Josie Sigler Sibara has received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. The draft of her first novel won the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Her most recent fiction appears in Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, and the Master’s Review. Colorado Review associate editor Esther Hayes reached out to Sibara to discuss her story “The German Woman,” which Lori Ostlund selected as the winner of the 2020 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction.
Esther Hayes: I saw Jennifer Egan give a talk once about her historical novel Manhattan Beach, and she said that one of the epiphanies she had while writing a period piece was that your research can’t just stop at the time period in which your story takes place—it also has to encapsulate the consciousnesses of the characters you are portraying. And, of course, the characters’ memories, histories, and experiences did not begin in the moment you start writing about them. This was an epiphany to me too, having never attempted to write period fiction, but it has deepened my respect for period fiction that seamlessly enters not just the setting but the consciousness of its characters—like “The German Woman” does so effectively.
I wonder if you could speak a little bit about your research process when writing period fiction. Did you discover anything about writing historical fiction that was perhaps different that you expected? What interests you in writing period fiction?
Josie Sigler Sibara: First off, warmest gratitude for saying such kind things about my work and taking the time to read it so thoroughly. I love craft talk, and these are great questions, so thank you!
I never anticipated that I would write historical fiction, so I didn’t have a lot of expectations about the process going in. Until a few years ago, most of my stories took place in Detroit, where I mostly grew up, and within my lifetime. I hadn’t even read that much historical fiction before I followed a momentary inspiration to write a novel set during the Nazi occupation of Rome. I had absolutely no idea how much research it would take to do that well. There are some problematic and uncomplicated novels that take up World War II as their fodder, and several excellent and complex ones that skillfully problematize that content. I wanted mine to fall in the second category.
Thus, I concur with Jennifer Egan’s epiphany: I had to learn a good deal about the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe to feel I could fully evoke the 20th, and sometimes even read source materials in their original languages to understand what my characters might think and feel. I am prone in general to nerding out about any topic that interests me, but it would also be fair to say that I was terrified of the demands for depth novels place on a writer and thought I could outwit that somehow with copious amounts of research.
While doing research for this novel, I kept a list of story ideas, side avenues to someday explore, though I tried to keep focused and not to touch those ideas too much. However, the evening the setting and characters of “The German Woman” first came to me, I sat up half the night writing because they so captivated me. I stopped a couple thousand words in, having realized it was not going to be short as stories go. In the intervening three years, I thought about it quite often, sometimes tinkering with that first bit; I kept gleaning tidbits I thought I could use. When I finally sat down to write/rewrite its middle and ending blaze-of-glory style because I couldn’t ignore it anymore, I didn’t have to do much research, because the world was fairly fully imagined by then.
Developing a creative approach to rendering history’s complexities compels me, as does putting the past into play with contemporary concerns without being ahistorical.
EH: I have noticed in a few of your stories—certainly in “A Man Is Not a Star” and “The Feral,” but in “The German Woman” as well—that what it means to be a man in the world is somewhat of a consistent theme. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JSS: I’m interested in exploring gender in general but especially compelled to reveal how toxic masculinity manifests in violence that is often state-sanctioned and thereby easily rationalized for many. In transformative justice and other outcomes-based justice models, trying to answer the question of why people act as they do is centered, and I use fiction to attempt to parse out why people socialized as men—white men in particular—act in the ways they do without excusing their behavior (which isn’t to say I excuse women, who, though perhaps less often called upon to directly execute violence, are certainly capable of doing so, and also benefit by aligning themselves with toxic masculinity while evading culpability). Despite Richard’s attempts to excuse himself, he knows that by not helping the woman in Heilbronn he’s made “the future evil for years to come,” knows that had an interruption not come, he probably would have become a perpetrator rather than a bystander—but the story, I hope, also troubles the distinction between the two.
I think in my stories about men, I just keep asking the question: Where are the openings for a shift in how one might respond to the call to do acts of violence?
What might be surprising is that if you told a member of my first fiction writing workshop that I write a lot about men, they would likely not believe it: when I was first writing fiction, I wrote almost exclusively female characters. Often tomboys, to be sure, which is also an exploration of masculinity, I suppose, but in which power is perhaps claimed and repurposed. In the case of this story, the subtleties of the gendered relationships could only be defamiliarized by focalizing through Richard, so all of these ideas would creep up on the reader before being reconstituted in that final scene.
