The new novel emphasizes the timeliness of the historical lessons from the Holocaust
ASU English Professor Tara Ison’s ‘At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf’ Explores Identity and Ideologies
A simple sentence; two small words to represent the magnitude of a global commitment to forever oppose the atrocities of the Holocaust.
However, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day is recognized on January 27 this year, societies around the world continue to see an alarming affinity between some groups with ideologies that would appear to threaten that solemn pledge.
As many find themselves wondering how, after nearly a century of apparent progress, this could still be true, Arizona State University professor Tara Ison’s latest novel, “At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf,” may provide some answers. .
In it, the young protagonist who begins as a carefree Jewish girl goes into hiding during the German occupation of France, where she must assume the identity of a Catholic orphan girl to survive. By the end of the novel, she has turned into an anti-Semite, a fervent disciple of fascism.
Although Ison hasn’t set out to write a political book (it has taken him more than 25 years), he readily recognizes the timeliness of his themes.
The author of three revered fiction novels and a collection of short stories, Ison knows the importance of research and factual accuracy when it comes to writing impactful storytelling based in historical reality. This spring he will share this knowledge with ASU students in a research-based fiction class.
On March 2, the general public will have the chance to glean from Ison’s extensive experience when she is scheduled to give a reading from “At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf,” followed by a conversation with fellow ASU professor Devoney Looser at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix.
ASU News readers can enjoy a preview of what’s to come in the Q&A below.
Editor’s note: Answers have been slightly edited for length and clarity.
Question: How did your latest novel, “At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf” come about – I love that title, by the way – how did it come about?
Reply: I’ll tell you a short story about the title. For many, many years, I called the project “The Hidden Child Novel” in my head, but I didn’t want it to be the final title. Then, as part of my research — I don’t even know how I got there — but there’s a French idiomatic expression, “the hour between the dog and the wolf,” and it means twilight, or twilight. It’s something that someone could literally say about the time of day, but the novel is so much about psychological transformation that it felt really figuratively or psychologically significant to me.
I have been working on this book for over 25 years. After the publication of my Alcatraz novel, I was thinking about my next book. And my stepmother – who I’ve known since I was 12 and who I’m very close to – was a little girl in hiding during WWII, in Hungary, a Jewish girl. She was 5 years old. She doesn’t remember much of her experience, but she does remember that she was given a false name. She recalls that she was taught Catholic prayers and she recalls that she was told that if the police ever came, she would run away from her. And she never cry. She never cry. That’s a hard thing to expect from a 5-year-old.
And the idea of that experience absolutely captivated me. But this story is not my stepmother’s story. I decided to age my character; she was 12 when it all began. And I decided to set the book in France, because I knew a little more about French culture. And the whole point of this story is that she starts out as a kind of secular, sophisticated Jewish child. And by the end of the novel, because the stakes are so high that she has to pretend this new identity as a little Catholic orphan girl, she is kind of brainwashed into a devout Catholic and also an anti-Semitic fascist. So I was really interested in how that psychological trajectory could happen. How fragile identity is and how the pernicious power of far-right fascist ideologies can warp a human mind.
D: It’s definitely fascinating, and also very current. One review of the novel that struck me said how ‘consider that moment between dusk and night, the almost imperceptible passage into darkness, both political and personal, as it exposes the high cost of the accommodation of evil and fanaticism “.
A: I never set out to write a political book. I was interested in the psychology of the character. And then, you know, about six or seven years ago, while I was still working on the book, I was horrified to realize that some of the passages in the book, some of the things that the characters think and feel, are happening right now, are being said right now. now, they’re being implemented right now. So yeah, from that perspective, it’s unfortunately a very timely book.
Q: You’ve written a collection of essays, but your short stories are fiction, all your novels are fiction, and you also teach fiction. What do you like about the narrative genre as a medium of expression, as opposed to something like memoir or poetry?
A: Someone once said to write the book you want to read. And I think, both in the novels and short stories I’ve written, because I love reading so much, if the idea of a story, or a character, or an incident, or a setting — whatever it is — it gets to me and I’ve never read that particular story, it gets under my skin. And I have this feeling of, well, I’m going to have to write that. I think another aspect is escape. Very similar to why people read novels and short stories, I think, is the desire to escape to another world by creating it. Every story you tell, you are creating a new world and bringing new people into creation. And this is very powerful. But it’s also a liability, especially if you’re writing a story that has some connection to a real person, a real incident, a real historical moment. You have a responsibility to honor that true experience. Partly to create a sense of authenticity and likelihood, but also out of respect for the people whose world I’m trying to enter as an outsider and capture on the page.
Q: You’ve done extensive research for this latest novel, and you’ll be teaching a course on research-based fiction this spring. Tell me a little about your research process and what parts you use to inform your teaching.
A: I love doing research. I prefer to research rather than write. Because I can read other books or old magazines or newspapers, or watch a documentary or a miniseries or a movie, and I can still tell myself that I’m working on the book (laughs). But for me, the research process and the book writing process are very symbiotic; they coexist. It’s not like I do all my research and then sit down and write. Early on I do a certain amount of research to familiarize myself with the broad outlines of the world or the topic, or whatever it is, just to help me start shaping the story. But then I keep researching as I write. And there’s this thrill of discovering little moments in the story that can directly affect the lives of my characters and the choices they make, it’s amazing. So I might have a general idea of the story, the narrative, but I find myself constantly reshaping it to accommodate the research or to use the research in a way I wasn’t expecting.
So this, to me, is research on a very literal level. But I always want search to work on multiple levels. When I wrote my first novel, “(A Child out of) Alcatraz,” I had done four years of research on this topic and incorporated every single fact and figure I had learned. And my editor came back to me and he said, “You need to cut at least half of this information.” So I went back and thought, “OK, here’s my rule.” Actually, I have two rules. One: How does this quest relate personally to my character’s experience? How does it touch them in any way? And two: is there some kind of thematic, metaphorical, figurative jewel that I can hone in on this? And I got rid of everything else. Because I realized that by including everything, I was just showcasing all of my research (laughs). And it was dragging the story down, and I wasn’t writing a non-fiction history book, and it wasn’t relevant and so on.
So for me – and this affects my teaching too, because I love teaching research-based fiction – one of the goals is to learn to be selective about details. You could read an entire 350-page non-fiction book on your topic, and you could end up with just a couple of sentences that directly relate to or affect your character. But all that other reading was for naught. It still informs your understanding of this world, even if you don’t explicitly include a certain fact or figure; it is still immersing you in this other world. In a sense, this will create authenticity and likelihood. So one of the challenges is the selection of details.
The other kind of principle that I talk about a lot when I teach research-based fiction is that it’s not interesting if it’s just about information; it must be experienced. If you’re just writing about what happened when the Nazis invaded Paris, you know, this is a chapter in a history book. The fiction is about the character’s experience of the Nazi occupation of Paris. That’s what’s interesting. There is a great quote from EL Doctorow that I start the course with (research based fiction). He says: “The historian will tell you what happened. The fiction writer will tell you how it feels. And that’s just the whole theory behind research-based fiction that has been beautifully crystallized to me.
Top photo of ASU English professor Tara Ison by Charlie Leight/ASU News