Searching for Justice in Literature

Searching for Justice in LiteratureIf you counted the number of people in prison in Texas for drug possession, you would have a population roughly the size of the student body at Texas State University. If you included other non-violent offenders, this number spikes to over 100,000, much larger than the population of San Marcos. Numbers like these suggest that crime, justice, and prison reform should rank high on topics of discussion in our classrooms. The university’s Common Experience is a way to explore these issues.

Each year, the university selects a theme as its yearlong initiative to cultivate a common intellectual conversation. Designed to enhance student participation and foster a sense of community, the Common Experience brings students together to read and engage with books and other works of art, to listen to visiting speakers, and to engage in classroom discussions in order to explore issues in our society. This year, the Common Experience theme highlights issues such as racial disparity in sentencing and the war on drugs, among other problems in our justice system.

Professor Steve Wilson’s graduate course, “Literature and the Criminal Mind,” provides a model for tackling similar issues in this year’s Common Experience. Professor Wilson’s course offers students the opportunity to read literature through the lens of criminal narrators and their experiences in the justice system. As the course description on his course syllabus suggests, “The goal is to explore the various ways in which texts portray the criminal mind.” While reading novels such as Junky by William S. Burroughs and Pimp by Iceberg Slim, students examine topics such as guilt, psychology and crime, social attitudes toward crime and criminals, redemption, “fugitive” language (as Burroughs phrases it) and punishment.

Class discussion - 1

To get an understanding of how this course relates to this year’s Common Experience theme, I visited one of their discussions. On a muggy October night in Flowers Hall, the students explored ways that literature can bridge the gap between “criminals” and society.

“People are capable of incredible empathy, and literature helps us connect with each other,” Patrick Funderburg said. As the students’ discussion demonstrated, reading texts sympathetic to people unlike them forced them to wrestle with conceptions of right and wrong. This invariably led to questions of justice and fairness in the criminal system. “Criminals can absolutely become a victim of the justice system,” said Eden Jasuta, turning the discussion toward systemic inequalities of racial bias that occurs in all stages of the penal system. But when asked if these texts offer solutions, John McClellan shook his head: “The best literature doesn’t answer questions; it asks them,” he argued.

As the Common Theme and students in Professor Wilson’s class illustrate, it’s one thing to identify the problem, but it’s another thing entirely to find solutions. While the humanizing power of literature can help readers develop a more complex understanding of criminals, a compelling narrative still can’t solve the primary focus of this year’s Common Experience theme: the problem of mass incarceration in America. But as this student-led discussion suggests, complicating one’s conception of what it takes to commit a crime can go a long way in overturning previously held biases and prejudices. This suggests that a first step in addressing our overcrowded prisons is to read stories about the people inside, and read them not as outsiders, but as the criminals themselves see it.

Class discussion 2

To illustrate this idea, Katharine Kistler used the example of a drug addict. “People say drug addiction is the addict’s choice, but it’s more complicated,” she said while reflecting on Junky, Burroughs’s fictionalized account of using and peddling heroin in the 1950s and its similarity to the War on Drugs. Lisa Magnusson agreed with her, adding, “People get out of prison and go right back out to scratch that itch.”

Unfortunately, the numbers support this claim. Possession and drug-related charges are one of the more common ways people end up with a felony. Compounding the problem, a majority of prisoners suffer from some form of substance abuse, but only 11% receive treatment while incarcerated, according to the Center on Addiction.

In addition to addiction and justice, the class and the Common Experience explore what happens after the offender has paid their debt to society. Regardless of the nature of the crime, a felony conviction will remain on a person’s record forever. With today’s availability of Internet databases, employers can dig into every candidate’s background and often pass on those with a record. This action can hamper the ex-convict’s search for housing and government benefits such as food stamps. As Tyler Newlin argued, “A felony nowadays is a life sentence.”

