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ShelfAwareness, Interview with Jennifer Rosner
Listening to the Stories from the Silence

Jennifer Rosner is the author of the memoir If a Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard. Her children's book, The Mitten String, is a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable. Rosner's writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Massachusetts Review, the Forward, Good Housekeeping and elsewhere. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family. Her new book is the novel The Yellow Bird Sings, coming from Flatiron in March 2020.

The Yellow Bird Sings builds on similar themes as If a Tree Falls, your memoir about raising your two daughters who are deaf, and your family's history of deafness. How much of your personal experience influenced this story?

The works are connected in many ways. Both are about longing for connection amid silence. During a book talk for If a Tree Falls, I met a hidden child. [According to the ADL, hidden children are the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, who eluded the Nazis by hiding in convents, orphanages and other places.] A woman was in the audience, and we connected. I was talking about the deafness in my family, how I wanted so desperately for my daughters to talk and for me to hear them, and how, in my ancestry, I'd discovered deaf great-aunts who tied strings to their wrists at night--an innovation--so that they'd know if their babies cried. I was focused so much on the mother-daughter relationship, on hearing and silence in our lives, yet here was a woman who hid with her mother amid a very different, brutal and dangerous kind of silence. It was powerful and resonant, and led me into the terrain of my novel.

As part of your writing process, you interviewed many other hidden children.

I did. The woman at my book talk introduced me to other hidden children and then, from there, it kind of opened up a whole world for me. My mother-in-law knew a hidden child; also a deaf friend of mine knew one. I hadn't ever heard the term "hidden child." Their stories were just astonishing, details one could never imagine. The emotional trauma and longevity of the impact of this really struck me. They are near 80 or older, and even though they have built new lives, there are ways in which they are still devastated. Some still feel acute pain, even rejection. Some still feel identity confusion, as they've lost their names, their religion, their family.

Even though this novel is set during World War II, I couldn't help but note its relevancy for our current times, especially here in America, where children are being separated from their families. Was that something that went through your mind, too?

Yes, definitely. I was thinking about the separation of children from families at the border, deportations and other current events. From my interviews, I know how much damage happens (and is currently happening), the trauma and loss, the brokenness that never heals.

Music plays a big part in Róza's and Shira's life. What role has music played in your life and that of your family?

My father played the violin every day throughout my childhood and I studied voice quite seriously when I was younger. I'd felt unheard by my mother, and singing was a way I could actually "reach" her. She loved to listen to me sing. I grew up knowing the transporting power of music, as well as its connecting power.

If The Yellow Bird Sings had an accompanying playlist, what would be on it?

All of the music Shira plays, especially Brahms' Scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata, and also my favorite piece, Bach's Concerto for Two Violins.

While they are in hiding, Róza invents a comforting story for Shira about a yellow bird that sings the songs she can't, because of the need to remain silent. What do you think this says about the power of stories over time?

Wishes, fears, all kinds of feelings that we can't admit aloud, can find voice in our stories. I think this is one reason stories are so powerful. The story in my novel gives Róza a way to bond with Shira, to entertain her, to distract her, to pass the time. As a writer, I made use of the imagined story to deepen the novel's subtexts. For example, Shira wants to be like the outside children (to go to school, be normal), so in the story, Shira's bird tries to make himself more like the outside birds. And so on. We always told a lot of stories to our children.

The research for The Yellow Bird Sings took you to Poland and Israel. What was that process like?

My trip to Poland allowed me to immerse myself in the sensory aspects of my settings--to see, smell, hear and otherwise explore a convent where Jewish children were actually hidden, a span of woods where soldiers camped, a barn--and it was amazing to compare these to what I'd dreamed up at my desk. It was weirdly close because of all the reading I'd done. One of the most remarkable sites was in Israel, seeing Amnon Weinstein's luthier shop and his collection of war-salvaged violins, Violins of Hope.

What do you hope readers will most take away from your novel?

My novel is, at heart, about connectivity, about beauty and hope in the face of irrevocable loss. It's also about the costs of war, especially to children.

What can readers look forward to next from you?

A new novel, set somewhere warmer--not Poland in winter!

--Melissa Firman, full review at:
https://www.shelf-awareness.com/max-issue.html?issue=359#m761




BookNationbyJen, Q & A with Jennifer Rosner

I loved your debut historical fiction novel, The Yellow Bird Sings. The story was powerful and your characters were filled with so much pain and love at the same time. The deep emotion it conveyed, the evocative, visual language you utilized and the heartfelt music that was described made me feel like I was experiencing the written word more fully and completely.

As a young child, Shira seems to have a special musical aptitude. What inspired you to use music in such a big way in your novel?

Music has had great connective power in my life; I sang as a child, and later trained to become an opera singer. My singing forged a rare connection between my mother and me; also, my father played violin daily, and his music connected us to each other, and also to Judaism.
In my novel, music is a connective tissue linking mother and daughter, together and apart, and expressing a bond that endures even in the most brutal of circumstances. Beauty, in music and in other forms, is a lifeline, conveying hope.

