If you belong to a book group or just want to dive a bit more deeply into A REUNION OF GHOSTS, scroll down a bit for some discussion questions, an author interview, and an author essay about the inspiration for the book.
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Discussion Questions From the Harper-Perennial & Waterstones Reading Guides
- How does The Alter Family Tree affect your entry into the novel?
- Consider each of the sisters—Lady, Vee, and Delph—who narrate most of the novel. How are they similar and different? How is their living together healthy? How not? In Chapter 1, the sisters present a “chart” of family suicides and claim that the “tidiness of the rows and columns” help balance the emotional feeling of “life as forever chaotic.” Does it? Can organizing and listing difficult experiences make them less powerful?
- What is potentially valuable or challenging about a family legacy?
- Heinrich Alter states that “being Jewish is his culture, but being German is his faith.” How do the other characters of the novel struggle with being Jews with German ancestry after World War II?
- As a child, Lenz Alter was “mournful,” and bad at most things he tried, yet he eventually wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. How does such a transformation take place?
- How does the sisters’ humor and love of wordplay and puns balance the sadness and suffering explored in the novel?
- Consider the structure of the novel, which moves backwards and forwards in time. What are the effects of this?
- Albert Einstein’s theories about time serve as a way for the sisters to consider their largely unpleasant lives. What did Einstein say about the nature of time? How is that helpful to the sisters?
- Delph, the youngest sister, at 19 years old, says she’s not interested in “soup,” the sisters’ euphemism for romantic and sexual involvement with men. Why isn’t she? Consider Lady’s relationship with Joe Hopper and Vee’s with Eddie Glod.
- In their wonderings about what might have happened to the father who left them, the sisters find the fantasy of his being killed by their mother the most satisfying and interesting. How might such a drastic fantasy make emotional sense? In what ways might fantasy be helpful in the face of great trauma?
- What does the sisters’ Great Grandmother Iris Emanuel bring to the novel? What’s the value of the letters she writes to chemistry professor Richard Lehrer, even after he has died?
- The sisters believe they are the last Alters subject to the family curse—“The sins of the fathers are visited on the sons to the third and fourth generations.” What might this Biblical idea mean?
- Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva talks to Iris about the challenge of being married to genius. How might great intelligence affect intimate relationships like marriage?
- After the painful loss of Richard Lehrer, Iris passionately instructs her son Richard about surviving: “The worst happens, and people go on.” And yet she takes her own life. How might you explain such conflict, such apparent hypocrisy?
- Lenz Alter develops a Nobel Prize-winning process that produces the first manmade fertilizers and saves the world from famine. He then uses that process to create the first poison gas used in war. Is it an ethical lapse for scientists to use their knowledge to make weapons? Was it wrong for the Nobel Prize committee to honor Alter for the development of the fertilizer when they knew he was also responsible for the chlorine gas?
- Thinking of both an ad for Lord & Taylor and the horrific image of clothes worn by Jews in concentration camps, Richard thinks “Thank God for the human capacity to hold both kinds of pajamas in our heads at once.” What might he mean
- At one point Vee mimics and criticizes one of the many academics writing about Lenz and Iris. What is she upset about? To what extent should academic research involve empathy or emotional understanding? What are the limits of studying historic figures and their behavior?
- After her bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy, Vee thinks about the “body as narrative,” and the “face as biography.” In what ways is this true?
- In the face of Vee’s cancer the sisters claim that repression is a “gift,” and of great value. To what extent can such profound pain and fear be “tamp[ed] down”?
- What is the nature of coincidence? Fate? Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity?
To me, the book works on two levels. It is, I hope, an engaging story about three sisters who are burdened by the legacy left them by their great grandfather, a chemist who invented chlorine gas, the first poison used in warfare. They feel that burden mightily. There’s also a history of suicide in the family, and they feel that it is their lot in life to end their lives the same way. This sounds terribly grim but the sisters have a dark sense of humour that I think gets them through the story and hopefully gets the reader through the story too!
On the other level, the book looks at seminal events in the 20th century and the sisters can be said to metaphorically stand in for us – people who have lived through the 20th century and have struggled with the problems of that century.
What was the real-life story behind the novel?
The sisters’ great grandfather, Lenz Alter, is based on a chemist named Fritz Haber. He was a German-Jewish scientist who won the Nobel Prize for coming up with the first manmade fertiliser which saved the world from starvation in the early 1900s, but then he used a very similar synthesis to produce poison gases. And not only did he come up with the poison gas, but he fought for its use. He went over the German generals’ heads, when they argued against deploying it on the battlefield, to the Kaiser. He personally deployed the gas in the Second Battle of Ypres. He was very hands-on with this terrible new weapon.
