South Jersey author Pam Jenoff on her World War II novel ‘The Woman with the Blue Star’ and the idea that made her gasp
The best-selling author of “The Lost Girls of Paris” and “The Orphan's Tale” was inspired by the story of a group of Polish Jews who lived in sewers to escape the Nazis.
Two young women, one Jewish and in hiding from the Nazis, the other the stepdaughter of a Nazi collaborator, form an unlikely friendship in The Woman with the Blue Star (Park Row, $28.99), the latest novel from Pam Jenoff, the best-selling author of The Orphan’s Tale and The Lost Girls of Paris.
Jenoff, who grew up in Marlton and lives with her family in Cherry Hill, is a graduate of Cherokee High School and George Washington University. She earned a master’s in history at the University of Cambridge and a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and teaches at Rutgers University Law School in Camden.
She spoke with The Inquirer about the inspiration for The Woman with the Blue Star, writing (and rewriting) during a lockdown, and about why having more than one career works for her. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Where did the idea for “The Woman with the Blue Star” come from?
Most of my books are set around World War II, and that comes from the years I spent in Poland with the State Department, right after communism ended. Poland had these very complex issues with the Holocaust that were never resolved. I was a young girl in my early 20s, by myself, no cell phones, no internet back then. And so I gravitated toward the Jewish community as a way to make connections, and I became very close to the survivors. And the U.S. government actually gave me responsibility for all of those post-Holocaust issues.
Publishing is very tough right now. Not everything I want to write about is going to make a great book, necessarily, but when I find an idea that makes me gasp, then I’m hopeful that readers will feel the same way. I read about a group of Jewish people [in a city that was once part of Poland, and is now Lviv, Ukraine] who not only escaped through a sewer, but lived in a sewer for over a year.
And his mom was one of the survivors. I’m not writing any one person’s story, because I’m mindful that these are their stories to tell, but in one of the accounts of the people in the sewer, there’s a story about a young girl, and she looked up through the sewer grate, and she saw a girl her own age buying flowers. And she was so struck by the disparity between her situation and [that of] the girl on the street. Her mother said to her, “Someday there will be flowers for you.” It was a promise. And so that was the jumping-off point for my book. I imagined, what if these two girls had in fact seen each other and connected?
You worked for the Pentagon as well as the State Department before publishing your first book. Was writing always what you wanted to do?
It was. I was one of those little kids who always wanted to be a writer. But I had many years when I was living abroad, when I was in school, that I actually had time to write, and I never could quite get that project off the ground.
What turned it around for me was actually 9/11. I graduated from Penn Law, and I started working at Morgan Lewis on Sept. 4, 2001. One week later, [the Sept. 11 attacks] happened and I sort of had an epiphany, where I said, “Dear God, I don’t want to die at the law firm.” Being a lawyer is a fine and admirable profession. I love teaching law school and training lawyers. It’s a wonderful thing. But I had a deeper dream of being a novelist.
So I took a course at Temple night school at 15th and Market called, “Write Your Novel This Year.” It was taught by a woman named Janet Benton. And I started working on what would become my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl.
But I was a new attorney, I had $1,000 a month in student loan debt. So I wasn’t going to be able to go sit in a castle and write books. It was five years, and 39 publisher rejections until what I used to jokingly call the last-known publisher on Earth made a small offer. I shouldn’t say that, because they’re my current publisher.
In your author’s note, you write about having to start this book over and rewrite it in a short time during what turned out to be a lockdown. You had three kids doing remote schooling and you yourself were teaching remotely. How did that all work?
When I became a writer, I had to write from 5 to 7 in the morning and go to the firm all day. And then, of course, life changed. I’m at Rutgers, and the kids came along. You know, you juggle, like everybody juggles.
I had finished this book in November, December 2019. I had turned it into my editor. And I had a call with her. She basically said, “No. This is not the book.” And this was my 11th book. And I’ve never quite had something just not work out from the start. So I had to rewrite 90% of the book, and I had about five months.
This is about January, February 2020. And then I said, “Well, I want to go to Poland for a research trip because I had moved the [story in the] book to Kraków. Have not been [to Poland] for 17 years. Booked a flight for March 11. And as COVID was coming on, [I’m saying] “I’m going to wear a mask. I’m going.”
The flight shut down on March 11. I had an emergency appendectomy on March 12. So thank God I didn’t go. But when I came home from the hospital, we never left the house again. Everybody was home for months and months and months.
How did I do it? I don’t remember, but I think I’m normally a 5 a.m. writer, and for those few months I became a 4 a.m. writer.
Have you ever thought of just doing the one thing and writing full-time?
I’d have to do two, because I’m a mom. Actually, I really adore Rutgers. It’s a wonderful place. Our students are just the least entitled, most hardworking people you could imagine. I love the synergy, right? Because writing is a very solitary business. I usually say that if I hit Powerball, I would still mom, teach, and write, but I would maybe slow down a little bit.