Soft-spoken yet warm and generous, Julie Orringer is an author willing to follow her characters to dark places—whether they be the forced-labor camps of World War II or the shadowy side of their own nature. But she fills her stories with hope and wonder, too: In the first half of her sweeping novel The Invisible Bridge, Andras Lévi leaves Hungary in the 1930s for Paris, where he pursues his dream of becoming an architect. As a student, he falls in love with the City of Light—and a woman with a mysterious past. Later, he and his Jewish friends must return to their homes, where they face uncertain fates. Orringer’s elegantly lean story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, centers on female protagonists bridging the distance between childhood and adulthood. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Orringer has received several awards, including two Pushcart Prizes. She and her husband, the writer Ryan Harty, live in Brooklyn with their young son.
Why: I always loved books, and I found myself paying attention to stories, I think from a pretty early age. And when you [interpret] the world that way, I think stories kind of take on a certain critical mass in your mind until it’s impossible to do anything but put them onto the page, so I suppose I write because I can’t help it.
Ideas: Each story [of the collection] had quite a different origin. Some of them just came from first lines that would kind of appear in my head and excite my curiosity, and others of them came from childhood memories that I wanted to explore and develop, and others just from feelings that I had about my mother’s illness as I was growing up that I wanted to develop in a fictional forum. [Her mother died of breast cancer after a 10-year struggle.]
The novel … was based in part on my grandfather’s experiences during the war. But then it took its own direction and departed substantially from [his] experience.
Notebooks: I had about 10 notebooks for this novel, and they’re full of research notes, character developments, development of thematic concerns—which was really not something that I spent a lot of time on with the collection until the end.
But the notebooks I found to be helpful because they were a way of turning away from the screen and allowing [me] to just kind of be freer with composition and to be kind of messy with the way I was taking notes and compiling research. But, in the end, they’re all sort of labeled and stacked, and so I know where to find things when I’m looking back.
Novels vs. short stories: I think with a novel you have to be comfortable with not knowing how the thing’s going to develop for a very long time. With a short story, there’s that wonderful sense of discovery that is the arc of which you can follow within a week or a couple of weeks. But with a novel, sometimes it’s a year or a few years before you have a sense for where the book is going to go and how it’s going to develop. So, that really took some getting used to. The strain was akin to being at sea in a very small boat and not being able to see the shore on either side.
Difficult scenes: There’s a kind of catharsis in writing those scenes. Especially with The Invisible Bridge, when I knew that there were going to be some very difficult scenes to write in the forced-labor service during the war, I felt, in a way, a kind of dread leading up to those moments. I didn’t want to have to do that to my characters. But as I’d learned enough to write those scenes, I felt like I was finally understanding something about the experience of the men who were in those forced-labor battalions. And that understanding alone felt like it was well worth the research and the time spent with the book.
Influences: With [The Invisible Bridge], I really was obsessed with the 19th-century novel. … I was reading War and Peace … and I wondered why it had taken me so long to read that book. I think I was afraid of it, because it was the book that everyone joked about as using as a door-stopper. In fact, it is the most wonderful, the most perfectly characterized, the most beautifully structured book, even though it has some later parts that are much talked about as in need of editing. I totally disagree; I love every word of the book.
Advice: Read as much as possible. Set a schedule and stick to it. Religiously write at least for three hours a day. And don’t let anybody tell you it’s not gonna happen.
Sarah C. Lange is associate editor of The Writer magazine.