There’s no sugar-coating the fact that The Commandant of Lubizec (Steerforth/Random House), a debut novel of the Holocaust by Patrick Hicks, is a heavy book. You don’t read about this era of history (or write about it) and expect a whole lot of breezy banter or lighthearted chuckles. The novel focuses on Hans-Peter Guth, the monomaniacally efficient commandant of a fictional death camp that Hicks created from an amalgam of historically documented Nazi death camps. Guth plays with his children, squabbles with his wife, ingratiates his superiors, manages his soldiers, and turns Lubizec into a murder machine where 700,000 Jews lost their lives.
We spend a lot of time with Guth—more than we’re likely to be comfortable with, as Hicks no doubt intended. Yet the most memorable characters, for me, were the ones the author spends the least amount of time with because they are, the moment they arrive in Lubizec, doomed to die within the hour. His snap-quick characterizations of those who will perish gave the novel light by honoring, in small, meticulous ways, the lives that were lost. The brilliance of the book is in the way Hicks gives shape and movement to the doomed, as if capturing their one last flicker of light before it is extinguished.
The Commandant of Lubizec is a hard book, but a necessary book. And it’s a book that forces us—in an age when so many people are forgetting the Holocaust and denying it ever happened—to look at what humanity has done to itself without turning away from our evil, from our indifference, from our stubborn hope. All three are crucial to acknowledge, and without any one of them our sense of the Holocaust is willfully incomplete. Hicks, in this unflinching look at our own darkness and the light we seek when trapped inside it, gives us all three.
Hicks is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Finding the Gossamer and This London, but (as you’ll read below) is no stranger to fiction. In addition to Lubizec, his first short story collection, The Collector of Names, will be published by Schaffner Press in early 2015. A former Visiting Fellow at Oxford, he is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College in South Dakota as well as a faculty member at the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
Steven Wingate: This novel came before the public in an unusual way: you submitted it directly to publishers without solicitation, which is supposed to be impossible in this agent-centric literary world. Can you talk about your decision and how you went about it?
Patrick Hicks: It started with a failed novel. Two or three years ago, I did have an agent and she shopped around one of my earlier works, The Missing. I’m still proud of that novel, and she got it before many of the big publishing houses, but they all said things like: “I love the beginning, but not the ending” or “the ending is great, but I hate the beginning” or “Character X is wonderful” or “I hate Character X.” I came close on a several occasions but, in the end, my agent bowed out. So I sent her The Commandant of Lubizec and asked if she would represent it. Although she immediately saw what I was doing and admired the writing, she told me she couldn’t sell a Holocaust novel. We went our separate ways, amicably, I should add, and I’m still grateful for everything she did. When I approached other agents, they all said essentially the same thing: “Great writing, great story, but I can’t sell a Holocaust novel.”
I believed in the story, though, and I knew a good home had to be out there somewhere for it. This was in January 2013, and I began to research presses. When I discovered Steerforth, they seemed like a perfect fit, so I sent off the manuscript. The fiction editor there got back to me within a few weeks and said that he was really impressed. From there it went to the publisher.
Like many other writers, I always dreamed of that moment when I’d be offered a contract for one of my novels, but I didn’t expect it to happen in a departure lounge of the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. It happened at gate G6. That probably needs some explanation. I was leading a Spring Break study abroad course to Barcelona, and while we were waiting to get on our plane, I checked my email. There it was: an offer for The Commandant of Lubizec. I just stared at it for a solid minute in total confusion. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, so I had my colleague read the email. “What does this say?” I asked him. It was only when he gave me a slug on the shoulder and yelled out “Congratulations!” that I allowed myself to believe that I’d beaten the odds. I’ve since learned that Steerforth accepts less than 1% of all the novels (agented or otherwise) that it receives.
In Lubizec you have a complex narrator who not only tells two stories (those who ran the extermination camp vs. those victimized in them) but takes on two distinct tones (intimate and elegiac vs. historically factual) that you use in both stories. What went into the creation of this narrator and its development through the writing process?
I’m pleased that readers have commented on how the narrator’s voice has lingered with them long after they’ve closed the book, and you’re absolutely right that the narrator is part history professor and part eulogizer of lost lives. This was intentional because I was hoping to educate readers about Operation Reinhard, as well as remind them that these were human beings that died, not statistics. It’s easier for us to approach the Holocaust if we think of the victims as a faceless mass moving towards the gas chambers, but they were mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandparents, teachers, friends, poets, aunts and uncles—they were just like you and me.