Shira has a special relationship with her violin teacher. Who inspired this character?

Several mentors in my musical, academic, and writing life have been deeply supportive and generous. In developing the teacher’s character, and their relationship, it felt important for Shira to feel a profound connection to the person who coached her and supported her musical genius.

Shira conjures a magic yellow bird, which she cups in her hands and also muffles to keep quiet. Shira’s mother then tells a nightly story of a girl and her bird, who avert threats and find safety. What is the significance of Shira’s bird?

While Shira must be silent, her yellow bird sings out the music she hears in her head and in other ways enacts the childhood she cannot. Her bird brings security as well as expression. The magic of Shira’s bird is that it admits her powerful imagination (and her mother’s) into their horror-filled situation. I believe that much survival occurred because people kept alive their imaginations (their artistry, their poetry, etc) and stayed aware of what beauty they could find in their circumstances.

Can you share with us why you were interested in writing about a mom having to keep her child silent?

The seed for this story came years ago when I was at a book event for my memoir about deafness. (If A Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard) . My daughters were born deaf. With hearing technology (cochlear implants and hearing aids), they were learning to listen and talk and I was describing our efforts as we encouraged them to vocalize. After the book talk, a woman from the audience came up to me. She told me about her childhood experience, hiding in an attic with her mother during WW2. She had to stay entirely silent. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, and also her mother. While I so wanted our daughters to speak, this mother had to keep her young child from making any sound at all. From this seed, my novel grew.

You do a beautiful job keeping the reader engaged, giving just enough in each chapter to motivate us to tackle the next. Once the story splits into two when Rosa and Shira go their separate ways, did you write the book in the order that we read it, or did you write one character’s story and then the other’s?

In later drafts, I wrote the chapters mostly in the order they appear. However, earlier in the process, I wrote out long swaths of each character’s story trajectory, to understand where they were going and how their stories might dovetail. There was a lot of cutting and reworking!

What kind of research did you do for the book? How long did it take to write?

While I was writing the book, I interviewed several “hidden children”— adults who, as children during the war, were secreted in attics, barns, and the woods. I also traveled to the settings of my novel. In Poland I visited areas of countryside with barns much like the one I’ve written about; I visited a convent where Jewish children were hidden; and I went to a swath of deep forest where a Partisan/family camp was formed.

I consulted with experts on Holocaust history and convent life. I talked to a tracker to learn how my character could traverse the forest without leaving a trace. A Polish translator, also a mushroom forager, advised me on which mushrooms my character might find in the woods! And I consulted with a musicologist and a master class violinist, as I sought to discover how a prodigy like Shira would practice; how she would progress, what she would play. It took years to conceive of and to write this novel, and many many drafts.

When Shira plays Kaddish on her violin, my thoughts went to the Mourner’s Kaddish and my heart breaks for her and the loss of her mother. Music invokes so much emotion, personal to each of us. How did you choose the musical pieces you refer to in the book?

Yes, Ravel’s Kaddish is haunting and evocative, and I chose it for Shira to play as a mourning piece for her mother.

Generally speaking, I listened to a LOT of music before choosing pieces; I waned to make sure each one contributed to the story, and that it would fit Shira’s circumstance and her level of play. As I mentioned, I consulted with musical experts.

It amazed me how long Roza and others lasted living in the forest in Poland. We are always looking for a parking spot closest to where we are headed so we don’t have to walk an extra step, and these people walked miles and miles, with little food and shelter, and lived outside in the elements for weeks, months and years! How did you learn about the resistance camps and why did you choose to set your story in Poland?

I learned about the Jewish Partisans years ago from a friend who is a documentary filmmaker. (Julia Mintz is a producer/director/writer and her film is The Jewish Partisans.) When it came to researching my novel, I went to an area of Polish forest—in winter—to understand what it would be like for my character! I read innumerable accounts of people hiding in wooded camps, as families and as Partisans. We can’t overestimate the ingenuity, strength, and perseverance they brought to their survival.

You have received praise for the cover of your book; can you tell us about it?

The brilliant art director at Flatiron developed the cover. He based it on a torn photograph, signaling that something is torn in the story. (The Picador UK cover, wildly different, is also wonderful; it suggest elements of an enchanted garden floating out from a barn window.)

What have you read lately that you recommend?

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong — it is astonishing. Other books I’ve recently read and loved:
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Are you going on book tour and where can we expect to see you?

Yes, I will be scheduling events, starting with a book launch on my publication date, March 3, 2020. I will keep an events list running on my website (www.jennifer-rosner.com) and would be happy to receive invitations to read, to attend book clubs, etc!

Are you working on a new book yet?

I have just begun a new novel – but it’s too preliminary to describe! Stay tuned.

--Jennifer Blankfein, https://booknationbyjen.com




Once We Were Home - A Novel The Yellow Bird Sings - A Novel If a Tree Falls The Mitten String

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