Over 50 participants joined Deby Thursday evening at the first 2011-12 meeting of the Congregation Beth Shalom Book Club. Deby has been the leader of the Book Club for the past 16 years, and was honored to be presented with a photo album, engraved with Pictures of the Past by Deby Eisenberg.
Authoress Deby was kind enough to grant me some time for a little Q&A; enjoy!
As the reader experiences the terrors of Nazi Germany through the story of Sarah Berger it becomes clear that a lot of effort went into the research of this history. What motivated you to pursue a novel set in this particular time of the world?
I love that you posed that question because it indicates that I have accomplished one main goal in writing the novel– that the reader could understand the terror by following and identifying with the story of one young woman. As a Jewish person, I have had a lifetime of exposure to the stories of our struggles during Hitler’s regime, but there is certainly a universality of the experience of oppressed people during times of war, and it is true throughout literature that from eras most deprived of morality, emerge a vault of stories so rich in substance that became my models. I actually developed into a avid reader after being impressed by writers such a Leon Uris, with Exodus and Mila 18, and Herman Wouk with War and Remembrance.
You may be surprised to know that my original premise for the story began as Rusty and Rachel’s story – a little boy with a strong memory of a painting and a mansion, but before I knew it, the story melded into the story of Taylor and Sarah. As a former high school English teacher, I have always valued the process of researching for a paper, and so I was naturally drawn to a story where I could incorporate research and first-hand knowledge from our travels.
A crucial piece of the story is the mystery of the Impressionist painting, one of two works by real-life French Impressionist Henri Lebasque that you created for the purpose of the story. Why did you choose the Impressionist movement – and Henri Lebasque, in particular – to help you depict the painting?
When I was choosing an artist for the painting, I wanted one that was a real Impressionist (yes, my favorite period – could you guess?), but not one that was extremely well known. Through some research I came upon Henri Lebasque – and then I made up a painting he could have done, as a true painting would have its own true provenance (by the way, my working title was Seeking Provenance). The rest was divine coincidence. When I decided to choose 1937 for the year when Taylor Woodmere could logically still go to Paris for business, it turned out that there was a World’s Fair there that year and that Lebasque was in the Fair. My original description of the painting was the second painting that Sarah saw in Berlin. On the great suggestion of editor Ann Patty, I changed the theme of the main painting to reflect the theme of the novel.
The novel highlights the lives of several intriguing characters, especially the empowering women such as Sarah Berger and Rachel Gold. Did you base any of the characters on women who’ve inspired you throughout your life?
Certainly when referring to inspiring women, Sarah is an embodiment of so many female heroes in the history of the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel.
Although I have always insisted that no one in the novel was based on anyone that I knew, just on characters that I could imagine and develop from my experience reading and researching (and living) that could be real – I did finally have to say – yes, there is a lot of me (or alternative universe me) in Rachel Gold and I never consciously set out to do that. I was a waitress for a few summers while my husband was in medical school. I did go to the University of Illinois for undergraduate work and always loved hanging around Northwestern near our hometown. (Eventually, I received my Masters from the University of Chicago, though). If I had a dream job – yes, it would have been writing for an architecture magazine – I love writing and mansions and Newport Rhode Island. So, I guess there is a lot of Deby in Rachel. Oh yes, one real person, real name – my Uncle Chal who did magic tricks when we visited him in Omaha.
You were partly inspired to write Pictures of the Past as a result of your position as the leader of a book club for many years. What do you think are the benefits of getting involved in a book club or book discussion group?
I believe there is a camaraderie of shared interests that is the substance of relationships, and so people flock to a book club for this reason. I do say this on my website, “They want to learn about people in contemporary times and in the context of history, but they also want to fall in love with a good story. When we are particularly challenged by the literature, I remind them that this is why we are in a book club. We want to expand our vision of the world and enhance our experience with language.” I have often said this line in introducing my book to Book Clubs and organization events –As a book club leader, I challenged myself to write a novel that my readers could not put down and would love to discuss. My greatest delight is that, perhaps, my mission was successful.
Your mission was most certainly successful! Pictures of the Past is truly an engaging and fascinating read…so now I have to pose the question: do you see yourself writing more novels in the future?
Absolutely. In fact, I already have written the first chapters of what may be my next novel, but the post-publication process for Pictures of the Past is very time consuming. I do look forward, however, to immersing myself, once again, in my new little world over iced tea at Panera.
I was very intrigued when presented with the opportunity to read Pictures of the Past, Deby Eisenberg’s recently published debut novel. On the surface it encompasses all of my particular interests in a book: history, romance, Impressionist art and, of course, Paris, but no more does the reader study the first pages than they realize that Pictures of the Past offers something even bigger: a striking understanding of the plight of Jewish families throughout the horrors of the Holocaust and a renewed appreciation for life in its greatest simplicity.
