A Conversation with Pam Jenoff, author of Almost Home
Q: Like Jordan, you also worked for the State Department. What compelled you to take that position? Were you ever deployed on dangerous missions? Can you tell us about some of the work you did, and your travels?
A: I took the Foreign Service exam at the American Embassy in London while I was still a graduate student at Cambridge. It was something of a whim—I had always wanted to take the test, which I regarded as sort of a standardized exam for international affairs majors (I had been one as an undergrad at George Washington University), to see how I would do. To my surprise, I passed the written test. Months later, when I returned to the United States, I took the oral examination and passed that too. Having had such a wonderful experience in England, I was very eager to live abroad again. I served only one tour with the State Department in Krakow, Poland, from 1996 to 1998. It wasn’t dangerous, but it was just a few years after communism had ended in Eastern Europe—there were some hardships, like weather and pollution and lack of some consumer products, but it was an exciting time and place full of political and social change and energy. I took advantage of my time there to travel throughout the Polish countryside and some of the still developing parts of Eastern Europe.
Q: What did you enjoy most about your time at Cambridge? Were you a coxswain, as well?
A: I enjoyed almost everything about Cambridge; my two years there were among the best I’ve had so far. The thing I enjoyed most were the deep friendships I formed with many British classmates, which endure to this day, as well as the idyllic setting. I felt blessed to be there every single day. I was a coxswain for my college boat club and we were on the water six days a week. The rowing culture was a huge part of my Cambridge experience.
Q: Besides attending Cambridge and your work in the State Department, are there any other parallels between Jordan and yourself?
A: I don’t regard Jordan to be an autobiographical character. If anything, I admire her in that I think she is much tougher and cooler than me. But there is a part of me that would love to be on the open road, traveling from place to place as she does, and I think we are both influenced heavily by the places we have lived and been.
Q: Almost Home takes many twists and turns, and not everyone is who he or she seems. How far in advance did you plan the storyline? Was every surprise mapped out before you began writing? Tell us about your writing process.
A: The idea for Almost Home arose more than a decade ago when I was still living in Poland. I was traveling through Spain with a Polish friend and an American friend, and one night as we were lying awake in our hotel room, I began mapping out a story of a young woman whose boyfriend had died mysteriously years earlier at Cambridge. I didn’t know then that she was a diplomat or anything more about the plot. I put the idea aside for several years while my first two books came to fruition, but I was so glad to have the chance to finally return to it and learn the many secrets and surprises. My books tend to be character driven and the characters “tell” me the story, so I often learn many truths as I am writing.
Q: Even though Jordan says she is not religious, you included the passage about Passover. Why did you include this piece of Jordan’s background?
A: I think that “not religious” is a matter of self-perception—all of us have different relationships with religion and faith at different times in our lives. Jordan, while quite secular, has been influenced by her experiences as a Jewish woman, both from childhood and elsewhere, and reflections such as hers about Passover show that her religious and cultural background inevitably influence who she is now.
Q: World affairs play an important role in Almost Home. Did you do a lot of research on geopolitics, or did your work at the Pentagon and State Department fully prepare you? During your time there, were you aware of any similar schemes to what Jared uncovered?
A: The scheme uncovered by Jared in the book is wholly fictional and there were no parallels in my work for the government! That said, speaking as a private citizen, I think that it is easy to see in today’s geopolitical framework how the ties between government and industry could lead to such corruption. I did a lot of research into the political issues that arise in the book and then took things several steps further as creative license.
Q: How would you describe Jordan and Jared’s relationship? Why are they drawn to each other?
A: Jordan and Jared are two people who, on the surface, are an improbable couple. They don’t really like each other or seem to have much in common beyond the rowing. But beneath the surface, there are some deep and powerful similarities: their independent natures and their difficulty letting people in. I think that’s why, once they find each other, their bond is so powerful.
Q: Why did you decide to leave your work in the Foreign Service to return to law school and become an attorney?
