AN INTERVIEW With Suzanne Berne

Algonquin talks with Suzanne Berne about her new memoir, Missing Lucile. Get Berne’s thoughts on family secrets, her grandmother’s French fling, and the battle between fact and fiction.

1. What was your inspiration for writing Missing Lucile? My father’s mother, Lucile Kroger Berne, died when he was a little boy and he never got over it.  His whole life was defined by this one terrible fact.   As a child I always wished I could find his mother for him, the way children always wish they could give their parents things they feel their parents are missing.  In my case, that feeling persisted into adulthood, especially when my father got very sick and he began to focus almost obsessively on the mother he’d never known.


2. You’ve said that you found a few things that once belonged to your grandmother that sparked your research into her life.  What were they? A few years ago I discovered an old fruitcake tin of odds and ends belonging to my grandmother that I’d collected from my grandfather’s attic in Cincinnati when I was twelve.  A commemorative medal, a college pin, a charm bracelet, two packets of postcards from World War I, an old exercise book of poems she had copied out, an annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith.  Nothing that, at first glance, seemed particularly revealing.  But what caught my eye was a packet of undeveloped negatives. When I opened the packet and held the negatives up to the light, I realized they were photographs Lucile had taken in France in 1919.  That packet was really what got me going, especially after I’d had the photographs printed and sent one to my father of his mother in uniform, a rifle propped against a wall behind her.


3. Your book illuminates the life of Lucile Kroger during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the rich culture of that time. How much research did you do into that time period to write this book? A lot—much of it haphazard.  To my shame, I never took a history course in college, and I didn’t know the first thing about how to conduct historical research.  The archivists at the Wellesley College library can tell you just what a novice I was when I first appeared at their door, asking if they could direct me to any information about my grandmother.   But I was lucky in having a research assistant for a semester when I was teaching at Harvard, who went weekly to Widener Library and returned with armloads of books about France after World War I.  And I was lucky in having a great grandfather, B.H. Kroger, who was famous enough to have had a book written partly about him, with lots of information about his first grocery stores and his life in Cincinnati at the turn of the century.  And I was very lucky to be living close to Wellesley College, where I haunted the library for a couple of years and slowly blundered my way into information about Lucile, and college life for women in the early 1900s, and then the experiences of Wellesley relief workers during and after the First World War.  I paged though photo albums and scrapbooks, read college newspapers, alumnae bulletins, letters, yearbooks, and gradually found a woman and a world I hadn’t known existed.


4. In the book you describe your father’s sadness and his sense of loss, which permeated the family over decades. What was it like to, in essence, give him his life back?

I didn’t give him his life back—he was already in his eighties when I began researching his mother’s life and only too painfully aware of what he had missed by focusing so much on what he hadn’t had.  What I did manage to do, however imperfectly, was help him realize that his mother had been more than simply an absence, that she had been a person with her own ambitions, frustrations, her own losses and chances, her own fierce desires.


5. How much of the book is fact versus what you imagine Lucile to be like? How did you weave those two pieces together? I tried to be factual as much as possible but there were periods of Lucile’s life where I had very few “facts” about her to go on.  For instance, all I had to inform me about her high school years were some photographs and her annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith in which she’s recorded the names and addresses of two different boarding schools in Washington, DC, and the dates she supposedly attended them—though I could never ascertain whether she was ever a student at either school.  Often all I had that was truly factual about her life was what I could glean from the time period and wherever it was that she was living and what I knew, in general, about her family.  So there’s quite a bit of speculation in the book.  I don’t try to imagine Lucile so much as theorize about her, which I suppose sometimes amounts to the same thing.

6. What is the most interesting or surprising fact you learned about your grandmother? I discovered that she’d had a love affair of some sort with a French brigadier who was in charge of a German POW camp a couple miles down the road from the little village where she and her fellow relief workers were headquartered after the war.  That really was a surprise.  When I developed those photographs from the packet of negatives, almost the first thing I noticed were several photographs of a handsome man in a French uniform—he looked like Clark Gable—and I thought, “Who is this?”  But it wasn’t until I started doing research in the Wellesley archive that I found out his name, then later I found letters from a nurse in Lucile’s unit that corroborated what I’d already begun to suspect. My father loved finding out that his mother had had a romance.  That was perhaps the single most important discovery for him—it humanized her more than anything else I found out.


