An Interview With Jennifer Steil

The writer Jennifer Steil (USA), New York, New York, April 16, 2019. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

Jennifer Steil is an award-winning author and journalist. Her third book, Exile Music, a novel about a family of Austrian Jewish musicians who seek refuge from the Nazis in Bolivia, is forthcoming from Viking USA on May 5, 2020.

Her most recent novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, published by Doubleday in 2015, won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and the 2016 Phillip McMath Post Publication book award and was a finalist for the Bisexual Book Award and the Lascaux Novel Award. It has received considerable critical acclaim, notably in the Seattle Times, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and The New York Times Book Review. It has been published in several other languages, including Italian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Polish. The Mark Gordon Company optioned the film rights to The Ambassador’s Wife, with plans to create a television miniseries starring Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway.

Jennifer’s first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010), a memoir about her tenure as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, received praise from The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune chose it as one of their best travel books of the year in 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize. National Geographic Traveler included the book in their 2014 recommended reading list. It has been published in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and Poland.

Jennifer earned a Bachelor of Arts in theatre from Oberlin College, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and a Master of Science in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has taught writing, editing, and publishing at Rosemont College in Philadelphia, Bournemouth University in England and at many other universities in many countries, including the University of Algiers in Algeria, SUNY Plattsburgh in New York, the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, the University of Central Arkansas, and several universities in Tennessee.

Jennifer is currently working on her fourth book, a novel about a community of LGBTQ artists living underground in Bolivia, while pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham in England.

Her freelance work has appeared in the Saranac Review, World Policy Journal, The Week, The Washington Times, Vogue UK, the Peauxdunque Review, Die Welt, New York Post, Playgirl, The Rumpus, Time, Readers’ Digest Version, Irish National Radio, France 24 (English), CBS radio, and GRN Global Reporter Network Service. Jennifer also works as a freelance book editor. She currently lives in Tashkent, Uzbekistan with her husband and 10-year-old daughter.

You can preorder her new novel, Exile Music, at these locations:

You can also as your local independent bookstore to order it!

Interview with Jennifer Steil:

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Exile Music. I really enjoyed it. Can we start with the book’s origins? So many times, that initial spark gets lost or buried, but the conception of this book can be traced back to an actual conversation, correct? Can you take us back to that moment—the conversation itself and what started unfolding in your thoughts? I’m a history buff—especially of this time period—but I was unaware of this enclave of Jewish refugees in this part of South America.

Jennifer Steil: When my British husband accepted a diplomatic post with the European Union in 2012 and we moved with our daughter to La Paz, nestled high in the Andean mountains of Bolivia, we found ourselves breathless—both with wonder at the stunning landscape and with the lack of oxygen that comes with living almost twelve thousand feet above sea level. A Bolivian altitude doctor I met at a diplomatic event told me everything works differently in thin air. And we quickly found that to be true. Taking the stairs left us winded. Yoga became a seriously aerobic exercise. Even pulling on tights became a seriously aerobic exercise. The dry air cracked our skin and gave us nosebleeds. Paper cuts took weeks to heal. My confused heart developed arrhythmia.

Through our first days, I clung to a tidbit the altitude doctor shared with me—it takes forty days for a body to maximally adjust to life at altitude. But even then, my skinny gringa veins limited how many red blood cells I could accommodate. My body lacked the Bolivian architecture needed to effortlessly thrive in La Paz.

We weathered other adjustments, too. Our lives now took place mostly in Spanish. I observed with envy how swiftly my three-year-old daughter absorbed the language, casually using the subjunctive mood a month after our move, while I was still painstakingly writing out my conjugations. Every day we learned more about the unfamiliar cultures around us—about the politics, the values, the religions, the ecosystems, the celebrations, the people.

Sometime in our first few months, my husband, Tim, came home brimming with excitement over a conversation he’d had with the Austrian honorary consul. “Did you know there were ten thousand Jewish refugees here during the war?” he asked. “And that many were artists and musicians?” I did not. I had known many Jews fled to Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, and Brazil to escape the Nazis, and that many Nazis followed suit after the war. But I hadn’t heard anything about Bolivia.

