Jennifer Steil discusses her novel “Exile Music”

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Morning Book Club at Temple Concord will be held on Wednesday, June 1, with author Jennifer Steil appearing on Zoom to discuss and read from her novel “Exile Music.” For more information, see Temple Concord’s notes on page 6. The Reporter’s review of the book can be found here. The following e-mail interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rabbi Rachel Esserman: “Exile Music” is a different type of World War II novel because the characters settle in South America. Why did you decide to have them emigrate to Bolivia? What ideas/problems/thoughts did that allow you to explore in your novel that you wouldn’t have been able to do if they’d emigrated to the U.S. or Canada?

Jennifer Steil: The story of the Jewish refugees in Bolivia before, during and after the war is a largely untold and ignored story. I myself was unaware of the stories of this part of the Diaspora until I moved to La Paz, Bolivia, in 2012 and met some of the survivors still there. 

We moved to Bolivia because my husband, Tim Torlot, took a job as head of the EU delegation in La Paz. Early on in our time there, he came home from a meeting with the Austrian honorary consul one evening and said, “Did you know there were 20,000 Jewish refugees here in Bolivia during World War II?”

I hadn’t known.

By 1938, Bolivia was one of only three countries in the world offering visas to Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. The others were the Dominican Republic and Japan-occupied Shanghai. So most refugees didn’t choose to come to Bolivia; they had no choice.

Not long after I had that conversation with my husband, I met John Gelernter in La Paz. His parents fled their village that had been part of Poland, then Ukraine and then the U.S.S.R. They had lost their 2-year-old daughter and their parents and the entire Jewish population of their village. 

John was born in La Paz and lives there still. He used to run into Klaus Barbie on the street. He is a violinist and has been a concertmaster at the Bolivian Symphony Orchestra founded by Erich Eisner in 1945.

John told me his family’s story, and introduced me to other refugees. The most significant was Guillermo Wiener, who fled Austria for Bolivia when he was 8 years old. He was obsessed with movies and eventually owned three cinemas in La Paz. He learned Spanish from his landlady’s children and eventually considered himself Bolivian, changing his name from German Wilhelm to Guillermo. 

Guillermo, who died just a few months ago, considered himself fully Bolivian. He never considered returning to Austria, and said he could never forgive them for what the country did to its Jews.

I kept searching for more books about this community of Jewish refugees, and found very little. And everything I found was memoir. I read every memoir I could find, both of Jews in Vienna at the time and of those who had passed through Bolivia at some point.

There didn’t seem to be any novel about this significant population, and it felt critical to me that they not be forgotten. I thought about trying to write a nonfiction book instead of a novel. But I wondered if I would be able to find enough verifiable information to create a meaningful and emotionally moving work. I often find that fiction is better able to move me than nonfiction, if it is well crafted and immersive. 

I began to imagine writing a novel to fill this gap. There were so many overlooked stories here. I could not retrieve them all, but I tried. What I wanted more than anything was to create a context that would be recognizable to any survivor who lived through this time period in Bolivia.

Many readers have said “Exile Music” did this for them. Two weeks after its initial publication, I received an e-mail from a 90-year-old man in Florida who said, “Your novel is so close to my own experience that I cannot believe you made it up.” Since then I have talked with survivors on the phone and met others who are part of book clubs. I wish I had met them all before I wrote the book! But I am so grateful for their e-mails telling me how much it means to them to see their history brought to light. 

Writing about refugees in Bolivia allowed me to explore the particular challenges these refugees faced: living at 12,000 feet of altitude, confrontation with cultures and languages entirely alien to them, adjustment to a much less cosmopolitan place, and also often living alongside the Nazis they thought they had escaped. 

Esserman: The novel also shows the importance of music in the characters’ lives. Does it play a similar role in your life or were you exploring their thoughts to learn more about how people relate to music?

