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Sifting the layers of history with novelist Jennifer Robson

By Nathan Maharaj • April 28, 2021Author Interviews

Jennifer Robson is a writer of historical fiction, including the new book Our Darkest Night.

She’ll be judging the Literary Fiction category in the 2021 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize

What are you reading?

I have a pile of books that are background research for the book I’m working on now set in Britain in 1953 with the coronation as the backdrop. I’m not actually that interested in “royal stuff,” The Gown notwithstanding! I’m way more interested in ordinary people and what their lives are like. I’ve got all sorts of specialist histories of post-war britain, even covering things like the economy, to get a sense of how things changed in the 1950s. It’s not my bedtime reading, though. Too dry, knocks me right out.

I’m really excited about Sisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson, which comes out this summer. It’s about the first all-Black battalion in the women’s army corps, the six-triple-eight. Historical fiction has been a really white place for a long time and would like to see it open up and be more inclusive -- and the best way to do that is to get more authors of colour writing and being published and reviewed.

I also read Lucky by Marissa Stapley. It’s a beautiful book. I found it intensely moving to learn that Marissa wrote it as a kind of tribute to her mom. It’s a road trip book, with a lottery ticket that the heroine can’t cash because she’ll be arrested. And who is she? What’s the nature of her criminality? Is she destined forever to live outside of society? Such a great read.

I love Bill Bryson, especially his “big picture” narrative history books. The one that stands out for me is One Summer: America, 1927, where he takes all of these events from America in 1927 and weaves them together to show how this was such a seminal year. He’s got that big picture historian’s eye that makes me think about one day writing my own non-fiction that aspires to that level -- but you really need that “aha” moment first. Bryson’s great at that.

I’m about to dig into Chantal Geurtin’s Instamom. It’s about being propelled into motherhood by becoming a step-parent. What if your self-identity revolves around not being a maternal type? I like that there are many books coming out now htat show that being a mom is complicated. The reason I started writing books is I was at home with a newborn baby and a 2-year-old -- and though I love my kids, at the time I was so bored!

I’m also reading Kate Baerr, the American poet: What Kind of Woman. I turn every page and I’m stunned by the artistry that feels like an arrow through my heart.

What guides your reading? Where do you go next in your research, or decide what you need or want to know more about?

I do the dusty research at the beginning, just to get it lodged in my head somehow and orient myself to the broader sweep of history.

I feel sometimes like an archaeologist sifting layers. The top layer is just the general stuff, the big things going on in the news; so for 1953 that’s the death of Stalin, Edmund Hillary reaching the summit of Everest, and whatever people were listening to and thinking. I’m really trying to get that all out of the way so it’s in the part of my brain that holds these facts temporarily. Because the next layer down I start to get into the voices of the people who lived at this time.

When I was researching my earlier books that were about The Great War, the last combatants were almost entirely gone. There was no one I could sit down with. So I would turn to oral histories, interviews, and an abundance of secondary sources. Of course I prefer to interview people whenever possible -- I love following an unexpected path in the flow of a conversation, such as a detail that you wouldn’t have known to ask about.

How did you find the story of Our Darkest Night? What did you need to do to be able to tell it?

With this book I was inspired by the story of my husband’s Italian grandparents who we believe to have sheltered Jews during the second world war in an effort led by the local parish priest. I couldn’t prove that it happened exactly as described in family lore, but I was digging into the story just so I could tell my kids more about it -- but over time I became more and more entranced by stories of what happened in Italy during the war. And there’s been relatively little historical written fiction about it until recently.

I wanted to get inside of the mind of a Jewish character who would have grown up thinking of herself as Italian, since most Jews in Italy were fairly well-assimilated into their local cultures. Italy even had a Jewish Prime Minister in the 1920s. But what would it have been like to have facets of antisemitic fascism creep in slowly -- not being able to go to school, to practice a profession -- and then it becomes arrests and deportations to camps that nobody knew much about. I didn’t want to write about the rescuers, the wonderful gentiles being nice to the Jewish refugees. That’s not where the focus of the story needed to be. And that’s where I came up with the story of Nina; I wanted to celebrate the toughness, the bravery, the selflessness of someone who’s the architect of her own survival.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson

It is the autumn of 1943, and life is becoming increasingly perilous for Italian Jews like the Mazin family. With Nazi Germany now occupying most of her beloved homeland, and the threat of imprisonment and deportation growing ever more certain, Antonina Mazin has but one hope to survive—to leave Venice and her beloved parents and hide in the countryside with a man she has only just met.

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Author photo by Natalie Brown

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