The Jewish refugees who arrived in La Paz in 1938 and during the war would have experienced adjustments exponentially more difficult and painful than ours. Many arrived without family members. All arrived stripped of everything they owned. They had no money, no way to pursue their professions, no understanding of Spanish or experience with South America. Altitude was the least of their problems. Unlike us, they had not chosen this country. How had they adapted? Where did they consider home? Did they learn Spanish? Did they stay? The spark Tim had carried home to me ignited a passionate curiosity. I looked at my daughter and imagined a small girl standing at the top of the city, looking down at its unfamiliar contours. I imagined her having to recreate her entire life, her identity.

By coincidence, I met the son of one of these refugees at a reception, not long after my conversation with Tim. John Gelernter is a Jewish musician and conductor whose mother and father fled Eastern Europe in 1946 after their daughter—the sister John never met—and his grandparents died during the liquidation of the Stryj ghetto in Ukraine. John was born a couple years later, in La Paz. After our first meeting, I lay awake picturing his mother, Matylda, hiding in a tiny basement shelter with twenty-four others, trying to keep her two-year-old daughter from crying and giving them all away. John told me that when the pharmacist working above the shelter promised them cyanide capsules, “it cheered her up.” She would not have to worry about torture then, only death.

To better understand refugee life decades ago for Austrians who fled to this alien landscape, I asked John if he could introduce me to other survivors. Eighty-three-year-old Guillermo had traveled from Austria to Bolivia in 1940, when he was eight years old and still called Wilhelm. He described climbing up a ladder on the outside of the ship to sneak into films in first class. In La Paz, he learned Spanish from his landlady’s children. And he later learned English from reading Time magazine. He studied engineering and eventually turned his love of cinema into the creation of several movie theaters. He became the president of the local organization of cinema owners. After the war, in the early 1950s, the US finally granted him the visa his family had applied for in desperation from Austria years earlier. But it was too late. He was used to Bolivia by then, he said. While his parents had dreamed of moving back to Austria, they always lacked the money and opportunity. When Austria later invited Guillermo to return, he didn’t even consider it. “I can’t forgive them for what they did to my mother,” he told me in Spanish. “I feel almost angrier at Austria than at Germany. Because my father fought in the First World War for Austria. And my mother was born in the same house, the same apartment where I was born. And they threw us out. I have not been able to forgive Austria.”

Thus, he is no longer the Austrian named Wilhelm; he is the Bolivian named Guillermo.

I knew I could not let these stories die with their narrators, and a novel began to take shape in my mind. In addition to conducting interviews, I traveled to Vienna and Genoa to research the lives of these Jews and imagine their journeys where they began. I read nonfiction books on mythology to learn how the Aymara, the indigenous people of Bolivia known for farming coca and domesticating the potato, saw the stars; Bolivian history for political context; and Mahler for musical history. I delved into opera to learn about a character’s career and read novels and poetry of the era to figure out what my characters would have read. I listened to Arnold Schönberg, Matilde Casazola, and Heitor Villa-Lobos. I read scores of newspaper articles. Because my protagonist, Orly, is mostly drawn to women, I researched lesbian and gay life in Austria and Germany in the 1930s.

There was also another critical seed for this story. When my daughter was around three years old, during our first year in Bolivia, she came to me as I was making her porridge (Bolivian-style, with chia seeds!) and asked me where we lived before Bolivia. “London,” I said.

“Before London.”

“Jordan.”

“And before Jordan?”

“Yemen.”

“And before Yemen?”

“Before Yemen you lived in my tummy.”

“But where did I live before I came to live in your tummy?”

“Nowhere,” I said.

This was clearly unacceptable. “I must have lived somewhere!” she said. “I know where I was. I was in Bunnybeltz with Mama Bunny.” Over the following three years, Bunnybeltz continued to take shape in Theadora’s imagination. Some of the (invisible) inhabitants even came along on journeys with us. I was so interested in this constantly evolving world I took notes on its geography and politics (the president is always a hermaphrodite, so that both men and women could be represented in one person).

