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Q&A with Lauren Grodstein - We Must Not Think of Ourselves



By Megan Coote


We are delighted to welcome Lauren Grodstein to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, We Must Not Think of Ourselves, released on the 28th November 2023.


On a November day in 1940, Adam Paskow becomes a prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Jews of the city are cut off from their former lives and held captive by Nazi guards to await an uncertain fate. Weeks later, he is approached by a mysterious figure with a surprising request: Would he join a secret group of archivists working to preserve the truth of what is happening inside these walls?


Adam agrees and begins taking testimonies from his students, friends, and neighbors. He learns about their childhoods and their daydreams, their passions and their fears, their desperate strategies for safety and survival. The stories form a portrait of endurance in a world where no choices are good ones.


One of the people Adam interviews is his flatmate Sala Wiskoff, who is stoic, determined, and funny—and married with two children. Over the months of their confinement, in the presence of her family, Adam and Sala fall in love. As they desperately carve out intimacy, their relationship feels both impossible and vital, their connection keeping them alive.


But when Adam discovers a possible escape from the Ghetto, he is faced with an unbearable choice: whom can he save, and at what cost ?


Inspired by the testimony-gathering project with the code name Oneg Shabbat, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Grodstein draws readers into the lives of people living on the edge. Told with immediacy and heart, We Must Not Think of Ourselves is a piercing story of love, determination, and sacrifice.



Firstly, I just wanted to say what an impactful and emotional read this was. Is We Must Not Think of Ourselves a book that you have you wanted to write for a while and what was your motivation?


Thank you so much! To be honest, this was not a book I ever intended to write. My thinking was that since other people far more equipped than me had already written about the Holocaust – what was left for me to say? What else could I add to the story? But in 2019 I stumbled onto the Emanuel Ringelblum archive with my sister during a family trip to Warsaw. It was unbelievable – this trove of documents, newspapers, paintings, diary entries – all collected by the underground archivists of the Oneg Shabbat project in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War 2. When we left the archive, I said to my sister, there are 1000 novels in that room. She said, well, you should write one of them. It took me a long time to gather the courage, but finally, during the pandemic – with little to do and time to fill – it felt like the moment was right.


The inclusion of interviews worked really well giving the reader a varied insight into different lived experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto as Adam gathers insights into the lives of his neighbours and friends both before the war began and during their time in the Ghetto. You can tell you carried out extensive research as the characters felt so real. How did you set about researching for the book?


Well, I was lucky enough to go to Warsaw three times during the writing and editing of the book, which allowed me to really see the locations in the novel, go back to the archives, double-check my facts (and thank goodness I did, since in early drafts I got more than one thing wrong!). I also read some terrific books, namely Who Will Write Our History, by Samuel Kassow, and Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, which was Emanuel Ringelblum’s own story of the Oneg Shabbat archive project. But the most helpful thing was the archive itself, which is free and available to anyone online via the website of the Jewish Historical Institute (https://www.jhi.pl/en). If this story interests you, I recommend losing yourself in the rabbit hole of the archive for an hour or two – the stories are sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, and generally mesmerizing.


Adam uses poetry to distract and bring joy to his students, even temporarily. This quote really stuck with me: ‘I also liked teaching poems because I believed poetry was where the English language really soared. It was utilitarian most of the time but somehow able to turn its simple grammar and plundered vocabulary into the finest poetry written’. I thought this was a brilliant description of the magical power of poetry and the written word. Do you read or write much poetry yourself and what inspired you to make poetry a recurring theme throughout the book?


I’ve never written poetry – I find myself intimidated by the prospect, to be honest – but I love reading it. And I think so many moments in life are poems (more than they’re essays, novels, or even short stories, you know?) Your daughter manages to land a back flip? A poem. The cat curled up on your lap? A poem. The last peach of summer? A poem. So, I think a lot about poetry and read a lot of it. But no, I don’t write it.


I could never be certain how Adam’s story would end. Did you have his ending planned from the start or is this something that you figured out whilst you were in the process of writing?


I think I figured it out pretty early on. I knew – and this isn’t a spoiler, I hope– that he would have to survive since he’s telling his story in the first person past tense. So that implies that he’s telling us this tale from a future in which he’s alive. But how he would survive, and who he would take with him – that came to me more slowly. I think I figured it out about halfway through the first draft, and then I kept crossing my fingers that it would work (I never really know if a plot will work until I see it on the page).


The subject matter is of course very heavy from start to finish, particularly because it is based on real experiences. How do you ensure that you look after yourself when writing such an emotional book?


That’s such a kind question! I’ve been thinking about how to answer, and, while it might seem corny, I think it’s just that I really do love to write. I find it energizing. Even when I’m writing something heartbreaking, even when I’m writing something challenging or difficult – Like, when I was in college, I used to save my creative writing homework for after I was done with the hard stuff, the science, the medieval lit. Then I could finally dive into my own work. I still feel that way about writing fiction: I do the dishes, walk the dog, and then I’m allowed to write for a little while. So, I guess writing itself is a way of looking after myself. I just enjoy the immersive quality of it. I enjoy the escape.


Your book genres are so varied. Is historical fiction a genre you hope to revisit in the future?


Maybe, if I come across a story that really grabs me. But right now I’m working on a novel set in contemporary Tbilisi, Georgia. It’s hard to know where I’ll head next!


And lastly what is your current or most recent read and have you got any authors who particularly inspired you, particularly when writing We Must Not Think of Ourselves?


I just finished Long Bright River by Liz Moore, which is a police procedural set in Philadelphia. It’s about family and drug addiction and corruption and loneliness – and despite that, it’s somehow a heartening read. And the writers that inspired me while I was writing We Must Not Think of Ourselves are the ones that so often move me to write – Kazuo Ishiguro, Jane Gardam, Yiyun Li. Their books don’t necessarily have much to do with World War 2 (although sometimes they do), but their characterizations, their gorgeous sentences, and the way they create fully formed worlds are constant sources of inspiration to me.



Lauren Grodstein is the author of five novels, including the Read with Jenna selection We Must Not Think of Ourselves, New York Times bestseller A Friend of the Family and the Washington Post Book of the Year The Explanation for Everything.



Lauren’s work has been translated into French, Turkish, German, Hebrew, and other languages, and her essays and reviews have been widely published. She teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in New Jersey with her husband and children.


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