Wednesday, December 16, 2009

5 (or so) Questions with Bodine Schwerin - Part 2

Here is the second and final installment of Micah Riecker's interview with "Baby Knauer Speaks" author Bodine Schwerin.

9L: To continue my prying into the ways in which history affected the story: One aspect of historical fiction that I do see in the piece is that, though you bend historical fact, the major events of the story follow the major events in history. That is, we know the ending - that Baby Knauer will be a victim (as in your epigraph) - before we actually get there. Did that have an effect on the way you wrote the story? In other words, because you knew the ending, did it make writing this story different than other stories you've worked on?

BS: I love working with historical figures in my writing because in many ways they are ready-made characters. That sounds both horribly lazy and opportunistic, and I often vacillate between a fear of doing injustice to some long-dead person and being fairly certain that writing fiction gives me license to do pretty much anything I please, so long as it's in the name of a good story. One must be careful, which depending on your opinion of the matter is the lesson William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner teaches writers of "historical" fiction.

But from a practical standpoint, many aspects of history are open to interpretation and thus "fictionalization," especially the smaller details of events and the foibles and motivations of individuals, while elements like birthdays, appearances, hometowns, and basic life narratives are for the most part clearly established for many fascinating historical personages. (Even the obscured history of Baby Knauer provided some starting points to work with.) This presents an appealing break for a writer like myself who has a god-awful time figuring out these more mundane aspects of characters and would much rather get to work on the cool stuff - like what a disfigured, talking baby might say, or how an ancient king would react to a prophet pig. If something from the historical record, like a job or moustache, doesn't fit what is necessary for the story, I can change it (after carefully considering the consequences), but it's so nice to have something concrete to start with. It also helps that, like you say, I knew the ending, though not as much as having character frameworks to take advantage of.

With "Baby Knauer Speaks," it was of course clear the baby would die at the hands (or on the order) of Karl Brandt. To change this in any way would be a gross injustice (even in the name of a good story) obviously for the baby but also because it would let Brandt off the hook. But what was interesting was that, when I got to the end, the tragedy was less about Brandt killing Baby Knauer than about Brandt silencing it ("him" historically, but I'll stick with sexless pronoun when referencing the story). As we've discussed, the baby does seem to achieve some form of self awareness at the story's conclusion. Yet, this is the moment - when the baby effectively separates from the narrative of history and becomes an individual, with an individual story about to be told - that outside forces conspire to silence it. I'm not sure what exactly all this means in a larger sense. Is it part of the tragedy of being human - that even as we cling to our individual lives/stories we are being always swept up into a great pattern of history in which we aren't individuals but archetypes, the same stories told different ways, different stories told the same way? Is this even a tragedy? Perhaps, like you suggest, this offers some kind of justice in the case of Baby Knauer. I'm getting in over my head here.

Getting back to your original question, I was going to say that working with history did indeed lead me to writing this story differently from others I have attempted, but now I think not. I had an ending dictated to me by the events of the past, but even though I knew precisely where I had to finish up, the process still yielded a different result - subtly so, perhaps, but still different. I can't think of a single story I've written that has ended up where I thought it would, even in those cases where the ending was all I knew when I began. So I suppose there wasn't really all that much different between writing this story and others of mine, other than having some of the tedious character development already done for me.

9L: You seem like you draw inspiration from a number of sources (TV being one). What are you reading right now?

BS: I've heard this is the case with many writers, but I'm typically reading on two levels at any time. The first is just anything I happen to want to read at the moment; right now I'm plowing through Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (I'm well behind everyone else in reading this, I know), which I'm loving for its structure and sheer immensity of its imagination. On the second level, however, is the rather repetitive reading I do to maintain a level of inspiration and motivation for my writing. For this, I am always reading and rereading some combination of the following: Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Borges' Collected Fictions, and anything at all by Rilke, as translated by Stephen Mitchell. Calvino and Borges because they are fabulists, I suppose, but there's a certain tone they strike that wakes up my creativity, not to mention the wonderful breadth of their imaginations. Rilke is, to me, the consummate writer; I could go on about the beauty of his work, but it's his courage that I find inspirational for my own writing, as I'm sure it has for many others.

9L: As far as Baby Knauer, we've talked a little about how research did and didn't play a role. Any research going on right now?

BS: The collection I'm still working on centers on miracles, so much of my research for that has focused on hagiographies, particularly those in The Golden Legend, a two-volume collection. Just as with "Baby Knauer Speaks," I've been trying to pair up miraculous elements from the lives of saints (bilocation, corpses navigating their way to their chosen place of burial, Rip Van Winkle-esque thousand-year slumbers) with characters plucked from history or made up entirely.

So The Golden Legend is a great source for the miraculous, and for the characters, I've focused on people in situations of remarkable suffering, because saintliness and suffering are inseparable. (This idea I find validated in E.M. Cioran's Tears and Saints, which I reread from time to time to keep the philosophical core of the collection in mind.) To find inspiration for the characters, I've researched the obvious major tragedies in history (such as the Holocaust in the case of "Baby Knauer Speaks," or more recently Hurricane Katrina) and less obvious ones (women murdered in China so as to be married off as "'ghost brides" for men who died unwed), as well as more personal tragedies, such as the simple death of a child, or a loss of a parent, or the onset of terrible illness, and the infinite circumstances in which any of these may occur. For these latter cases, I simply scan the news online, where there is sadly no shortage of inspiration for characters who suffer greatly. Fortunately, I currently have enough material to fill out the collection, so I don't have to actively engage in that grim work for the moment. Any research I'm currently conducting is just to fill in little gaps in knowledge I need for the stories, like common names for Bosnian Muslims, the geography of New Orleans, or the symptoms of Legionnaire's Disease.