This is how Friedenglückhasenland was born. My characters Orly and Anneliese

have essentially the same conversation I had with my small daughter. It is inconceivable to young people that there was a time they did not exist.

But my specific reason for including this in the novel, and for starting with it, is that I had been wondering how a little girl would react to the invasion of the Nazis. And I thought that it was plausible she might retreat into a fantasy world in order to escape reality and avoid thinking about what was happening on her streets.

So, this was also an important part of the novel’s origin.

CS: The novel relies mainly on the elements we expect to find in literary fiction—lyrical passages, character development, interpersonal relationships—but I’m guessing there was also a decent deal of research involved. Was this this case? If so, did anything you find surprise you at all? Did it take you—or the story—to a place you hadn’t expected?

JS: Hell yes. SO much research. In fact, I could research this book until I was 100 and still feel like I hadn’t done quite enough. At a certain point I did just have to say hey, it’s a novel! I can use a little imagination. But I wanted to do justice to this community of Jews and create as plausible a world and story as possible.

Plenty surprised me, and I took many unexpected journeys. For example, I did not expect to find myself watching videos on how to cook over a kerosene stove in order to figure out how Orly’s mother would have cooked or spending hours searching for a 1940s photograph of one particular street so I could see what the shops hung outside their doors or becoming penpals with a German pianist.

Interviewing refugees and their descendants was an emotional journey. Guillermo, whom I refer to above, became tearful when talking about the Holocaust and his lasting fury with Austria. He said this to me toward the end of one interview: “I have read a lot of books about concentration camps. Each book opens new emotions. Because what happened to us is not logical. I’ve tried to understand why Hitler did it. Nobody can understand what happened. And why the other democracies let it happen.” Talking about it still makes him weep.

His story inspired so much of my book. He explained to me the situation of the indigenous Bolivians who were not even allowed to walk through Plaza Murillo. He talked about the injustice of that, and how he could not stand to see them treated as less than citizens. Like Guillermo, my character Orly learns her Spanish from her landlady’s children (Miguel in particular). Like Guillermo, Orly is outraged at how the Aymara and Quechua people are treated. Like Guillermo, Orly left Austria as a child. There were other bits of his story that inspired me: his journey on the ship, his memories of Austria, his stories about life in La Paz and the trams.

My friend John, whom I also refer to above, also became emotional discussing what happened to his mother. I remember exactly where we were having lunch and what we were eating and how hot it was in the café when he told me about the pharmacist and the cyanide capsules and the little girl who was thrown from a roof.

There were many other places I turned to for research. I wandered Holocaust and Jewish museums in Vienna, New York, and Washington, DC, in search of information on Austrian refugees. I read every relevant memoir I could find—Leo Spitzer’s Hotel Bolivia, Egon Schwarz’s Refuge, George Clare’s Last Waltz in Vienna, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edith Lowenstein’s Survival, etc.—some published commercially, others self-published to keep history alive for family.

I was also surprised and delighted to learn how vibrant the gay and lesbian scene was in Europe in the pre-war years. I think we have a tendency to whitewash the past and think that our generation invented sex. Surely people back in the 1930s were not having sex! Ah, but that’s where we are wrong. The more I read about the gay and lesbian scene in Germany and Austria in the 1930s, the racier I realized it was. It was thrilling to investigate this underworld, even through books. I was entranced by The Scorpion, a fairly explicit and daring lesbian saga. It occurred to me that Orly could have read this book, and perhaps that is how she first realizes that there are other women who feel the way she does. I wanted to give the gay and lesbian people of the past more visibility, as they have been largely erased from our history books, except for a few famous examples, (Oscar Wild, Anais Nin). This is also why I included Odette and Ilse in the beginning of the book.

