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!

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