Affinity Konar’s recently released, critically acclaimed second book, Mischling, is a piece of historical fiction that chronicles the experience of twin girls at the mercy of Joseph Mengele, a Nazi doctor who performed inhumane experiments on thousands of twin prisoners at the Auschwitz death camp.
The Los Angeles-based Konar, who holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, will be in Toronto Nov. 2, to lecture at Holy Blossom Temple about her latest book.
What will be the focus of your upcoming lecture?
I want to emphasize the appearance of Jewish resistance within the book. The book is about identical twin girls who are 12 years old and are imprisoned at Auschwitz. They are both doomed and saved by the Angel of Death, Joseph Mengele, and the book tries to follow their struggle for immunity as they remain within the camp and how they cope with a sort of very unique survival that is ridden with guilt and privilege and how they also cope with separation.
Half the chapters of the book are written from the perspective of one twin, Stasha, who is tasked with being in charge of “the funny, the future and the bad,” and the other twin, Pearl, who is in charge of “the sad, the good and the past.” Why was it important to switch back and forth between writing from the point of view of characters who have very different personalities?
I thought it was important to get two different perspectives, because I wanted one to, sort of, encapsulate a precise, clear, distant voice about the history that was taking place, and that was Pearl. Stasha sort of embodies a raw emotive perspective. Whenever I personally read a Holocaust narrative, I feel like I have those two voices, and I feel like everybody does, warring in their mind. You have a gut reaction, and then you’re trying to process the events. That’s why I decided to split it that way.
Was it difficult to write it that way? What was the process like?
I feel like I do more editing than writing, to be totally honest. I tried to write it by writing each in turn, but it was just impossible. So I would make attempts at it, and I would know what I wanted the structure to be, but to retain a certain voice and perspective, I often ended up revisiting Pearl’s chapters one day and editing Stasha’s chapters one day. That helped to keep them more distinct in my mind and to find continuity errors. I’m prone to writing in one voice, so a lot of it was editing and revisiting mercilessly, over and over again.
What kind of research did you do before writing this?
I found my original source book, which kind of became the fulcrum for everything when I was 16. It’s interesting because, I’m finding, as the book is venturing out, a lot of 16-year-old Jewish girls found this book [Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz] and were really affected by it. It’s interesting to me that people of that age would be drawn to it. So that was my original material, and I continued to return to it throughout the years constantly.
The research came about fairly naturally after I had the grounding of it all. I never thought of myself as a writer of historical fiction. This book was a very private thing for many years, but I had to constantly recalibrate and question why I was doing it, so to see it become public is very shocking to me. The research in some ways was motivated by my own personal interest, and there was a lot of research that I did on Mengele that never made it into the book, because I eventually abandoned his storyline.
As a piece of historical fiction, did you feel an obligation to stick to the facts, or did you allow yourself to take liberties to further the fictional story along?
That’s such an interesting question, because I feel there were definitely things I made sure I wanted – that whole dilemma stalled the book for many years because it is such a huge responsibility, but at the same time, I think the mechanics of the atrocities have been so well told by some of the greatest minds we are ever going to know, so I never felt that my task was to adhere to tell exactly how things occurred. At the same time, you have a burden to pin things down to history. So it was a lot of negotiation between the need to bear emotional witness and to ground everything in history.
Did you study the Holocaust?
I studied some Jewish literature courses in college, but when I was a teenager, I gravitated toward it. My family left Poland in the 1930s, so I think speaking to other people about it, the guilt of escape was very potent to me at a young age.
I think that is why the dynamic between the twins was so fraught for me, because you have this scenario where the person who is closest to you might be the one who is chosen to suffer, while you are allowed to remain intact. I found that to be unspeakably painful. I couldn’t imagine it. It seemed an immediate encapsulation of that concept.
How long did it take you to write this book?
It’s a difficult number for me to arrive at, because I put it down and picked it up so many times, but ultimately it was about a decade of back and forth and questioning. I went through three different drafts for the second part of the book, so that’s mostly why it took so long. I kept questioning what that second half needed to contain about Mengele himself. I kept trying to negotiate around what he needed to be in the narrative before finally concluding, “This is absurd. It needs to remain solely the story of the twins.” I didn’t care to follow his escape from everything.
How has your family responded to it?
There are just a lot of tears. I didn’t show it to them the whole time I was writing it. I didn’t even really speak about the concept so much to them, so I think it has been a bit of a shock. They didn’t realize the depth of my obsession. My mother has now heard of Children of the Flames and how that book meant so much to me. I struggled to write it for so many years, and I didn’t expose them to much of it at all. We went to Auschwitz very recently, and we came back about a month ago, so to be able to share that experience with my family has been very meaningful. We took a private family tour, and I’m still processing all of it. It was very devastating to be in a place that was designed to destroy families, with your family. I sensed that immediate fear of separation there. It was very hard to shake and it kind of follows me.
This interview has been edited and condense for style and clarity.