In a way, I was lucky from the outset because I heard the narrator’s voice very clearly in my head. I knew that he would be part historian and part memorial builder of lost lives. I also knew at an early stage that I wanted the narrator to sprinkle in footnotes and cite historical documents throughout the story. Many of the books and interviews that appear in my novel are real, so readers can follow the narrator’s trail of breadcrumbs if they want to find out more about Operation Reinhard, which I hope they do. All of this makes it read like nonfiction. It’s almost as if Lubizec were a real place. The narrator’s voice is absolutely crucial for this story, and I feel very fortunate to have heard him so clearly from the outset.
The Holocaust is obviously a sensitive subject for many, and non-Jews have been criticized for writing about it in the way that you have. Did you ever have one of those “how dare you?” moments when someone questioned your authority to write about a subject that’s not, as it were, in your DNA?
I believe we all have a responsibility to bear witness to genocide. And while the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust were overwhelming German and Jewish, respectively, it is, at its heart, a human story. It horrifies me to the marrow of my being that we are capable of doing this to each other. And, when I think of what stories I could focus on as a writer, there is no other story more important than the Holocaust. It looms over us. It haunts our understanding of what it means to be civilized and human. Even today, some seventy years after darkness swallowed up Europe, we’re still reeling from the loss of all those people. What would our present day be like if they were still among us? How can we comprehend all those millions of lives, and how can we see each one of them being dead? What would their children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have gone on to do? I’m horrorstruck that this was allowed to happen and that more wasn’t done to stop it. That should be something we all worry about. It’s not just about being Jewish or German—this affects us all, it stains us all. We need to bear witness and remember.
I should also mention that I was exposed to the Holocaust at a young age. I was nine or ten and there was a documentary on PBS. This was back in the 1970s. My parents sat on a sofa behind me and, on TV, I saw all these bodies being rolled into a ditch. I was just stunned that this had ever happened. It shocked me, and I felt compelled to learn more. As writers, we like to think we choose the stories we tell, but I’m not convinced it works that way. I think stories sometimes choose us. I feel that way about the Holocaust. Maybe that sounds too grandiose or strange? But I’ve devoted a huge chunk of my life to the study of this industrialized genocide and, in order to get the historicity correct for The Commandant of Lubizec, I did three separate research trips to Poland where I spent time in Kraków, Lublin, and Warsaw. From these cities, I spent considerable time in Auschwitz, Bełżec, Sobibór, Majdanek, and Treblinka. As I’ve said elsewhere, it is one thing to study these places from a safe academic distance but it’s quite another matter to walk their soil. All of this knowledge, and respect, and sensitivity has been poured into the novel. I hope it resonates with people. More than anything else, I hope it acts as a type remembrance and that it cracks open conversations about Operation Reinhard. If it gets people to ask questions about what happened in Poland between 1939-1945, I’ll feel like I’ve written something worthwhile.
You say in the reading group interview at the end of the book that “There is a certain psychological safety built into fiction.” But fictionists know it’s not that emotionally safe at all to write—especially when you’re exploring human darkness—because we have to get into the skins of our characters. How safe did you feel writing this? How did you keep your spirits and stamina up?
You’re absolutely right that it was not emotionally safe at all for me to write this novel. In fact, I had frequent nightmares during most of the writing process—they were incredibly vivid—and it was hard to see the death camps in person. Auschwitz and Treblinka seep into your mind, and I don’t think a person is the same after spending time in these places. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic or anything, but standing in front of the gas chambers at Auschwitz or on the train platform at Treblinka is something you never forget. Ever.
It was hard visiting these places and walking around the former ghettos, but if I wanted to write something true and morally responsible to those who died, I needed to go. All of this made the first draft very hard to write. It was difficult to swim in those waters every day. However, once the first draft was done, it got a little bit easier because I was more involved with craft and making sure everything flowed together well. The manuscript went through something like five drafts before it was finished.
