Ellen Feldman talks about Next to Love and Scottsboro
Q: Next To Love follows the lives of three young women — Babe, Grace and Millie — during World War II and its aftermath. Though childhood friends, their friendship in its adult years is occasionally rocky. Do you think the recent spate of books and movies about women’s friendship romanticize the relationship as we used to romanticize men-women relationships?
EF: Women’s friendships can be rare and wonderful, deep with trust and buoyant with humor and support. Over the years I have found my own close ties to women to be rich and sustaining. But I do think a distinction has to be made between valuing women’s friendships and idealizing them. Many recent books and movies tend to do the latter. When all else fails, they imply, we still have one another. An unfortunate corollary to this attitude is the idea that men are unreliable and likely to behave badly. I do believe there are distinctions between men and women, but I don’t think the fault line lies at friendship. I cherish my women friends, but I also have several men friends whom I treasure. The relationship is different but no less prized. I don’t believe either gender has the market cornered on loyalty, generosity, or kindness.
Q: In your acknowledgements you give partial credit for your inspiration to the Bedford Boys of Virginia. Who are the Bedford Boys?
EF: The Bedford Boys were a group of young men from the town of Bedford, Virginia (population 3200), who joined the National Guard before World War II. They went through training together, shipped out to England together in September, 1942, and were among the first American G.I.s who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Nineteen of them died in the first minutes of the landing, twenty-two in the invasion. Six weeks later, on July 16, the Western Union teletype machine at Green’s Drug Store in Bedford began rattling out the messages from the War Department. It was said that no other community in America lost more of its young men in a single day. Revisionist history now suggests that the casualties came not from the town, but from the county of Bedford. Geography is beside the point. Whether to town or county, the loss was staggering, the ripples from it heartbreaking and enduring.
Though the Bedford Boys were part of the inspiration for Next To Love, I was careful not to research the lives of the actual young men from Bedford who served in World War II. I wanted to write a novel about love, loss, and the scars they leave rather than an account of those particular men and the loved ones they left behind.
EF: With sixteen million men off fighting the war, millions of women took what were then thought of as men’s jobs. When the men returned home, the women were expected to give up those jobs, but many of them had got used to making their own decisions and their own money, and were reluctant to go back to what was deemed their proper domestic role. Some industries that catered to women recognized the problem and came up with a solution. Dior’s New Look fired the first salvo. While the trousers and short skirts of wartime encouraged women to stride and reach, Dior’s designs were intended to keep them in place. Who could move in those tight bodices, cinched waists, and yards and yards of long full skirts?
But the female genii that had escaped from the bottle could not be forced back in. It is no accident that the feminist revolution of the seventies was made by the daughters of the women who went out to work in the forties.
Q: One aspect to Next To Love has special resonance with the Jewish community — more than half a million young Jewish men left home to serve in World War II. What affects and transformations did the war have on individual American Jews and their communities?
EF: Those half million young Jewish men left largely ghettoized existences to live among strangers of every religious and ethnic background. Some of those strangers, who hailed from big cities, knew Jews — and hated them. Others from the countryside had never seen a Jew before — and still knew they hated them.
Many of the Jewish G.I.’s found themselves fighting battles in the barracks before they even reached the front. Often, they had to work harder to prove themselves. Some won through to friendships that broadened their horizons, and the nation’s. Others learned different lessons from the bigotry.
There were personal struggles as well. To eat ham for Uncle Sam, as the saying went, or to bypass it and go hungry after a day of grueling physical activity. To take off dog tags with the telltale H, for Hebrew, in case of capture by the Germans, or to leave them on in pride and in fear of dying anonymously.
The young men who went off to war G.I. Jews came home G.I. Joes. Never again would they settle for second class citizenship in the country they had fought and lost buddies for. No longer would they put up with restricted neighborhoods and clubs, and college quotas, and signs that said NO DOGS OR JEWS. They are the generation who helped shape the America we inhabit today.
EF: Hardship, danger, and proximity have a way of undermining bigotry . The problem for African-Americans, however, was that they did not live cheek-by-jowl with their white counterparts. The armed services were not integrated until three years after the end of the war.
Q: Babe, Grace, Millie and their men all suffer the scars of war, from the loss of loved ones to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the time, therapy and support groups were uncommon and silent suffering was viewed as virtuous. Our own era believes in openness as a cure, or at least as a form of solace. Do you think Babe, Grace and Millie would have had an easier time if they had shared their problems and unhappiness?
EF: I thought about the question frequently as my characters endured pain and suffered its long term scars silently. There is no doubt that friends and loved ones can offer support and sometimes even provide perspective. They can also confuse the issue, delivering unwanted advice, projecting their own misfortunes, overstepping boundaries. In one scene in the book, as Babe faces a crisis, she thinks about what Grace and Millie would tell her to do. But she knows that their solutions do not apply to her marriage. That said, there is no doubt that professional treatment and support groups can help those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other battle-related conditions.
Q: Babe was a poor girl who married into the middle class. Both of Grace’s husbands had plenty of money. After the war, Millie’s husband Al makes a small fortune. Yet the three women’s lives remain in many ways similar. They have cleaning women but not staffs of maids, nannies, and drivers. They shop, but not excessively. What do you think this says about the beginning of the most prosperous period in America’s history and our own era?
