Facts First: An Interview with Michele Zackheim


At Work

last train to paris

From the cover of Last Train to Paris.

Michele Zackheim’s new novel, Last Train to Paris, follows the adventures of Rosie Manon, the fearless foreign correspondent for the Paris Courier. Spanning the better part of a century, from 1905 to 1992, the story takes us to the Paris and Berlin of the midthirties and early forties, during one of the most fascinating and shameful periods in modern history, the years leading to World War II. Zackheim was moved to write the novel following a strange discovery—in the thirties, her distant cousin was kidnapped and murdered in France by Eugen Weidmann.

I spoke to Zackheim via e-mail and telephone over a period of three months. Our conversations touched on her family history and writing methods, and the formidable research she brought to her new novel.

All of your books share a certain preoccupation with World War II. Why?

My family lived in Compton, California, an area that was declared vulnerable to an enemy attack. I was only four years old when World War II ended, but I remember small details—a brass standing lamp with a milk-glass base that was lit at night while my parents listened to the menacing news on the radio. The sound of night trains, which ran on tracks a block away. And of course—and this is hard to admit—my only sibling was born in 1944. Because I was the eldest, and because before her birth I had already experienced grim hardships, an intense sibling rivalry was born. I have to assume that she became part of my unconscious interest in war. These memories, along with the emerging news from concentration camps after the war, and my parents’ outraged and mournful whisperings in Yiddish, created an unconscious anxiety that I’ve been making work about all my adult life.

You wove the story of your cousin’s murder through your novel. Was the expansion and departure from the initial incident a natural progression for you?

I often start out writing nonfiction. But there’s a problem. It’s boring for me not to embellish—actually, it’s no fun. I did try, however, for a short time, with this book.

When I discovered that a distant relative of mine had been murdered in Paris in 1937, I was intrigued. I had discovered this story in a New Yorker essay by Janet Flanner. And then, to my surprise, I discovered that Colette and George Sand’s daughter, Aurora, was part of the story, too.

The only problem was that it would require me to stick clearly to the facts, as I needed to do with Einstein’s Daughter: The Search for Lieserl. That book was carefully vetted by the publisher—they were looking for factual errors, but my editor quickly learned that I could easily, unintentionally, be carried away by my imagination.

So I much prefer to invent my stories, even if they are originally based on fact.

In your novel, both Colette and Janet Flanner attend the trial of Ernest Vosberg—as they did Weidmann’s trial. Does it bear a close resemblance to the original trial?

Yes. In my writing I followed the trial with close attention. Both Flanner and Colette had attended the trial as reporters—Flanner for The New Yorker and Colette for Paris-Soir. I quoted verbatim from their news stories. The two lawyers are truly represented, as is much of their dialogue. I could not have written their arguments any better. They were brilliant.

How did Rosie’s character develop?

Rosie’s character developed backward and inside out. I first wrote the story in a male voice—a character named Jimmy Corso. I molded him into a sensitive man who was assailed by self-doubt, and at the same time, very curious. I liked him enough. Kent Carroll, the publisher of Europa Editions, bought the book. And oddly, I wasn’t excited—I was depressed. I felt as if I had created a paper doll and, although I missed the primary characters in my other books when I turned in the manuscripts, I didn’t miss Jimmy. Finally, I called Kent and told him that I didn’t want the book published. I needed to write it in a woman’s voice.

I gave Rosie the same professional qualifications as Jimmy. She has the same vulnerable nature, which makes them both sensitive in their interviews and observations of events. They have the same tough demeanor—impenetrable—and they have a similar family history. But I wrote Jimmy too soft for a man of that time, in that profession. When I transformed his voice into Rosie’s, she, being a woman and an outsider, made more sense, was more real.

Miriam, Rosie’s mother, is an archetype of anger—jealous, dominating, a mother who can neither love nor let go of her daughter. Have you known parallels in your life?

My own mother was an artist, a woman who never had a chance. She blew anger out of her nose like a dragon. On the other hand, she was charming and had many friends. As a child, I could never understand the opposition of her feelings. She was a talented woman. She had nowhere to go, except to take care of her children and be at home for her husband, who brought home the paycheck. I often get her mixed up with my grandmother. Their rage was communal.

Even as an older woman, my grandmother was a beauty. She roamed a few bedrooms in her time. One of her trysts was with Eugene Debs. She had a gorgeous sense of color and space. In New York City, during the twenties and thirties, and even until after the war, the family moved each year because the first month’s rent was free. By the time I became conscious of her apartment, she had accumulated threadbare Persian rugs from the streets or from thrift stores. They covered the floors and the daybed and were draped over the other worn, upholstered furniture. I always felt in her home as though I were in a story from the Arabian Nights. And she was angry. Very angry.

You came to writing from a background as a visual artist. Do you think in words or images?

I think in images, not words. It may be that I see interior sensations on the faces and in the movements of my characters within the visual context of their situations. A sudden jerk of the head, a change in a facial expression, a reflection of light on a wedding band.

For the new book I’m working on, I first determined who the characters were. Then I went on the Internet and searched for photographs of people who fit my imagined characters. I printed them out and placed them in frames that I’ve positioned on my desk. For six months now, I’ve been catching glimpses of them as I work, as I dust my desk, as I answer the telephone. Their images have become imprinted on my imagination.

Compared to the women, the men in the story have weaker personalities, yet they are competent and often lovable. Do you think this male portraiture is representative of life, or was it written to serve the purpose of your narrative?

The time in which I based the story was a confusing time for men. World War I had ended and another war was looming. I think that the idea of men having to face violence yet again put them in a difficult position. In Europe after World War I, there were thousands of villages of women left in mourning. Few men could be found—a reminder of what might lie ahead. I think that men are as varied in their cultural psyches as women. But many act as brutes, like the wine-soaked Mr. Ramsey in the newsroom, or the Nazi bodyguard who slams Rosie against a shiny black car. Men’s behavior fuels Rosie’s rage. So why should Ramsey deserve sympathy when he has made her life so miserable? On the other hand, why not? Today, I think women are more sympathetic toward men than Rosie is because we are more educated about the nuances of being a man. When Rose’s story takes place, the subject is still in stark black and white.

Were you influenced by any particular writers as you were creating this novel?

As the epigraph of Last Train to Paris, I use this quote from Mark Twain—“Get your facts first and then you can distort ’em as much as you like.” His semi-autobiographical book Roughing It influenced me. Well, that’s not altogether true. What really influenced me was an old brown writing desk with a green felt surface. Although I was born in Reno, Nevada, we lived up the mountain in Virginia City. My father was a schoolteacher at the First Ward School. When we left Nevada, he was given a desk and told that it had once belonged to Mark Twain.

My mother painted it a viridian green, and I remember my father telling her not to paint the bottom, because he had been told that Twain had signed his name there in pencil. Sixty-five years later my mother died, and I shipped the desk to New York. My husband took off the paint. While he was working on it, I looked for the signature. I found many, but no Mark Twain, nor Samuel Clemens. So I was influenced by the mystery of Twain’s imagination—and how you can make a book from an old wooden desk.