I had the great privilege of listening to Susan Vreeland speak at the San Diego Book Awards on May 16, 2009. Since that evening was rather full of distractions (Until Our Last Breath and The Four Seasons both won in their categories and The Four Seasons won the Theodor Geisel Award for book of the year), it’s taken until now to come down out of the clouds and give a serious thought to what Susan had to say.
How wonderful it was to hear a career teacher and novelist bring those two professions together into a powerful statement about teachable moments, and the imperative for serious writers to offer such moments in our work. It’s not enough for non-fiction writers to convey facts. We have to convey meaning, or better yet, allow readers to find it for themselves. It’s not enough for fiction writers to create characters and plunk them down into a place and time. If there’s no wisdom to be gained by what happens to them, why bother?
“Writers are “practitioners developing …the compassion born of imagining the lives of others, fictional or real,” she said. It is both our charge and our honor to encourage the imagination to come alive, for it is with the ability to imagine the lives of others that we move in the direction of real humanity. “Where there is no imagination, there is no human connection.[…] Where there is no connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, lovingkindness, human understanding, peace–they all shrivel.”
Shriveled hearts, we all know, are capable of great harm. But as Susan pointed out, “each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another is a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race.” Forget about writing books that are no more than shallow diversions, she says. Go for “themes that matter–issues of faith, morality, mortality, humanity, artful living, literature that explores the ways that Love can make a difference in this world.”
I’m thinking now about UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and how well Susan’s words reflect what I was trying to accomplish as I wrote it.
I would not have been interested in becoming its author at all if the themes she spoke of were not so readily apparent in the story of the Vilna Ghetto. Amazingly, not a single ghetto resident died of hunger or in an epidemic, despite the horrific conditions. Why? Because the community vowed it would not happen. Mortality statistics in the ghetto for those who were not victims of organized murder were actually lower than in the rest of Vilna in the same period, and only slightly higher than the city’s annual mortality rate in the years before the occupation. The Jews were in it together, and everyone’s health and safety mattered. They weren’t going to help the Nazis do the job.
That’s the kind of thing I wanted to write about. The themes of community and commitment were found not just there, but everywhere in the story I was privileged to tell, and I think that’s what brought UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH recognition not just from the San Diego Book Awards, but recently from the Christopher’s as well. The Christopher Medal goes to books and other media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” If the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto and the partisan camps in the Rudnicki Forest did not affirm those values, I could not have written a book that did.
There’s more from Vreeland’s speech I want to write about. Look for another post to my diary in a few days. For now, if you want to read her speech in its entirety, here’s the link.