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Conversation with… Pam Jenoff

Discipline and tenacity are the keys to writing your first novel, says best-selling author

By Judie Jacobson

Pam Jenoff

Pam Jenoff

For Pam Jenoff, the road to becoming a best-selling author has been a circuitous one. A graduate of George Washington University, Jenoff accepted an appointment as special assistant to the Secretary of the Army, after receiving her Master’s in history from Cambridge. In 1996, after moving over from the Pentagon to the State Department, she was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland. During this period, Janoff formed a close relationship with Poland’s surviving Jewish community and developed an expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust.
Jenoff left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania. She worked for several years as a labor and employment attorney in Philadelphia and now teaches law school at Rutgers. Not long after finishing law school, she also embarked on her burgeoning career as a novelist.
Janoff is the author of several best-selling books, including “The Kommandant’s Girl,” which was nominated for a Quill award. On Tuesday, Feb. 26, Jenoff will discuss her work at the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford as part of the JCC’s Book Festival.
The Ledger spoke with Jenoff recently from her home outside of Philadelphia about the experiences that have influenced her novels, as well as her advice for aspiring writers.

Q: How did you become involved in Polish-Jewish relations during your time in Krakow?
A: I went to Krakow, Poland in the mid-90s as a diplomat for the State Department, not to deal with Jewish issues, but actually just to deal with issues related to visas and passports, and basically to help American citizens over in Poland. It was right after communism had ended, and Poland had come out of the Cold War with all sorts of issues related to World War II that had never been resolved; issues about preserving the concentration camps, returning Jewish property, antisemitism, etc. The reasons these things were still out there was because during the communist years east and west were cut off and you couldn’t have any kind of open dialogue. All these unresolved matters became very important because Poland wanted to join NATO and the European Union and, politically, we needed to make progress on the issues from the war in order for that to happen.
I’m in Krakow by myself, and I’m in my early 20s, and this is pre-cell phones and pre-Internet, so I’m really cut off from my family and the rest of the world. And so, I did what I think any Jewish girl would do: I gravitated towards the surviving Jewish community of Poland: I was at the rabbi’s house for lunch on Saturdays, I went to services every Friday night.  I did all those things. The consulate saw that I was close to the Polish Jewish community and they said “Alright, you go handle all this Holocaust related stuff.”  And so, for the next two and a half years that became my job: working on issues related to the war.

The Kommandants GirlQ: What sort of issues are we talking about specifically?
A: Everything from Hillary Clinton, who was then First Lady, coming to tour Auschwitz, to Elie Weisel who was upset because Polish boy scouts put up crosses on the field of Birkenau where his family died – so I had to go out there and talk to the church and local officials about how to have them removed — to the kinds of controversies you hear about, such as erecting a cross at Auschwitz.   We worked on getting the property restitution law passed for the Jewish community’s synagogues, cemeteries and other properties; we brought together Polish teachers and American teachers to talk about how to teach students about the Holocaust. All kinds of issues related to the war that were still left to be dealt with.

Q: Did your experience influence your novels?
A: Very much so. It influenced me on two levels. First, professionally, there was all this rich material that I just described to draw from. Second, personally, I’m living in Poland in such geographic proximity to the war that it becomes a question of how do you live your everyday life with the appropriate seriousness for what happened without living life as a graveyard. I came back from Poland very moved by my experiences there. All my books are very much inspired by my years in Europe.

Q: Do you have a family tie to Poland and/or the Holocaust?
A: I was raised a Reform Jew. My relatives are nominally Eastern European, but not from Poland and we left before the war. I did not lose anyone personally during the war — although I obviously became very close to elderly Polish Jews who had lost their families.

Q: After working for the Pentagon and the State Department, you went to law school, became an attorney…and then decided to become a novelist.  What caused you to change courses?
A: I had always wanted to be a novelist, but I never could quite get started. The turning point for me was actually the events of 9/11 – which happened one week to the day after I became a practicing attorney.  I had an epiphany. What I mean is, while being a lawyer was a fine and admirable profession, I had this dream of becoming a novelist, and I realized if I had been one of those 9/11 victims that never would have happened. So, I went and took a course called “Write Your Novel this Year.”  Seriously. And I started to work on my first book, inspired by my years in Poland. The catch was that I was a new attorney at a big law firm with a mountain of student loan debt.  So, I had to work and write. For many years, I wrote my novels from 5 to 7 in the morning before I went to the firm. Now, I don’t practice law anymore, I’m a law school professor, and I have kids. So, I have to juggle and I don’t really write in the morning anymore. But that was my regimen for all those years in practice.

Q: What would your advice be to others who dream of writing their first novel?
A: First, don’t quit your day job. But my big things are: Be disciplined. You have to carve out and protect your writing time really zealously.  I do that even now – I have two kids with the stomach flu and I just left them with my mom and went to the office to write because you have to make the time for those things that you want to get done. You make the time to do it. Be tenacious. Don’t give up. It took me a long time to get published and I think that the only thing that stands between me and lots of other really more talented writers who are not published is that I just kept going.
I also think the ability to revise makes a huge difference. The ability to take feedback from an agent or an editor or a peer group and incorporate that into your work makes the big difference, versus people who don’t want to modify what they’ve done.

Q: How did you manage to get that first book published?
A: I had an agent and every publisher in the world rejected my first book, “The Kommandant’s Girl.”  My agent very kindly told me to go write another book. So I was working on another book for about 11 months and one Friday the phone rang and it was my agent.  He never called and he hadn’t made any money off of me, so I said “are you firing me?”  And he said, “No, I’m calling to tell you that someone wants to buy the book.” The last publisher who hadn’t rejected it yet made a small offer. I was rejected by at least 39 publishers before my first book was published.

Q: Are you working on a book now?
A: I’m working on a book now that takes place during World War II and is about twin sisters in rural Poland. One of them finds a downed American paratrooper in the woods. It’s very much a story about survival and choices during the Second World War.  Of course, it’s also inspired by true events; most of my books have some element of true, historical inspiration.

Pam Jenoff will speak at the Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m.  For tickets and information call (860) 231-6316 or email
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