While these students may not ever have answers to the questions this year’s Common Theme asks them to consider, the number of people in prison for drug possession proves that the need for critically thinking students grows in relation to the prison population. One day, these students might have power to change the system. Ultimately, the idea that having difficult conversations may empower them to improve the world is an idea that lies at the heart of our democracy, and it’s the goal of a humanities education.


–Gloria Russell, English major

National Endowment for the Arts announces FY 2018 Creative Writing Fellows, Assistant Professor Jennifer duBois among 36 recipients nationwide

Jennifer duBoisSan Marcos, TX—The National Endowment for the Arts announced that Assistant Professor Jennifer duBois is one of 36 writers who will receive an FY 2018 Creative Writing Fellowship of $25,000.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to provide crucial funding to support these writers in their creative endeavors and to continue expanding the range of ideas and viewpoints available to readers,” said Amy Stolls, NEA director of literature.

Jennifer duBois was selected from nearly 1,700 eligible applicants. Through its Creative Writing Fellowships, the NEA gives writers the freedom to create, revise, conduct research, and connect with readers. Applications are reviewed by a panel through an anonymous process and are judged solely on the artistic excellence of the work sample provided. Fellowships alternate between poetry and prose each year and this year’s fellowships are to support prose—works of fiction and creative nonfiction. The full list of FY 2018 Creative Writing Fellows is available here.

Jennifer duBois is the recipient of a 2013 Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2012 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 award. Her debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was the winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction and the Northern California Book Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize for Debut Fiction. Her second novel, Cartwheel, was the winner of the Housatonic Book Award for fiction and was a finalist for a New York Public Library Young Lions Award. Jennifer earned a B.A. in political science and philosophy from Tufts University and an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before completing a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, The Missouri Review, Salon, The Kenyon Review, Cosmopolitan, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and has been anthologized in Imaginary Oklahoma, Byliner Originals’ Esquire Four and Narrative 4’s How To Be A Man project. A native of western Massachusetts, Jennifer currently teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.

Since 1967, the NEA has awarded more than 3,400 Creative Writing Fellowships worth $46 million. Many American recipients of the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and Fiction were recipients of NEA fellowships early in their careers.

University of Lomé Receives English Department’s Book Donation

If a student at Texas State University wants to conduct research for an essay on Emily Dickinson, he or she might simply go to the library and check out a book. In contrast, a student at the University of Lomé could find few books on this and many other subjects in English literature, and the books available often had missing pages. Imagine turning to an important section, one necessary for your research, only to discover that the paragraph you need has been ripped out. “It was very difficult for students to write their dissertations for American literature,” said Dr. Komi Begedou.

Since the University of Lomé, Dr. Begedou’s home institution, lacked the resources and opportunities he was seeking, he applied for and was accepted into the competitive Fulbright Scholarship Program. Founded in 1946, the Fulbright Scholarship Program sponsors U.S. and foreign students and teachers in a diverse exchange program in an effort to facilitate greater understanding between cultures. Dr. Begedou came to Texas State University in 2014 to work with the faculty in the English Department in order to further his knowledge of American literature and culture.

“The people at Texas State were very kind and supportive,” Dr. Begedou said, but he was also impressed with the access to critical resources for students and faculty at Texas State.

One afternoon, while studying with Professor Dr. Elvin Holt, Begedou described Lomé’s lack of resources. As Dr. Komi’s faculty advisors, Dr. Holt, along with Professor Steve Wilson, the former Campus Representative for the Fulbright program, felt compelled to help their colleague, so they decided to enlist the help of Sigma Tau Delta to arrange for a book drive. Sigma Tau Delta accepted donations from professors and students from 2014-2015, amassing more than six hundred books, which ranged from fiction to poetry to plays, as well as works of criticism and scholarship, written by a wide selection of English-speaking authors. After the collection, the books needed cataloguing and sorting, so that “the right genres ended up with the folks that needed them,” Laura Ellis-Lai, Senior Lecturer and Faculty Sponsor of Sigma Tau Delta, wrote in an email.

