Julie Orringer is the author of two award-winning books: The Invisible Bridge, a New York Times bestselling novel, and How to Breathe Underwater, a collection of stories; her new novel, The Flight Portfolio, tells the story of Varian Fry, the New York journalist who went to Marseille in 1940 to save writers and artists blacklisted by the Gestapo.
Alfred A. Knopf has published all her work, and her books have been translated into 20 languages. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Granta Book of the American Short Story and The Scribner Anthology of American Short Fiction. She is the winner of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo.
Compared by critics to have the storytelling gift of Tolstoy and Eliot, award-winning author Julie Orringer is on a mission to write books that carry news of the world.
“Throughout the most complicated times in history, as long as people have books in their hands, it helps us understand complicated situations more deeply, completely, and compassionately,” the author tells The Connection from her home in Brooklyn, NY.
Case in point: Her 2009 New York Times Notable book, “The Invisible Bridge,” a story born from a conversation with her Hungarian grandfather. She learned he had lived in Paris to study architecture from 1937-39 before being conscripted into a concentration camp. Orringer admits she had to forget the facts of his love story the day she was writing about the romantic life of the book’s protagonist, Andras Lévi.
“I couldn’t initially see how this part of the book would unfold — so I stepped away from my computer, did the dishes, took a very long walk, and while taking a shower had an epiphany,” explains the author of her writing process. “I was simply listening, as if watching a movie and transcribing what appears.”
What came to her was an untraditional spin, for in the book Lévi falls under the spell of a Hungarian woman a decade older than he. “I knew that would explain so much about him as a person, women in this era, the choices we make and how they impact whom we become, as well as the class tensions between Hungarian Jews.”
The technique of listening carefully to the characters is one of the lessons she teaches students in her writing classes — formerly at Princeton, NYU, Columbia, Michigan, and one of her alma maters, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop — and currently at the “Writing in the City” course at the Stanford in New York program.
“Another essential lesson is the importance of failure,” explains the winner of the Paris Review’s Discovery Prize and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford University, and the Dorothy Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Pubic Library.
“Like my characters, and the thousands of unpublished pages that didn’t make it into my books, I believe you have to be ok with things when they don’t work out,” she says, adding that the key is constantly winnowing down to the essence of the message.
But when great research doesn’t make it into one novel, there’s the opportunity to turn it into another, as is the case with Orringer’s newest book, “Flight Portfolio” — the story of Varian Fry, who in 1940 traveled to Marseille carrying $3,000 with the goal of helping imperiled artists and writers escape, including Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall.
“Every political moment has unbearable complications,” including the book she’s currently working on, which is set in New Orleans in the 1980s. “It involves the complicated racial and religious history of that place. It is a moment when we have to engage in the process of listening and self-scrutiny. There are many voices that need to be heard, and if anger is a part of that conversation have to understand where it comes from and how to respect it. This is why we read. My hope is that we always will.”