7 Minutes With… Pam Jenoff

By JT Ellison

Welcome Pam Jenoff to the Tao! I’m absolutely fascinated by her books, and jealous of her covers, because the meaty stories within give the art department so much to work with! Pam and I share a publisher, so I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on her books before others, and I’m telling you, if you haven’t read her before, you’re going to love them.

We are also fellow alums from George Washington University, and she followed a path into the foreign service which I’d originally been aiming for, so I’m doubly fascinated by her life and writing. Which, of course, influences her books. Maybe she’ll pop into the comments and give us an extra answer – does life imitate art, or vice versa? Regardless, Pam’s the whole package, people, and then some. So here we go!


Set your music to shuffle and hit play. What’s the first song that comes up?

Return to Innocence by Enigma. But the truth is, I don’t work to music. Sadder truth is I have the worst musical taste on the planet – think Mandy Patinkin meets Counting Crows.

Now that we’ve set the mood, what are you working on today?

I just turned in my next book, called Summer Boys. It’s the story of Adelia, a 16 year old Italian Jewish refugee who makes her way to America in 1941 and meets an Irish family with four sons. She falls in love with the eldest just as America enters the war and when tragedy strikes, she flees her pain to wartorn London.

While my editor is reading that manuscript, I’m starting No Man’s Land, which is the story of a single mom trying to protect her homosexual son in Nazi Germany.

What’s your latest book about?

The Winter Guest is the story of twin Polish sisters, Helena and Ruth Nowak, who are struggling to raise their younger siblings in Poland during the Second World War. Things get complicated when Helena finds a wounded Jewish American paratrooper in the woods and hides him.

Where do you write, and what tools do you use?

I can write anywhere. I have written in castles and mountaintop retreats, but also in my doctor’s waiting room and in my car. I can tell you which Starbucks in my town open at 6 versus 6:30 on the weekends. But I’m most comfortable in my office where I teach. In the early stages of a book when I’m just throwing down words, I can use a notebook computer, but in later stages I need the big screen of a desktop. I take notes and brainstorm long hand.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I was a huge reader. Mary Poppins stands out, because it was so formative in my dream to go to England, which was fulfilled when I went to Cambridge. I was also big on the Betsy Tacy series, about young girls in turn of the century Minnesota.

What’s your favorite bit of writing advice?

Anne Lamott has a quote and I’m going to paraphrase here, that before kids she couldn’t write if there were dirty dishes in the sink, and after kids she could write if there was a corpse in the sink. So true. You have to let the house be messy and things go undone if you are going to preserve your precious writing time.

I also like a lot of the writing advice from Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones about silencing your inner editor and just getting the words out.

What do you do if the words aren’t flowing?

I work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. I don’t believe in writer’s block. When I was practicing law, I couldn’t simply say, “I can’t write that brief; I’m not inspired.” I just did it, and I take much the same approach to writing. That said, there are things that help: I read something at night, a book on craft or some research and take notes so that I have prompts to write from the next morning, even if I’m bleary eyed from not sleeping.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Being a good mom. But since I think we are talking about writing, I want to be remembered for handling the very difficult material surrounding World War II and the Holocaust with respect, and for making people think about that era in a way that challenges some stereotypes and conventional wisdom. I lived in Poland and became very close to the survivors and my assumptions about that part of the world were challenged; I want that to come across in my books. I call them my love songs to Jewish Europe and I hope they will be taken that way.


Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of seven novels, including The Kommandant’s Girl and The Winter Guest, as well as a short story in the anthology Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion. She is a graduate of GWU, Cambridge and Penn Law. A former diplomat with the State Department, political appointee at the Pentagon and attorney, Pam lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three small children where in addition to writing, she teaches law school.

Pam is always happy to skype with book clubs and will be touring the country extensively this year. You can find her full tour schedule at www.pamjenoff.com



Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor. Though rugged, independent Helena and pretty, gentle Ruth couldn’t be more different, they are staunch allies in protecting their family from the threats the war brings closer to their doorstep with each passing day.

Then Helena discovers an American paratrooper stranded outside their small mountain village, wounded, but alive. Risking the safety of herself and her family, she hides Sam—a Jew—but Helena’s concern for the American grows into something much deeper. Defying the perils that render a future together all but impossible, Sam and Helena make plans for the family to flee. But Helena is forced to contend with the jealousy her choices have sparked in Ruth, culminating in a singular act of betrayal that endangers them all—and setting in motion a chain of events that will reverberate across continents and decades.

Via: JT Ellison


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