Interview by Pat Black
Interpreters by Sue Eckstein looks at the history of one family from before the Second World War to the present day, in Germany and Britain. Here, Booksquawk talks to the author about her inspiration and some of the themes of the book.
Booksquawk: Your book has war as a background theme. Although we don’t see much combat until the end, it’s quite clear that the experience of war has had a huge effect on Julia’s family. Was this intended to be a comment on conflicts which are currently going on around the world?
Sue Eckstein: War and its effect on those who were involved and those who were affected by their “inheritance” is very definitely a major theme in Interpreters. I never intended it as a comment on conflicts which are currently going on around the world and I’ve always thought of it as a novel that relates very particularly to the Second World War and to Germany and Britain in particular. But, now you’ve asked the question, I can see that to some extent the same kind of issues could possibly arise in other times, places and conflicts.
B: I found the family dynamic relating to Julia, her daughter and Max fascinating. Was this a comment on the death of the traditional family unit, or was it more of a reflection on Julia herself?
SE: I think that Julia feels that much of her family’s dysfunction is a result of its structure (though the reader knows better) and so she very consciously sets out to create a family of just her and Susanna where she feels more in control. Max, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a plan of how to create a perfect, functional family but just does it. Susanna is attracted to Max’s family’s fluidity and the space it gives her to be herself. It’s interesting that in real life, I’ve opted for some kind of hybrid – a nuclear family but almost always with other people visiting or staying… And I strongly believe it is good for children to have many significant adults in their lives as support and role models – rather than just their parents, however good and loving they may be.
B: Interpreters is striking in the way it outlines how history affects individual families, and not just populations en masse or political movements. Do you think the individual is supreme when it comes to affecting the course of families and lives, or is there part of Tolstoy’s thinking regarding War and Peace in there – that we’re all merely players on a pre-planned stage?
SE: Crikey! That’s a tricky question! I’m not so sure about the pre-planned stage thing but I do believe that whatever people do or plan, they are very much dependent on outside circumstances and events. Individuals can only plan so far – we never really know what is round the corner. I think that comes out in the novel – Julia’s mother clearly did not want to create the edgy childhood that Max and Julia experience, or the unhappy marriage – but the experiences of her past didn’t allow the happiness she imagined and hoped she could bring to her husband and future children. Likewise, Julia could only do so much to create the childhood she thought would make Susanna happy.
B: The psychoanalytical sections were by far the hardest-hitting. Did Julia understand what her mother had gone through before hearing the tapes, and were they intended to be a help in forming closer ties with her daughter?
SE: No, Julia very definitely had no idea what her mother had gone through before hearing the tapes. As far as Julia was concerned, her mother was a very ordinary but often very unhappy and secretive English mother. My feeling is that hearing the tapes in the car, and hopefully talking about them with Max, would give her a much better understanding of her mother and I think the relationship would change as the result of hearing them. Many, though not all, of the secrets and mysteries of her childhood would begin to make more sense. I imagine that (after the novel ends) Julia and her mother may well never speak about the tapes but there would be a silent, unspoken closeness…Julia would appreciate what her mother had tried to do in spite of her upbringing and experiences and also the courage it would have taken her mother to allow the tapes to be listened to in her lifetime.
B: Interpreters spans generations in one family’s lifetime. But in looking at bigger pictures, the book concentrated on very small things – relating mainly to Julia’s recollections connected with the house, and some of the objects in it. Could you talk more about the juxtaposition of big memories and small objects in Interpreters?
SE: I hadn’t consciously set out to write a novel that juxtaposes big memories and small objects but now you point it out, I think that’s exactly what I was doing! I think it takes very little to evoke a great deal. The smouldering cigarette in an onyx ashtray, the fringes on the Turkish carpet, the wooden ark made by Julia’s grandfather – all these have much greater significance beyond the things themselves. I like to leave it to the reader to make the connections and I hope that I have succeeded.
Interpreters is available now.