Haworth native Lauren Grodstein is an American novelist and professor in the MFA program at Rutgers University-Camden. She’s the author of A Friend of the Family and Our Short History: A Novel.
Her fifth novel, We Must Not Think of Ourselves (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) is out now. It was chosen by Today show co-host Jenna Bush Hager as the final 2023 pick of her “Read With Jenna” book club; she called it “a poignant, beautiful novel” that proves “more timely than ever.”
Grodstein, 47, who currently lives in Moorestown, talks about how a 2019 Jewish family-heritage trip to Warsaw inspired the book.
In Warsaw, you stumbled upon the Jewish Historical Institute, where you learned of Emanuel Ringleblum. He was a Polish historian who recruited dozens of Warsaw ghetto residents to act as archivists and record everything they saw inside the ghetto. How did that visit impact you as a writer?
You walk in and see these huge tables, and engraved on each of the tables are names of the 32 archivists that we know of. And underneath the tables, you pull out cards that have biographies on them, and it becomes clear who they were and what they did. There were diary entries and drawings and amazing relics. I thought, These are characters, these are people. And that’s what I’m interested in when I tell a story. So I just kept thinking about it. About a year after our trip, I was finally ready to sit down and write it.
So how long was the process?
I thought about the book for a year. I wrote the book in six months, and, as soon as Covid was over, I went back to Poland to correct my mistakes. And then I returned to Poland one more time. It’s been a constant process of discovering new things.
Had you always planned to write a novel about the Holocaust?
I had never, ever wanted to write a book about the Holocaust. But the pandemic started, and all of a sudden, there’s death outside our walls that we don’t quite understand. And I’m trapped in a house with my family, who I love, and also, who are really getting on my nerves, and I want to escape. In no way am I trying to equate my experience of the pandemic with what happened in the ghetto, except to say that, for the first time, I could almost see what it might’ve possibly felt like to be scared for your life because you feel hunted by something mysterious you don’t understand outside.
Did you know how this book was going to end before you began writing it?
I always have an idea for the thing that I’m writing towards, even before I start a book, but I’m not sure that I’ll get there, and I’m always willing to reroute myself.
Why did you decide to title the book We Must Not Think of Ourselves?
It’s a call to shiva. [Shiva is the week-long mourning period observed by Jews for close family.] You cover the mirrors and do not think of yourself. I think Jewish people will be in mourning for those we lost for the rest of the history of the Jewish people. It’s a reminder of us thinking of them.