Writers Chat 60: Greg Dinner on “A Requiem for Hania” (Ogham & Dabar Books: Clare, 2022)

Cover of “A Requiem for Hania” showing sepia photograph of railway tracks with ice on them and a forest in the distance

Greg, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your third novel, A Requiem for Hania (Ogham & Dabar Books: Clare, 2022). Let’s start with the structure. A Requiem for Hania spans three generations, continents and perspectives. You bring us to 1942, 1968 and 2006, all significant political, cultural, and of course, personal events in this epic story. How difficult was it for you to form this complex story of identity and family into a coherent structure?

GD: It took many years to find the structure I needed, and the reasons for how I chose to do so. Firstly you need to understand the genesis of the project.  I come out of the film world.  A Polish actress I was friendly with came to visit us in London in 2014.  Having a cockeyed sense of humour, I was teasing her one day that she was so neurotic, she reminded me of my own family—therefore she should have been Jewish (I’m both sides of this equation, particularly the neurotic part, so I almost get away with such jokes.)  We had a good laugh at this.  Then many weeks later, my friend rang me with a story she thought I should hear.  She’d gone to the Baltic Sea with her family to celebrate her Grandmother’s 90th birthday.  My friend was telling them about me, about my teasing comments.  Her Grandmother became quite angry, wanting to know how I could say such a terrible thing, not seeing the joke. 

The next morning the Grandmother gathered the family together to tell them that in fact–she was Jewish:  she’d been in the Warsaw Ghetto, escaped, changed her name, identity, everything, and never told a soul—not husband, family, the State, no one, until that moment

Thus the joke ended and ultimately my journey, my obsession with the meaning of such revelation in the light of my own family background, began. 

Then a second story:  I met my wife Annie in the late 1970s when I was living in Paris and she was the manager of well-known bookshop Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank.  Yes, Joyce comes into it but that’s another story.  Before Annie had started at the bookshop she’d been an au pair for two architects—the wife German, the husband Polish and Jewish.  We all remain close to this day.  I was always fascinated by his story:  he’d left Warsaw in 1968 and was not allowed to return until the Wall came down in 1989.  Warsaw 1968 was a time of student uprising and protests, although as I learned when researching the reasons for this were very different than I’d assumed.  Now this era was also the time of my own coming of age.  I too am a child of the late 1960s/70s.  I wanted to bring this period, and the Cold War, into the story of the Warsaw Ghetto triggered by my friend’s Grandmother, as well as a more contemporary story.  But I did not know how to tie them into one another.

Then in 2018 my father passed away.  I spent many weeks at his bedside in Colorado, sitting with him night after night because I suffer badly from jetlag.  I would pass those nights, hour upon hour, quietly listening to music as he slept…. And it was through this emotional upheaval that I found a way to structure the material, how to tell the story, and what would be at its centre.

That would be music.  The tie that binds.

I’ve always been drawn to structure and how to tell a story.  Structure has long obsessed me.  And in ‘Hania’ I found Voice when structuring the book as a requiem in both its story and its storytelling.  Thus the novel is structured not with chapters but as in musical form, with a Prelude, Four Movements and a Coda—each section with an appropriate Latinate description.  Music is all.  By utilizing this as central to the stories and themes I needed to tell, and how to tell them, I found the structure I needed.  The structure allowed me to tie together disparate stories and characters over three generations and to develop its central themes of identity, the search for self, the need to witness. 

SG: Wow that is a fascinating story – I love how it began and then seemed to build upon itself, the impact of truth-telling, death/grief (sympathies on the death of your father); the circularity of it all. Of course, I am glad that you talked a little about the musical form, as you say, the book “as a requiem in both its story and its storytelling.” It works beautifully and your writing style often echoes the character-narrative, in particular, when trauma is involved. For example, Hania’s narrative in the Warsaw Ghetto veers from almost chatty to staccato. Can you talk about the importance of syntax to the story telling?

