In The Ambassador’s Daughter, the daughter of a German diplomat struggles to find her own identity as the post-World War I powers seek to define the wartorn world. In our Q&A with Pam Jenoff, the author sheds some light on her influences and the historic settings in her novel.
You earned your master's in history, graduated from law school, have worked for the Army and the State Department and now teach at Rutgers. Were the people in your life surprised when you turned to writing fiction?
No, being a novelist was actually my childhood dream, and I’ve been putting my writing in front of friends and family for as long as I can remember. But for many years I could not get started—something always held me back. The epiphany for me was 9/11. When those tragic events happened, I had a heightened sense of mortality and realized I did not have forever to make my dream come true—I had to get started right away. So I took a course called “Write Your Novel This Year” and began to write.
What did each of your previous careers bring to your writing?
In the mid-1990s, I was sent to Poland as a diplomat for the State Department. It was an exciting time as Poland emerged from Communism and there were many issues related to the Second World War and Holocaust, such as preservation of the concentration camps and property restitution, which were unresolved. Politically, it became important to resolve these issues so Poland could join NATO and the European Union. I was very close to the surviving Jewish community in Krakow and the consulate gave me responsibility for many of these issues. I was quite moved by my personal and professional experiences in Poland and these have largely influenced my writing.
My years as a lawyer and now law school professor have also helped by strengthening my writing. I believe that there are many synergies between legal and fiction writing. For example, creative writing can help a lawyer craft narratives, while legal writing has developed my ability to revise my novels
Your book follows Margot, the daughter of a diplomat who stays in Paris during the peace conference that follows the Great War. Do you ever have doubts about setting your novels against important historical moments like this? How do you manage to make the world feel authentic to readers?
When setting my stories amidst real historical events, I’m always struck by a great sense of responsibility to do justice to the time period and the people who lived in it. Sometimes, such as when writing my earlier books set during the Holocaust, it can be quite daunting.
As to authenticity, I think it is a delicate balance of including fresh original details while still remaining true to the realities of the era. The challenge is to capture the larger mood while manifesting it in detail. I certainly struggle with it!
Post-war Paris is brilliantly evoked in this novel. Can you still find traces of it in the city today? What might readers be surprised to know about the city during this time?
Paris at the time was such a contradiction in terms, one of the world’s grand cities in rubble. People were attempting to live again and capture the splendor of the city among suffering and starvation. But Paris is timeless and you can feel the era today in every narrow, winding street of the Left Bank. And while we are talking about cities, please don’t forget Berlin, where the last third of the book is set. Postwar Berlin is a fascinating example of a city trying to live again among the devastation and recriminations of a defeated nation, and particularly interesting for the Jewish people, who were trying to find their place in the new order.
The world seems particularly fascinated with the world of the 1910s and ‘20s right now. Any thoughts about why that might be, and what parallels can be drawn between then and now?
I think that for so long the focus of 20th-century historical fiction has been the Second World War. The interest is understandable—those very difficult times provide fertile ground for putting the reader in the protagonist’s shoes and forcing her to question what she might have done under such circumstances. But it is so exciting to explore the years surrounding World War I, a period of great change and momentous questions that would set the scene for the tragic events to come. I’d wanted to write about this time period since writing about it for my master’s thesis at Cambridge on the Paris Peace Conference and the League of Nations covenant. The post-World War I era is such an exciting period—the whole world was being reborn, new nations and identities, new roles and possibilities for women. The fledgling interest in the period following the First World War can be seen in everything from the popularity of recent novels such as The Paris Wife to the phenomenal success of “Downton Abbey.” I hope readers will enjoy taking this detour into the “deeper past” with me!
The Ambassador's Daughter features a love triangle. Do you have a(nother!) favorite literary love triangle? What makes for a compelling one?
I haven’t thought about other literary love triangles, though in some sense for me it dates back to Camelot and the Arthurian Legend (love triangle between Guinevere, Lancelot and Arthur.) If I look, most of my books include some form of love triangle, because it just makes for such a great story. The absolute best are the ones where both romances are compelling and there does not seem to be an easy answer or way out, because you must keep reading to see what happens
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
I like the beginning, which for me involves throwing down on paper (keyboard, actually) 150 pages or so of whatever comes out. And I like the end, when I have a manuscript taking shape. I often go away for a weekend with that manuscript and attempt to beat it into submission. But my least favorite part is the middle, or what I call “the dark place” when you are mired in a ton of material and can’t see the shape of it yet, or the light at the end of the tunnel. I get through that period with coffee and faith. And there’s nothing better than receiving a friendly reader email when you are in the pit of creative despair, to remind you while you struggle through writing in the first place.
Do you have a remedy for beating writer's block when you're working on a novel?
I’m not sure I believe in writer's block. There are times where my energy or inspiration is low, but to me this is a job so I still put my butt in the chair and write something. It’s all about finding what inspires you—fear or desire or whatever—and harnessing that.
What other books/authors do you read for inspiration?
I like to read other 20th century historical fiction that is well done, though that can sometimes be intimidating because they are so good. For example, I loved The Postmistress by Sarah Blake and All That I Am by Anna Funder. But the timeless inspiration for me is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Her Zen Buddhist approach to writing is what broke me wide open and set my feet on the path to realizing my dream of becoming a novelist.
What are you working on next?
I’m presently working on another novel set during the Second World War. It involves twin sisters in rural Poland who are struggling to care for their three younger siblings, and one of them finds a downed American paratrooper in the woods. How far will she go to help him and at what cost?