EH: Something that the entire fiction staff at Colorado Review admire about “The German Woman” is the confidence in the payoff. The story is energetic and dynamic while simultaneously very patiently marching toward that heartbreaking ending. There is a real difference between surprise endings that feel like cheap tricks and surprise endings that feel retrospectively inevitable in that soul-filling short fiction way, like that in “The German Woman.” Can you speak a little about your process in writing and, perhaps, revision? It seems to me that a story that can so beautifully pull of what is, I think, the most gratifying experience of short fiction (that inevitable and surprising structure) must be crafted with a very astute intentionality.
JSS: This question made me look back through my drafts in Scrivener to see when I first realized what was going on in the cellar. For a little over two years all I had for certain was the setup: a woman, having learned of the rapes committed by Russian and American soldiers, placates a young American soldier, holding him hostage with plans to use him and his gun to save herself should worse come along. Lonely and scared, having lost her husband and a son about his age, she ends up falling for him a bit, and thus also wanting to protect him. I knew there would be some reveal, but I didn’t know exactly what.
I wrote the first pass through of the final scene in January of 2017, but it was still disconnected from the opening third. I knew it would require a huge suspension of disbelief for the reader and even if I got it right it might not work for every reader. I read two novels that winter that I think taught me how to write about the life that takes place seemingly around or aside from the violence of war. One was The Door, by Magda Szabó, and the other was The Moon and the Bonfires, by Cesare Pavese, two of my favorite writers.
When I went back to the draft, I tried to remain inquisitive, kept asking myself: How can I pull this off? How can I keep pulling this off? So there was not confidence in the strictest sense, but an ongoing juggling to keep trying to make the ending possible.
The following winter, unable to keep myself from it any longer, I wrote through the draft again, trying to make Gunnel’s actions believable in relation to the ending, but still interesting enough on their own to a reader who does not yet know that ending. Eros and pastoral beauty did some of that work, but those components also made me feel I was riding a fine line—a person has to be compelled by this as a love story for it to work, even if she knows there’s something not quite right. But she also really does have to understand there is something not quite right. One of the things I love about writing fiction is that your own brain surprises you; the goat was in paragraph one from the first draft, but it was only several years later that I realized its true importance to the story.
While I did a fair amount of research external to the story, I also did research internal to it: I wrote out whole sections that were focalized through Gunnel and the third character (no spoilers for those who’ve not yet read it). I knew I was pushing at the edges of most readers’ ability to suspend disbelief, and I wanted to make sure that I could make the narratives of those other two characters work on that edge as well, not over it. Being able to imagine what was really going on in the cellar helped me figure out what I needed to do to make that ending as credible as possible. Maybe those pieces written for research purposes will come together to make a little novel someday.
EH: You are a short story writer, poet, and novelist. How does it feel moving between these forms? Do any of these forms feel more like “home” than another? Do you see yourself continuing to work in each genre in the future?
JSS: I will probably continue to work in all of these genres. Indeed, sometimes they don’t feel that different to me. I often write what might be called hybrid pieces. I write a lot of historical fiction but also a lot of fabulist stuff. These days I end up writing long fiction more by the hours, largely because finishing those projects takes longer, but I suppose poetry still feels the most like “home”—in the sense that I sometimes get homesick for it. I have tried a bit to separate my poet’s eye from “storytelling” in my rough drafts, as writing fiction while thinking about every word has led me to turn a lot of circles. It is still hard to move on from a line I think could be better in regards to image or music.
One thing I have learned is that I will probably always work on multiple projects, even if it’s a 90-10 time split, and that my projects nourish and inform each other. I have come to accept that my path to finishing a piece may not be as direct as I might like. There were plenty of times that I believed that I might never finish this story, even though I really loved writing it. Then one day I just sat down and wrote or rewrote most of the scenes between when Richard’s fever breaks and that final scene. I’ve learned to live with that feeling of uncertainty more easily of late—as we all have had to with most things.
Esther Hayes is an MFA candidate in fiction at Colorado State University and an associate editor for Colorado Review. Her work is forthcoming in Guernica Magazine and Puerto del Sol and has been a finalist in the 2020 AWP Intro Journals Project, the 2019 Sewanee Review Fiction Contest, and the 2019 Pinch Literary Awards.