An Interview With Carol Bergman
Bergman lives in New York City, but we met in a small restaurant in upstate New York which she considers her second home. Teaching workshops in the fall, winter and spring seasons, she concentrates on her own writing projects in the summer months, mostly out of the city. She’ll either be writing and traveling , or working on the porch at her daughter’s capacious homestead.
INTERVIEWER: ‘What Returns to Us” is set in the city where you were born and grew up; it’s a very gritty, urban novel. But it takes place at the end of World War II. What inspired you to go back in time?
BERGMAN: I’ve always enjoyed reading history and doing research. Both of my novella collections—“Sitting for Klimt” and “Water Baby”—are set in the past and, for each of the ten stories, I saturated myself in the period through reading, interviews, and museum crawling. I am a perennial student. My husband says that I stopped my schooling too soon with a Masters Degree. On the other hand, if I’d gone on to pursue a Doctorate, my imagination might have been obliterated. Each fiction—and non-fiction project for that matter—is a portal to a different world, and an opportunity to begin again as an autodidact.
INTERVIEWER: Obviously, when you are doing journalism, you stick to the facts, but what about for the fiction you write?
BERGMAN: The facts—what really happened so far as we know—becomes a scaffold for the fictional story. Many journalists have become fiction writers: Hemingway, Pete Hamill, Willa Cather, to name just three. And there is a relief in extrapolating from the facts into a hypothetical story. And to not writing to a set length or a set deadline. Eventually, I stop the research entirely and put it all away. It is only when I force myself to abandon the research after digesting all of it, that I begin to visualize characters, incidences, and so on.
INTERVIEWER: But why 1945 and the end of the war, in particular?
BERGMAN: I was in New York on 9/11 and although I didn’t lose anyone, I experienced the trauma of that event like everyone else, volunteered for the Red Cross, and participated in readings, mostly poetry, all over the city. Soon after, a reporter from the LA Times called to ask how 9/11 would percolate into my work and how soon. I had no idea because there is no way to anticipate how the unconscious processes anything, nor can we start, stop, or control this process. I sensed inklings of 9/11 in my work over the years, reverberating echoes into my childhood; my parents were refugees from genocide. And I wrote nonfiction pieces about 9/11. But this novel is a direct consequence of 9/11. Someone told me, or perhaps I read it somewhere, that a plane had crashed into the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945. The 78th and 79th floor was destroyed, people were injured and killed, but the building did not collapse. That difference fascinated me.
INTERVIEWER: Some would say that this is an anti-war book. Would you agree?
BERGMAN: World War II is considered a “just” war. And I would have to agree as most of my family was murdered by Hitler. My parents fled, I was fortunate enough to have been born in America. So I am not a pacifist. But I do think we have to understand the consequences of teaching men and women to kill—they will never be the same—and of unleashing weaponry against innocent civilians. Consider the drone strikes, for example. Sterile, detached, distant, safer for our military than being on the ground. But if we were on the ground in a small village and we saw this drone coming, saw the bombs drop at us from out of the sky, how could we feel anything but terror, rage, and fear? It’s an odd repetition of an image now emblazoned on every American’s mind of planes silently drifting into the Twin Towers. And we should be sensitive to the horror and lasting effects. There are babies down there.