CS: I’m always intrigued by a novel’s structure—and Exile Music employs some interesting strategies. The book is divided into movements, much like a symphony—and the first movement’s chapters all start with news bulletins from the ever-more-menacing events brewing in pre-WW2 Europe. When in the process did utilizing these structures come to you? What did you hope they’d bring to the work?

JS: The musical structure came relatively late in the process, after the first few drafts. I was still struggling with how to organize the story, while listening to Mahler’s Third Symphony. Which just so happens to have six movements. And presto! I had a structure that made sense to me and made sense in the world of the novel.

The structure also reflects how integral music is to this book. Orly’s father Jakob plays with the Vienna Philharmonic and her mother Julia is an opera singer. In Bolivia, music is a natural refuge for Jakob, whose life has always revolved around music. It not only keeps him too busy to sink into despair but keeps him hopeful and engaged with the world. It is music that offers Jakob a way into this foreign country – he becomes excited when he learns more about Bolivian sounds and instruments and Bolivian musicians. For Jakob, music is a bridge between his life in Vienna and his life in La Paz.

When his wife, Julia, gives up singing, she also gives up a connection to her husband and the world. She also loses a refuge and an outlet for expression.

For Orly, music is a way to connect with both her father and with her new world. She chooses charango because it is something her father does not play and because it is uniquely Bolivian.

Music frames this book because music frames the worlds of these characters.

The news bulletins that start each Austria section of the book are there to heighten the stakes (just in case they aren’t clear!) and contribute to the momentum of the book. I wanted to get my characters to Bolivia as fast as possible, but there were certain things that first had to happen in Austria. I needed a before life to contrast with the after life so that readers can see all that these characters lost and the ways they are each transformed. While my initial chapters are not overtly about the events in the bulletins, I hope they give readers a sense of menace, of the events going on that Orly doesn’t yet understand.

CS: The use of those news bulletins to introduce the early chapters leads me to a question about pacing. We all know the background story and the horror that will soon burst through and upend everything in Orly’s life. I’m guessing that the pacing of these—and their impact on the characters and their development—was a challenge. Can you tell us a bit about this process?

JS: Yes! The pacing was a challenge, and you are correct that I used the bulletins to address that. Without that sense of danger lurking over those chapters of Orly’s happy childhood, they might not be as effective. I also cut as much as I could from these Austria scenes, keeping in only the scenes and words I believe essential to the story.

CS: We met the other year—we both teach summer sessions in the Rosemont MFA program—and I remember us talking not so much about writing but about our children and the experience of parenting. I thought about that conversation as I read the book, especially the early chapters. Has the experience of being a parent changed how you write about children? Has it had an even wider impact than that?

JS: When people ask me how I can write with a child, I ask them how they can write without one. I steal all my best ideas from my daughter! Which is evident from what I said earlier about the seeds of this novel. I am not sure I would have found a way in without Theadora’s Bunnybeltz.

Parenting is a constant process of discovery. Before I had a kid I had no idea that babies don’t initially know that their hands belong to them. Seeing that “OH MY GOD I CAN MAKE THESE THINGS MOVE!” moment was thrilling, from a scientific viewpoint. Watching how a human being develops and evolves tells us a lot about that human and about ourselves. Theadora’s room is full of too many stuffed animals, each of whom has a passport, a recommended diet, and a specific language. When she was younger and less articulate, I could tell what was on her mind by watching her play. For example, when she was two, I had an appendectomy and could no longer pick her up. Immediately, her bunnies all developed appendicitis and the littlest one was inconsolable that her mother could no longer hold her.

Her play tells us not only what’s on her mind but a lot about how she has grown up, moving to a new country every few years. Some have Spanish names, some English, some French, some Uzbek. Her animals and imagination are the only constants in her life. Which is why I don’t mind that she still plays with them at the age of 10, even though kids in her class make fun of her for it. The dramas Theadora creates with her animals are the best practice for storytelling I can imagine. In fact, they are storytelling.

Parenting forces me to constantly re-examine my beliefs and perspectives. Kids are always asking us why the world is the way it is. For me, parenting is essential research into human nature.

