Warning: This interview contains potential plot spoilers!
An Interview with Sara Young, author of My Enemy's Cradle
Cyrla lives with her Dutch relatives in Nazi-occupied Holland. She has been
successfully hiding the fact that she is half-Jewishuntil neighbors threaten to
expose her identity. Through an cruel twist of fate, Cyrla enters a Lebensborn
as her pregnant cousin, Anneke. Cyrla wants to keep her child, though, so she
resolves to leave the maternity home before the baby is born. But an unexpected
visit from the German soldier who fathered Anneke's baby complicates her plan to
escape. My Enemy's Cradle is a story of love and loss, sacrifice and survival.
How much did you know about the Lebensborn program before you began working on My Enemy's Cradle? What about this relatively unknown episode of history appealed to you as a writer?
I knew nothing about it before I took a walk with a friend, a WWII buff, who mentioned it. Right away I was shocked that something this large, that affected so many people, was largely unknownthat was the first appeal. But soon, as a writer, I began to wonder why no one had set a novel in such a ripe situation: a Lebensborn home was a natural crucible for dealing with decisions about motherhood, responsibility, and abandonment, while outside, the drama and horror of WWII presented a compelling sense of danger. I found myself wishing I could read a novel set in a Lebensborn home. After a while, I just gave up and wrote it myself!
My Enemy's Cradle gives readers a glimpse inside the walls of a Nazi-run maternity home. Can you elaborate on how the young women who resided in these places were treated, particularly non-German young women like Cyrla?
From all accounts, they were treated well, at least physically. They were carrying future German citizens. They had the best food and medical care available. And these girls often had no other real choice than to enter a home. Girls who had slept with the enemy were often cast out from their towns and even their familiesand they were usually grateful to be there, if not grateful to be in the situation that got them there.
Giving up a child, of course, was wrenchingly painful, but that was probably going to happen to these girls anyway. The Lebensborn program was responsible for the girls losing their children to Germany more than the homes themselves werethe homes provided safety and good care. That's why I chose a character who didn't belong in a place like thatsomeone who needed to get out, rather than someone who wanted to stay in.
Readers can't help but like Karlhe is a man of convictions who honestly cares about his family and does his best to protect them from the horrors of war. Did he start out as a good guy or did his character evolve as you wrote the story?
Oh, sigh . . . Karl. He was always a good guy, and I can just imagine my therapist nodding knowingly as he reads the novel. I'm afraid Karl is everything wonderful taken from every man I've ever known, and he has all the wonderful characteristics I wished they had as well! For reasons of plot, Karl needed to be reliable and honorable and courageous, and for Cyrla's character arc, he needed to understand what love meant more than she did. My biggest problem writing him was keeping him human.
Cyrla claims to be in love with Isaak, a Jewish man who cares about her but does not feel passionate toward her. Does she truly love Isaak or is she in love with the idea of creating a family of her own?
The latter, exactly. The thing that's been most scarce for hera stable family that doesn't abandon heris the thing she's most desperate for. And Cyrla's very young when she meets Isaak; he is, in fact, the very first male she meets as she gets off the train in Holland after being sent away by her father, so she naturally finds another father in him. Classic transference, even though Isaak has some difficulties with intimacy.
My Enemy's Cradle is a love story as well as an exploration of the inhumanity of war. Is there any particular message you'd like readers to take away from this story?
Oh, I hate the word "message". As a children's writer, I try to be particularly wary of proselytizing. At the same time, nobody spends years working on something they have no passionate opinions about, something that doesn't outrage or inspire them, and I don't think we read books about, or by, people who don't care deeply about things. I care deeply about story, of coursethe power of story and our need for it fascinate meand maybe that's why I chose to write My Enemy's Cradle as a love story: love stories simply satisfy me.
I suppose if you pressed me enough for a message it would be that this thing that happened to women and children through the Lebensborn program, and the larger, ongoing abuse of women's and children's rights that so often accompanies armed conflict, isn't fair. But instead of me giving the message, what I hope happens is that a reader will put herself in Cyrla's position and say, "This isn't fair."
Many people are familiar with your books for children, including the popular Clementine series. What challenges did you encounter while writing My Enemy's Cradle, your first novel for adult readers?
I encountered a lot of challenges and difficulties writing this novel, but they were more about the specific nature of this story than about writing for adults. Every book I do is different and presents its own challenges, which always feel insurmountable as I begin, by the way. In this case, I had to spend a really long time in the head and heart of a young woman who was in a lot of danger and pain, and thinking about the role of women and children in wartimethat wrecked me.
And yet I had a difficult time letting go when I finished the book. After six years, it had become a second heart for me, and I felt empty and disoriented when it was gone. I had a strange sense of survivor guiltafter populating a Lebensborn home with women who represented real women, putting myself in their place, I felt guilty when I walked away from my keyboard and back into my safe, happy life.
This was also my first historical fiction and that meant a lot of extra workevery time Cyrla put on an article of clothing or traveled anywhere or ate a meal, I had to research something . . . Google was always open on my desktop. A related difficulty when writing historical fiction is the desire to tell everything you learn while researchingI had to keep cutting things that didn't contribute naturally to the story.
Before embarking on your writing career, you were a professional watercolor artist. Why did you decide to try your hand in another creative field? Do you still paint in your spare time?
Although sometimes I still dream about painting, I don't paint anymorewriting satisfies me more. When I discovered writing, I just knew it was what I was meant to do; painting came close, but was like speaking in a second language. What I find interesting is how similar they are, thoughhow similar all the arts are, I think.
I often spend time in artists' colonies, living and working with other writers, visual artists, and composers and we talk about this a lothow we're all really doing the same thing, struggling with the same issues, interested in the same themes. The transition from painting to writing was barely noticeable in that waylike coming home, but from a place that was almost home.
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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