WIPs Conversation: John Guzlowski on His Work in Progress

Digital StillCameraJohn Guzlowski’s writing appears in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, The Ontario Review, Atticus Review, War Literature and the Arts and other journals both here and abroad.  His poems about his parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany appear in his book Lightning and Ashes.  His novel Road of Bones about two German lovers separated by WWII is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press. Writing of Mr. Guzlowski’s poetry, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said, “He has an astonishing ability for grasping reality.”

John, in “Village of Cold Houses,” an excerpt from your forthcoming novel Road of Bones, the Nazi soldier Hans has come to question everything he’s done and seen—and his role in mankind at its worst. “Killing was easy. Any man could kill any other man.  Any man could do it to any woman. Hans had even seen women who could do it. They had done it and gone back to stirring their laundry or breastfeeding their babies.” Since this chapter occurs towards the end of the novel, how previously did Hans’ understanding of war and the depravity of human nature evolve over the course of the narrative?

The chapter takes place late in the novel and late in the war, January of 1944. Hans has been in the war since Sept 1939 and fighting against the Russians on the Eastern Front since 1941. The novel focuses on a one-week period during which Hans realizes his inhumanity, but the story of what he has been like in the war and the depravity he has participated in comes into focus through several flashbacks.

One of the central memories is of a house he and some of his comrades had entered in the first summer of the invasion of Russia. They found an old grandmother and her daughter and her daughter’s baby. Hans and his fellow soldiers killed the grandmother and the baby and raped and killed the baby’s mother.

This is a memory he tries to escape – and can’t. The novel is about his acceptance of what he has done, the acceptance of this memory and the acceptance of his guilt.

What brings him to accepting it is a series of encounters with strangers during the week in January of 1944 the novel focuses on. They are all dying or dead or moving through a world of death. And he moves through this world with them – increasingly coming to understand the horror of what he is.

What contributes also to this realization and acceptance is the parallel plot that runs through the novel. The chapters alternate between those focused on Hans and those focused on Magda, a young widow he met on his last furlough in Berlin. He loves her and comes to know the horror that she is experiencing.

The novel’s subject matter deals with the atrocities of the war experienced by your very own relatives at the hand of the Nazis. Did that fact make it more difficult to tell the story, or have any particular influence as you developed the novel?

The novel grew out of a series of poems I wrote about the German soldiers who came to my mother’s house. They killed her mom and her sister, and they kicked her sister’s baby to death. Then they raped my mom and her other sister. My mom was then taken with the other girls from her village to a slave labor camp in Germany. She was finally liberated at the end of the war, three years later.

That’s the deep history buried in the novel. It offers a slightly fictionalized version of these events.

In the novel Hans participates in an atrocity based on what happened the day the Germans came to her house.

Did the fact Hans did these terrible things to people who resembled my people influence the book?

Yes, of course.

I started the novel because I wanted to understand what happened to my mom and her family. I wasn’t interested in the German soldiers who did these things. I was interested in understanding what happened to my mom and how it made her the person I knew as a child.

But what happened in writing the novel is what often happens in writing. You begin with an intention of going in one direction and you find yourself going another way, a related way.

The first chapter I wrote begins with the German soldier Hans coming into my grandmother’s house. What happened to my grandmother and my family, however, doesn’t happen. At least not at that point. Instead, Hans takes the first steps on his journey to his acceptance of his guilt.

I think what also influences my novel is the sense of a landscape after battle. Listening to my parents talk about the war, about their lives as slave laborers in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, about their years as refugees, I heard about a different kind of war than is usually portrayed in books and movies. Often when we watch movies and read about war, the focus is on battle, on men with guns doing things to other men with guns, but the war my parents talked about was the war as civilians and victims see it: The war as seen through the eyes of the daughter whose mother was shot in front of her, the wife whose husband is taken away to work in a concentration camp, the townspeople who watch as all the children of their village are put on army trucks and taken to Germany to be raised as Germans.

This is the truth that Hans comes to realize. The evil he’s done. The way other’s have suffered.

In some ways, writing Hans’s story was easier than writing my parents’ story. I’ve been writing poems and memoir essays about my parents for about 35 years now. It’s never easy to do this. When I write about the things that happened to them, I can often still hear the way they told me their stories, told me about family killed, friends hanged or butchered. The writing is emotional, intense, as you can imagine.

Writing about Hans gave me distance, freed me somewhat from the stories of memory and opened me to the stories of imagination. I wrote without the full weight of my parents’ suffering.

In the scene excerpted here, Hans pays particular attention to the young partisan woman who’d been hanged wearing only one heel. (“He imagined if he found her other high-heeled shoe she would thank him. No one should die with only one high heel.”) What about this woman in particular stands out to Hans? Is she emblematic of his evolving empathy in contrast to his soldier cohorts who are raping the peasant’s wife nearby?

Yes, absolutely, his response to the dead young partisan woman is emblematic of his growing empathy. She is the civilian touched fatally by war. For me, this chapter is pivotal because it brings together the world of the soldiers and the world of civilians. In the village of cold houses, he sees what he has brought into this world.

