Library Journal Q&A

Q&A: Judith Claire Mitchell

judithmitchell31315Three middle-aged sisters, suffering hardship and heartbreak, decide to end their lives at the close of 1999. Gathered in their ancestral New York apartment, the sisters trace their collective family history, looking into the life of their brilliant but repressed maternal great-grandmother and their great-grandfather, a Nobel Prize–winning chemist whose invention is used to deadly effect during World War II. In A Reunion of Ghosts (LJ 2/1/15), Judith Claire Mitchell has written a darkly humorous and poignant study of a very odd family haunted by what they believe to be their cursed past.

Your novel is narrated by the three Alter sisters in a collective first-person voice. What were some of the challenges of using this unusual technique?
That was something I definitely fretted about. There are, of course, many wonderfully effective books that use first-person plural—Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides comes immediately to mind—but I know readers often find voices other than first- or third-person singular to be gimmicky and even annoying. I tried writing from a variety of perspectives, but I kept coming back to the “we” voice, which seemed the only way these enmeshed women could tell their story. My biggest challenge, then, was to make the collective voice feel like an integral part of the sisters’ story, as opposed to a whimsical choice on my part. My hope was that if the story was couched as a kind of letter, readers would accept the voice. Letters, after all, are written in the first person; a letter signed by more than one person would naturally be in the first-person plural

Another big challenge was always remembering that I was writing about people who were writing about people. What I mean is that every scene had to be written as if the sisters were writing it. Every scene had to be filtered through the sisters’ collective sensibilities and every scene had to reveal something about the sisters as well as about the people in the scene. This sort of dualistic point of view is something Alice Munro does brilliantly and, it appears, effortlessly, but it gave me fits

The three sisters, sharing the belief that the Alter family is cursed, set out to write a memoir/suicide letter. But each sibling comes to learn that the curse may not be as defining as she thought. Without giving away any plot points, was there the temptation for Lady, Vee ,and Delph to explore a different path?
Very much so. It’s hard to discuss without revealing or even hinting at what ultimately happens, but for much of the writing process I genuinely had no idea whether all or some or none of the sisters would go through with the suicide in the end, and as I wrote my way toward that end I was always stopping to consider pretty much every path and permutation possible. But when I finally got to the place where I had to make a decision, the decision seemed obvious. It was as if each sister knew the precise path she’d take, and my job was simply to describe it. I don’t mean to sound all woo-woo; I just think that a lot of this work takes place in the unconscious, which means, when it finally bubbles up to the surface, the author is often as surprised by the ending as anyone else.


What was your inspiration for your insightful, masterly work?
Way back in 1975 I read E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. It was the first time I’d encountered a novel that blithely incorporated historical and fictional figures as a means of writing not only about the characters themselves, but about decades, if not centuries, of American history. It was engaging and profound and harrowing and damning and often funny. You could tell Doctorow had done extensive research, but that he’d also had the courage and verve to throw facts to the wind when it suited his story’s purpose. For me, this was incredibly inspiring, and Ragtime has always been a touchstone as I’ve slogged my way through my own books.

Where the suicide note idea came from, I’m not sure. All I know is that for years I walked around glumly telling people that I was working on a book that would never be published because who wants to read a 400-page suicide note. Claire Wachtel, my fabulous editor at Harper, proved me wrong…thank goodness!

Your novel is not only a family story but a meticulously researched work of historical fiction. How did you develop the character of Lenz Alter, the sisters’ great-grandfather?
Lenz and his wife, Iris, are based on the German Jewish chemists Fritz and Clara Haber. Fritz Haber is often called “The Father of Chemical Warfare.” Far less is known about Clara. In fact, in 1999, all I could find out…was that she was one of the first women to earn a PhD in chemistry [and] that she killed herself in 1915 after denouncing chemical warfare as barbaric, and that, as one source said with respect to her place in history, “her life and death were pushed aside.”  I was still working on my first novel, though, so I back-burnered the Habers, which turned out to be useful because, as time passed, more information about them was becoming available.

This new research revealed countless things that wound up in the book, but the biggest was that there’d been a pattern of suicides on Clara’s side of the family….As I [looked] into the deaths of not just Clara, but her son and a granddaughter, I realized their suicides followed not only revelations pertaining to Fritz’s poison gas work but the loss of a loved one. By then I’d realized that my interest in the facts of Fritz and Clara’s lives…had waned, and what I really wanted to look at were questions [of] how we cope with the burdens of history, family, shame, guilt, heartbreak, violence, disease, and all the other losses that life piles on our shoulders. I decided to write about not only Fritz and Clara’s generation but those that followed, and I did this by inventing a fourth generation, three sisters who would serve as my narrators.

What are you working on now?
At this moment I think I’m writing a novel that will take place in America, will span the post–World War II 1940s to the early 1970s of Vietnam and the women’s liberation movement and will fictionalize a series of real murders that I find fascinating from a number of perspectives, both political and personal. But I’m only beginning, so don’t hold me to it. —Andrea Tarr, Corona P.L., CA