Steil: Most of my work explores how various arts – painting, poetry, music – help us navigate our way in the world. I also tend to write about characters who can do things I wish I could do. My protagonist in my novel “The Ambassador’s Wife” is a painter, and I have no talent in the visual arts. And unlike Orly, my protagonist in “Exile Music,” I lack musical abilities. But I love thinking about music and musicians, and the ways that all of us use music in some way to get us through difficulty and grief. From the time we are born, our bodies – and souls – respond to music. It can change our moods and direct our thoughts. I wanted to explore how music allowed my characters to connect (or in the mother’s case, fail to connect) with their new life and surroundings. My protagonist Orly has grown up surrounded by music and cannot imagine life without it. Because she is the youngest, she adapts the most easily, picking up a Bolivian instrument. Her father Jacob clings to his viola for emotional safety, and eventually begins to learn about Bolivian music from his students. But Orly’s mother, an opera singer, finds that grief has stolen her ability to sing. I spent five years immersed in Austrian and Bolivian music, reading biographies of Mahler while listening to his symphonies, listening to charango music while writing Bolivian chapters. The structure of the book is also borrowed from music; it follows the structure of Mahler’s third symphony (I had to find one with six movements!).

I was also appalled at the discovery of how the Vienna Philharmonic treated its Jewish musicians, and I wanted to write about that. At the start of my research, I discovered that even before 1938, 20 percent of its musicians had joined the then illegal Nazi party. By 1939, half were Nazis. The orchestra sent all of its Jewish musicians to the death camps, or forced them into exile. They also continued to employ Nazis until 1967. I wanted to help preserve the names of the Jewish musicians the orchestra expelled. They are mentioned in the book. 

Esserman: From what I’ve read, you frequently travel and live in different parts of the world. How do those experiences help/hinder your writing?

Steil: Living in a state of constant inbetweenness – between cultures, languages, friends, homes, lives – affects my writing in every possible way. When I moved to Yemen in 2006 to take a job as editor in chief of a newspaper, I became aware of how growing up in the U.S. had shaped my assumptions about the world. I began to question many of those assumptions and to see the world in new ways. This is an ongoing process, and each book reflects new ways I am learning to think and observe. My experiences running the newspaper in Yemen inspired my first book, a memoir called “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky.” I wouldn’t write that book the same way now, but we all evolve and improve with practice, or so I hope! My next book, “The Ambassador’s Wife,” was inspired by my kidnapping when I was six months pregnant with my daughter. But it is an entirely fictional narrative. I kept asking, “What if I hadn’t been released? What if I left a toddler behind? What if my husband had to abandon his diplomatic post?” And those what-if questions led me along. The book ultimately became an exploration of both artistic expression and white savior complex, with a lot of other issues touched on along the way. And I have explained above how essential living in Bolivia for four years was to “Exile Music.” We have the luxury of spending four years or so in each country, which allows us to sink in to the culture more than we could ever do as a tourist. 

Esserman: I read that you’ve said your first drafts are “rubbish” and that the art is in the “rewrite.” I can relate to that because I do the same thing. (“Just get something on the page,” I tell myself, “and you can always rewrite it.”) Is that true for just the prose, or does that mean you often change the direction of the plot when you rewrite?

Steil: Yes! My first drafts are for my eyes only. The first draft, however, is where I am thinking through the entire book, figuring out who my characters are, what they want and what the book is about. I think of my first drafts as clay, and the editing process is similar to what a sculptor does with clay. My successive drafts slowly turn my books into something I hope resembles art. The structure of each book evolves with the writing, sometimes coming at the start and sometimes not until the fifth draft. I don’t necessarily change the plot in my successive drafts – I usually sort out most of that in the first draft – but I rewrite every word, reworking the language, I add scenes, and rethink pivotal moments. Endings and beginnings can change in successive drafts, but not always. I’m not exaggerating when I say I write dozens of drafts of each book. Also, I have had the good fortune to work with genius editors.

Esserman: I have not read your first novel, but it seems like you’re interested in cultural differences in that work as in “Exile Music.” Will your next novel continue that pattern?

Steil: Yes. I have already completed the next novel, which is also set in Bolivia. It has not yet been sent out to publishers. I am also about halfway through the first draft of a novel set in Uzbekistan. And that’s all I’ll say about that for now! I am very interested in writing between cultures, and exploring the lives of people living somewhere they were not born, either by choice or necessity.