And part of this realization comes from his love for the woman Magda who is the central character in the parallel plot set in Berlin. The young partisan woman somehow evokes in Hans memories of Magda. I don’t state this directly in this scene, but I hope the reader feels it.

Have you written about this subject much before, the war and the Holocaust?

Yes. I’ve written three books of poems about my parents and their experiences in WWII: Lightning and Ashes, Third Winter of War: Buchenwald, and Language of Mules.

Both of my parents were taken to Germany to work in the concentration camps there. My dad spent almost 5 years in Buchenwald, my mom spent almost 3 years in various camps. Most of my creative writing during the last 30 years has focused on telling their story. I’ve also written and published a number of essays about their experiences. Perhaps the one I like most is “Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald” about the trunk my father built to carry the things we brought with us when we came as refugees to America. It’s been published in an anthology of immigrant memoirs by Pearson-Longman and at the website Salon.com. Here’s a link to an early version of the essay at my Lightning and Ashes blog about my parents: http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/2007/06/wooden-trunk-we-carried-with-us-from.html.

The Road of Bones will be published by Cervena Barva Press. That’s very exciting news! Can you describe for readers how it became the novel’s publisher. Also, is there currently a scheduled release date?

It was a long, hard, often discouraging process.  When I was finishing the first draft of the novel, I received a letter from a well-known literary agent.  He had seen the first chapter of the novel, a story about Hans called “The German,” when it was published in Joyce Carol Oates’ Ontario Review, and he was interested in seeing the novel.

I was ecstatic.

I sent the manuscript to him and he got back to me almost immediately.  He said the novel was moving, beautifully plotted and intense, but he felt it was unpublishable.  He said no publisher would want to take on a book like mine.  It was too grim, too disturbing, too dark.

He was right apparently. None of the agents I sent it to would represent it. So, I spent the next 4 years writing and re-writing the novel, trying to change the novel, lighten its mood somehow. The first agent had made a suggestion that I started working on. He thought the novel needed a strong female character. I introduced one, Magda, the widow Hans meets in Berlin. While sending out more query letters, I kept re-working the novel, bringing her more and more into it.

I hoped that this would help me find an agent. But it didn’t. Most of the ones I queried liked the ms. and wished me luck with it. But they still didn’t want to represent it. They said variations of what the first agent said.

Too grim, disturbing, dark.

I didn’t know what to do with my novel. I couldn’t find an agent.

Finally, one day on Facebook, I was reading a post by Gloria Mindock at the FB group New Europe Writers, and I thought, “Why don’t I just write to her and ask her if she wants to see the book?”

I sent her the ms. for “Road of Bones,” and she got back in touch about a week later and said she wanted to put it on her publication schedule.

I couldn’t believe it. I said yes.

“Road of Bones” is scheduled to come out early in 2015.

What other creative projects have you got going these days?

Where do I start?

I love writing, and these past 9 years since I’ve retired from full-time teaching have been great for me. I finished and published two books of poems about my parents (Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald). And I’ve found a publisher for my “Road of Bones.”

I have another novel I need to get published. It’s a noir-cop novel set in a working class neighborhood in the mid 1950s in Chicago. It’s called “Suitcase Charlie,” and it’s loosely based on a series of actual murders of young boys that haunted my youth as I was growing up there. The novel also deals with Holocaust survivors, veterans of WWII with what’s now called PTSD, un-penitent former Nazis, and anti-Semitism.

When I wrote it, I felt that it would be an easy sell. I actually believed that I would place it with a publisher first and that it would end up “selling” “Road of Bones.” Boy, was I wrong! There’s less interest in this novel than in “Road of Bones.” The agents are saying what they said about my first novel – too grim, disturbing, dark.

I’m about at the stage with “Suitcase Charlie” that I was with “Road of Bones” when I gave up the search for an agent and just started making direct contact with publishers. Just yesterday, I went online to find publishers who take books over the transom.

I’ve also been working on my poems and a series of memoir pieces about my parents and what it was like growing up with two survivors who sometimes were seriously disturbed. I want to start gathering them together into a book—called “Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald,” the essay I mentioned earlier.

Thanks, John. Is there anything else you’d like to share with or explain to readers?

Yes, thank you for publishing my chapter and thank you too for letting me talk about the book and the process of finding a publisher.

As I said earlier, I love writing. I especially love writing fiction. For me, it’s the perfect process. When I’m writing, I’m carried off into another world, another sense of reality, and that place is inspiring and creative and perfect. When I’m writing, I can sit for six or seven hours in a chair and spin out words and worlds, feelings and thoughts I never thought I was capable of. Writing makes me into some kind of amazing wizard. It makes me the kind of person I’ve always wanted to be. Writing works on me as I work on it. It transforms me.

What follows the writing, however, is not so good.

I hate sending out query letters and poems or short stories, and getting rejections, rejections, rejections, and sending out more query letters and submissions and getting more rejections.

The years spent writing “Road of Bones” were lovely.

The years spent trying to place it were not.

But I’m still sending out and still getting rejections, and I will probably be doing it until I die because the pleasure of writing is so real. It’s the closest I can come here to being in that moment of perfect being that will hopefully be heaven.


Read “Village of Cold Houses,” an excerpt from John Guzlowski’s forthcoming novel, Road of Bones.