The University of Lomé lies just miles from the Pacific Ocean in the French-speaking West African country of Togo and enrolls about 40,000 students, similar to Texas State’s matriculation size. On Feb. 7, 2017, the University of Lomé finished the construction of their main library and held a reception to celebrate their expanded collection of resources. Although no representatives from Texas State University were able to attend the ceremony, the U.S. Ambassador to Togo, David Gilmour, presented the books on behalf of Texas State.

Dr. Begedou is confident that this collection will also enable his students at the University of Lomé an opportunity to enhance their knowledge of English and American literature. “It’s a great relief for students to know that when they go to the library, they can see books in American literature,” Dr. Begedou said. “Students can use them to aid their research for their dissertations.”

While these books have helped Togolese students, their university still needs additional resources. Students could benefit from more books and from visiting faculty from Texas State, even on two or three-week exchanges, Dr. Begedou said. Additionally, many of the professors at the University of Lomé have never traveled abroad, and so, “they are teaching something that they have not experienced,” Dr. Begedou said. He also suggests that students in Togo studying American literature might benefit from a study abroad at Texas State to learn American culture firsthand. He also envisions how this could help students improve their English, give them access to experienced faculty and extensive resources, and gain a global perspective by talking to the diverse people at Texas State.

Texas State University and the University of Lomé built a relationship that might lead to more collaboration in the future. Dr. Holt writes that he would like to “cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with the University of Lomé that extends beyond providing books.”

Whatever an enduring relationship with the University of Lomé might entail, it will certainly involve participation from organizations like Sigma Tau Delta, faculty, and any student with unwanted books. Anyone who donates a book makes a significant impact in improving the education of another student in Togo and deepens the lasting positive impact of Texas State University on other parts of the world. As English Department Chair Dr. Dan Lochman writes: “There are unlimited opportunities to help, but we have to be willing to contribute the time and have the will to do so.”

by Gloria Russell, English major

Irish Consulate Reception

Irish Consulate ReceptionOn October 28, The Austin office of the Irish Consulate hosted students from the 2016 Texas State in Ireland program for a reception and conversation on their five-week stay in Ireland this past summer. Consul General Adrian Farrell encouraged the students to share their impressions of Ireland, noting the growing cooperation between the Republic of Ireland and the Austin area, as well as the long history of the Irish in Texas and the southwest. Consul Farrell and the students were joined at the reception by Dr. Ryan Buck, Texas State’s Assistant Vice President for International Affairs. The Texas State in Ireland program, directed by English Department faculty members Nancy and Steve Wilson, has taken Texas State students to Cork, Ireland each summer since 1999, allowing more than 300 of them to explore a vibrant country that was home to the ancestors of millions of Americans. While in Ireland, the students from the 2016 program visited such cultural sites as Dublin; medieval Ross Castle, in Killarney; 10th-century Celtic settlements on the Dingle Peninsula; Gougane Barra Forest Park, in the Shehy Mountains of County Cork; and Great Blasket Island, a rugged outpost off the western coast. They also earned six hours of credit for completing advanced English courses in Travel Writing and Irish Literature. Steve Wilson noted at the reception that the program offers students the opportunity to be much more than travelers. They are encouraged to investigate the country and its people, discovering common ground with the Irish but also the important ways peoples of different cultures interact with and understand their world.

Learn more about studying English abroad in Ireland

WeTeach_CS Grant Announcement

Dr. Aimee Roundtree

Associate Professor Dr. Aimee Kendall Roundtree has won a teaching grant from WeTeach_CS to fund a $100,000 project, “Coding Across the Disciplines,” that will teach computer programming skills to middle and high school teachers from all disciplines. Along with Dr. Hunter Close (Physics), Dr. Kristina Collins (Education), Dr. Grayson Lawrence (Art and Design), and Dr. Ziliang Zong (Computer Science), the project aims to expose teachers to new programming concepts and computational thinking skills, that, as Dr. Roundtree says, will enable “Texas high school students to have points of contact with programming in addition to computer science classes.”

