After many years as a professional copywriter at magazines including Time, Fortune, Gourmet, Self and Parents, and most recently as a Creative Director in the marketing department of The New York Times, Julie decided to try her hand at more long-form work that was a bit more personal. When not busy writing in her studio, Julie spent much of her three-week residency here searching out local swimming holes to beat the heat. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two children. Learn more about her book project at Googling the Holocaust.
What are you working on during your residency?
Literary nonfiction. The working title is “Googling the Holocaust” and is most likely going to change. It’s based on my mother-in-law’s life: born in a concentration camp; cheated death multiple times both in- and out- of utero; found the American soldier who saved her life via a Google search 60 years later. It’s hard to explain succinctly.
Since this is a personal family story that took place during a significant time in history, how are you weaving historical events into your writing while not losing the personal aspect?
Good question, especially since I don’t consider myself a historian. I love to do research, though. I’ve conducted multiple interviews with my mother-in-law as well as a few other people still alive who can share details of her story. I’ve found a few documents never before made public that have been crucial to a particular part of her narrative. It’s been pretty exciting, actually, and she has since forwarded copies of those documents to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem.
So, I’m keeping the story focused on my mother-in-law and like you said, weaving the history in around her. Some of it comes through in dialogue, some in brief statements within the prose to situate the reader in a specific place and time. I’m also citing the country or city and the year at the beginning of each chapter to provide immediate context.
Your writing has mainly been for journalism and papers. Do you think your style has fluctuated in any way for this novel?
To be honest, writing someone else’s story in a linear narrative form has been tough. I’m definitely struggling with it. My professional background is copywriting. I’ve perfected the quip, the sound byte, the “say it in three words or less” style of writing (kind of like Strunk’s brilliant, “omit needless words”). When one of my friends who is also a writer asked me if I’d ever written “long,” I was both shocked and relieved. Shocked I’d been ‘outed’ and relieved to see that my struggles are real, validated. Professionally I’d been condensing and smushing words and their meanings into the smallest possible denominator, which had been expected, encouraged and rewarded throughout my career. Even before the Internet. Allotted space in newspapers and magazines are by the column inch, both for advertisers and journalists. So yes, my writing style right now is baptism by fire.
Could you describe your experience here at Byrdcliffe with any particular moments of inspiration for your work?
Byrdcliffe’s been great. My project is a personal passion and to have that validated by a revered arts institution has been life- and soul-affirming. I’ve enjoyed being away from the hustle and bustle of New York City (I live in Brooklyn) and really have been enjoying nature that comes right up to my window. I’ve met some interesting people here and feel like I’ve made some friends. I especially like that Byrdcliffe’s residents work in various mediums. There are visual artists including painters, sculptors, ceramicists, interior and graphic designers, as well as musicians, composers, and of course, writers. We’re all at different stages in our careers and I’ve enjoyed learning about others’ journeys.