YZM: Tell us about the historical events that inspired this novel!
JR: In the spring of 2016 my husband and I visited San Zenone degli Ezzelini in northern Italy, a small town where most of his parents’ siblings and their families still live. We were at his aunt Maria’s house when the conversation turned to the Second World War — something his parents had rarely, if ever, discussed with us. Claudio and his aunt were speaking in dialect, which I can follow with difficulty, when Zia Maria said, quite unexpectedly, that her father sheltered Jewish families during the war.
We were stunned, and at first I was fearful to dig any deeper. Why was she telling us this now? Why had her sister, my late mother-in-law, never said anything to us? But my curiosity as a historian wouldn’t let me leave it alone. We asked other relatives if they had any memories, and their stories were much the same; no one was able to remember very much, but then they had all been children during the war. We returned home, and I kept wondering, and then I decided to search the database at Yad Vashem. If there were any truth in the stories, I thought, Yad Vashem would probably have a record of it.
And they do. The parish priest in San Zenone during the war, Father Oddo Stocco, was named Righteous Among the Nations on December 1, 2010 for his valor in helping to save dozens of Italian Jews by finding them shelter among his parishioners. And we believe my husband’s grandparents were among those who helped him in his efforts.
That revelation, in turn, made me ask: what were the stories of those who were driven to seek shelter from Father Stocco? How did it feel when so much — their homes, their education, their professions, their nationality — was stolen from them? And how did they survive? From the start, I decided not to write about San Zenone and what happened there, not least because I didn’t want to subsume anyone’s truth into my fiction. But those questions made me wonder, and that’s the place where my story began.
YZM: Nina wants to be a doctor, like her father, which is an unusual choice for an Italian (or any other) woman living during that time; was she inspired by someone in particular?
JR: Not by anyone in particular, but rather by wishful thinking on my part. My own grandmother was a newspaper journalist in the 1930s, and my mother was a lawyer — one of only two women in her class in law school in 1964 — and later a judge. My entire upbringing and outlook were shaped by strong, smart feminists doing important work, and I think I bring that to the characters I create. It would have been unusual for a woman to become a physician in 1940s Italy — unusual but certainly not impossible. And I feel certain that Nina, as I imagine her, was more than capable of such an achievement.
YZM: You seem to have an intimate knowledge of life on a farm; where did that come from?
JR: My depiction of the rhythm and shape of life on the Gerardi farm is based upon extensive interviews with my husband’s aunts and uncles. It was a hard life in many respects, for there wasn’t always enough to eat, and there was always more work than hours in the day; but there was beauty in it, too. It certainly gave me some much-needed perspective over the past year.
YZM: There are some violent and disturbing scenes in the novel; were they difficult to write? What did you hope to gain by including them?
JR: The scenes you mention were among the most difficult I’ve ever written, and certainly the most challenging. It’s such a difficult balance to strike. At no point did I wish to diminish, at all, the depth and breadth of the evil of the Holocaust. At the same time, I was concerned that some recent fictional depictions of the Holocaust have veered into a troubling fetishization of the attendant horrors. So I was very aware of the need to describe any violent or disturbing events in a way that cleaves to the truth of what happened, without ever reducing those terrible moments to mere plot points or fodder for someone’s entertainment. In this I was guided, at every step, by the recollections of survivors. Their point of view was my true north.