GD: Whether in screenwriting or fiction I’ve always explored ways to tell a story and how can it reflect the themes I want to explore.  In ‘Hania’ for example a central theme is what it means to witness, and more importantly, especially to Jews post-Holocaust, the metaphorical concept of Bearing Witness.  It’s a concept I can talk at length about.  In ‘Hania’ this is partly reflected in the use of witnesses.  Each movement begins with a witness commenting on and then participating in story.  I needed to find the language of these witnesses that might be the syntax of the ‘movement’ as well as that character’s own specific syntax.  Thus the witness of the First Movement, a psychoanalyst, writes in the language of Freud’s notes about his patients.  In the Second Movement the ‘witness’ is a security agent secretly taping and following the primary character, so his language needs to be from official reports submitted to a superior—a style I copied from German Stasi files I’ve viewed; in the Third Movement the witness is a young Israeli researcher who writes short letters home to his family, thus the epistolary style; in the final movement a Conductor Maestro’s manager gives a lecture to Juilliard students, and I used a lecture syntax that I use in my own talks and lectures. 

So too is the case with direct syntax, with the grammatical structure of language and style in the narrative itself.  I’ve said that Music is the story, and the storytelling.  I wanted elements of music to be reflected in narrative style, replete with language at times staccato or legato, andante or da capo, with cadence and rhythm, with melody and harmony.  The language of music and the words of the characters become one.  I’m very conscious of what I’m doing.  It’s also why in particular I use repetition often, as indeed does musical composition:  repetition with the slightest deviation, as if circling around and around in trying to discover some element of ‘truth’ in narrative.  I am sometimes criticized for it.  But I’m doing such with intent.  In music I’ve been deeply influenced particularly for this project by Phillip Glass and Max Richter, let alone Bach.  If you want to understand why I insist on repetition of story and syntax, listen to Glass.  And look at the variations in syntax, of sentence structure, as a form of musical score.  It’s what I mean when I say that music is not only central to story itself—it is as a reader discovers by the end of the book—but to storytelling.  One reflects the other.

SG: And I also think that the witnessing is two-fold – those recording and those experiencing. I have to say, it sounds complex – and it is, to write and deconstruct as we are doing – but it is not this way for the reader. Writing, creating and recording all play a vital and life saving role in the novel. Do you think that part of what A Requiem for Hania is doing is also recording the importance of literature and the arts in helping us remember and talk about the hurt we continue to inflict on each other, in the name of ideologies?

GD: As an executive in film, then as screenwriter and teacher, we always talked of ‘Voice’ and what that means.  The personal seeking the universal; the universal defining the personal.  Voice is everything, what I always seek.  I refer to Leonard Bernstein.  In talking about Music he said: “Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”.  He also said: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”  I would expand beyond music into art itself.  To its creation.  In the story I tell, yes, writing, creating, acting, recording all explore and give Voice.  And help me to answer against the violence not only of the past, of the Warsaw Ghetto, or the anti-Semitic government-instigated violence of Poland in 1968, but to answer against the violence of today.  For me, ‘A Requiem For Hania’ is not simply about the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust, is not simply a Jewish story.  Rather it is my own desperate need to look at my world and the work I have done and still do, from the Holocaust to Vietnam, from Bosnia to Rwanda, from Syria and Afghanistan to Ukraine—very much to Ukraine—and say–no.  And say I Bear Witness.  In Hebrew, alliterated, you see these words often, particularly at Holocaust memorials ‘Le olam lo, Le Olam al tishkach’.  ‘Never again, Always remember.’  In my life and work I’ve seen too many agains, again and again.  Thus those two Hebrew words ring hollow.  But Le olam al tishkach—never forget, always remember—to me is about Bearing Witness.  That is my need, my pain and my journey, and I have found voice to do so through writing, in words and pictures and music, and mostly in stories.

