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Tara Ison On Finding The Emotional Logic Beneath Her Characters

by Brendan Dowling on February 23, 2023

In the stunning At The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, Tara Ison dives into the psyche of an unforgettable character, immersing the reader in the everyday lives of French citizens in World War II. When Danielle Marton’s father is killed during the early days of the German occupation, her mother flees Paris and drops Danielle off with a family in a rural village near Limoges. Here, the twelve-year-old becomes a “hidden child,” shedding her past life and adopting the persona of Marie-Jeanne, an orphan living with relatives. For the next few years, Danielle must navigate the challenges of adolescence and also her dual identity, where the slightest mistake could place her and her adoptive family’s lives in peril. As the Nazi occupation takes hold of France, the teenage Danielle/Marie-Jeanne loses hold of her original values, embracing the antisemitic ideology that is becoming increasingly more popular in her new hometown. Through it all, Ison’s masterful control of character and tone plunges the reader into the young woman’s life, as Danielle/Marie-Jeanne must confront the cost of her new beliefs. The result is a compassionate depiction of hope amid seemingly hopeless circumstances.  Critics have showered At The Hour Between Dog and Wolf with praise. In its starred review, Kirkus stated, “Ison is unflinching in her depiction of the self-inflicted corruption that replaces the character’s moral core with a twisted version of Christianity,” while Publishers Weekly called it “a chilling psychological portrait…This challenging work stands out among historical fiction of the period.” Author photo courtesy of Michael Powers.

Where did you first get the idea of writing about a character like Danielle, a “hidden child?”

The idea started with my stepmother, who was a hidden child in World War II. She was a five-year-old Jewish girl in Hungary, and in the early days of the war, her mother took her down to a farm in the countryside and left her there with a family who had agreed to take her in. She needed to present as a little Catholic orphan. They changed her name, they taught her the Catholic prayers, and they warned her, “Don’t talk to the police and don’t ever cry.” I learned that when I was about twelve-years-old, Danielle’s age when the novel starts. That just struck me as an extraordinary experience. I wanted to write a story about it, [although] I want to be clear, this not my stepmother’s story at all. I changed the age of my character to twelve, which I felt would allow me a little more complexity. I feel that age is already such a time when identity is still forming. To take an adolescent and put them into a situation where now they have to take on this other identity struck me as a really interesting psychological experience.

We see Danielle progress from a fairly sheltered and innocent adolescent in Paris to someone who fully embraces the antisemitic propaganda the government produces. What was it like writing from the perspective of an adolescent and teenage girl?

I think I tapped a little bit into my own experience as a twelve-year-old, to start with. I wanted to start Danielle as a rather sophisticated, cosmopolitan, secular, rather spoiled twelve-year-old girl who is thrown into this situation. The paradox that happens over the course of the novel is, in many ways, she becomes a better person. She becomes more generous, more giving, more loving, and more selfless as she bonds with this “adoptive” family and matures into a fourteen and fifteen-year-old under the extraordinary experiences of the war. But at the same time, the antisemitic, fascist, and extremist ideologies of the time have a really insidious influence on her still-developing psyche, especially because the stakes are so high. She really is told if she can’t inhabit this new personality as a good little Catholic orphan, everyone is going to get killed because of her. I was interested in the idea of her getting lost in this new identity, buying in to the warped psyche of the time, and—this is a cliched phrase—swallowing the Kool-Aid. France was undergoing a very similar split identity where, as this all was happening, half of France wanted to resist and created the anti-Nazi resistance. Yet the other half of France, especially in the early days of the war, went along with the Vichy idea of collaboration, that the only way we are going to survive is becoming friends with German Nazi regime and doing what they want. I think that is reflected in Danielle also, that split of identity.

In Danielle’s new village, we meet many characters who fully support, or are at least curious about, the beliefs of the Nazi party. How did you approach creating these characters?