CS: This is the second book of yours I’ve read—and both that book and this one address the plight of the foreigner and our struggles to determine what constitutes home and the ways in which we discover and reinvent ourselves in new lands. I know this theme is echoed in your own life—what about it do you find so compelling?

JS: Ah. Hot topic for me, clearly! I can’t tell you how often I have conversations with my family and with other immigrants and expats about what home means to them. I am particularly curious about where my daughter considers home, given that she has grown up in Yemen, Jordan, London, Bolivia, France, and Uzbekistan. It’s strange to have a daughter who has never lived in my home country. Never experienced an American school system. I ask her regularly where she thinks of as home, and her answer changes. Most often it is Bolivia, because that is where she lived for the longest. Leaving there was very sad for her. But leaving London for Uzbekistan was also sad. She has an affinity for Britain. And for France, because she has always attended a French school. I will be interested to see where she chooses to live as an adult.

I have a lot to say about my own sense of home, more than you probably have

time/room for! Which is why the question of identity and home come up so often in my work. I am interested in border-crossers, in people who live between countries and cultures and languages. People who don’t belong fully to one place. People who have to continually recreate themselves.

I haven’t lived in the United States since 2006. Though unlike Orly, I chose my exile. I am lucky. I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to live in so many very different parts of the world. But now, I no longer feel that any one place could possibly be home. There are too many people I adore, too many countries I want to experience, too many languages I want to speak. How could I choose? We plan to settle down in France after Uzbekistan, but even the phrase “settle down” upsets me. I hate it. I am afraid that I won’t be able to be still, that I won’t be able to last more than a few years without wanting to move somewhere new. I am a novelty junkie. I like to constantly do and try new things.

When we told Theadora that the plan is to be in France permanently after this she said, “But moving around constantly is my whole IDENTITY. I will lose my IDENTITY!” Which is a way I hadn’t thought about identity.

The longer I travel the world with Tim and Theadora, the more I feel that they are the only home I have. And that is enough.

CS: I’m also always interested in how an author selects point of view. Did you hear this novel in first-person from the start? Did you consider third person at all? What about Orly’s voice and perspective made you go with the story being told through her eyes?

JS: Um, good question. Let me think back five or six years. Ah yes, here are the original notes. Looks like it was in first person from the very start. I think I probably began that way because writing in first person helps me to really inhabit a character and understand how she works. And perhaps because Orly and I have almost nothing in common I needed a strategy to get close to her perspective. Also, when I began writing about Orly I was imagining my daughter talking about Bunnybeltz. And I was often quoting her. I was interested in how a child would have experienced the years

immediately preceding the war and the growing danger of her streets. How would her point of view differ from an adult’s?

In retrospect, first person was tough and sometimes limiting. I think the book could have easily been written in third person. Hmmm. Don’t tell my editor.

CS: Even though this story is set in a previous generation, its focus on displaced people and the distrust of the other resonates in today’s world. Was this intentional? If it wasn’t at the start of your writing, did you feel its pull as you went forward?

JS: Yes, it was intentional. I wanted the story to have contemporary resonances. When I was first writing about Jewish refugees in Bolivia, I was also reading a lot in the news about refugees all around the world. Many of my friends have had to flee Yemen because of the humanitarian catastrophe civil war has created. I hope that my book will help readers toward empathy for these refugees and a deeper understanding of our common humanity, no matter where the refugees come from. I hope that it might also inspire them to find ways to help the refugees in their own communities, in a way that is sensitive to their cultures and religions. As the planet heats up and climate change refugees add to the floods of people fleeing regions of conflict, this is a problem that is only going to worsen.

CS: What’s next?

JS: I’m so glad you asked! Something TOTALLY DIFFERENT. I’m nearly done with the first draft of a novel about a group of mostly gay women artists living underground in Bolivia. It’s a completely different style and voice and is nearly all in dialogue. It’s so so so much fun and wrestles with all kinds of postcolonial and feminist and queer issues as well as the art of protest. There is also a lot of lesbian sex.