I also had the good sense to realize early on that I needed another writing project to keep myself grounded and balanced, so I wrote a collection of poetry about my son, Adoptable, at the same time I was writing this novel. My wife and I couldn’t have biological children, so we adopted a beautiful little boy from South Korea. It’s such a cliché to say, but he’s the center of my whole solar system and whenever The Commandant got too much for me, I’d put it aside for a day or two and write poems about love, and hope, and wonder, and life. It was an antidote to write Adoptable at the same time I was writing about these other things. These two books have nothing in common with each other—other than the fact they were written at the same time—and I couldn’t be happier that they’re both being published in 2014. They represent a kind of yin and yang for me. Darkness and light.
Usually in the novel one works with longer character arcs. But in Lubizec you create characters who have short trajectories because they are about to be killed in the camp. How does your process of working them differ from how you work with those who have more typical arcs? It seemed to me that you felt some responsibility toward them—a need to give them some kind of completeness before they slip into history.
I did feel a sense of responsibility. A very strong sense of responsibility. In fact, the novel is dedicated to “The Unknown” as a reminder of all those souls that vanished into history and maybe didn’t have extended family outside of Europe who would remember them. That’s why I spent so long coming up with identities and foibles and desires for so many of these characters that enter Lubizec and are dead within fifty minutes. I wanted the reader to feel wounded that these souls had been taken from us. Nowhere is this more evident in a chapter called “Numbers” where, instead of treating these victims as simply numbers, which is what the Nazis did, I go to great lengths to show them as fully-embodied lives. Technically speaking, they are minor characters who only exist in the novel for a few pages, but I spent hours and hours giving them rich histories.
And in some cases, I didn’t put everything I knew about them onto the page. For example, there are two brothers, Jerzy and Jozek Blatt, who run a bookstore in Lublin, and I knew so much about them. The whole chapter could have been just about them. I did this for many other characters too. I created long histories for these so-called minor characters because I felt that if I didn’t care about them, why would the reader care about them? And although they are fictional, they help me to imagine the real victims so much better. Now, when I see photos of people getting off a train at Auschwitz, I can almost see Jerzy and Jozek Blatt at the very back, holding their suitcases and adjusting their tortoiseshell eyeglasses. I hope the reader might feel this way too.
You’re a wide-ranging writer whose books to this point have mostly been poetry. What’s the relationship of poetry to your fiction? Have you made a transition in how you identify yourself, or is the poetry still there?
It’s funny, but I’ve always considered myself a fiction writer who happens to be somewhat competent at poetry. Although I’ve been writing both genres for many years now, it’s my poetry that hit first. If you look at my poetry, though, you’ll see that they are micro-stories. Equally, my fiction has been called lyrical by some readers, and I guess that’s the influence of the poetry. I appreciate the creative sandbox these genres allow me to play in, and I’ve learned so much about how to string words together from both, but I still feel more like a writer of fiction. That’s where I’m most comfortable. Now that my first novel is out, and my first collection of short stories, The Collector of Names, will be out in February 2015, I can see myself playing in the fictionist sandbox more and more. We do get labeled though, don’t we? “Oh, that Patrick guy, he’s a poet.” Well, yes and no. I’ve been writing fiction for years and I’ve had a number of stories published in journals but, since this is my first novel, I must feel new to people.
You’re working on another historical novel right now, also set in a time of war. What’s different about this research process? (You don’t have to tell us the plot unless you really want to.) What draws you to the historical, and do you feel like you have a home in it?
That’s right. My next novel is about the American B-17 crews that fought the air war over Nazi Germany. I’ve already done some field research in England, where I visited an old air base just outside of Cambridge, and I’m hoping to return this coming summer. The second draft is finished and I’m hoping to have it ready for publication in another six months or so. Although it’s literary historical fiction, it does have an element of the supernatural in it—maybe “magic realism” is a better phrase? After writing about the Holocaust and feeling the need to get the history absolutely correct, it’s been liberating to work with a narrative that has something mysterious and inexplicable in it.
I’ve already got a sense of what my third novel will be about. I don’t want to talk too much about it because it’s still coalescing in my mind, but it will be a return to the Holocaust. I know that much. I’m going to focus on something that few people know about, and I hope to do it justice on the page. I’m hoping to get a grant and do some research in Germany over summer 2015.
To answer your question though—I got a bit sidetracked there—I feel very much at home in historical fiction. I like the research, the travel, the interviewing of people, and the challenge of bringing an era to life on the page. It also means that I’m necessarily writing about something other than myself. All of this fits my temperament and I can see myself digging down into this type of storytelling for a very long time to come.