Interview With Ward Just

Ward Just Ward Just is the author of twelve previous novels, including the National Book Award finalist Echo House. Just was awarded the 2001 James Fenimore Cooper Prize of the Society of American Historians and was a 1999 PEN/Hemingway finalist for his novel A Dangerous Friend. Just and his wife, Sarah Catchpole, divide their time between Martha's Vineyard and Europe. He was recently a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

Ward Just's latest novel is The Weather in Berlin. The Weather in Berlin, like Ward Just's previous books, examines the vagaries faced by Americans abroad. They are not innocents, far from it, yet they are citizens of a young society in conflict with older ones. These Americans often believe they will find stability and certainty in a Germany or a France, less restless places, altogether more settled. But ghosts abound, and it is the ghosts that haunt and keep haunting the people of the new world.

The Weather in Berlin by Ward Just
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You chose to set this novel primarily in Wannsee, the place where the Nazis' "final solution" for the Jews was devised. Why did you choose this location?

In 1999 I was a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, located at Wannsee. For the novel I used the exact location for my own Mommsen Institute, which, incidentally, bears no relation to the American Academy. I could see the Wannsee Conference Center from my window; it was across the lake. The atmosphere of Wannsee is peaceful and suburban, not unlike Winnetka, Illinois, except of course for the weather. Much horror went on behind the stately face of the mansion that housed the conference center. Faces are often deceiving.

Your protagonist, Dixon Greenwood, is a Hollywood film director whose artistic peak is well in his past. Why did you choose someone from filmmaking as a character?

My characters, especially the protagonists, are always deeply involved in their work. The last few novels of mine have featured politicians, writers, civil servants, and lawyers. In Dixon Greenwood I wanted a character whose work seems to have failed him. He believes he has lost his audience. America has gone one way and he has gone another way, and so Dix hopes that if he returns to the country of his great triumph — a film called Summer, 1921 — he will find this audience that has eluded him. And perhaps more to the point, the audience will find him.

Are there particular films that might have influenced your writing or how you look at the world?

There are many films I admire greatly — The Godfathers one and two, Aguirre, Casablanca, The Misfits, and many others — but I look at the world in a writerly way, the words on the page as opposed to pictures on a screen.

The most mysterious character of the novel, Jana, is an actress who disappeared from the set of Greenwood's most successful film, Summer, 1921. She is also an ethnic minority, a Sorb, in a culture that is not known for embracing outsiders. What is it that she represents?

Often, characters in a novel arrive unbidden. Jana arrived and stayed and for a moment or two threatened to take it over, so I had to rein her in, restrain her, as Rommel occasionally restrained his tanks. Once you choose a minority, you have chosen an outsider, with all the anxiety and hope the term represents.

Jana is not the only outsider in your story. There are those characters from the old East Germany and a Vietnamese waiter at Frau Munn's restaurant. How different is reunified Germany from other Western nations?

Someone said that there isn't much difference between one human being and another, but what difference there is is very important. Same with nations. German history of the twentieth century is irreconcilable, yet it must be reconciled.

In what ways was the twentieth century the "German century"?

Echo House by Ward Just
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One of the characters in The Weather in Berlin believes that Germany represents the advent of the modern world, specifically the murderous twentieth century. Someone else might say it was Stalin's Soviet Union, and I would not disagree. Germany's different in that its people were probably the most talented in Europe. Certainly the most cultivated, in all the arts and sciences, including philosophy. This is worth contemplating.

Q. You often write about the American as an outsider. What is it about American culture that makes this role so full of potential?

This has been the theme of American writers from Twain to James to Fitzgerald to Bellow and Roth. This great, sprawling cathedral of capitalism — if you don't rebel against it, you get lost inside it.

You now live full time on Martha's Vineyard. Is the community of writers there particularly social?

Not particularly. The only two full-time writers who live full time on the island are me and David McCullough, at least to my knowledge. The true community is the community of painters, of which there are at least a dozen who are extremely talented. So my wife and I tend to hang out with the painters, a very jolly crowd. They take their work more seriously than they take themselves.

Posted with permission of the publisher.