The novel takes us through generations of hardships, each unique to their era, beginning in modern-day Chicago where an Impressionist painting on display at the Art Institute, a treasure donated by celebrated philanthropist Taylor Woodmere, is charged as a Nazi theft. The claim takes us back to 1930s Paris, where the story of Taylor Woodmere truly begins. As he journeys to Europe on his first independent venture for the business of his forefathers we learn of the would-be fiancé he left behind, of his instantaneous connection with the city of Paris, of the Impressionist painting that captivates him and finally of his meeting with the German Sarah Berger. Their blissful romance is beautifully depicted amid the simple treasures of the German country whilst the shroud of the Nazi regime lingers threateningly in the background, inevitably proceeding to wreak havoc on Taylor and Sarah’s dream world. Together – and apart – they face the garish realities of an unjust war and Sarah takes a centric role in the center of her terrorizing quandary as a Jewish woman alone in a perilous place. Woven betwixt their tale is the story of Rachel Gold, a young girl left pregnant and abandoned by Taylor’s son, Court, in the 1960s. In her quest to secure a better life for herself and her son, Jason (aka Rusty), she travels from Chicago to New York where she pursues a life of normalcy with Aunt Ida, a Holocaust survivor and great friend. Through Ida’s connection to the life and times of Sarah Berger, and Rachel’s connection to the heroic Taylor Woodmere a bond is forged through the eras, weaving the history of one family and illuminating the tragedy of the Holocaust, a tragedy that still resonates through time and space to our world today.
Pictures of the Past is a truly remarkable creation that handles some immense topics with honesty, grace and aplomb. Deby Eisenberg combined an extensive knowledge of a particular history with truly memorable characters and a clear talent for writing, leading the reader to attest that no one else could have told the story of Taylor Woodmere, Sarah Berger, Rachel and Jason Gold and the beautiful Impressionist painting with any more polish or success. I was enthralled with Pictures of the Past, so much that I’m likely to revisit it in the future to experience the novel all over again
Oct 30, 2011
Patti rated it: 5 Stars
I am a huge fan of historical fiction, and particularly stories that involve WWII, and so when I heard about Pictures of the Past I was very eager to read it. And I must say, it did not disappoint. I was drawn in instantly and could not put it down, until, by the end, I found myself at almost 4 am unable to sleep until I finished the book. Someone HAS to make this into a movie!
Belle rated it: 5 Stars
The story encirlces this wonderful painting and enfolds with so many characters. I felt the emotion of all of them; happiness, love and certainly, fear. When Inga, Sarah’s mother, put her on the ship (for freedom) and did not get on herself and said goodbye, I had to put the book down as I could not contain by tears. Thinking of my own losses of my family (aunts, uncles, cousins) due to the Holocust certainly came to mind. The ending of Sarah and Taylor meeting at the airport after so many years brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for for your insight into people and putting it on paper. I hope you will write another book very soon.
Oct 09, 2011
Adrienne rated it: 5 Stars
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Pictures of the Past from the beginning to the end. The character development and settings were so descriptive that I easily formed pictures in my mind throughout the book and felt as if I were travelling along with the characters throughout the storyline. I am a big fan of historical fiction and I enjoy reading about the time period from pre-World War II to the present. The format of short chapters depicting the lives, feelings and experiences of the different chara…moreI thoroughly enjoyed reading Pictures of the Past from the beginning to the end. The character development and settings were so descriptive that I easily formed pictures in my mind throughout the book and felt as if I were travelling along with the characters throughout the storyline. I am a big fan of historical fiction and I enjoy reading about the time period from pre-World War II to the present. The format of short chapters depicting the lives, feelings and experiences of the different characters moving back and forth over 60 years made the reading of the book both engrossing and quick paced. I could hardly put down the book at night and couldn’t wait to pick it up to continue reading upon awakening. I was so sorry to come to the conclusion as I felt as if I had entered into the lives of many of the characters and was sad to say goodbye!
Oct 07, 2011
University of Chicago Magazine added it
Deby Eisenberg, MST’75
From the mansions of Chicago’s North Shore to the European capitals of Paris and Berlin, from pre-World War II to the present, this compelling historical fiction traces an Impressionist painting and a young love diverted by the Nazis. When a work of art he had donated to the Art Institute decades earlier is challenged as a Nazi theft, the heart-grabbing story of philanthropist Taylor Woodmere unfolds. From a world torn by the horrors of war, a love story emerges that endures through years of separation.
Oct 17, 2011
Barry Goldberg rated it: 5 Stars
This book is a too good to put down— a very fast read. Starts with complicated romances intertwined with very difficult times and events in world history and travels back and forth through the lives and more complicated romances of the future generations. Along the way, a captivating portrait of life in the late 30’s and early 40’s in America and Germany and similar times in the later part of the 20th century.
Oct 06, 2011
Robin rated it: 5 Stars
Pictures of the Past is a great first novel for the author. The story and the characters captured me from the beginning. Especially liked the way the story flowed from the past to the present.
Oct 14, 2011
Leatte Gelfeld rated it: 5 Stars
This was an amazing book that I did not want to put down. I would highly reccommend it!!