More than ever in the digital age, coding and programming are integral to art, design, digital media, applied and theoretical sciences, and many other disciplines. However, according to WeTeach_CS “only 2% of Texas high school graduates have taken a computer science class, despite the fact that computer skills are integral to most industries and fields.” The goal of “Coding Across the Disciplines” is to provide teachers with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) lesson plans and teaching materials for immediate integration of programming lessons into their own curricula and classrooms.

Dr. Roundtree will serve as project manager, and in addition to teaching, designing and distributing materials, and many other responsibilities, she will be gathering usability feedback for an app that Dr. Close and his graduate students designed. The app teaches Python, a general-purpose programming language that focuses on clear and easy-to-read codes. By using and Trinket, according to Dr. Roundtree, “the app will use blocks as visual code editors to teach students fundamental programming skills like variables, logical expressions, loops, as well as create visual simulations by assembling and linking blocks in proper order.” Like any graphic user interface, the code is written underneath as the blocks are being assembled. The app resembles Scratch or, two other very simple visual code editors used to teach kids programming.

The program will run from January 16 to August 15, 2017. In that time, the teachers will complete 60 contact hours of training—36 offered by WeTeach, EdX, and other vendors, and 24 hours at multidisciplinary workshops that Texas State University will host, tentatively scheduled for mid-June. Further, the project will offer teachers flexibility to manage their learning schedules and will allow course substitutions through places like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX. Additionally, Dr. Roundtree and her team “hope to recruit teachers in underserved, impoverished, and minority student populations in communities in Hays, Guadalupe, Caldwell, Comal, and other counties along the I35 corridor.”

As a technical and scientific communication researcher, Dr. Roundtree looks forward to observing “how scientific visuals are learned and taught, as well as how professional teachers from different disciplines acquire technical expertise.” This will help to sharpen her own coding skills for teaching Digital Media and Theory courses at Texas State.

The department invites fellow Texas State faculty and staff to spread the word about this exciting opportunity to the middle and high school teachers and administrators in their own networks. Please contact Dr. Roundtree at for more information.

Department News: Two Lecturers on Their First Books

Into That Good Night by Levis Keltner

In Keltner’s book, a group of junior-high misfits set out to find a girl who died in the woods, a setting not far from the mysterious forest of Keltner’s own childhood. The kids are united by their fascination with the girl who died and by collectively facing the horror of death. They embark on a coming-of-age journey full of love, murder, and moral dilemmas. Into That Good Night is set for release in early 2018 through Skyhorse Publishing.

Cities of Men by William Jensen

Jensen’s novel, released in May 2017 by Turner Publishing, follows a twelve-year-old boy and his father who find that the boy’s mother has gone missing. Their family dynamic is far from healthy, but together they take a road trip through Southwest America and Mexico to find the woman with whom they both share a connection.

Unlike most careers, writers face rejection regularly. Accepting this reality can lead to vulnerability, frustration, and the temptation to quit, but William Jensen and Levis Keltner—lecturers in the English Department with first books out or forthcoming this year—prove, as Jensen says, that being a writer “really is about patience and hard work.”

Both writers attribute their success to the determination and the discipline required of writers working to bring their first books into the world. William Jensen’s novel, Cities of Men, took five years of waking up in the morning, following the twists and turns of the novel’s plot and focusing on the littlest details. Testing his resolve, Keltner faced a disheartening first year in the MFA program. His big idea for a book was getting negative feedback, and he had reached a point of personal crisis. He spent the following summer writing about anything and everything, trying to break out of his literary rut. The following semester, Keltner became close with Tim O’Brien after taking his fiction workshop. O’Brien liked Keltner’s new work and gave him the encouragement he needed to move forward. “Without taking that class,” Keltner admits, “I don’t know if I would’ve stuck with [writing].” This positive reinforcement helped him finish his first novel, Into That Good Night, set for release in 2018.

