True Stories Of Ingenuity Hiding Children In Wartime Inspired 'The Yellow Bird Sings'
Kicking off our annual summer ficiton series: a novel about a mother-daughter connection and the role of creativity and beauty in human survival.
"The Yellow Bird Sings" was written by Northampton, Massachusetts, resident Jennifer Rosner. She's had success writing in other genres.
Carrie Healy, NEPM: Why try fiction?
Jennifer Rosner: Actually, I was at a book talk for my memoir, “If A Tree Falls” — that's about raising our deaf daughters in a hearing, speaking world. And I was describing how we were working with our children.
They had hearing technology, and we were encouraging their every vocalization. And I was saying, you know, even if they were screaming, we'd be happy as long as they were making sound.
And a woman came up to me afterwards, and she described her childhood experience hiding with her mother in a shoemaker's attic in Poland, and how she had to be completely silent. And I just thought so much about this child needing to be silent, and her mother needing to keep her silent.
And it was like a seed that just kept kind of growing. I started interviewing hidden children, and I didn't want to tell their particular stories, because I thought they might want to tell their own story at some point.
So I embarked on telling a fictional story, though it was inspired by the different things I heard in terms of strength and ingenuity and creativity.
Is that something that novelists wrestle with all the time?
I think so. In some ways. I mean, usually when you set out to write fiction, there's so much of your subconscious that takes over when writing, that you won't end up telling another person's story. And there's a lot of personal psychological material that that weaves its way in, I think, inevitably, for fiction writers.
So the strands of longing for a mother-daughter connection are resonant to me, emotionally, with my mother. And the importance of this connection, for me and my daughters.
Those personal threads are always kind of weaving their way into the story, at least for me, as a writer. I don't cordon myself off. I think that the psychological material is what drives you to persist in writing in a long form that takes years and years.
So without a kind of psychological thrust, it would be very hard to persist in the process, I think. For me, it's maybe a balance between coming up with a creative and completely fictionalized account that has resonances both in reality — especially as a historical fiction writer — but also in personal material.
Was that a tricky balance — to weave enough of those details, like what happened during World War II, into this novel and not make it just a really, really dark book.
Yes. And I made certain decisions. For instance, the town that I set my story in is not a town you'll find on a map in Poland. I fictionalized the name. I made up a town, and I did that for various reasons.
One is that there were details that are not the emotional heart of the story. So if the tavern is 10 feet from the barn — if you went and counted out the feet, it would have been 15 feet. I didn't want to be stuck with people getting hung up on the historical accuracy of things that didn't matter for the story. And that can really happen.
And there were these dark elements that I think I wove between, assuming that people already know many of those stories, and not wanting to necessarily focus on those sort of very dark aspects of the Holocaust, but having them hinted at all the time — those dangers existed. But I wasn't really focusing on those head-on.
Some of the nonfictional things that you included were musical selections. How did you choose composers?
It was a long process, and I worked with a master class violinist on this, talking about what a prodigy would be practicing, how she would be playing, what order of pieces she would be playing.
Some of the choices were emotionally driven choices, like [Maurice] Ravel's “Kaddish,” because at that moment, there was a way in which she was mourning her mother. So there were emotionally-driven reasons to choose particular pieces.
But also I was very aware that I needed to be accurate for a prodigy, anyway. I mean, those pieces are very hard for most every player, but for a prodigy, at least as I learned from — in consultation with both this master class violinist and a musicologist I was working with — that this could be a reasonable trajectory for her.