Thursday, July 30, 2020

L. Annette Binder

photo by Gary Gartley
L. Annette Binder was born in Germany and immigrated to the U.S. as a small child. She holds degrees in classics and law from Harvard, an MA in comparative literature from the University of California at Berkeley, and an MFA from the Program in Writing at the University of California, Irvine. Her short fiction collection Rise received the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. She lives in New Hampshire.

Binder's new novel is The Vanishing Sky.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title — The Vanishing Sky — does quite a bit of work to bring the readers into the story, but it does so indirectly. The title doesn’t refer to the setting or the characters but instead taps into a central theme of the book — How do you grapple with the demands of a regime that you have slowly come to realize is evil? It comes from a flashback scene, which is in many ways the key to understanding the novel as a whole. In that scene, Etta Huber — the mother in the story — remembers a terrible childhood event in which she was an unwilling participant, and she grapples with her guilt and the effects of her years of silence. The vanishing sky in that moment from her childhood carries over into her adult life — and the lives of the other Germans in her town — as they struggle with the terrible things happening all around them.

An earlier title for the book was Mutti, which means “mom” in German. This title was true to the story, since Etta’s role as a mother is so central to the story, but it was problematic, too. It’s easy for non-German speakers to mispronounce, and German-speakers would likely find it strange to name a novel “Mom.” So my publisher asked me to go back and look to the story for a more fitting title. My husband, who knows the novel as well as I do at this point, suggested I look at that key flashback scene because the title was hiding in there somewhere, and he was right.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self wouldn’t be too surprised by the themes and the feel of the novel. I’ve always gravitated to dark stories. But I probably would be surprised by the subject matter. Both my parents were German. As a teenager, I shied away from all things German. I came to the US when I was a small child, and when my mother spoke to me in German, I always answered in English. Now I’m grateful she spent all that time speaking German and driving me to the local high school to take German classes, but it took years for me to see the value in acknowledging my roots.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings and endings each have their own challenges. The beginning has so much work to do —it has to draw the reader in, give the reader enough information so that things aren’t confusing — but the work has to be invisible. Endings have to leave the reader with some sense of resolution but not be so pretty that they’re tied up with a ribbon. For The Vanishing Sky, I knew how the story begins - with Max coming home broken from the front — and how it ends — on a note of hopefulness, but with only some of the characters surviving.

It was the middle of the story that was actually the hardest to finalize. I had to cut things in the middle chapters pretty relentlessly to keep the story moving, which was hard and invigorating at the same time. Structuring the novel so that it alternates between Etta’s chapters and those of her younger son Georg helped me tap into the story and kept the action going.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I see myself everywhere in the characters, and nowhere. Small bits of myself find their ways into the story — a character’s love of ancient languages, a glimpse of something that struck them as beautiful — but in the end the characters are nothing like me. They take on their lives and end up guiding me through their story. I’ve always thought of writers as something like ouija boards, hands on the keyboard and waiting for guidance from the netherworld. Once the characters take over, I’m no longer in the picture. At least that’s what I tell myself.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My family background was a huge influence on this novel. My father was in the Hitler Youth, and his life was the inspiration for the characters of both Georg and Max. I researched as much as I could about my family, and then I wrote the novel as a way to imagine the answers that nobody was left to tell me.

More generally, movies and music both influence my writing. I love movies that show characters struggling with moral or existential questions — movies like Gattaca, Dark City, Blade Runner, Unforgiven, The Lives of Others. This sensibility carries over into my writing. I also feel an emotional connection to music, and particular songs — from Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates” to classical pieces by Streabbog — were important to me as I wrote because they transported me to a different time and place.
Visit L. Annette Binder's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Vanishing Sky.

My Book, The Movie: The Vanishing Sky.

--Marshal Zeringue