Today we're talking with Sande Boritz Berger, author of The Sweetness
FQ: Whenever I am asked to review a debut novel, I am intrigued by the author's choice of subject matter. What motivated you to write The Sweetness?
BERGER: The novel was originally called The Princess of Avenue T? its inspiration taken from my mother's family, who settled in Brooklyn in the early 1900's where they started a company that manufactured ties, moving on to bathing suits, and eventually ladies knitwear. I'd nearly completed an entire novel about a character who dreamed of fashion design, but because of the war her father, to her chagrin, yanked her out of school. Then one day while helping an elderly aunt sort through some of her papers, I found a bunch of old photographs. One was of the young girl that eventually became the cover of my book. Though I don't want to give away the story, and in truth I had to invent a great deal, once I saw that child's face, I had to create a parallel tale.
FQ: I compare Nazi Germany survivor's guilt to perhaps what returning soldiers' survivor's guilt must be like today. Charles Kane's character is full and rich and I am curious, is he fashioned after a real person?
BERGER: This family patriarch was also based on memories of my grandfather, who could be extremely loving or moody and often depressed. As one learns early on in The Sweetness, Charles Kane goes to Vilna to try and convince his brother to leave Europe, but his pleading failed. The family business became the diversion for all the guilt and suffering I believe. In reality, running a business seemed like pretty good self-punishment as I can recall many family squabbles over the years while growing up. And, because of the war, my mother was forced to give up her dreams of becoming a fashion designer.
FQ: Did you travel abroad when you were developing The Sweetness and if so, where did you go? How did it add to your inspiration?
BERGER: Some years ago, while I was traveling through Prague and Hungary and Vienna, I had it into my head that I would stay away longer and fly to what is now known as Vilnius. Unfortunately, a very bad back combined with awful flying connections deterred me, and I returned home feeling rather sad. Once settled, I immersed myself in as much historical documents as I could find, which included testimony of Jewish people from the Nuremberg trials. Most of what I'd read solidified my need to complete my novel.
FQ: Was there a particular scene (or scenes) that was/were difficult to write given the subject matter? If so would you please share the experience?
BERGER: There were two scenes that were quite excruciating to write, and I felt my heart pumping so fast but I knew I just had to keep going because I was there, in the moment. I was both the writer and the witness to the fate of those in the story. There was a scene with Rosha, an early chapter, when she is handed over to the candle maker. And then again in a much later chapter, when Rena is very concerned because her sister JJ, newly married, has not shown up for work.
FQ: I found myself often reflecting on Anne Frank when reading The Sweetness and the association of her character with Rosha's. Was it intentional on your part to write the majority of this account through the eyes of a child and if so, why?
BERGER: I wanted to vary the voices of the two protagonists Rosha and Mira, as well as using the first person for Rosha and third person voice for Mira and the other characters. In reality the Rosha pages are much shorter than all the other chapters, but her voice I believe because of the contrast. One of the first books I'd read as a young girl was The Diary of Anne Frank who was older than Rosha but has similar curiosities about her world.
FQ: I applaud you for writing a story that covers one of the (if not the) most horrific events in history. As a writer myself, when I set pen to paper I have a clear vision of my intended audience. What specific audience did you have in mind when writing The Sweetness?
BERGER: Truthfully, if I thought about my audience, I think I would have limited myself somewhat. It's only after most of the book was written that I realized the audience could besides adults also include young adult readers.
FQ: What WWII body of literature speaks to you most and why?
BERGER: Although I might have answered this differently years ago, I am a big fan of The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman, which tells the story of the adults and children at the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. William Stryon's exquisite book, Sophie’s Choice, which I read while getting my MFA, blew me away.
FQ: Even through the ravages of Nazi Germany, there is a sublime and constant element of hope in The Sweetness. Was it difficult for you to infuse this premise throughout the story given the subject matter?
BERGER: I think as I began to envision different endings for the novel as well as what might happen to each character, a sense of optimism seeped into the writing. Though I didn't plan this at all, I truly cared about these people and wanted them to somehow represent those themes of grief, healing and hope.
FQ: It was a pleasure to read your compelling novel. I'm hoping you are working on your next. If so, would you care to give a preview?
BERGER: Thank you! For several months I've been laboring over short memoir pieces and stories and am now pretty close to seeing a first draft of a memoir. The theme explores what it was like to grow-up in the 50's and 60's, the only daughter in a house with two rowdy brothers, a tough love Dad, and glamor girl Mom. A time when there were a lot of mixed messages for young girls. Some of the characters will definitely read familiar.