Best of What's Next: Author Julie Orringer

Books Features Julie Orringer
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HOMETOWN: Brooklyn, N.Y.
BOOK: The Invisible Bridge
FOR FANS OF: Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, The Believer

Julie Orringer’s family has a history of dramatic escapes. At midnight on Christmas Eve 1956, the Hungarian revolution was stalled in its tracks. Orringer’s mother—then eight years old—escaped over the border from Hungary to Austria, and from there to Switzerland, New York and eventually Miami. There, in 1973, Orringer was born. Years earlier, as Nazism devastated European Jewry, Orringer’s grandfather and his brother—an architecture student in Paris and a medical student in Italy, respectively—were forced to abandon their studies and join forced-labor battalions, where men dragged coal carts in the snow and wore horse blankets for warmth.

During Orringer’s childhood, this trauma went mostly unspoken. “There was this way in which fragments of the story kind of emerged that made them seem, if anything, even more horrifying,” she says today, “because the details were so limited, and so all I could do was imagine them for myself.”

In her mid-20s, she finally asked her grandfather about his experience. “I hadn’t really considered writing a novel until then,” she says. “I was a short-story writer and was perfectly content to keep writing short stories. But once I started hearing what happened to him in the war, I thought, ‘My God, let’s tell this story.” And thus came The Invisible Bridge, her recently released 624-page first novel that, while mostly fictionalized, manages to capture both the sweep of World War II and the intimate anguish of one particular family.

The book was seven years in the making, as was How To Breathe Underwater, her stunning debut short-story collection. The stories ultimately became required reading for every freshman at Stanford, where Orringer lectured after graduating from the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. At Iowa, she says, she learned clarity from Frank Conroy, racial and socioeconomic tension from James Alan McPherson and, from Marilynne Robinson, “an unpacking of the dark figures of a family history.”

WHAT’S NEXT: Orringer is already working on her next book. “It’s a story that I came across while I was working on [The Invisible Bridge],” she says. “There’s an American journalist by the name of Varian Fry who, in 1940, went to Marseilles with a couple thousand names and a couple thousand dollars, and he was supposed to save this group of writers and artists and anti-Nazi intellectuals who had been blacklisted by the Gestapo, and were in danger of being rounded up and sent to camp.” She hopes it won’t take her another seven years. So do we.