A: I loved the Foreign Service and still think it is the finest work done by the most wonderful people in the world. At the same time, I didn’t come to that career with the same focus as some of my peers—I tried it on a whim, whereas many of the others had aspired to it for years. And once I was in diplomatic service, I realized that it meant spending most of my career overseas. While I love being abroad, I am a huge family person, and seeing my family just once a year wasn’t going to work for me. It also seemed like, as a woman, it could be quite difficult to have a family in the Foreign Service, to find a partner who was willing to relocate with you every few years and uproot the family each time, and giving up a family was not a sacrifice I was willing to make. And when I looked outside the Foreign Service, I had a master’s degree in history and not a lot of job skills that translated readily into gainful employment back home. I decided law would be the field that would offer me the most flexibility in working domestic or international, public sector or private. I also thought it would help me become a better writer. I took the LSATs in London while still living in Krakow and did well so I decided to go to law school. I happily could have done several more diplomatic tours but I had a sense that if I was going to go back to school, I should do it sooner rather than later, so I left the Foreign Service to study law.
Q: Almost Home is less historical than readers of The Diplomat’s Wife and The Kommandant’s Girl may have come to expect. Why did you decide to go in this direction and how do you think readers will react?
A: When I started seriously writing novels, I had two ideas: one for Almost Home, which was modern, and one for The Kommandant’s Girl, which was historical. I took both to my writing class, and my peers responded slightly better to The Kommandant’s Girl, so I pursued that and ultimately published that and the sequel. So it just happened that my first published book was historical, but I never set out to be a historical writer, and I try to the extent possible to avoid being defined by genre.
I think that readers of my first two, more historical, books will greatly enjoy Almost Home because it has so many of the same elements: a strong female protagonist, romance, international intrigue, and adventure, plus a compelling historical backstory. Despite the differing time period, it really is a very similar type of book.
Q: Did you leave the novel open-ended with the intention of writing a sequel? If so, what can we expect from Jordan’s next journey? Or are you working on something else?
A: I ended Almost Home at this particular spot because that’s where the story ended, and I would have been fine with leaving the open questions to the reader’s imagination. But I do think it provides fertile ground for a sequel, and that’s what I am working on presently. I think the sequel, Elegy, will provide many of the elements readers of Almost Home enjoy: more about Jordan embarking on another exciting adventure while answering the unresolved questions from the first book. But at the same time the new book will be a different sort of quest, more focused on Jordan figuring out who she is as a woman and what she wants from the future, even as she wraps up issues from the past.
A Conversation with Pam Jenoff, Author of A Hidden Affair
Q: A pivotal aspect of the plot is the use of wine during World War II. How did you discover this fascinating fact? What sort of historical research did you do for the novel?
A: I knew that I wanted the book to have a World War II back story, and some of the possible angles I considered, like Nazi gold, seemed to have been covered a lot previously in other books. I found an article on wine counterfeiting which got me started thinking about using wine generally, and then I found a fascinating book, Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, which provided lots of historical background which I used as a starting point.
Q: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy feature in the storyline of A Hidden Affair. Are you a fan of Tolkien’s novels? What are some of your favorite books and authors?
A: I adore Tolkien but I wasn’t introduced to his work until college, when someone read me the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud, and I took a course on the writings of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Some of my favorite authors presently include Tracy Chevalier, Anita Shreve, Barbara Kingsolver, Laura Lipman, and Kate Atkinson.
Q: “Despite the advances that women have made in the profession, it’s still not as easy for a female diplomat to find a partner who is willing to forgo his own career to follow her around the world as it is for her male counterparts,” you write in the novel (pg 179). Having worked for the State Department, as did Jordan, what can you tell us about some of the other challenges that women diplomats face?
A: I think women diplomats have made great strides, but they still face cultural barriers when working in countries where women are perhaps not as readily accepted in the professional world or where women’s roles in society may be more limited. But I didn’t experience these challenges firsthand – my most vexing experience as a female diplomat was once being asked out on a date, only to discover that the person who invited me really wanted to ask for a visa to America!
Q: Jordan talks about a game she played as a child, Spend A Day With Anyone. Which person would you choose to spend the day with and what would you discuss?
A: I would collectively choose my grandparents because three of the four passed away when I was very young and I didn’t get to have the time with them that I would have liked. (Seeing my son spend a ton of time with his grandparents is one of the great joys of my life.)
