When she was 16 years old, novelist Joanna Hershon broke her jaw so severely she could not speak all summer. Until it healed, writing was her only means of communication. Since then, one of her greatest fascinations has been “the effect of trauma, of pivotal moments, on people’s lives,” she said at a Branford College Master’s Tea on Monday afternoon.
Before an audience of about 10 undergraduates, Hershon talked about her newest work, which explores the experience of Jewish-German immigrants in the American West in the years following the Civil War. She also outlined her career as a writer and read a chapter from her book, “The German Bride.”
After covering contemporary subjects in her first two novels, Hershon said she wanted to orient her third novel in history and research. But she had no idea what she wanted to write about.
Then a friend’s offhand comment seemed practically begging to be turned into a novel. “My ancestors were Jewish cowboys,” the friend told Hershon.
Hershon began exploring her friend’s family history. She discovered his great-grandmother may have committed suicide, and now the great-grandmother’s ghost was reputedly haunting a house in Santa Fe.
Intrigued, Hershon looked further. The house was located in a town where immigrant Jewish merchants formed friendships with Catholic bishops and where one such immigrant even married a Native American, becoming head of a tribe.
“There are all these wild stories,” Hershon said. “I’ve always been interested in exiles, in outsiders, in people who pop up strangely in new places.”
Yet information she found in records was sparse.
“There was almost nothing to go on, nothing written about the people themselves,” she said.
Hershon said she began to wonder why people from prosperous Jewish-German families would emigrate to Santa Fe, a city Hershon said was rife with anti-Semitism at the time. She said she thought that at least some of those who immigrated must have done so “for more rebellious or shameful reasons,” including the search for love.
“The German Bride” centers on Eva Frank, the daughter of a wealthy Berlin banker. Frank begins an affair with the impoverished, non-Jewish portrait painter her father hires, leaving behind a world of great luxury for one of private guilt. Frank and the man with whom she has an affair hold different attitudes toward Germany.
“She’s very German. He’s very excited about being American,” Hershon said of the man with whom Frank has her affair. “He’s really bombastic and kind of a terrible person, but I love him anyway.”
Hershon also spoke about her time as an aspiring actress in New York — “I felt like I had no control over my life,” she said — and of her near-accidental start as a writer.
Rejected from the Yale School of Drama, she entered Columbia’s master of fine arts program and there began work on the novel that would become “The German Bride.”
Hershon said her time as an actress shaped her writing.
“One of the simplest ways to begin writing is to put two people in a space who want opposing things,” she said. “When you do, you have drama, fictional tension. And that’s essentially what you learn when you’re acting.”