While these authors share the same commitment to their work, they took a different path to reach this point in their careers. Before he decided to pursue writing, Jensen worked many odd jobs, including landscaping and dishwashing. Like Keltner, Jensen came to Texas State with a desire to study with Tim O’Brien, the National Book Award winner of The Things They Carried. O’Brien, Jensen says, demonstrated that “showing up is ninety percent of success.” In addition to simply showing up, O’Brien also confirmed that writers already have a wealth of material from their backgrounds to draw on for their stories. Having spent his life between California, Arizona, and Texas, Jensen has an intimate relationship with the Southwest, and he uses this familiarity with the landscape as the backdrop for Cities of Men. “I knew how certain winds would feel, and how certain trees would smell,” Jensen says of his choice for setting. The non-traditional route that Jensen took to arrive at where he is today likely gave him the wisdom and resilience that writers require.

Unlike Jensen, Keltner has always thought of himself as an artist. Before coming to Texas State, he played in a band for many years. “My songs were always very long,” Keltner jokes, admitting that this was his first sign that he was meant to be a novelist. After an onslaught of band drama, Keltner decided his best option was to pursue writing, and the only looking back he does is to gather material. Keltner grew up in a forest preserve on the outskirts of Chicago, and rumors circulated among his peers about the creatures who might live there. This mysterious backdrop eventually became the setting for his novel.

At a certain point, the hardworking and determined author must commit to a completely different job—submitting their work. For Jensen and Keltner, this involved draft upon draft of query letters to agents, those gatekeepers of the publishing world who understand not only the artist but the publishing landscape as well. Instead of waking up to work on their books, they were practicing how to sell their ideas.

In spite of their commitment to seeing their work published, these writers are most concerned with the act of writing itself. Both noted the joy felt when the writing was going well. “I couldn’t live without that feeling,” Keltner says. Such moments of creation keep writers from succumbing to the fear of being rejected. While that fear never goes away, the allure of bringing their first books into the world has allowed these writers to push past the hard facts of publishing and to forge ahead with their artistic visions. Only one thing can explain why someone would voluntarily go through all of this, as Keltner remarks of this phenomenon: “You have to be a little bit crazy.”

by Sammi Yarto, English major

Department News: Jim Shepard Interview

Courtesy of Texas State University, August 2017


Impossible Facts: How the Holocaust Makes Children of Us All, an Interview with Jim Shepard, winner of the Clark Fiction Prize

Jim Shepard

In the spring of 1940, Aron, the narrator of this year’s inaugural winner of the Clark Fiction Prize, The Book of Aron, watches as a wall rises around the center of Warsaw, around his neighborhood, and around those he loves most. Even though Aron is only nine when the Nazis arrive, through his clear-eyed, succinct story, readers are swept into the undercurrents of ghetto survival: theft, smuggling, and ultimately, informing. Inherent in this quest for survival is the question Aron must face: What is he willing to do to survive?

With so much suffering, it would be easy for a writer to gloss over reality with facts and figures too mind-boggling to fathom, but Jim Shepard depicts both the daily and the historic brutalities with such precision that readers feel, if not complicit, than a part of the brutality humans commit against one another. While the next horror is never farther than a page turn, humor runs throughout the narrative, providing the residents, and readers, a way—the only way it seems—to cope with the darkness. As Janusz Korczak, the historic doctor who in the novel provides refuge for Aron, says, “The Jews manage to adjust to every situation but never know how good they [have] it, like the man who complained he had no golden shoes but didn’t realize that he was soon to lose his legs.” Through Korczak, Aron can see the hope of transformation, for the day when the walls no longer imprison him, but Aron must decide if he is worthy of being saved.

