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Jessica Shattuck is the award-winning author of The Hazards of Good Breeding, Perfect Life, and most recently, NYT bestseller The Women in the Castle. Set at the end of World War II, The Women in the Castle tells the story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love and ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.
Jessica's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Glamour, Mother Jones, WIRED, The Believer Magazine, The Boston Globe, Open City, The Tampa Review, and The Sun, among others. She is the winner of the Frank O'Connor short story competition in 2001, and her book, The Hazards of Good Breeding was a finalist for the 2003 PEN/Winship Award, and a New York Times Notable Book. A graduate of Harvard University, she received her MFA from Columbia University.
Drawing from her in depth knowledge of history, the influences of her own family history (read her amazing NYT Op-Ed, "I Loved My Grandmother. But She was a Nazi"), and her passion for storytelling and writing makes for an unforgettable event. Jessica explores and offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history.
Jessica lives in Brookline, MA with her husband and three children.
Jessica Shattuck lives with her husband and three children in Brookline, MA.
Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Glamour, Open City, and The Tampa Review among other publications.
Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Mother Jones, Wired, The Believer Magazine, and The Boston Globe.
Her novel, The Women in the Castle is a New York Times Bestseller, and The Hazards of Good Breeding was a New York Times Notable Book, a Boston Globe best book of the year, and a finalist for the 2003 PEN/Winship Award.
In Jessica's Own Words - Behind the Book
I grew up with a sense of shame about being half-German. I was embarrassed of my mother’s German accent and was afraid my peers would be appalled if they found out I had grandparents still living in Germany.
This shame was handed down to me by my mother, who came to America in 1963 as a nineteen-year-old au pair and never moved back to Germany. In America, she received a scholarship to attend college, began a Ph.D. in political science, and met and married my father, who is American. She did not invite her parents to the wedding. They didn’t have much money and a trip across the ocean expensive, but she was also angry at them and at Germany. She was born in the ugliest time of the war, and her parents had been Nazis.
It took me nearly thirty years to be able to admit this. Like many Germans of my generation and my mother’s, I referred to my grandparents’ history—if I referred to it at all—as that of “ordinary Germans.” Yes, I could admit, my grandfather fought in the war, but only as a conscripted soldier in the Wehrmacht. But as modern research and analysis has shown, there was nothing innocent or morally exculpatory about having fought in the Wehrmacht. And, like many—if not most—members of his generation, my grandfather was, at least in the beginning, an enthusiastic Nazi. As was my grandmother.
Which is, actually, the experience of many “ordinary Germans.”
My mother died when I was fifteen, and after her death, I felt the need to learn more more about her past and to explore the question of what it meant to be German. Her stories of growing up after the war had always served as a chastening counter to my own cushy American life. She walked five kilometers to school barefoot because she had no comfortable shoes; she removed the elastics from her underwear before she washed them so they would last longer; she saw her first orange in a Quaker care package.
During college, I spent a summer in Germany interviewing my grandmother, who was a remarkably open woman. Once I began asking questions, she wanted to talk about the war. Unlike many Germans her age, including my grandfather, she did not want to sweep what had happened under the carpet. As I knew her, she was not a racist or an anti-Semite. And she wanted to explain how she had been swept up in a movement that later became synonymous with evil. She did not want to be forgiven. She wanted to be understood. This is, I think, an important and often confused distinction. And in some ways, it formed the foundation of my novel.
My grandmother’s story was not my only source of inspiration, though. One of my mother’s best friends was the daughter of a man executed for his role in the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The summer after my mother died, I accompanied this friend to her mother’s eightieth birthday party. It was a reunion of sorts for many widows and children of resisters, full of toasts and skits and reminiscing. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who had a wholly different connection to their German past: their loved ones had been heroes rather than villains.
Unlike my grandmother, these widows of resisters stood on the right side of history. They were not riven by shame. But they too had lived two lives: the one before the war and the one after. I was, and still am, fascinated by this schism. I have known for my entire adult life that I wanted to write about it.
My grandfather died in 2009, and with him many secrets. He was a difficult and intimidating figure, whom I never felt comfortable questioning. When I did ask, he would answer with scornful evasions. Even before he died, I had begun researching the Nazi youth program he led as a young man, and reading memoirs of Wehrmacht soldiers. I also read my grandmother’s account of her life and the letters and memories of several widows of resisters. The time of World War II and its aftermath ran alongside my own, a current to dip into while sitting and nursing each of my three children or waiting for their swim lessons or reading myself to sleep at night.
And the women in the castle began to present themselves to me: a fierce widow of a resister who could talk Russian soldiers out of looting her home; a beautiful, backwater bride, disappointed by her marriage; an earnest, intense woman whose early embrace of Nazism was modeled on my grandmother’s.
The Women in the Castle is as much about complicity as it is about resistance. It is a story set at the edges of the Holocaust, rather than at its darkest center-- in the gray area of everyday lives. It is also a book about the period after the war rather than the war itself, a time when the guilt of having supported Hitler—of having been complicit in the Holocaust—was driven underground and inward. And this private space of the subconscious and repressed has always been the province of novels.
I have spent the past seven years moving around in this space, considering the questions that have always obsessed me from three characters’ points of view: How did the forces of the time shape the everyday moments of people’s lives? How much did “ordinary Germans” know of what was happening in concentration camps and small Polish villages? How did some people recognize evil as it unfolded while others remained blind?
In the German language, there are two words for knowing: wissen, which is to know something truly, in a way connected with wisdom (wissenchaft), and kennen, which means to be acquainted with. If knowing exists on a gray scale, then one of its measures is the stories we tell ourselves.
Even after all these years, I am not tired of reading, thinking, and writing about this time and the stories people told, and did not tell, themselves. I still haven’t explored all its corners. I don’t know everything. I feel its conflicts and parables running beside us with a particular urgency today, crashing over contemporary questions of immigration, religion, and climate change, swirling around our political leaders, demanding: Look at me.