An Interview with Karen Wunderman,
author of Winterkill
The subject of communism sets up a negative reaction in many people. Why
did you choose this subject? Were you concerned that it might turn people away
from the book rather than help increase sales?
First of all, the book isn't about communism per se, but rather about persecution and self-acceptance. I used communism as a vehicle for exploring those themes. The disillusionment and shame communists from the thirties and forties were left with always fascinated me. Why was it so hard for them to accept that what they'd believed in wasn't what they'd thought it was? Why were these people, who fundamentally had good intentions, forced to live in shame and secrecy? McCarthyism and the witch-hunts of the 1950s are the obvious answer, but for many, the anti-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939 was the defining moment. Americans, communist or otherwise, couldn't ally themselves with a government that supported Hitler. I've never defended the communist movement in this country, but I've tried to understand its roots, and it afforded me the perfect vehicle for the character and story I had in mind. I have been concerned that people might not want to read the book because they have such a negative reaction to communism, but I also hoped that people would be able to get past that to read the book and discover that it's not offensive at all - quite the opposite. The overwhelming reaction I've gotten from readers is that they struggled along with the main character to find the self-acceptance he was seeking. They were upset by the ostracism and persecution he and his family were forced to endure over this issue. I hope that the subject matter will be viewed as a strength of the book, not a weakness. I was able to make readers sympathize with a character they had fundamental problems with. That was a major task. Anyway, the book isn't a political book, by any stretch of the imagination. Ultimately it's a love story, a coming-of-age story, and a story about self-acceptance.
The book is set in the post-World War II and early Cold War period of the U.S. How is this subject relevant to the post-9/11 world of this millennium?
Prejudice, fear, and persecution are the same today as they were fifty years ago. Anyone today who fits a certain profile is a target for suspicion and even hatred. And while the U.S. was founded on the ideas of religious and political freedom, too often we've succumbed to blind fear in our attempts to keep ourselves safe from the threat of "outsiders." We don't need to reach back any further in our history than the last century for examples of this mentality. Prime among them were the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s and the "Red" scare of the 1950s. Americans are justifiably afraid of attack from outsiders right now. How we handle the current crisis will define us for years to come.
You seem to have a lot to say about "outsiders," particularly with regard to small towns. America is a country of many small towns. Do you believe that these communities are truly insular? Is that a positive or a negative quality?
Small towns are notoriously insular, and the smaller they are and the further from a major metropolitan area, the more insular they usually become. I think it's a tribal thing, one that has to do with the preservation of the species, something that goes back to when we lived in caves and even the people from the other side of the valley couldn't be trusted. I can't prove it, but I suspect humans are xenophobic by nature. In larger cities, where there are so many different kinds of people and no one knows if you live there or not, the boundaries blur and people are forced to be somewhat more accepting of differences because that's the norm. But in a truly small town, people know which house you live in, where you came from, and what you do on Sunday morning. People who are different are often perceived as a threat, and we all tend to circle the wagons around ourselves when we feel threatened. Small-town living, particularly for people who've lived in a city or who are somehow different, is a balancing act between remaining true to oneself and not ruffling too many feathers. For the purposes of my novel, I needed these qualities of small-town life to force the main character's personal crisis of self-acceptance to a head. The issues are somewhat magnified to serve their narrative purpose, but the portrait of small-town living depicted in the book is played out on a daily basis in small towns all across America. Of course there are many wonderful things about living in a small town, and as a resident of a town of 2700 people, I wouldn't change it for anything. There's nothing like the sense of community and belonging you can have in a small town. But if you don't fit in, as with the main characters in my book, small-town living can be very difficult.
The main characters in Winterkill are not only communists but atheists, too. This is another difficult subject that could potentially turn people away from your book. Why did you choose a double whammy like this?
I needed the main characters in this book to be truly shunned by the community they lived in without making them perverts or criminals. I could think of no better issues to achieve this with than the "double whammy" of communism and atheism. I also wanted to give the townspeople in the story some real issues to rise above in facing their own fears and prejudices. Apart from the narrative purposes, I wanted to challenge my readers to examine their own prejudices and see that even people who are very different from themselves can be good, decent people. I've had overwhelmingly positive responses from readers of all political and social backgrounds, and I have to hope that potential readers will be willing to take a gamble with something that's a bit different and not necessarily right at their comfort level.
The novel you're currently working on deals with different issues than Winterkill, but they are equally weighty. Do you feel that fiction should always revolve around important issues, whether social, psychological, or political?
Absolutely not. That's just what I'm most interested in writing about. My characters always seem to end up grappling with some essential failing in themselves or some pesky component of the human condition. I like to write about universal truths. What makes a book "honest" to me is when it deals with the issues that scrape at the depths of the soul. These are usually things everyone can relate to on some level. They are what we're all about. Then I need to find a setting and plot that will support these themes. I usually start with the characters (who are deeply troubled in some way) and perhaps a setting, and the story develops out of that structure.
The setting in Winterkill is so important to the story and you describe the town and its surroundings with such feeling, yet your bio says you grew up in and around New York. Why can you write so convincingly about New Hampshire and small towns?
It's true that I grew up in and around New York City, but every summer of my life was spent in New England. And when I was very young, my father had the foresight to buy a house in the White Mountains. The property borders thousands of acres of state park land that remains wild and untouched to this day. I've spent winter vacations there for 45 years, and I still maintain that house as a home away from home. I also went to college in a small, rural town. And as I mentioned earlier, I now live in a very small town in New Jersey. I wouldn't have it any other way. Someday, when the kids are grown and out of the house, and family and employment no longer tie us to this area, my husband and I hope to move to New England. It would be the fulfillment of a life-long dream.
The photo on the cover of your book is one you took yourself. How did you decide on that particular photograph, and what does it represent to you?
I knew I wanted a black and white photo for the cover - it fit the mood of the book. I was in New Hampshire when the question of cover art came up, so I got out my camera and shot pictures of everything I could find that might convey the atmosphere I was going for-barns, fields, woods, farms, mountains. I wanted to convey the beauty of the mountains and surrounding area, the wildness of it all, but also show some human influence or presence. I feel the photo I selected did exactly that, with the man-made fence in the foreground, the cleared field and outbuilding behind it, and then nothing but wilderness stretching to the mountains. I also wanted to juxtapose the beauty of the region with the problems the main characters encounter there; it's difficult to reconcile things going so horribly wrong in that idyllic setting.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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