Laura Valeri (fictionista extraordinaire and my wonderful former colleague at Georgia Southern University, author of the beautiful book The Kind of Things Saints Do and the forthcoming linked story collection, Safe in Your Head) asked me to participate in a blog-tagging thing called “The Next Big Thing.” Basically, I get to answer these questions and then tag five writers who I think are the Next Big Thing. Very cool! Let me first talk a little about Laura. Back when I was teaching at GSU, her office had been the office of Peter Christopher, a colleague of mine at GSU who passed away. Good vibes. I'd stop in from time to time to get a sanity check-up and to hear about Laura's novel, in progress, which at the time involved an epic imagining of the Epic of Gilgamesh. And she and her lovely partner Joel had this house on a marsh in Savannah that was just like how you'd picture it, with crabs in the water and a little boat. Their house was filled with all the wonders of the natural world, from crystals to cool rocks to preserved alligator heads. Or crocodile. I can never tell the difference.
What is the title of your book? OKAY. So I'm doing this based on my book Opa Nobody, which is about to be released from University of Nebraska Press in paperback in Jan. 2013! This month!
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? Young activist woman goes in search of inspiration and tries to recreate and understand the life of her dead anti-Nazi activist German grandfather.
What genre does your book fall under? That's a weird one. I say it's creative nonfiction to make things easier, but because the book has imagined scenes (I take pains over and over again to say, “I imagine….”) I would put it technically under the mixed-genre heading. University of Nebraska didn't categorize it at all, which I think was smart.
Where did the idea come from for the book? My mom went to a funeral in Germany when I was around 30, and she came back with tantalizing snippets of stories. One was, “Your great grandfather hung a red flag from a mountainside.” I don't really know what this means, but as I was a leftie labor activist at the time volunteering with Jobs with Justice, it gave me a thread to start pulling on. I began with questioning my mom and I slowly began to understand that he was a miner and a socialist activist. I didn't even know then that Germany had, in the period between World War I and World War II (called the Weimar period) been broken up into several independent soviet-like free republics run by workers' councils. It was an amazing period we never learn about in school here in the U.S. At the time I was exhausting myself with my activism, and as I began to learn about this story, I began to wonder about generations of activists. I wanted an elder to help sustain me and encourage me, and I had this fantasy initially that my great-grandfather the miner activist was an encouraging mentor to my grandfather the clerk-socialist activist. The reality was true and also much more complicated.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? I don't even think there was a first draft. There was a mountain of paragraphs that gradually came into shape, and that took a very long time. The entire book was started as an idea in 2001 and submitted to Nebraska in 2006. Who or what inspired you to write this book? My mom, ultimately. She was the link to all these stories, and I was also always troubled by her relationship with her dad. She felt very left out of his activist life, and I wanted to understand why that had happened. I guess I wanted to explain Germany history to myself to see how my family fit into it and to understand the forces that had affected my mom.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? University of Nebraska Press, which rocks.
What other works would you compare this book to within your genre? I see it as somehow connected to the mixed-genre work of Maxine Hong Kingston, particularly China Men.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? This is a crazy question I have never thought about. I would only hope Janeane Garofolo would play me. That would make my life. I will have to think about who would play my grandfather. Hmmm…..
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? It's about Germany and it contains a ton of German history nobody talks about, including the wide range of left-wing resistance to Hitler, and also a bit of the story of how Germans struggled to rebuild their country after the war. But it's also about the left in the United States, my tour of duty through every little group I could find, and the struggle I had and have to be a mom and a writer while being an activist–that's the burning question at the heart of this book. How do you do both? xoxoxo Sonya
P.S.: here are my tags for five (okay, six–I cheated) writers who are the NEXT BIG THING! Author of Teaching in the Terrordome: Heather Kirn Lanier Author of Looking for Esperanza: Adriana Páramo Author of American Afterlife… Kate Sweeney Author of Steam Laundry (poetry)… Nicole Stellon O'Donnell Author of Use Your Words (a writing guide) and Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood: Kate Hopper Author of The Radical Housewife: Shannon Drury I didn't mean to do this, but I have chosen nonfiction writer mamas as my theme! Read these excellent books and enjoy.