Q: You were a graduate student at CambridgeUniversity, a place that is significant to Jordan. What personal connections, if any, do you have to the settings in A Hidden Affair, such as Monaco, Vienna, and the GreekIslands?
A: Though I’ve never lived in the places Jordan visits in A Hidden Affair, I love writing about some of the places I’ve been. For example, I really did visit Monaco while Eurorailing, as Jordan describes, and so her reaction to the place was based partially on my own impressions. I frequently passed through Vienna while living in Eastern Europe and traveling by train to various cities. And I once made an unplanned visit to Trieste while on a solo excursion to Slovenia.
Q: A point of contention between Jordan and Aaron is their difference of opinion about the actions of the Poles during World War II. Did living and working in Poland during your tenure with the State Department inspire you to include this in the book?
A: Yes, definitely. During my years in Poland, I worked extensively on Holocaust related issues and Polish Jewish relations and those experiences, as well as living among Poles for over two years, greatly challenged many of the assumptions I’d had about Poland during World War II. I came back from Poland with a much more positive, nuanced view of the people and history and a sense that nothing was as black and white as I previously perceived. But when speaking to groups in the Untied States, I frequently come across people with more negative opinions (perhaps understandable in light of their personal history or experiences) like Aaron has in the book and they often have trouble understanding my more Jordan-like point of view.
Q: How do you successfully balance your two careers as a novelist and a lawyer? What time management secrets can you share?
A: I decided to get serious about writing a novel following the events of September 11, 2001 and the epiphany that I didn’t necessarily have forever to make my dreams come true. It wasn’t the most ideal time to take on the challenge -- I had started working as an attorney just weeks prior and had a demanding job working sixty hour weeks as an associate at a large law firm, not to mention almost a hundred thousand dollars in student loans to repay. So I devised a plan whereby I would write every morning from . It wasn’t pretty. I was tired and overwhelmed and many days as I dragged myself to the computer I had no idea what I was going to say. But a year later, I had my manuscript.
I’ve used the early morning timeframe to write for many years since. I often say that I’m tired and grumpy, meaning I go to bed early and don’t go out nights much or take on other commitments that interfere with my writing time. I’m no longer at the firm, but I still have the day job teaching law school and growing family commitments, and I still fit in the writing in the hour or two in between. It isn’t always easy or pretty and there are certainly days when I fail, but I always come back to it and that’s what has kept me in this game. I would suggest to others: Figure out when you can carve out that hour or two of writing time a day, then protect it zealously. You must pay yourself first and schedule that time or life’s commitments will run over it.
Q: What do you most enjoy about writing romantic suspense novels? Have you ever considered writing legal thrillers, given that you’re a practicing lawyer?
A: The thing I like about romantic suspense is that there are two stories going on at once, the romantic relationship between the characters and the challenges they face as part of the suspense. Putting those two elements together in a way that works is tremendously challenging and rewarding.
I think it takes me a really long time to process the life experiences that contribute to my work. My experiences in Europe over a decade ago are still the driving force behind my novels. But my legal work, which has been more recent, might someday influence my novels (in fact, the main character in my next book, The Anniversary Clock, happens to be an attorney.)
Q: When you began writing A Hidden Affair, did you know how the story would end for Jordan or did her path unfold during the writing process?
A: It unfurled as I wrote. I generally have some idea where I want the book to go, but I’m always surprised where it ultimately winds up and the twists and turns it takes along the way.
Q: What are you working on now? Will there be any future adventures for Jordan?
A: I’m wrapping up a novel called The Anniversary Clock. It’s the story of Charlotte, an attorney, who along with her ex-boyfriend’s brother Jack, gets pulled into defending an accused Nazi collaborator. The key to his guilt or innocence lies with an antique timepiece (we see the clock at various points throughout its history in twentieth century Europe) and Charlotte and Jack race to find the clock while confronting their feelings for one another. But as for another adventure for Jordan, never say never - a British newspaper recently described A Hidden Affair as the second book in a trilogy and that really got me thinking…