How did you come up with the title for your book?
The title came to me fairly early in the writing process once I had established the main themes of the book. My Dad, who is the protagonist of this true story, was named Wolf for the first 11 years of his life. Days after escaping Nazi Germany, he went for his school placement interview in New York and was told by the principal that he had to change his name immediately or he would be “teased mercilessly.” He was offered the name Jacob but chose the more American sounding name “Jack.” The episode was symbolic of the issues of identity, the remainder of his life. “American Wolf” embodied that perfectly.
What is a significant way, your book has changed since the first draft?
One of the hardest aspects of writing “American Wolf” was that I was retelling my father’s story directly from his written notes. Those notes were full of details that might be of interest to us as a family but not to a general audience. The first time I wrote the book, I simply culled together my Dad’s notes into a cohesive story that was decently written, while editing out the extraneous material. But it still wasn’t a readable “book.” It needed to be converted to a character-driven story that brought the reader into the action but wasn’t fictionalized. Early on I realized the book had to make a point, too. It could not just be a Holocaust escape story or a personal history; it had to be saying something. Once I understood the theme, it also became crystal clear where to end the story. I rewrote the book many, many times. Most of it bears little resemblance to my father’s original source material. However, on occasion, I left some of the sentences exactly the way my father had written them.
Do you play music while you write – and, if so, what’s your favorite?
I love music (I happen to sing), but when I write, I prefer no distractions. I find that I “enter” my books and embody the characters, seeing and hearing them as if I am on a movie set. Sometimes I am so immersed that I forget to eat, and have no idea where I am or what time it is. Any disturbance, would break the mood. I am not a relaxed person, and when I write I feel focused and not anxious. No music required!
Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym, and why or why not?
I never considered it. Birnbaum is my married name and I had no trouble changing it, first, because no one could ever pronounce Schwersenz, and second, because I wanted to have the same name as my kids. However, I did debate whether to put MD after my name, since I am a physician. I decided my professional title had no bearing on this non-medical book.
Have you ever traveled as research for your book?
Not specifically for research. I was lucky to have already visited Berlin and other places in Germany several times; even East Germany and East Berlin before the wall came down. My father was very insistent that we should travel, and he was excited to show us (my sister and me) the country of his birth, take us to Grunewald (a forest on the outskirts of Berlin), see his old apartment building on Schillerstrasse. This spring, I went with my husband to Seville, Spain, which played a role in my father’s escape. I did add a few small details to the book after seeing Seville first-hand.
How long did it take you to write this book?
A year to finish the first draft but three years in total for all the rewrites.
If you were to write a spin-off about a side character, which would you pick?
I would love to write about my Aunt Anita, my father’s sister. It’s unfortunate that I did not have first hand, detailed knowledge about her experiences during the war which were quite different from my father’s and very dramatic. And I would like one day to write a sequel to the book, in which the main character would be me. But I guess that would be a memoir…
What characters in your book are most similar to you or to people you know?
Because this book is about my family, I guess in some ways I resemble all the characters, carrying some of everyone’s DNA – and intergenerational trauma – with me. My grandparents were a mismatched pair which was wonderful (although not so great for their marriage): My Oma was stern, hardworking and judgmental, my Opa, whimsical, impractical and funny. My father inherited both of these traits and passed them to me. Unfortunately, the “crazy” seems to have slipped in as well. I say that with great affection, of course.
“American Wolf” is your first book. Are you currently writing a second book?
I am. The book I am working on is entirely fictional, and is a thoroughly fun, edgy satire.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I mentioned that I sing…I am currently in two choruses…one is an a cappella group that sings mostly pop songs, and the other is more classical choral music. I love to read of course, and I’m in the most amazing book club with fantastic, bright, kind women from diverse backgrounds that bring so much to the group. I’ve learned to play mah jongg, and I’m not very good at it!