"Baby Knauer Speaks" is featured in Ninth Letter, vol. 6, no. 1. Copies are available in our webstore.

Monday, December 14, 2009

5 (or so) Questions with Bodine Schwerin - Part 1

For this installment of 5 (or so) Questions, 9L staffer Micah Riecker interviews Bodine Schwerin, author of "Baby Knauer Speaks" from our current issue, vol. 6, no. 1

"Baby Knauer Speaks" tells the story of a disfigured newborn who delivers prophecies before being euthanized by the Nazis. They had so much to discuss that we're presenting the interview in two parts. Here is part 1. Enjoy.

9L: Did you sit down to write historical fiction? I hate genre-ing things but just as far as discussing writing process in the story. Did you sit down, knowing that you wanted to turn Baby Knauer into a prophet? 

BODINE SCHWERIN: I agree with your feelings toward trying to categorize any particular story into a genre, so I can't say I ever had any intention of writing historical fiction, or any other kind of fiction for that matter, other than, I suppose, "good fiction," which I define as "not boring." I once read an interview with Kelly Link, one of my favorite writers, and she said, "Stories come from an intersection of things. For some stories, you don't have so much as a starting place as a collision." About six years ago I was looking for material for an assignment I had given myself: to write stories that employ events or plot lines plucked from hagiographies - biographies of saints. I was reading various sources like The Golden Legend and came across the story of St. Rumwold, an infant saint who, as legend has it, lived for three days and during that time asked to be baptized and gave a sermon or two.

I thought it was a fun little nugget but had no idea what to do with it until a number of weeks later, when I caught the tail end of one of those History Channel documentaries on Nazi atrocities. The narrator made a brief reference to Baby Knauer, who became Hitler's test subject for the Nazi euthanasia program and was perhaps the first victim of the Holocaust. The idea immediately clicked in the form of the title: Baby Knauer Speaks. The story arose from that moment. At any time, I had no idea what would come from it, other than that Baby Knauer had something to say, and I had to figure out what that was.

I suppose you could say it is a piece of historical fiction because it features historical persons and some accurate elements of these persons' lives. Hitler, Hitler's father, King Herod, Werner Catel, Karl Brandt, and of course Baby Knauer himself (a boy, whose real name and background was relatively recently uncovered in sealed records - Gerhard Kretschmar, the severely disabled son of farmhands). And if you consider hagiographies as a form of history, which would be an interesting position, then there's that, too. But I never had any real intention of sticking to the historical facts unless they suited the needs of the story as it unfolded - and what the story needed were symbolic characters, not historical ones: Baby Knauer became sexless. Herr Knauer became a worker in the Public Health department and friends with Werner Catel. The "doctors" in charge of the baby's care assumed the names of Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding, psychiatrist and lawyer and authors of the monstrous "Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life," a tract that gave inspiration to Hitler's euthanasia program.

It wasn't important to me for "Baby Knauer Speaks" to be historically accurate, other than a few grounding details to add realism to counter the surrealism that dominates the story. It was much more important that the heart of the story do Baby Knauer justice by conveying as much as possible, with my limited abilities, the depth of suffering the child (and those that came before him, and those that have followed) experienced, and how the fault of these children's fate lies with the adults who failed to protect and cherish them. "Baby Knauer Speaks" ultimately became an indictment of Baby Knauer's father, who for me represented a truly horrific failure of love and responsibility that I struggled to comprehend while writing the story.

As for the intent behind Baby Knauer being a prophet - there was none there, either, at least not initially. Through various drafts, the baby said all manner of things, but eventually it became clear to me that the Baby Knauer of the story was merely a name, a representative vessel for the suffering that preceded him and all that was to immediately follow; he seemed like a harbinger, a recorded message, a sign that not one of the adults who should have been his guardians could understand. So I had him tell stories, and over the course of many drafts those stories came to have common themes of suffering children and terrible fathers. These stories seem to foretell a repetition of history carried out by the Nazi euthanasia program, so in that sense, Baby Knauer is prophesying. But at the very end of the story, he seems to take on a bit of self-awareness, a sense of his own personal tragedy, and he is no longer a prophet but just a desperate, doomed soul, and his stories then seem to me like cryptic attempts to teach his father, mother, and doctors some lesson in love and responsibility, in compassion, so that he might experience this from them before he dies. But in the story, as in history, Baby Knauer is robbed of that opportunity. 

9L: I'm interested in what you said about Baby Knauer gaining self-awareness at the end of the piece. There's a really strange tension - strange meaning kick-ass - between Baby Knauer as a prophet and Baby Knauer as a human being.

BS: I think you're absolutely right, and that "strange tension" is the perfect way to describe it. By the time I was working on my final drafts of the story, I was conceiving Baby Knauer as little more than the flesh-and-blood equivalent of the device Hoche and Binding use to record the infant's stories. I imagined the baby as a tape recorder from God or whatever Greater Power had manipulated these events and crafted this message for Baby Knauer to deliver; Baby Knauer was in my mind basically a toy of Fate, which seemed to fit the historical reality of his life. And yet, even perhaps against my authorial will, the baby achieved a measure of humanity, a moment of reflection and perhaps regret, sadness. I was surprised by that but very glad for it.

Stay tuned for part 2 on Wednesday!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

the VOICE reading series

The last VOICE reading of the semester is tonight, Thursday, Dec. 3 at 7:30pm at the Krannert Art Museum. University of Illinois M.F.A. candidates Sara Gelston (poetry) and Aaron Burch (fiction) will read from their work, along with special guests from Bowling Green State University, Matt Bell, Callista Buchen, and Anne Valente.

The event is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!