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Author Spotlight: Unspeakable History with Affinity Konar

Festival Staff / February 28, 2017

Affinity Konar’s Mischling explores the horrors of Auschwitz through the eyes of young Pearl and Stasha, who are among the many twins imprisoned in Josef Mengele’s “zoo.” Separated from their families, they and others are spared the experience of other prisoners because of Mengele’s medical interest in twins and the disabled. Mischling looks at survivor’s guilt, trauma, and family.

Affinity Konar has an MFA in fiction and currently lives in Los Angeles. She answered some questions via email.

What inspired you to write your book?

I grew up reading a great deal of Shoah literature; it often felt like the cornerstone of my love of books. It led me to a lot of Eastern European and Jewish poets, and art made within the camps and by survivors. My family was able to leave Poland before the war, so I always felt the pull of this history, even as a young child. And when I was sixteen and a high school dropout, I found a book called Children of The Flames, which detailed the experience of the twins in Auschwitz, their lives beyond it, and the crimes of Josef Mengele. I kept thinking about what the twins might have said to one another during their imprisonment—it was a conversation in the back of my mind that I couldn't leave alone. At that point, I never really imagined that I'd write a novel. I just knew that it was something that I would never forget, that I would repeatedly return to the history, looking for answers about how these children were able to endure and rejoin the world after so much loss and torment. I think a lot of people have a story that appears at a formative age and proceeds to follow them—that was the case with me.

All writing takes research, but historical fiction especially takes a lot of work to get the facts right and also understand the feel of the era itself. What can you tell us about your research process?

Since this book was more an oft-abandoned personal project than anything, my process was fairly loose in the beginning. Whenever I put it down, it felt as if things simply fell into my lap—a book, a documentary, a photograph—and that would inspire me to work on it again. That's one of the strangest things about working on a novel—that your whole world starts to fall through the lens of the story you want to tell, even if you're only telling it to yourself. So the research often felt meant-to-be, almost spontaneous-one book, person, or event always suggested another—and the true anxiety of triple-checking every fact and angle entered after the novel had been thrown out twice and traveled through multiple drafts. Those were some incredibly anxious times, but much of this research-sifting, in the end, was about distilling the elements that were vital to this particular novel. Because when you research this unspeakable history, you are presented with no shortage of figures and stories that you want to include, and the limitations of fiction hit you very hard—there's a responsibility not only to accuracy, but to a sense of soul, to people whose pain you can't ever really know, even as you feel compelled to remember them.

What does the day-to-day business of being a writer actually look like for you?

I write mostly in the early morning, before life has too much of a chance to creep in. I walk the dog, which helps me think. It's a good form of meditation for me, even better if it's still dark out. Words come a lot easier in those hours. Then I'll have my day as a practical person, which I am quite bad at being, so the dreaming about my book always creeps in and I'm writing notes when I should be tending to work. I'll write again in the evening and I'll often have the television running in the background, something beloved that I know very well, so well that I'm not really paying attention at all, but have the company of the characters onscreen to cut the loneliness. If I could, I'd always have flowers around for writing, because I tend to focus on the anti-floral—the dark and the cruel and the inexplicable. I appreciate a strict routine. If I skip a day, I feel it the next. And when I need to warm up, I'll write an email to a friend. That often leads to "real" writing, because it sinks me into an engagement with words while also tricking my mind into a sense of play. And I guess it might help me keep my friends too, because it can be a reclusive sort of life!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

I'd say it's wise to honor whatever obsessions you may have, however daunting they might be, and let the rest follow. I avoided writing this book for years, but everything I tried to write around its absence was flat and without reason. You can't fake love and urgency, no matter how disciplined or motivated you are about your writing practice. What you love and care for most has to lead, even if it frightens you—actually, it should frighten you, either in content or form. And on a practical level, I'd say that you need to look after your health, however you can, even as the notion of good health is becoming more and more of a luxury and privilege. We romanticize the notion of the "sick artist" too much. The reality of that is hugely destructive.

Are you working on anything right now?

I've been working on a novel since I finished edits for Mischling.That was a surprise to me; I'd thought I'd be all written out. Whether the novel is at all good is a mystery to me—I only know that I've been interested in the subject for some years, and I have that very necessary sense of urgency and affection for the narrator. So I'm just researching it, in bits and pieces, and hoping that it will find itself worthy in some way. I write a lot of dialogue these days. I'm not a very verbal person, so putting words in characters' mouths is always a good starting point for me, a bit of relief that dictates where the book needs to go.

Find Affinity Konar at the Festival: World War II from Los Alamos to Germany, Saturday, March 11; Jewish Lives and Histories, Sunday, March 12. There will be book signing after each event and books will be available for purchase.

—Sarah Hannah Gómez

Sarah Hannah Gómez holds an MA in children’s literature and an MS in library and information science from Simmons College and is working toward a PhD in children’s and adolescent literature at the University of Arizona. Find her online at shgmclicious.com or @shgmclicious.

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