Julie Orringer Wows Montreal Audience

Wednesday, 29 May 2013 12:03

Julie Orringer recently spoke to a packed audience at the Jewish public library in Montreal about the rigorous process of writing and researching her 2010 epic of love and war, The Invisible Bridge.

Orringer is the granddaughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors who fled Hungary after the revolution of 1956 and emigrated to the US. In her late twenties, Orringer stumbled upon a to her then unknown exotic detail in her grandfather's past: he had studied architecture in Paris for two years before the outbreak of war catapulted him back to Budapest. At the time of for discovery Orringer was already the acclaimed author of a collection of taut short stories. She had never expected nor desired to be a novelist. Gripped by an urgency to get the family saga on the page and to get it right, she embarked on what turned out to be a seven-year mega-project involving lots of what she called "homework."

"How does a second-generation person write a book like this," she asked rhetorically of her Montreal audience. It was a question I put to myself while reading The Invisible Bridge. I was bowled over as much by its young author's command of historical detail as her storytelling verve. In particular the sections of the book relating to her grandfather's experiences in forced labor battalions (the so-called Munkaszolgálat) have the ring of total sensory recall. Though she was born more than forty years after the events she describes, she writes like an eyewitness.

Here are some gleanings of interest to writers or aspiring writers from her talk:
"I felt I was too ignorant to ask the questions."
"I sat down with the really boring books about the war to piece together the events and the causality behind them."
• About halfway into the process, rifling through a dusty archive she came upon "the incredible revelation that people survived through humor."
• A couple of years later, she obtained an interview with Randolph Braham, the dean of experts on the subject of the Holocaust in Hungary. When she asked him some truly technical questions, the historian had wise advice for the novelist. "Don't forget you are writing a story."

And so she wrote a great story. The Invisible Bridge is one of the best books I have read in the last couple of years. You don't have to be Hungarian or Jewish to be swept away by it.