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Q & A with Richard Alther

1. You've worked on this book for 25 years. Has this become a life-long quest for you? And, if so, why?

The tragedy of Germans and Jews in the 20th century ensnared me personally. But the issue of intolerance is, unfortunately and predictably, not going away. I conceived this story long ago, and it held me in its grip through countless drafts, which for me it deserved, but I've moved on. There are no "answers" to the Holocaust; I, like so many others, am simply expressing myself through art.

2. Did any of your own experience inspire you to write this book?

When I was 12 there began an "infiltration" of ethnic minorities into our vanilla, Protestant, New York suburb. My family, like most in this town, were German-American, good solid stock, and I took their slurs as jests. I did a color-pencil rendering for a school assignment of the contemporary stained-glass window in the new synagogue. A few weeks later rocks smashed the window, and I was terror-struck and heart-broken, compelled to learn about the Jews.

3. How did this lead to writing?

A boyhood pal was Jewish. His father, a surgeon, had the only pool around. At Cornell University, half the College of Arts and Sciences was Jewish. Most of them were far better prepared and gifted than I. My "Christian" fraternity was placed on probation by its national council for pledging a Jew. I studied history, bewildered by the Holocaust in modern times. I took a terrifically witty and beautiful Jewish coed to my Christmas formal to tick off my mother. I knew I had to write, eventually, to sort all this out. Or try.

4. Writing is not your only career. How did you also become a painter?

I began painting at ten and never stopped, including figurative studies dealing with Nazi brutality well before I was writing. This never worked as storytelling. Nature and beauty were all that would happen on my canvases.

5. Can you tell us the significance of the title of your novel, Siegfried Follies?

It's a play on Ziegfeld Follies, the legendary, 1920s-30s Broadway burlesque. Siegfried is the hero of ancient German folklore, especially celebrated by Wagner in opera. "Follies" is my attempt not to excuse but to soften and humanize the plight of World War II Germans also trapped by this barbarity.

6. Does the unlikely World War II Jewish/German friendship you write about represent the indefatigable human spirit?

The idea of my story is nothing new--the ungainly coupling of opposites, from Cinderella to Romeo and Juliet. I think any novelist with any subject is writing about human perseverance even if it's self-destructive.

7. Can your story give us insight into the psychology of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews?

To some extent, the authoritarian personality--submission to leaders, revulsion of inferiors--was also a factor in what became the Holocaust. But persecution of Jews and every other stripe of humanity when it's "the other" has occurred since recorded history. If my story puts the contemporary, attempted annihilation of Jews in broader perspective, I'm pleased. In short, it was not just a madman.

8. Based on the research you may have done for this book, do you think there could ever be another Holocaust?

Absolutely. The civil wars in Africa and Russia and elsewhere, today. If Iran gets the bomb, then what?

9. One reviewer wrote that Siegfried Follies "will disturb the reader long after the final chapter." Do you agree with this?

I'd guess every writer of "mainstream" fiction would hope for that. Norman Mailer is quoted as saying all writers share the same motivation: to save the world from itself. Well, that's grandiose, like Mailer. I'm just happy to add my voice to the forum.

10. Franz, a German, and J, a Jew, are trying to come to terms with their past so they can live in the present. Are countries and people always defined and/or doomed by their past?

Franz and J are truly damaged by their particular past. It was extreme. Today with the Internet we're creating a present for so many transcending borders. Forget your roots. I suspect by mid-life most offspring of U.S. immigrants think of their native-born parents as limited, while they themselves have long assimilated into the here and now. Same for country-dwellers, anywhere in the world, off to school or work in urban centers. That said, am I industrious and disciplined like my German grandparents? Yes. Can I drink and raise hell like my Irish ones? Yes, again.

11. Are you ultimately optimistic about the human race because Franz and J can be great friends?

No, I am not optimistic about humanity, and it's especially upsetting because I'm a grandfather. We've been butchering each other over religion and real estate forever. And Franz and J are not great friends. They're family, their only "blood relation." Actually Franz comes to view himself also a Jew because J, in a way, was his Jewish mother! If not optimistic I can at least be hopeful, because women in general, not men, really head families, and therein lies our chance for survival.

12. If there was only one message you could leave with readers, what would it be?

Short version: If Franz and J could bond, why not anyone with anyone?

Berkeley, California ~

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