Kindly, Jim Shepard agreed to answer some questions about Aron, the ghetto, and his writing techniques prior to his campus visit.

Texas State: In other interviews, you’ve said part of the inspiration for this book came from hearing the sound of your child’s voice. Could you elaborate on this? What other sources of inspiration helped you work through the challenges of writing this book?

Jim Shepard: I think I’m always channeling children’s voices once I decide to write from the point of view of a child. I’ve always been interested in catastrophe, as well as children, and the issue of ethical passivity, and it occurred to me when reengaging with the story of Janusz Korczak that the Holocaust brings those three subjects together under maximum pressure, in dramatic terms. I’d always resisted writing about Great Men or Women, mostly because I tend towards the worm’s eye view of history, but also because I’m less interested in hagiography and more in those stories that dismantle our sense of ourselves. But it occurred to me, when reconsidering Korczak’s story, that many of the poor children in his orphanage hated being there, even as they recognized that it had saved them, however temporarily. And they must have felt terribly conflicted about that. Imagine being the boy who for whatever reason made a saint’s life harder. (My mother would say: Yes. Imagine that.) That sense of knowing how you should behave and being unable to do it—that sense of feeling that you’re not adequately appreciating what you have been given, and in so doing you’re making it harder for the people you love and admire: that was a conflict I could relate to.

The Book of Aron

TS: Many of your short stories and novels, including The Book of Aron, are told in first-person point-of-view. What did you find most challenging in writing from Aron’s point-of-view?

JS: Well, getting his voice right, of course. I started researching by reading first-person accounts of Polish childhoods in the 1920s and 30s—and there were lots of those—with a special attentiveness to the voices. I’m sure the project felt like such an act of hubris that I’d already decided to use the first person in order to go at the problem of authority head-on, as it were, and I told myself that if I couldn’t begin to master my protagonist’s voice to my own satisfaction, then I couldn’t adequately imagine his inner life, either, in which case I should just drop the whole thing. I also wanted to, by limiting myself to a single first-person sensibility, evoke the way in which the dread of what’s coming is always there in the reader’s mind but is opaque to those in the historical moment. One of the pleasures that fiction can deliver is, of course, the god-like ability to flit from sensibility to sensibility—to penetrate everyone’s consciousness, and to know with certainty what everyone is thinking: a mobility and omniscience that we never in our regular lives get to experience. Anotherpleasure that fiction can offer, though, is the opportunity to inhabit a single, other sensibility, as limited (or perhaps even more limited) than our own, as fully as possible. Both pleasures are exercises in the empathetic imagination, but for me the latter option nearly always seems, when done well, more bracingly revelatory as a crash course in empathy. And I tend to believe that most of us need as bracingly revelatory a crash course in empathy as we can get.

TS: There are many gruesome events that happen in this novel, yet it never feels like a simple catalogue of suffering, primarily because of Aron’s idiosyncrasies in telling his story. Can you discuss how you were able to achieve this balance of conveying the horrors, yet still making them human?

JS: There’s always the tightrope walk when writing about suffering—and especially extreme and/or mass suffering—between sanitizing events and sensationalizing them. Usually it’s a matter of recognizing how much agony does need to be conveyed, and at the same time recognizing when any more seems gratuitous. Which is of course easier said than done. But there’s also the importance of the understanding that for those living through such times, the suffering becomes quotidian – and as such, the quotidian can compete with it. So that someone’s soup becomes as notable an event as a beating.

TS: In other interviews, you’ve spoken about your obsession with the issue of agency in fiction: “with that portion of responsibility that we have for what happens to us.” Could you discuss how responsibility and agency work in the novel?

JS: Aristotle’s notion of literature involved flaws of character that produced behavior for which the character then had to take some sort of responsibility, and I believe that literary conflict is about agency; it’s about those decisions we make once we’re faced with whatever the world has unleashed upon us. So that: the Germans invading your country is hugely dramatic, but not in itself a conflict, in that sense. What you do about that invasion is.

