Liz Sher: I was interested in The Invisible Bridge’s pacing. The first half takes place over two years in Paris, the second half encompasses the Second World War. Had you initially imagined a longer book? A different book?
Julie Orringer: I was surprised, too, to discover that the novel’s pre-war material equaled its wartime material in length, though in the end it made sense to me that the book would be balanced that way. I realized that what I wanted to do was to establish the characters’ lives—their loves, their desires, their fears and hopes—in detail over the first half of the book, so that we’d feel their losses in the second half. I found it necessary to make broader leaps through time in the second half; I wanted the novel to reflect the pacing of history itself, in some sense, and there were times when change happened more quickly than others—when Hungary was occupied in March of 1944, for example, and when the men in the labor service were sent to the front lines.
Liz: I loved the rich historical details in the novel. I adored the Blue Dove, how all of the students flocked to that cafe because you got a biscuit with your tea. The excerpts from the labor camp newspapers were amazing, something I had never encountered before. What were you reading and researching for this book? How did you decide what to include and what to edit out?
Julie: I started the research about six months before I began writing—and didn’t finish until the end of the editing process. A lot of the work involved talking to my grandparents and their siblings and friends, people who’d lived in Paris and Budapest during those years. Many of their stories I used as jumping-off points for the events of the novel. I also made long lists of places to visit when I went to Europe myself. There were two research trips to Hungary and France, three years apart—one when my questions seemed infinite and insurmountable, the next when I had more specific research needs. I spent long hours at libraries and archives, going through old papers and letters and artifacts; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum actually has objects used by the men in the Hungarian labor service. I read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Imre Kertesz’s Fateless, and Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, among others; the New York Times online newspaper archive was a wonderful resource, too.
The Blue Dove was an amalgam of many cafés I love in Paris, but the free biscuit was a relic of Stella’s, my favorite café in Ithaca, New York. The labor camp newspapers actually exist. I came upon them at the National Jewish Archives in Budapest—the archivist pulled down a box of these amazingly well preserved handmade and hand-colored papers, all of them full of dark humor and wry Hungarian wit, created by labor service inmates. It was my good fortune to be working with a translator whose sense of humor matched the tone of the papers.
As for what to include and what to edit out, the decisions were endless and near-impossible. Some of the research tangents were so intriguing as to suggest whole novels in themselves. The book I’m working on now, about the American rescue worker Varian Fry, originated as an offshoot of my research for The Invisible Bridge.
Liz: The Hungarians obviously took center stage, but I grew very attached to your minor characters as well -- especially Andras’s classmates Polaner and Rosen. Did you come up with their back stories from the beginning or did you “meet” them after you started writing? Did any of them surprise you? Who were your favorite characters to write?
Julie: I didn’t preimagine Polaner, Rosen, or Ben Yakov before they appeared on that first day of classes at the École Spéciale, but soon it became apparent that since they were going to become important to Andras, I would have to know them intimately. Polaner, Andras’s best friend, was the greatest surprise; it was fascinating to learn though his experience about gay life in Paris in the 1930’s, and, later, it was horrifying to read about how gay men and women were tormented during the Holocaust. Rosen’s Zionism was another late discovery. Both characters, I believe, draw out elements of Andras’s own character, and complicate his experience in Paris and beyond.
One of my favorite characters to write, and one of the most complicated, was József Hász, who appears at first as a relatively minor player—the sybarite who introduces Andras to Paris, and hosts a couple of wild parties while he’s there. I couldn’t have imagined that he would end up playing such a significant role during Andras’s years in forced labor, nor that his character would evolve as much as it did over the course of the book.
Liz: Architecture, theatre and dance play an important role in The Invisible Bridge. Besides your archival and literary research, what artistic sources inspired you?
Julie: I was intrigued by the story of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo—the idea of dancers in exile, combining the traditional Eastern precision of the art with a more experimental modernist sensibility. I’d grown up dancing and knew something about technique, but not as much about the history of the art as I might have wished; it was thrilling to read about Diaghilev’s company and how it changed under George Balanchine and Leonide Massine. The documentary Ballets Russes was phenomenally helpful, as was Natalia Roslavleva’s The Era of the Russian Ballet.
I’d also grown up in theaters, so the environment of the Sarah Bernhardt felt like home to me. Newspapers were a wonderful source of theater news—they contained all the theater schedules for Paris, and I discovered that the plays being performed at the time were Brecht’s The Mother, Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna, and Romain Rolland’s The Wolves. It seemed clear that those choices were related, in some way, to the Spanish Civil War.
The architectural research was some of the most exciting and challenging. I knew very little about 1930’s architecture when I began; I spent many hours talking to practicing architects and architecture students, and then did a lot of roaming around Paris and Budapest, looking at buildings from that era. Architect Pierre Vago’s memoir, published in 2003, was a great help, as was a history of the École Spéciale d’Architecture, which I discovered in the school’s library. Fortunately or un-, Nicholas Fox Weber’s excellent Le Corbusier: A Lifewasn’t published until 2008, when my own novel was already entering the late editing stages; one of the thrills or frustrations of researching a novel, depending on how you look at it, is that the work can go on forever. But at some point you have to say, “Enough. It’s time to cut this loose.”
Liz: The stories in How to Breathe Underwater all feature contemporary, young American women. Can you talk a little bit about your journey from that collection to The Invisible Bridge?
Julie: When I was writing How to Breathe Underwater, I was very much in love with the short story form and anticipated that I might only always write short stories. But when I began talking to my grandfather about his experiences during the war, I felt I’d come upon a story that demanded to be realized as a novel. I knew, too, that because of its geographic and historical scope, it would be a long one. Writing from a young man’s point of view was more daunting in theory than in practice; as I came to know Andras, his voice became natural to me. What was most exciting about writing in the longer form was that the discoveries I made—and they came fast and early, making the story quite different from the events that inspired it—led to other discoveries, and on and on, so that, in a sense, it felt like I was reading the book as I was writing it. Revising the novel was the most daunting task; when I realized that the manuscript was four times as long as the short story collection, I spent an afternoon walking around town and weeping. Somehow, over the four years that followed, it got done. My hope is that the next book—also a novel—won’t take quite as long. But there are unforeseeable challenges with every new book.
Liz: If you were a bookseller, what would you be hand-selling right now?
Julie: I’m very excited about Daniel Orozco’s short story collection, Orientation and Other Stories, which will be published this May, and Ann Williams’s novel Down From Cascom Mountain, which will be out in June. As for what’s on the shelves right now, I love Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squadand Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!,both of them incredibly innovative and memorable books. And right now I’m in the middle of Michael Byers’s wonderful new novel, Percival’s Planet, about the discovery of Pluto. There’s always too much to read. It’s one of the great frustrations and pleasures of life.