Julie Orringer is the author of two award-winning books: The Invisible Bridge, a New York Times bestselling novel, and How to Breathe Underwater, a collection of stories. Her new novel, The Flight Portfolio, tells the story of Varian Fry, the New York journalist who went to Marseille in 1940 to save writers and artists blacklisted by the Gestapo. All her work has been published by Alfred A. Knopf, and her books have been translated into twenty languages. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Granta Book of the American Short Story and The Scribner Anthology of American Short Fiction. She is the winner of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and children, and is at work on a novel set in New Orleans.
I was fortunate enough to have the chance to interview her this spring, about her new novel, The Flight Portfolio. She shared thoughts about her research, writing process, and balancing reading and writing shorter work during the ten-year process of completing a five-hundred page novel. Orringer teaches fiction at Brooklyn College.
You’ve been working on your new novel, The Flight Portfolio, for many years; how has it changed shape over the course of drafting?
Earthworm-wise. First it had to get longer. Then, to keep moving forward, it had to get shorter.
This phenomenon probably had something to do with research—the book accreted pages as I learned more about my subject, then had to be cut back as the narrative became more focused. But I suspect it also had to do with my habit of working out ideas on the page: my own understanding of the novel’s moral complexities, the characters’ feelings about one another, and the difficulties posed by the novel’s sociopolitical context (occupied France in 1940). That working-out was necessary, but no one else really needed to read it.
As the novel developed, the segments (or, OK, chapters) not only shortened, they got denser with fact and, one hopes, with feeling. I showed pages to my editor far earlier than with my last two books; all I had at the time was a long, shaggy, oddly proportioned first draft.
My editor kindly reassured me that the heart of the book was sound. I spent the next year writing a second and third draft that incorporated what I was still learning (I was working with a twenty-seven box archive at Columbia, and coming across new books all the time), and pushed deeper into the characters’ inner experience.
How does your approach to writing short fiction differ from your approach to writing a novel as large as this one?
While I was writing this novel, I did something I haven’t done before: I cheated periodically on the longer project with a couple of short stories. And there was nothing like working on a novel and stories simultaneously to reveal how different the process was.
With the stories, a wrong turn on one page wasn’t going to lead me astray for another sixty. The prospect of being able to throw away the whole thing on a second or third draft was liberating, not terrifying. The short stories were contemporary, which meant far less research; it was like traveling with a single backpack instead of a moving van’s worth of stuff. So I moved forward faster, and with less fear. The process of writing those stories provided a couple of salutary breaks from the novel—times when I needed to let the longer narrative sit for a few weeks, at least, so I could see the problems more clearly.
And when I came back to the novel, I found myself not worrying as much about whether or not I’d have to throw stuff away. Not worrying, for hours at a time, about whether or not I was being accurate down to the historical molecule. Just writing.
Your first novel, The Invisible Bridge, involves elements of your family’s experience during the Second World War, whereas The Flight Portfolio centers on Varian Fry, a historical figure with less obvious personal significance to you. In each case, how did your emotional proximity to the material inform your writing process?
Though The Invisible Bridge started with my grandfather’s experiences, it quickly took its own path, and the character who was most closely linked to my grandfather became a person entirely of my own making. That was a relief, because I didn’t have to be faithful to a personal historical record.
That wasn’t true when it came to Varian Fry, of course. Fry’s mission—the thing that drew me to this project and kept me involved in it for some eight years—was to find two hundred writers and artists who’d fled to southern France from the occupied countries, procure passports and visas for them (many of them were paperless and/or stateless), and help them emigrate to the States.
His work faced serious challenges not only from the Vichy government and from the Gestapo, but also from the US consulate, which wasn’t keen to grant visas to hundreds of Jews and former Communists. Yet somehow, with zero prior experience and severely limited resources, Fry managed to save more than two thousand endangered artists, many of whom had pivotal roles in shaping the landscape of writing and visual art in the second half of the twentieth century. Fry wrote a memoir about his work in Marseille, and there are some excellent biographies, and those twenty-seven boxes of his letters and telegrams and photos at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia.
So why would I want to write about a real person—to be beholden to such a detailed record of a life? The answer is pretty simple: when I learned about Fry, I felt like his story had to be told. And I’m a fiction writer, so I tend to think my way into telling a story through the lens of invention.
I love the freedom it confers, and the access it allows to characters’ inner lives, historical constraints notwithstanding. I became fascinated by what couldn’t or wouldn’t have been recorded about Fry’s life at the time—i.e., the parts of his experience that would have been considered, according to the mores of 1940’s America, outré or morally damning.
I knew Fry had had relationships with men—among others, his former Harvard classmate Lincoln Kirstein, and, in Marseille, the future French diplomat Stéphane Hessel—and I wondered how his sexuality and his relationships might have affected his work. None of that would have been captured in the historical record; it had to be imagined.