SG: It is what we do as artists – bear witness so that we don’t forget and always remember. One of the most prevalent themes in the novel is that of naming and identity. Without revealing or spoiling any plotlines, it is clear from the outset in the very arresting Prelude: Trisagion: Hymn of Prayer and Remembrance that this theme ties into memory and place:

He looks at them, the old woman, the young woman. He does not know their names. He does not know why this place […] reflected there are notes that play out his life, his name, which he cannot remember, who he is, which he cannot remember […] his hands drop sharply, slightly, his palms raised as if holding up the sky, holding perhaps time itself…

I’m perhaps merging questions here but it strikes me that the lyrical and – at times bodily – writing interspersed through the book pushes the reader to experience disconnect, as the characters do in each of the narratives. The role of memory is tied to the thread of investigation that ties all three generations together. Can you comment on this?  

GD: ‘Hania’ tells the story of three personal journeys as my three primary characters try to find, understand and accept self.  Each of these characters is indeed disconnected—from their personal histories, their political histories.  In order to find self they do indeed literally and figuratively investigate the past as the present, and their role in particular times and places.  Often history is seen as something separate, other.  The past disconnected.  But such is not disconnected.  I was struck that as Queen Elizabeth was buried and the tens of thousands waited to pass by her lying in state, when asked many said they were there to ‘be a part of history’, as if history is other.  But we are history, living it every day, a part of who and what we are.  In order to understand and define the present, we must define ourselves through the past.  My characters have many names, many identities.  Each of the three primary characters have their names changed by history, by necessity.  But to find who they are, they must journey into that personal and political past to define the parameters of self.  At one point a character warns another:  it is not the name that matters, it is what is within one’s heart.  And there lies memory:  to discover identity is a journey, and at times an investigation, not into name, but into the universe of what is within one’s heart.  Kant called it the ‘Moral Imperative’.  I would argue that each of these characters must find the imperative of who they are, which is indeed a moral question, seeking through memory the past, to give license not just to the present, but to the future.  Memory is something not just ‘outside’ us, it is within. 

It’s worth adding another story.  I went on my own to visit Treblinka.  Now Treblinka, unlike many other camps, was completely destroyed by the Nazis.  Nothing remained.  On the extermination site is a beautiful monument of hundreds of rough, standing stones of different sizes, some with the names of every village, town and city where the victims came from engraved.  The vast site is surrounded completely by forest; a monument of ‘train track ties’ in concrete leads up to it.  It’s not an easy place to get to unless you take a tour.  Most do. I went alone.  I arrived early, walked the kilometre to the site, and found myself in the vast, painful place completely, utterly alone for three hours, until I left. There amidst the ghosts and the breeze I found memory, and silence, where the quiet whispers of wind through pine trees brought me forward and back.  The song of tears.  Being alone mattered, and in that silence I found that that disconnect I also felt, and feel that, through memory, I could also embrace the stories I needed to tell.  I should add that I have been an expat for more of my life than not, far away from a large family, an exile.  Indeed I argue often that I am in exile.  The writer Thomas Wolfe wrote ‘you can’t go home again’.  You can’t, but all my life I have been metaphorically trying to do so.  The disconnect you mention is incredibly prevalent in my Voice.  In ‘Hania’ the characters too are seeking to find their way home.  …. You have to read the book to know if, arguably, they do… and how.

SG: That sounds like it was a transformational experience for you, Greg. The other weighty element to the novel (for this reader anyhow!) was that of communication. Silence, speech, music, performance – and acting in all the senses – are what your characters do to survive. These ways of being cross into creative practices and then are echoed in the form of this novel. Can you talk about how these reveal or cover truths of who we are, what we have done, and who we might become?

GD: I spoke above of the importance of Voice, of ‘art’ within defining us. To find expression through the arts helps therefore to define us as individuals, becomes identity itself. 

