and if so, what do you do about it?
Yes, this was definitely new for me. It’s the first novel I’ve published told from multiple/alternating points of views and in multiple/alternating time periods. So I definitely had to re-think pacing and how to tell the story this way, and pacing, in fact, was something I ended up working a lot on with my editor in revision. My first draft was way too long, and when I revised I cut whole chunks of Katie’s story in 1989 that I might have kept if this novel had only been her story. But it wasn’t. It was Kristoff’s and Elena’s story in 1938 too, and that made the storytelling and understanding the scope of the novel different for me. And yes, every single time I start a new novel I am convinced I can’t do it all over again. But, what I do about it is just wake up and keep writing every day. When I’m drafting something new I force myself to write a few pages every single day, even if they’re bad. Eventually it turns into something – often, something really bad that needs a lot of work, but I know I have to get the words down and the story out in order to be able to go back and fix it.
I love the whole swirl around a stamp. Why a stamp?
I was bouncing ideas off my agent and she asked if I’d ever thought about the people who illustrated stamps and if anyone had ever included secret messages in stamps. Up until that moment, I hadn’t thought about it, but I did a little research and learned how stamps were used in the resistance in World War II in real life. It was fascinating! I was also really interested in how painstaking engraving and making stamps used to be before the digital age, and also how real life engravers, artists, played a role in forging documents to help Jews escape during World War II. I was kind of like Katie at the start of the novel – I’d never really thought about stamps before except as something that took my mail from one place to another. But once I started thinking about them, and studying them, I couldn’t stop. I can completely understand now why there are so many stamp collectors – stamps are art.
What was your research like and what changed the course of your novel for you, if anything?
Like I said, I really knew nothing about stamps when I started. So one of the first things I did was to go the Postal History Museum in Tucson. Though it is only a half hour from where I live, I didn’t even realize it was there until I started looking for it. The very kind librarians in the library there gave me books and articles about stamps and engravers that I brought home and poured through. I also did a lot of research online about the resistance in WWII and I got the chance to visit The Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC while I was researching and I spent an afternoon in their wonderful resistance exhibit. What changed the course of the novel for me, though, was the research I did about the fall of the Berlin Wall (which happens in the 1989 portion of the story) and becomes a key part of the book. I watched this wonderful German language TV series that happened to come on the summer I was writing called Deutschland 83, and I really started thinking about and researching what life was like for real people living in East Berlin behind the wall in the 1980s. No spoilers, but this impacted how I decided to end the novel.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Germany, just before Hitler’s rise to power. I’m particularly interested in what ordinary citizens were doing at the time and what daily life was like. I’ve studied a lot about World War II but I didn’t know very much about the time proceeding it, the late 20s and early 30s in Germany. It feels like a really important thing to understand in our current political climate. And maybe there is a book idea germinating there? (Maybe!)
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
How about what was the most surprising thing for me while I was writing this? Half of the novel is set in 1989, so while it’s technically historical, it’s also the first “historical” time I’ve written about where I was also alive. Granted, I turned 11 that year, but I was surprised how much I had to research and how much I didn’t remember or understand as I was living through the time. The fall of the Berlin Wall, for instance. I clearly remember when it happened, and seeing images on TV, but I don’t think I really understood the significance or political implications until I began researching it for the novel. Also, remembering what it was like to live in a time without cell phones or email and throwing a character into what felt contemporary but with less technology was really fun. It reminded me of how personal connections are different now than they were in the 1980s and also of the importance of handwritten notes and letters, which I’ve been trying to do more of myself lately. Thanks so much for having me on the blog, Caroline!