7. Your book is in essence two stories – the biography of your grandmother, and the story of a daughter trying to provide a mother for her elderly father. How did you weave these two stories together? Mostly by trying to remember that one didn’t have much relevance for the reader without the other.  Also by recognizing that these are not only two stories, they are two impossible stories:  My grandmother has been dead for over 75 years and almost everything that once belonged to her was thrown away, so to try to “find” her I had to look past what I didn’t know into what could be or might be true.  My father lost his mother over 75 years ago.  I couldn’t give “her” back to him; but I could give him my efforts to reconstruct her life, and that brought the two of us much closer after many years of estrangement.

Yet always, always I had to keep my eye on what I couldn’t do, couldn’t know.  Which, oddly enough, is what gives this book tension and coherence, or that’s what I hope.


8. You discover that the function of family history is “to explain what is essentially inexplicable – how we came to be ourselves.” Do you feel that you, and your father, now have a better sense of who you are and how you became that way? History is made up of people and what they do and what they fail to do, just as people are made up of all the history that has gone before them.  What I helped my father reclaim, I believe, is the feeling of being connected to something larger than himself.  Lucile was an intellectual, an early feminist, a business executive, a relief worker, a wife and mother.  She was a person of history, who was a product of her times, and also more than that, as we are all more than just “products” of our times.  Through his mother, my father was connected to tremendous world events, to commercial innovation, political change, seismic social shifts, war.  And so, I discovered, was I.

Of course, we are also very much products of a family history, shaped by certain traits and tendencies, either genetically inherited or passed along, as well as influenced by family losses and achievements.  Putting some of my own tendencies within some sort of ancestral context was liberating for me at least.  Or maybe it simply made me feel less alone with them.


9. You are the author of three acclaimed novels. How was the writing process for this nonfiction book different? Well frankly, I first tried to write a novel about Lucile, especially after I started learning about her experiences in France after the war.  I thought I could make her come alive for my father even more palpably through fiction.  And she seemed like such a promising heroine for a novel!  The grocer’s daughter in ruined France.  But the fact of her kept getting in the way of the fiction I was trying to create–and the fact kept being more interesting.

So to answer your question, the process was not entirely different from what usually happens for me, which is that I have an idea for a novel and then I work away at that idea for years, and the result is nothing like what I first imagined.  In this case, I had an idea for a novel and then abandoned the idea of a novel and wrote a biography instead.


10. What do you want readers to take away from Missing Lucile? I’ve come to think that every family has a “missing person,” someone who died young, or disappeared, or was exiled from the family for some real or perceived crime.  Missing relatives are ghosts–real ghosts–and they haunt us by making us wonder how life might have been had they not vanished.   Maybe we would be kinder, or braver, or have made better decisions.  Maybe we wouldn’t have felt so at odds with the world.  Who knows?  I suppose I’d like readers to finish this book and realize that no one is really missing if you start looking for her.

–Kelly Bowen, Publicity Manager


5 Comments On This Post:

October 13, 2010
9:41 am
Ruth Zaryski Jackson says...

I enjoyed reading this interview and look forward to reading the book. I too became obsessed with the story of my great-aunt who died in a hotel fire in Winnipeg in 1918 and wrote a series of letters to her on my blog: perhaps the beginnings of a book.

October 19, 2010
1:10 am
Best Romance Books says...

Great interview! I have been looking forward to reading “Missing Lucile” and this interview just made my desire to read it even stronger. Thanks a lot for posting this interview!

October 27, 2010
10:26 am
Searching for an heiress lost | BC Bookmarks says...

[…] Department faculty member Suzanne Berne‘s new book, Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew (previously highlighted […]

October 28, 2010
10:01 am
Barnaby Dinges says...

I’m looking forward to reading this book. The WSJ review — tho snarky — did nothing to diminish my interest in this author and her latest book.

March 21, 2011
8:48 am
Why Memoir? | BC Bookmarks says...

[…] Associate Professor of English Amy Boesky (pictured), English Dept. faculty member Suzanne Berne, and Joan Wickersham—three authors of recent memoirs—discuss the complications and […]

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