Interview: L. Annette Binder talks about The Vanishing Sky
L. Annette Binder was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States as a small child. Her first novel, The Vanishing Sky (Bloomsbury Circus), is inspired by her family history.
Her short story collection Rise received the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories collection, and on US Public Radio’s Selected Shorts. She lives in New Hampshire with her family. Annette talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about your novel.
The Vanishing Sky is set in Germany during the closing months of WW2. It tells the story of Etta Huber, a mother who is trying to hold her family together. Etta’s older son Max has come home from the Eastern front suffering from a mental breakdown. She struggles to hide his condition from the authorities because she knows they’ll take him from her if they find out how sick he really is. At the same her younger son Georg, who is fifteen, has run away from his post in the Hitler Youth and is trying to make his way back home to her.
What inspired you to write this book?
The book is inspired by my family history. Both of my parents were German, but they never talked about their lives in Germany. My father died when I was sixteen, and years later, I came across a photograph of him in a Hitler Youth uniform. I found out all I could about him, but there were still so many unanswered questions. In some ways, I wrote the novel as a way to imagine the rest of the story.
What research was involved?
I spent many hours talking to my mother about what she knew of my father’s childhood in Germany and what she remembered about her own childhood there. I looked over old family photo albums, my father’s old school notebooks, and my great-grandfather’s journals from the years between the wars. When I’d exhausted my family’s records, I researched German history during the war, focusing on first-hand accounts of life in the Hitler Youth and stories from people who survived the Allied fire-bombing of German cities. Alfons Heck’s account of his time in the Hitler Youth and how he came to terms with his childhood indoctrination — A Child of Hitler — was particularly helpful as I tried to imagine what my father’s early life might have been like.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
It took eight years to finish a first draft of the novel. I wrote the novel sequentially, one chapter for Etta and one chapter for Georg, weaving them back and forth just as they are in the novel. I had a general idea of where the story was going but let the characters surprise me as I wrote.
Early on in the writing, I was very picky about when and where I could work on the book. I needed everything just so — the cup of tea, the tidy desk, the right music in the background. After we had our daughter, all the fussiness went away, and I wrote whenever and wherever I could — on the floor beside her crib, in a car at the grocery store parking lot, anywhere at all — and strangely enough, I felt more productive that way. I realized I’d been relying on these routines and rituals when all I really needed to do was just write.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany your book, name a song or two you would include.
The music of Ludovico Einaudi and Hans Zimmer come to mind. “Divenire” and the cello version of “Time” (from the movie Inception) capture the feel of the story, and I listened to both as I wrote.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you want to see playing the lead characters?
Etta is a devoted mother who would do absolutely anything to help her sons. Portraying Etta would require a complete lack of vanity. Performances such as Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line or Charlize Theron in Monster come to mind. Georg is so very young and struggling with his inability to comply with the demands of the Reich. The role would require an actor with great vulnerability — like William Jøhnk Nielsen (In a Better World).
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
Strange as it sounds, I loved spending time with the characters; they were my company over the many solitary hours of writing. I also really loved the editing process. Cutting is much easier than writing. It lets me fix things without having to stare at a blank page for hours on end.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
I finished the first draft without realizing that I was going to finish that day. After I’d written the last sentence, I went over to my husband and told him in disbelief that it was done. We had takeout for dinner to celebrate. I knew it would be better to wait, to give the book some time to breathe, but I printed out the manuscript the next day and started editing.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I read The Secret History by Donna Tartt for the first time just this month and really admired its strangeness and the momentum of its plot. I love beautiful prose combined with a story that moves, and this book had both. It also captured the allure of studying ancient Greek and Latin in a way that rang true. I was a Classics major in college, and like the characters in the book, studying ancient languages was an escape for me.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I’m deep into the first draft of a novel based on my short story “Dead Languages,” in which a little boy in Colorado is silent for the first three years of his life, and when he finally starts talking, he speaks only ancient Greek.