Anne Raeff’s new war-themed novel brings back some old friends
By Lou Fancher
As a child of multilingual immigrant parents who survived World War II and the Holocaust, San Francisco author Anne Raeff, 58, recalls writing book reports for her father. He would monitor her grades on grammar, making sure she kept up her German. She learned French from him, and at parties, as he did, she could sometimes could be found in a corner, reading. Her mother was a psychologist whose emotional instability from a lifetime of trauma rendered her more distant and less nurturing than Raeff’s father. Nevertheless, she taught her daughter Spanish and to read before Raeff entered first grade in her hometown of Tenafly, New Jersey.
“I was surrounded by books,” says Raeff in a phone interview. “When my parents moved out of their house into a senior residence, they had about 10,000 books.”
Both in her first novel and in the character-driven short story collection, “The Jungle Around Us,” winner of the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction, dominant themes emerge — the effect of war and violence, cataclysmic events that ripple through generations, femininity, displacement, family, love.
Her second novel, “Winter Kept Us Warm” (Counterpoint Press, $26, 304 pages), uses characters from her short stories for a post-World War II tale about Ulli, a German woman whose life becomes forever intertwined with two American soldiers, the charming, heroic Leo and sensitive, scholarly Isaac. “They were conceived in the story, ‘The Buchovskys on Their Own,'” Raeff notes. “I start characters that come alive in a story, then lead to a novel. I like a world and characters to keep going, but I also like the challenge of writing the world in 25 pages.”
Even though her short stories seeded the novel, Raeff describes her writing as anything but linear. “I discover as I write. I have a character, some facts, bits of their history, that’s all. I find it amazing that some writers take a big piece of butcher block paper and map out the whole thing.”
With no preconceived path or ending in mind, Raeff compares her work to a quilt. The pieces created out of order are arranged with profound struggle and diligent attention to transitions to create a seamless story. Married to writer Lori Ostlund, Raeff says she seeks her wife’s affirmation that she’s on course and values advice that “puts limits on things and reins me in if I’m going in too many directions.”
In “Winter,” which dexterously weaves narrative voice over time periods spanning six decades, Raeff wrote extended passages about Juliet and Simone, the two girls born to Ulli and Leo after they marry, who are ultimately raised singlehandedly by Isaac. “Leo, in the first version, didn’t even have his own voice. I realized in later drafts he needed to be full blown,” she says. She subjected her drafts to ruthless paring to maintain the story’s forward momentum, finding areas in which elaboration effectively added depth. The technique applied especially to Raeff’s explorations of parenting in “Winter. “I was interested in the idea of a mother who doesn’t want to be a mother. Or a woman not capable of being a parent, but a man who can, though he’d never thought of himself that way.”
Like many authors, Raeff draws inspiration from other writers, such as J.D. Salinger, whose Glass family characters travel through more than one book. A firm believer in reading every written word aloud, she listens for rhythm, texture and emotional truth delivered with restraint. She hopes readers linger to appreciate both language and plot. “It’s not bam, bam, bam, and it’s not sound bites,” she notes. “A lot of contemporary writing, you’re not forced to confront things that are hard to look at. Instead, the writing is pleasant. Although those stories are real, they’re not what I do – they’re not huge ethical themes treated with understatement.”
Paramount to her writing is her position as a full-time teacher of primarily recent immigrants at East Palo Alto Academy. “I don’t think I’d be a writer if I didn’t teach,” she says. Working with students who struggle with language causes her to “go into their minds” and interact creatively. “I do books that are at a level they can read but aren’t too easy. Like ‘The Kite Runner,’ which is not about them, but they see connections with their lives.”
Giving them exercises in poetry or assigning them to write additional chapters to existing books breaks free of the drudgery she says is encountered in many English classes. “I try to give them freedom to find their own voices,” she says.
The benefit from teaching she most appreciates is the avenue it keeps open to youthfulness. “They keep me in touch with my adolescence,” she says. “That’s when you’re passionate, angry, emotional. It reminds me of that part of my life.”
Raeff’s next novel will feature a teacher, be sparked by characters in her previous work and sure to include family and world history. “Books written by other people live on in your mind, and it’s the same thing with the ones you write,” she says. “You never dismiss characters; they become a part of your life. A story is never over, we just decide to reframe it.”