It often surprises people to learn that I wrote over a fourth of Heidegger’s Glasses before I did any research. Writing the book was a zig-zag journey over switch-back trails, driven by an imagination that didn't care about the facts but had an uncanny instinct for finding them anyway.
Although I didn’t know it, Heidegger’s Glasses began over seventeen years ago. I’d come out with one collection of short stories and was working on a new one, when I heard a woman’s voice from deep below the earth. The time was Germany during World War II and she lived in a mine transformed into a cobblestone street with gas lamps and a canopy of sky that had a sun that rose and set. The woman was in a huge room where people answered letters to the dead.
I could feel her claustrophobia. I even knew her name. And I was compelled to write sixteen pages describing her world. But this world had so many strands only a novel could do it justice. I could even hear the sixteen pages like a few musical notes surrounded by hours of silence. And since I only knew how to write short fiction, I didn’t continue.
I wrote other short story collections, but the sixteen pages kept turning up as if attached to springs. They turned up on the bookshelf. They turned up in a tax pile. They even turned up inside a flyer from my son’s school--a long flyer, pleading for ecologically-packed lunches. At some point they began to feel like a letter from the woman herself, asking me to tell the story of the mine during WWII. At times I saw her profile bent over a letter.
A few years ago, someone at a Christmas party told me that the philosopher Martin Heidegger had a revelation that was caused by his own eyeglasses. As soon as I heard this, I saw the title Heidegger’s Glasses and knew I was going to write a novel. I had no idea what it would be about and didn’t remember those sixteen pages. Like a reckless diver, with the title, Heidegger’s Glasses, as my oxygen tank, I plunged and found myself in a large underground mine during WWII where people answered letters from the dead. I didn’t remember the original sixteen pages and while I was writing Heidegger’s Glasses the pages managed to stay hidden. But when I got the page proofs from my publisher, they sprang out again. I read them over and realized they were the DNA for the entire novel.
They also were the DNA for most of the research I did: After I’d written those sixteen pages, I began to do the kind of unwitting research that many writers do when they’re drawn to a subject but have no idea they’re going to write about it. During that time, I read anything I could find about World War II. I read about rescue operations, ghettos, people in hiding, methods of torture. I studied maps of each concentration camp. I was particularly drawn to a book called The Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege. Except for some photographs, this book consists solely of material written by Jews or the Reich in chronological order. Read as a whole, they detail the dissolution of Lodz, where 200,000 Jews were forced into slave labor before deportation to extermination camps.
The diaries and poems in the book, originally in code and deciphered, were written by inhabitants of the ghetto. They’re interspersed with decrees from the Reich about food rations, work hours, and deportations. Since the decrees are reproduced as photocopies, one has a sense of reading them as a prisoner in Lodz--crowded against other prisoners, clamoring to see a notice on a bulletin board. They describe a tightening vise, giving the book a sense of momentum.
The diaries were full of detail and extraordinarily well-written. Many were by distinguished writers enlisted by the Reich as official Scribes to chronicle life in the Lodz ghetto: The woman in my original sixteen pages had been living among Scribes, so this was an interesting coincidence.
I was especially drawn to one Scribe, a famous Austrian writer named Oskar Rosenfeld with an unusual depth of vision. His sensibility created an important character in the novel---a colleague of Heidegger’s who was forced to become an optometrist and eventually shipped to Auschwitz.
About one-third of my way into the novel, I began to research hard facts about the war. I was mostly interested in dates, particularly after Germany lost the battle of Stalingrad. One day, however, I was surfing the web and came across an article about Operation Mail or Briefakton. This program, designed to reassure relatives as well as disguise the Final Solution, forced prisoners in camps to write letters to relatives praising the conditions in the camps. They often wrote these letters when they came off the cattle car and were about to be shot. Most letters were lost in the chaos of the war and never answered or received. As soon as I discovered Operation Mail, I realized that these letters could be letters from the dead that the Scribes in Heidegger’s Glasses had to answer to conceal the Final Solution. This was the pivotal moment for me--a moment where fact merged with fiction. It was the essential lynchpin where all the inchoate research I’d done fell into place--as did my original vision of the mine.
People often wonder why a mere title made me think I could write a story. The simple answer is that I felt a resonance with the title Heidegger’s Glasses. I felt a kind of tingling, a sense of that the words were surrounded by electricity.
Perhaps unconsciously I heard all the music that surrounded those original sixteen pages. But I doubt I would have heard that music if I hadn’t already known about Heidegger. I’d studied him as a philosophy major and been deeply influenced by Being and Time. I also knew he was an enigmatic figure in World War II--both a Nazi and a critic of the party.
Over time, my original vision collided with history in many surprising ways. And this reified my belief that the imagination is part of the world, and reaches people and groups who are distinct and sometimes far away. The imagination has uncanny instincts that allow it to leap beyond the limits of experience. It can find doors to other centuries, read forbidden books, and meet improbable people. Writing Heidegger’s Glasses has been an adventure in discovering the fluid boundaries between the life of the imagination and the facts of recorded history.
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