TS: One of the major conflicts of the book seems to be this question: What are we willing to do to survive (The Jewish Police, Aron and his band of smugglers, Korzac’s unwillingness at the end)? As Lejkin, a member of the Judenrat, tells Aron, “If the [Germans] have enough time, they’ll kill us all. If not, some can be saved;” of course, being saved here means turning on your neighbors. Can you discuss this aspect of the book?

JS: See my previous answer. One of the reasons we’re drawn to such stories, despite their unpleasantness, is our fascination with how human beings operate when faced with such impossible choices. If it meant saving your brother, would you answer an interrogator honestly about your neighbor? And at what point would you cease cooperating with an oppressive regime?

TS: In the opening lines of the book, Aron says his father wanted to name him, “What Have You Done,” because Aron is a troublemaker who “only looks out for himself”; yet Aron’s mother sees him as the readers see him, as conflicted, as someone who’s maybe 51 percent good and 49 percent bad. But even still, Aron’s mother implores him to “remain a decent human being.” In the face of so much atrocity, is decency merely an illusion?

JS: No, decency is most certainly not just an illusion. In the face of the most extreme circumstances, it just rarely survives as an untainted category.

TS: One of the elements that I found so striking about this novel was its depiction of the daily horrors of living in the ghetto (the constant battle against lice, the waves of typhus, the number of people living in one small apartment, etc.) Why did you chose to incorporate these details, while many other writers have foregone these details in the face of the larger, more terrifying horrors of this period of history?

JS: I was struck during my engagement with all those journals and diaries by how much, again, the quotidian dominated the thinking of those trapped in the Ghetto, as in: let’s just get through today, and let tomorrow worry about itself. That mindset meant that there was less thinking about the Big Picture and more about the smaller and more concrete aspects of experience.

TS: Throughout much of the book, adults are peripheral—their overheard conversations, the brothers and the father; not quite as much the mother, but even with her, there is some psychological distance—so why do you think Aron becomes so close to Dr. Korczak? Put another way, what is so attracting about a figure like Korczak?

JS: Korczak’s legendary capacity to hang on to so much of his decency, and his kindness, and his selflessness, made him a magnet for all of those children like my narrator who were pained at what they’d already done to survive, and who longed to imagine that they could still renovate themselves for the better.

TS: In many places, there are threads of dark humor, especially from Korczak. Did you worry about trying to accomplish this in a book about the Holocaust? How were you able to incorporate this into the novel?

JS: I didn’t worry about the appropriateness of the relationship between dark humor and the Holocaust, since I wasn’t adding the dark humor, as if in a recipe; I was coming across it again and again in the primary documents. It’s clear from the historical record that those who didn’t give up or become entirely unfeeling had to employ humor in some way to cope with what they understood to be the grotesque absurdity of their situation.

TS: Some might argue that stories about the Holocaust are unethical because they involve an appropriation of others’ suffering. Did you feel concern about this while you were writing, and, if so, how were you able to overcome this?

JS: Of course that was a huge concern of mine, when approaching a subject like this. And it’s been a commonplace claim about the relationship between the Holocaust and the arts that the enormity of the suffering and horror defeats any attempt at adequate representation. But books like Jona Oberski’s Childhood reminded me that by making a child our guide to such infernal regions, a work could enact any number of ways in which the impossible facts of the Holocaust make children of us all. And maybe such a work could also then evoke both the necessity and the inherent impossibility of our hope of adequately testifying about anyone else’s pain.

TS: Lastly, could you share some thoughts on what it means to win the inaugural Clark Fiction prize?

JS: I’m one of those people who believes that the proper response to winning any award is humility, given how much good fortune has to come together to make that happen. And humility seems to be even more in order when the subject of your project involves extremities of suffering, and on top of that, extremities of suffering that have taken place at an enormous remove from your own experience. So: it’s a great honor, and one for which I’m hugely grateful.