I imagine the act of fictionalizing a historical figure demands an extensive amount of research; aside from learning the facts of his life, how did you prepare to give a voice to Fry?
Thanks to what Fry wrote, and what he preserved of his correspondence, I had the great advantage of being able to hear his voice in my mind: both the bluff, martini-and-cigarette-laced, often self-satirizing tone he employed in his memoir, Surrender on Demand, and the more vulnerable, frustrated, sometimes rambling voice of his letters, especially those he wrote to his wife.
I even had a glimpse of what he’d been like many years before his work in Marseille—I had a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, where his student files had recently been unsealed, allowing access to his academic records, letters from his father to the dean, his professors’ accounts of his performance, and evidence of all his addresses at Harvard. I walked the streets he would have walked to class every day. I went to his former dorm room at Gore Hall, part of what’s now Winthrop House, and saw what he would have seen when he looked out his window.
Of course I also had to go to Marseille, to smell those smells, see that light, take the tram into the countryside, visit the smaller towns he would have visited. Then there had to be a leap of faith, first on my part, and then, later, on readers’.
At one point in the novel, Fry says that he has enjoyed “perfect privilege” in his life. “American, rich, Protestant, Harvard-educated. I could walk down the street anywhere and feel, God help me, like a master.” He then says that he doesn’t know how to live “as he is,” meaning as a gay man. He seems to distinguish his privileges from his sexuality, and seems to more readily identify with the latter. I found this fascinating.
It’s not that he doesn’t see himself as American, rich, Protestant, etc.—it’s that he’s also a man who feels compelled to be emotionally and sexually involved with men. The difficulty for him, as for anyone in the middle of the last century who was what we now call LGBTQ, is to reconcile all the elements of his being—i.e., to live a life that doesn’t feel like a lie, or like some incomplete picture of the truth. In real life, this was a question Varian Fry pursued with some avidity.
He was fascinated by Alfred Kinsey’s study of sexuality, and became a participant in it; he sent Kinsey detailed accounts of his own sexual experiences, and felt reassured by Kinsey’s findings that sexual orientation might be most accurately represented as a graded scale with infinite shadings. His letters to his old Marseille friend and sometime lover Stéphane Hessel are full of mystery and frustration. He could never tell his own story in full, not publicly. The effect was that we really never knew who he was, but a novelist can speculate.
This novel spends a great deal of time with some incredible 20th century artists. Did any particular artist or work inspire your writing?
One of the great pleasures of writing this book was getting to know the work of Fry’s clients. Some of them I knew pretty well—Chagall, Arendt, Ernst—but others, like André Breton and Victor Serge, I knew only glancingly, and still others, like Franz Werfel and Lion Feuchtwanger, were entirely new to me.
At the NYPL’s Cullman Center, and at the Radcliffe Institute, I posted photographs of Fry’s artists and their work all around my workspace; I studied their faces, their clothes, their ways of holding themselves. And of course I studied their work. Chagall’s White Crucifixion has a place in the novel. Same with Wifredo Lam’s drawings, Victor Brauner’s nightmare visions, and Oscar Dominguez’s surrealist worlds. So many of Fry’s artists captured the rupturing of twentieth-century reality, the absence of safety, the unpredictability of the future. That feeling is everywhere in the book.
One of my favorite aspects of reading and writing historical fiction is how our present circumstances can provide new perspectives on past events. Does our current political situation influence your understanding of Varian’s mission to rescue artists from the Nazi regime?
It took me so long to write this novel that three different presidents have been in office since I put the first words to paper. In the Obama era, when most of the writing of this book took place, I never imagined that a culture of xenophobia, and a policy of border-closing, and an executive fantasy of wall-building, would prevail in 2019. I could never have envisioned Trump’s family separation policy, nor that he’d block foreign scholars from returning to their work at American universities.
That’s not to say that it’s ever been entirely easy to emigrate to this country. But I come from a family of immigrants, and my mother came here thanks to a clement attitude toward refugees: the US extended a blanket asylum toward all victims of the ’56 Hungarian revolution. She and her mother and sister crossed the Austrian border at midnight on Christmas Eve with the help of a guide. Then there was a Red Cross refugee center in Vienna, a train, a boat, and Ellis Island. Then Camp Kilmer, a former US Army base in Piscataway Township, NJ, which was given over entirely to Hungarian refugees from November 56 to June 57. And finally Miami, Florida, where my grandmother still lives now.
Our country has a long history of saving refugees’ lives. But it’s also experienced periods of restriction, and has espoused policies that endangered the lives of men and women whose work might have been a benefit to us all. Writing the novel and living in Trump’s America, I understood in a new way how a single person’s conviction and action can make a difference. Fry’s rescue organization still exists—it’s now called the International Rescue Committee—and you can donate to it, or volunteer your time. https://www.rescue.org/
This interview has been edited and condensed.