EF: For all the horror of the war, it did usher in a material golden age for Americans. Industry that had geared up to supply the military turned its prodigious power to fulfilling peacetime demands. The country was awash in products and luxuries. But a curious aspect of postwar prosperity, at least for our age, was that it lifted the entire population rather than the few. CEOs made more than their workers but not three hundred times more. Men joined a company and expected to stay there for their working lives. (The fact that few women worked during those years is, of course, the fly in the golden ointment.) Thanks to the G.I. Bill, which sent veterans back to school, enabled them to start businesses, and helped them buy homes, the middle class grew exponentially and flourished. Like Babe in the book, many Americans never imagined such prosperity would be within their reach. During the Depression and the war years, they had grown accustomed to doing without. One car in the garage was more than they had dreamed, two were heaven. But human nature grows accustomed to conditions quickly, and yesterday’s heaven can become today’s monotony. As the country grew ever more prosperous, more and bigger and better became the operative words. Why not trade in the Ford for a Cadillac, a Cadillac for a Mercedes, and throw in a boat in the bargain? Meanwhile, a political shift in the last two decades of the century enabled the new greed while whittling away at the safety net that had protected the larger population.
Q: The story of what happened in Scottsboro was, at the time, a sensational event. What inspired you to write about it now?
EF: The word Scottsboro is iconic in American lore. Everyone knows it stands for a terrible racial injustice, but few know the details of the horror, how deeply it convulsed the nation, how widely it reverberated around the world, and how it incited and exacerbated other prejudices in the country. I wanted to remind readers of a heinous chapter in the nation’s recent past, in hope that remembering inoculates against repeating. I also wanted to tell a riveting story, at once heartbreaking and inspiring. And I thought that as we stand on the brink of a new era in race relations, we hope, this was the moment to do it.
Q: In the acknowledgements at the end of Scottsboro you write, “Setting fictional characters loose among the ghosts of history is a dicey business.” How difficult was it to construct such a believable character as Alice Whittier and to slot her so seamlessly into the story?
EF: I wrote Scottsboro as fiction because I am interested in exploring the major events of history, but in human terms. How do individuals behave in the crucible of great events, and how do they shape those events in turn? Alice Whittier is a composite of two women journalists who covered Scottsboro, but she is also very much my creation, perhaps even a fantasized much-improved version of myself. I have never risked my life for a cause, but Alice’s beliefs and convictions, passions and prejudices, and especially limitations are mine. Creating Alice was a means of finding my way into the story.
Q: Ruby Bates is, of course, a real person and one of the “victims” in the trial. You give Ruby her voice in the book. How did she “speak” to you?
EF: Finding Ruby’s voice was the most difficult aspect of writing Scottsboro. When I started, I was so sure I could not capture Ruby’s voice that I did not even try. The book was in the third person, and Ruby lived at a distance. But through draft after draft, she kept nagging at me to let her speak for herself. I read and reread native southern writers. I studied dictionaries of regional slang and dialect. Little by little, Ruby’s voice became clearer and louder. That is the story of how I discovered Ruby’s voice in my head, but how it got there in the first place is one of the wonders and joys of being a novelist.
Q: How much research was required to complete the novel?
EF: A great deal. I started with the secondary sources, then moved on to archives, contemporary accounts – both newspaper and first-person – and of course the transcripts of the trial.
Q: A challenge for books based on actual events is to make sure that, as the author, you provide enough detail in the book while at the same time you avoid turning the book into a work of non-fiction. How did you strike that balance?
EF: You put your finger on one of the most difficult problems of writing this kind of fiction. My first several drafts for Scottsboro, as for The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank and the novel before that, Lucy, read too much like history. In the early drafts, I have to get it all down in its historical accuracy. Then, in subsequent drafts, I have to begin to burrow into the hearts and minds of the characters to discover the motives and emotions behind their actions.
Q: What are The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank and Lucy about?
EF: I wrote The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank after a guide at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam told me, mistakenly, that we had no proof of whether Peter, the boy in hiding with her, had lived or died. In the book, I posit that he lived, came to this country, and hid his past, as many did at the time. It’s a drama about the power of the past and what happens when we try to deny it. It’s also about the life Anne Frank’s diary took on in this country after her death.
Lucy is about the love affair that almost derailed twentieth century history. Lucy Mercer was the great love of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s life. Had he left his wife Eleanor for her, as he contemplated doing, he would never have been elected president, and the history of the last century would have been very different indeed. But I tell the story in personal terms. Here are three people, FDR, the great Eleanor, and her social secretary Lucy, caught in a heartbreaking triangle, yet in the end all behaved with honor and dignity. It is also a curious story because it could not happen today. In our own era, public figures are not permitted private lives. That was one of the reasons I found the story so timely and moving
Q: Why historical fiction? What is it about this genre that pulls at you?
EF: I am interested in the monumental events of history, but in human terms. By writing fiction, I can explore how individuals influence history and how history shapes personal lives. I also try to illuminate our own era.
Q: If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be doing?
EF: The question is too terrifying to contemplate. Writing is all I ever wanted to do. If I go too long without writing, I become extremely difficult to live with.