His wife Clara was also a chemist. She fought very hard to become one of the first women in Germany to get a PHD in chemistry, but she was basically relegated to the role of housewife when she married Fritz. She was terribly opposed to the use of the poison gas and ultimately killed herself behind the family house. The thinking was that this was her means of protesting what he was doing. Through my research and just through my sense of what people are like, I think it was far more complicated than that.
They had one son, a sickly little boy named Hermann, who discovered Clara’s body. The saddest thing to happen – and the most confounding to contemporary readers – was that the very next day Fritz Haber took off for the Eastern Front to teach the generals there how to use the poison gas, leaving their twelve year old son with his mother’s body and the charge to plan her funeral. Apparently Haber did try to get out of going so he could attend to Clara’s burial, but the generals wouldn’t let him. It was wartime – people died all the time, you couldn’t afford to be sentimental about one more death. But when you hear this story in isolation–father leaves twelve-year-old with dead mother’s body so father can teach generals how to use poison gases–it is just mindboggling.
When I first heard this story–two chemists, she can’t practice, he introduces chemical warfare, she kills herself, her body is left with a child–I thought I have never heard a story so dramatic in my life, and it needs to be written about. So that was the initial impetus of this story – the bare bones of this chilling but real story.
When you initially planned it, did you think you’d be dealing with Haber’s great grandchildren–the descendants–rather than the man himself?
When I first planned it, I thought I would just take their story right up to the day when Fritz Haber gets in that car and goes off to the Eastern Front while Clara lies dead. I figured I would flesh it out, create inner lives for these characters, use pretty language and make it a wonderful read. I thought this was the cleverest idea – my first book had a lot of plot complications and I thought why not just avoid the whole inventing-a-plot thing?
But then I discovered that Hermann, the son, had killed himself in his mid-forties and that a granddaughter had also killed herself – and the story began getting complicated and I began focusing on subsequent generation of the family. Also I found it a little boring to always know what was going to happen next. I think some writers are wonderful at that. But I really needed to be surprised. So I started making things up.
How did you manage the relationship between fact and fiction? How much liberty did you take with the facts?
There are actually descendants of Fritz Haber still living and I didn’t want to imply in any way that my sisters were versions of those people so it felt incumbent on me to change the name.
The story of the first generation is very close to actual historical events. The generations in the middle start moving away from the facts. Richard Alter kills himself at the same age as the Haber’s son, Hermann, but I stopped having the facts at hand as I wrote, so I wouldn’t be beholden to them. And most of the third generation, as well as the narrating sisters, are complete inventions.
It is like ombre hair: it starts out at the roots very close to your actual hair colour, then gradually changes until down by the bottom it’s totally dyed, with no relation to reality. That is my very intellectual metaphor for this book.
Apart from a few notable exceptions, men aren’t painted in the most flattering light in your novel. Did you ever think about giving the Alters a brother?
(Laughs) It never crossed my mind. It just seemed right to have three women. I’m a little skittish about writing from the male point of view. Also, I have three brothers and I’ve always wanted sisters – maybe I just invented them for myself. Also, when Fritz Haber told his father he was going to marry Clara, his father asked if he meant the woman from the family where all the women kill themselves and drive the men to drink. Talk about in-law problems! There was this idea that the family’s destructive tendencies ran through the women.
On the first page of your novel you doom its narrators to a ‘death scheduled for 31st Dec 1999’. A few pages later, a table appears that details the deaths of every one of their ancestors, the other main characters in the novel to come, Game of Clue style: gunshot in the garden, cyanide in a men’s bathroom, etc. Did you worry about the risks of starting a novel with so many ends?
Because the book starts with the statement of the sisters’ intention to kill themselves on a specific date, I counted on readers doubting whether this would come to pass. Readers enter stories in a very active way, questioning everything they are told, knowing statements will be complicated as the plot unfolds. I was counting on readers thinking: “Ah, you’re saying they’re going to kill themselves, so I bet something different is going to happen”. I hoped that people might wonder if the characters were reliable narrators and read on to see if they were. I hoped they’d be interested in the “why”, too. Why were these sisters planning on killing themselves?
If you put the big reveal–we’re going to kill ourselves!–in your first sentence, rather than withholding that information, then you have to write to the problem (why are they suicidal?) rather than to the mystery (guess what the sisters are thinking of doing?). Rather than just writing to create a surprise, which if the reader figures out leaves you with nothing, revealing the problem right away forces the writer to investigate the internal lives of the characters and write about the truth of those lives.
One sister, Vee, is diagnosed with cancer but carries on as normal after prognosis, remarking ‘There’s nothing unusual about a person being told they’re going to die … It’s the most ordinary thing in the world.’ Is the book, in part, about how we are all doomed to death?