The novel is in third person, but I really wanted us limited to what was going on in Danielle’s head and her perspective. I really wanted the reader to stay deep in her perspective. But the other characters—it was uncomfortable. I’m Jewish, but I’ve always been very privileged. I don’t feel like I’ve ever experienced anti-Semitism. It was very uncomfortable for me to get into the mindset of people who embraced this kind of ideology. I’ve always been able to stay on the outside of it. For me, the secret to it was to really get inside of the epigraph to the novel, which is the quote from Solzhenitzin, and I’m paraphrasing, “to do evil a person first has to believe they are doing good.” I had to find the emotional logic behind the characters thinking. For the characters who embraced anti-Semitic, fascist extremist ideology, I had to come at it from the perspective of why they thought that was honorable. Why did they think that was in the service of a public interest and the good? Again it was very uncomfortable to get myself to that place. I didn’t want to simply parrot the kind of propaganda that was out in the world at the time and unfortunately is rising in the world again. I didn’t want to just take the slogans, I didn’t want to just take the fascist, Anti-Semitic talking points. I wanted to really understand why these characters felt that they were doing good.

So many of the characters surprise the reader. Not only Danielle is going through these huge changes, but everyone else in the village is going through big changes as well. What went into crafting the book in terms of tracking those people’s changes through Danielle’s eyes?

I think, initially, we can take [her adoptive brother] Luke at face value. He is a fourteen, fifteen-year-old boy, an only child, and here comes this twelve-year-old intruder into his house. He has an anti-Semitic mindset. He resents, I think, both the danger he feels she is putting the family in, but he’s still a boy himself. I think he resents her taking attention away from him. [Luke’s mother] Gert is so happy to have a little girl and I think he very much resents that. I think Luke’s arc is very, very personal. Initially he so wants his parents to be proud of him. He so wants to be a grown-up man. The antisemitic fascist propaganda is a way for him to prove his manhood in his eyes, go along with what his father says, and make his father proud of him. But his core conflict happens before the novel begins. We don’t learn this for quite some time, when he met Genevieve, another little twelve-year-old girl in the village. She’s such a symbol to him of goodness, beauty, and hope. He’s so drawn to her, but now he’s in conflict. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Genevieve is a girl who he’s not supposed to be associating with. I think that his arc becomes very, very personal. I don’t think it’s initially ideological for him in the true way. I think this is true for adolescents, it’s through relationships that children—and a lot of adults—change their perspective.

You give the reader such a tactile experience of the day to day life in a French village during the war. Can you talk about your research process?

What the sunflower stalks looked like and what kind of jam they made. I have been working on this book for twenty-five years, which included obviously a massive amount of research. I was slightly familiar with France and French culture when I began because I spent a year in France as a student on a Rotary scholarship. I’ve always loved the country. I’ve always felt an affinity for France.

My research was very comprehensive. Obviously it starts with books. Also movies, documentaries, articles, so much traditional scholarly type research. I was fortunate enough to be able to make several trips to France, which gave me access to a lot of other research materials: museums, archives, monuments, libraries, bookstores. At the same time, I allowed it to be experiential, not informational. I traveled down to the area and was trying to decide where in France to set the novel. At one point, I was traveling with a friend down to Limoges. We had a car and we traveled around to some of the local villages. It felt right. It felt right geopolitically, in that it was initially part of the free zone or the unoccupied zone, but then later became occupied. It’s beautiful, for one thing, but of course all of France is very, very beautiful. I spent as much time as I could just listening to the sounds, looking at the cobblestones, smelling the air. What did the withering sunflower stalks look like? Sitting outside in a café in a small village and listening. Do I hear music? Do I hear the sound of footsteps? Do I hear someone singing? Do I hear people talking? I think those sensual details—what is my character tasting, touching, hearing, feeling—are so critical, because otherwise it’s a history book, it’s a documentary. One of my all-time favorite quotes is by E. L. Doctorow, who said. “The historian will tell you what happened, the novelist will tell you what it felt like.” That has always, as a fiction writer who loves doing research, resonated with me.

