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The Subversive Side of My Personality (interview with me)
Interview of me

Here is an excerpt from the interview, which was done by (the wonderful!) Lorraine Berry:

TW: One of the things I love about your work is that it’s not genre mystery. Rather, you construct these intricate historical puzzles. How do you come up with the ideas for your work?

RZ: The ideas usually have to do with something that I know very little about but that fascinates me. For instance, a few years back, I grew very interested in the Nazi sterilization and murder of disabled people, precisely because I knew so little about it. Who exactly did the Nazis sterilize? How many disabled people did they end up killing? Did they set up concentration camps for them? So I started ordering books about it.

The Seventh Gate Book Cover

The more I read, the more the Nazi war on disabled people began to seem like an important crime against humanity that I wanted more people to know about. After all, how many of us actually know what happened to tens of thousands of deaf and blind people in Hitler’s Germany? It seemed to me that they—and the others who were sterilized and murdered—deserved a novel. I love to write about topics that other people would prefer to forget about—or whitewash. I suppose it’s the subversive side of my personality. So the war against disabled people seemed perfect for me.

The plot of The Seventh Gate came directly out of my historical research, as it always does. I never decide what a book is going to be about before I do months of reading about the time and place I’ve chosen. The puzzles you mention grow directly out of the research as well.

To give you an example, my narrator in The Seventh Gate is an intelligent, artistic, and sexually adventurous 14-year-old from a Christian family, coming of age in Nazi Germany. Her name is Sophie. Now, one of the things I learned while researching Hitler’s rise to power was that tens of thousands of Communist Party members switched over to the Nazi Party—to National Socialism—just after Hitler was elected, in 1933. They did that in order to save their jobs, protect their families, and further their careers. Sophie’s father switches sides like this. And it leaves her upset and disoriented, because she’s always believed in her father’s ideals for creating a more just and equitable world. She’s forced to keep her opinions to herself in front of him and her mother, of course—to wear a mask. It angers her.

Partially because of that, she decides to help a Jewish neighbor and his friends who have formed a secret resistance group. So, from that point on, Sophie leads a double life. A bit later, when the Nazis begin to sterilize all those they consider “unhealthy” to the German race—individuals who are disfigured, epileptic, congenitally blind and deaf—she begins to fear for the safety of her younger brother Hansi, a reclusive boy who lives in his own universe and who—in this era before autism was diagnosed—has been labeled “feebleminded.”

Another example: My original idea for The Warsaw Anagrams was to write about the day-to-day life in the Warsaw ghetto, in part because I knew almost nothing about it. Did the kids there have schools? Did adults have jobs? Could Christians help their Jewish friends by bringing them food? Part of why I wanted answers was because all of my relatives in Poland—the brothers and sisters of my grandparents, for example—would have been interned in ghettos in Warsaw and Lodz before being transported to the death camps. The more I read about the Warsaw ghetto, the more it seemed like a “Jewish island” cut off from the rest of the city and the world. That image fascinated me. It still does. To be confined to an island in the middle of a European capital of one million people seemed to me a unique—and terrible—experience worth writing about.

Talking Writing
Lorraine Berry