Yes, that is the cheerful point of my book! I am just such a fun person to be with – “Hi, how are you? Do you want some coffee? You know we’re all gonna die, right?” But that is our truth as human beings. We all know about our mortality and yet we go on. That fascinates me; it is what makes us amazing.
Albert Einstein looms large in the novel and his theories about time are referred to repeatedly – ‘The past, present, and future are all a delusion, and time is just a series of random moments played out in random order, and some of those moments feel like they happened after others, but only because those “later” moments contain the “earlier” moments’. The sisters discuss Jung’s acausal time too. Do these ideas inform the plot, concept or chronology of the novel?
Um…yes? Here’s the thing, though. I wanted desperately to understand quantum physics to help me write this book. I read books with titles like Quantum Physics For Dummies. I talked to scientists. I have a good friend who is a quantum physicist, who I repeatedly asked questions like “If time is fluid, then if I died could I step back into my life”? He kept growling at me. He kept saying, “How do I know? I haven’t died yet”. So basically, I don’t quite get any of these concepts, not fully.
What I do understand is that time is non-linear in a way that is nearly impossible for many of us to get our heads around, but there are snippets that I could grasp and are critical and important to the novel.
Jung has a theory that there aren’t coincidences; instead he describes a huge iceberg. You see an iceberg above the waterline, then miles away you see another. You think they’re unconnected, but under the water, he says, there could be miles and miles of connection. What people call coincidences are just the little tips of the icebergs we can see. That was a fascinating concept to me and a lot of the book is like that – a lot of coincidences throughout the generations and even between lives. You’re not supposed to rely on coincidences to move a plot forward, but I intentionally did so because Jung.
How did that inform the novel? Sometimes the sisters, in conversation with their dead ancestors, seem to be having a debate about what is determining their life.
At one point I had a brief conversation with one of the actual descendants of Fritz Haber, who hadn’t read the novel. She believes that the family’s history is caused by a physiological, genetic proclivity to depression and there is nothing more to it. What I was trying to do was take a less rational – less what your therapist or physician would say about what was going on with you – and more philosophical view. In the context of literature and looking at bigger issues such as the human condition, it feels like there is something more profound going on in terms of the connections among the generations of this family but also among generations of humanity.
I think asking these questions is more important than answering them – how’s that for a dodge? But, really, I do think the author’s job is to ask questions. Answers are less important. Unless you’re writing a mystery novel. But that’s not my project here.
Within the novel, there is a writing act running parallel to your own – the note written by the three sisters? Do you think that literature and writing can help us to carry on?
I think literature saves lives. In entering into other people’s worlds and getting a sense of what other people go through, what we all go through together is illuminated. We develop empathy. I get mad when people dismiss the importance of fiction as a truth-telling genre and privilege nonfiction over it. Both are very important, of course, but fiction can tell truths that nonfiction with its charge of relying on facts can’t do.
Phrases like “Someday this will be funny” run through A Reunion of Ghosts. The novel itself is hilarious. Why did you make a book largely about death so funny?
I once came across this quote from Elie Wiesel: ‘The best answer to fanaticism is a sense of humour’. Humour can topple dictators. There’s a sense of humanity in our kidding around that is stronger than anything. You cannot take away our capacity to joke. There is a strength in being silly
The novel is shot through with puns – ‘No noose is good news’, ‘don’t punish us for being punnish’ – and so on. Can you tell me about them?
I was sure I was going to be told to take the puns out. Puns are the lowest form of humour, they say, but I can’t help it – I kind of love them. Anyway, it is how my mind works. The puns just come to me. Usually I censor myself because otherwise I would just walk around making these horrible puns and eventually have no friends. In this book the punning just seemed to work with the characters. There is a scene when the sisters are talking about their father and his name and they just make pun after pun after pun about it. For a long time, I planned to delete that section entirely and then I thought, go big or go home! Puns are a celebration of language .The sisters don’t have a lot of joy but they take it where they can find it.
The Inspiration for the Book by Judith Claire Mitchell
I’d never heard of Fritz and Clara Haber until one evening in 1998, when I caught a few minutes of some TV show that happened to refer to them. Haber, the documentary’s narrator said, had been a German-Jewish chemist who won the world’s gratitude for developing nitrogen-based fertilizers and the world’s enmity for developing the first poison gases used in warfare. His wife Clara, a chemist herself and as opposed to the use of these poisons as Fritz was in favour, killed herself with his service revolver shortly after the gases were first deployed in Belgium. Her suicide, the narrator intoned, was an act of political protest.
The show moved on to some other subject. I, on the other hand, remained where I was, transfixed with this couple: the Father of Chemical Warfare and the Idealistic Wife. Just like that, I was obsessed.