So many of the reviews have talked about how timely the novel is, especially with the rise of far-right ideologies. What was it like writing this book and then realizing so many of its themes resonate so strongly today?

When I started writing this book, I never set out to write a political book. I was interested in the psychological transformation of the character. I would work on the book, put it down for a while, work on another project, pick it up again, and then put it down. I picked it up again probably five or six years ago. I hadn’t looked at it for maybe a year or two and was shocked at how characters in  the novel are saying things that I’m hearing on the news now. [The characters were] saying things and reading articles in the newspapers that feel like virtually the same articles being published right now. It was disheartening, disturbing. At the same time, it was extra motivation to finish this book and get it out in the world, because we aren’t learning our lessons. My tools as a writer are stories. I felt extra motivated that this book and what this book was exploring—basically how to turn people into fascists—I felt that I had an obligation and a responsibility to finish this book and get it out in the world. Will it change one mind? Will it illuminate anything for anybody? I don’t know. But as a novelist, that’s what I can do. I can try.

You have a lot of moments of hope in the book. Can you talk about where you decided to end Danielle’s story?

I thought about that a lot. At one point, I thought about doing a bookend device, but I decided not to do that. I wanted to stay in the moment, but it was tricky to find the right balance. If her “epiphany” was too strong that can feel, I think, very false. To have a character suddenly become again a new person, after we have spent three hundred pages watching her transform into a certain kind of person, would have felt very false to completely change her back again. I did feel it was important to end the novel with a glimmer of light and a glimmer of hope. [I wanted to] create the feeling that this is the very first step in what is going to be a very long road for Danielle to rediscover who she is, what she believes, and what is good and what is evil. I just wanted to open the door and let in a beam of light where we know she understands that this has to be the beginning of a new identity. She’s no longer Danielle, but she also knows that she cannot continue to be Marie-Jeanne. Also, I think her awakening has a lot to do with her personal relationships. When she starts to truly understand the effects of some of her actions on people she has had an intimacy with, I think that’s a critical step towards her being able to look at things with a different perspective and come to a new understanding of how she now has to change. She doesn’t know how. She has no idea how to start a new life, to recreate herself, but she knows she has to try.

I want to believe in hope. Especially right now, in this moment, I want to believe that positive change is possible. I want to believe—again a cliché—in the goodness in people’s hearts. She’s not Anne Frank. I’ve joked a little bit that in a way she’s the anti-Anne Frank. Although now there’s some controversy about this interpretation, but Anne Frank seems to have held on to her belief in the goodness of people throughout everything she suffered. That’s not who Danielle is. She thinks that’s who she is, but she’s the opposite of that. Danielle has to learn what Anne Frank knew in her heart all along.

Finally, what role has the library played in your life?

First of all, thank you librarians for all you do. When I was a kid I was fortunate that my parents were readers and encouraged me as a reader. There was a public library a couple of miles away from my house on a main street that went from my junior high school. I could take the bus after school. I don’t know how often I did this, at least once a week. I was maybe ten, eleven, twelve-years-old. I would take the bus to my local public library and turn in the books that I had read and check out the new books. I’ll never forget the smell of that library and how that opened these other worlds and other experiences to me. I felt from a young age the library allowed me to understand that there are other people in the world, you know? And other stories and other histories and other experiences. I will forever be grateful for that. As I’ve gotten older, I purchase books when I can, but wherever I’ve lived I’ve taken out a membership to my local public library. Obviously now as a professor I have access to my university’s library system, but I’m still a member of the local community library, who finds books for me. It’s so critical, even in the age of the internet. That’s great, but there’s nothing like the smell of the library. There’s nothing like the smell of a book in your hand. I don’t think this is a luxury for people, I think it’s part of what makes us human.

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