It was mostly Clara who intrigued me. Even without knowing anything more about her, I knew her suicide had not been pure idealism. I could accept that her revulsion over chlorine gas played a part — even a large part — in her death. But to accept that her death had been wholly selfless and symbolic, a gesture to call attention to a terrible wrong even if that wrong was being perpetrated by her own husband, was to reduce her to some saintly woman whose existence and violent end were all in service of Fritz’s story.
Right away I wanted to write about her or at least to write about a woman based on her. I wanted to set the record straight: no one is a saint, no one’s life is a symbol or metaphor, though women especially are often treated as such. And so, even though I was busy with my first novel, I did a little research to see what I could find about Clara.
What I could find was pretty much nothing. “Her life and death were pushed aside,” complained a historian who had also been interested in her story, but came up empty.
This was initially frustrating … but then it was exciting. With barely any factual information about Clara out there, save the dates of her birth and marriage and sad death, I, a novelist, could do what the historian couldn’t: I could put flesh on the bare- bones of her story. I could imagine her life and restore her humanity. In short, I could make her the subject of my next book.
I should never use the expression “in short” when I’m talking about my writing. It took me half-a-decade to get to that next book. By then, things had changed dramatically. Others, it seemed, had also been obsessing about Clara. Now every time I searched for her online, I got more hits than the time before. Now there were articles about her by loads of historians, as well as chemists, Jewish scholars, and feminists. Sometimes the authors were all these things at once.
The ever-expanding wealth of biographical information was energizing and initially useful. I learned that Clara had been a proto-feminist whose life work was dismissed and marginalized. I learned that both suicide and alcoholism ran in her family. I learned she’d faithfully corresponded with her dissertation advisor, the sole person who wanted her to pursue chemistry. I learned about this man’s horrific death only several years before her own and wondered how that had affected her.
All of this—and there was much more—helped me see Clara for the multi- dimensional person she was. The problem was that the layers of complexity were being revealed by her assorted biographers rather than through my imagination. As I pressed on, still wishing to write about her, I had to face facts: there were too many. Facts, that is; there were too many facts. Which meant I was no longer inventing a life.
My enthusiasm for the project began to wane. When I reread my writing each morning, I could see that my prose lay moribund on the page. I understood why. Some novelists love outlines, road maps, and story boards, but others—me, for instance—prefer to grope in the dark. If I know too soon how a scene, a chapter, or even an entire novel will end, I lose interest in said scene, chapter, novel. It’s true: even in my own work, spoilers ruin the whole thing.
I was this close to abandoning the enterprise, finding something else to write about, when three suicidal sisters barged into my office and began telling me their stories.
All right—maybe not literally. But that’s what it felt like and still feels like.
This new voice—these three new voices—breathed new life into my project. The sisters also changed the nature of that project. These troubled but chatty women were not only the perfect conduit for the questions I’d been asking about their great- grandmother, but they also encouraged me to broaden my literary inquiry, to pose even more questions, the kind that could be asked and tentatively answered only by those who (like me) could look back on the entire 20th century with its relentless nationalism and destructive imperialism; its never-ending wars; its brutal genocides and other oppressions; its wearying though occasionally exhilarating liberation movements; and its scientific investigations that changed the way we regard things that once seemed so unassailable such as time or happenstance or God. The sisters were not only interested in all of that, but they also understood that their own family had been inextricably intertwined with all those transformational events.
I was no longer looking at one generation, but four. Some members of these generations were historically based. Plenty were not. My novel was no longer a roman á clef, but more a fictionalized biography of four generations of a single family. It was also a biography of the beleaguered century gone-by.
The book’s new ambitions and scope were a wee tad daunting and the subject matter more than a wee tad grim. And so I was relieved to discover that the sisters approached their examinations of such issues with humour. They were jokesters, these women (like me, I confess). They were punsters, self-deprecating cynics, and they valued the very human ability to laugh as we make our way through this Vale of Tears. They understood that laughter is a blessing, is grace itself.
So that’s how I wound up writing a funny book about suicide. The sisters told me their stories, and I transcribed them. Each story was a surprise to me, just as the sisters’ ultimate choices—life or deliberate death—were surprises to me. Would they or wouldn’t they? I constantly wondered. I learned the answer to that question only on the day that my fingers, guided by the sisters typed it.
Well, perhaps not literally. But that’s how it felt.
A funny book about suicide. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, my hope is that if readers—if you—choose to engage with the serious questions the sisters raise, you’ll be able to do it while laughing at the sisters’ jokes and groaning at their unforgivable puns. I also hope you’ll see your own life’s blessings anew. To Life! I always write when inscribing A Reunion of Ghosts to readers, and that’s how I’d like to end this note to you: To Life! To Love! To Laughter! These are what, despite everything, the Alter sisters believe in. Like me. And, I hope, like you.