I will tell another story.  It is what I do.  I also spent time at Auschwitz.  I rather hated Auschwitz—a long discussion for another time.  And as I’d done much research into Auschwitz, there was little I hadn’t already known.  Auschwitz in fact consists of two primary camps—Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II that we call Birkenau, as well as many satellite camps.  As we moved around there was one thing the woman guide said on three occasions that really hit me, hard, although I’m not sure the others in my group, the many tourists, registered it in the same way.  The guide said:  in the camps here, 1.3 Million people died, 900,000 of whom were Jews.  Now it took at least two hours for the remains of a person to become ash in the crematoria.  The numbers don’t add up.  1.3 Million, a huge number of remains the Nazis sought to hide.  It’s a lot of ash, she said.  A huge amount.  So the Nazis scattered ash not only everywhere in this valley, they dumped it in rivers, lakes, forests…everywhere.  But of course, ash doesn’t disappear.  It seeps into the ground but it is there in the soil. 

So realize, she said, the dust is still here.  Even today.  You are breathing in the dust.  You are breathing in the dead…

I would take that further.  I would say one breathes in the dead not just in Auschwitz, or Treblinka, or the camps, or Warsaw, or Poland, or Central Europe—one metaphorically breathes in the dead in Western Europe, here in Ireland, in the US, everywhere.  Because the dead are within us.  Always within us.  Their tears are our tears.  Their laments, our laments.  Their requiems sing for us as well as them.

Thus the role, my role, is to use the arts, just as the characters in ‘Hania’ do, to come face to face with the dust of those we inhale, the dust locked in our hearts and memories. To understand past and who we are in relation to that past. It is the role of this story, the true responsibility of all stories, music, art to give us our common humanity and to express what is deep within us, including the past, in order to understand who we are.  We Bear Witness to the events of the past, and indeed the present, and find ways to cry out that common humanity.  For me, for the characters, such acts of expression are a rejection of the violence of the past, and an understanding of it.  Expression allows my characters to survive, and me to survive.  What is being expressed is the dust of the dead, to remind us that we have survived, and that we will struggle forever to do so. 

SG: And if we take that further, the ashes – once living – keep memories, and these memories are like the tears and the laments that you describe. This is an epic novel with the geneses inspired by real events. Are you interested in returning to any of the characters – and here I’m thinking of Aga? Or indeed, any of the themes?

GD: I had hoped when finishing ‘A Requiem For Hania’, I would exorcise many ghosts and thus move on to other stories, other obsessions.  But I’ve found I cannot so easily do so.  I’m therefore picking up some of the characters in ‘Hania’, some of the minor or referred to characters, and travelling with them further.  I don’t want to return to the Holocaust period per se, and indeed want to move now somewhat in a more contemporary world.  But I’m not ready to let them go, by necessity.  I’ve two books in mind further and they are what I’m now beginning to work on—not in quite the same way, or the same time period, but continuing still.  As for themes—I find in forty years of writing work that I return to the same themes in different guises over and over:  identity, Bearing Witness, the ‘grey zone’ between that which is dark and that which is light within an individual, how “art” gives us our desperate humanity, and of course trying to find one’s way home.  I don’t expect to leave these themes now.  They just become manifest in different ways.

SG: As with so many artists – we have our obsessions, our questions to ask! So, to finish up, Greg, some fun questions

  • Live or recorded concert? Music, like theatre or dance, is not static.  But a recorded version of such suggests it is.  So always live because there is always a sense of the unknown and discovery—whether it’s improv jazz, or watching Elvis’s moves, a Bruce Springsteen marathon or the slightest differences in performances of Mahler or Bach depending on the conductor.   In a communal audience you too are performer, you too are artist.
  • Tea or Coffee? Tea.  A surprising answer for one who is usually found on Ryanair flights hand carrying bags of deep roasted coffee beans of different countries from my favourite Soho Coffee distributor.  However—I am drawn to the memories of many drives from London to Portlaoise with my then small sons in the car.  When we’d arrive, my mother-in-law would always say sit down, have a quiet cup of tea.  Take a breath.  And while coffee gives me a needed morning burst of life, tea blesses me with silence, with thoughts, with harmonies, with reflection. 
  • Mountains or sea? I love both and both speak to me, but I grew up in the mountains of Colorado.  Mountains whisper their near silent thoughts and sing in voices that I understand.  The sea draws you in and casts you out.  Mountains however sing of the possible.  And as I said above, I’m trying to get home again and know I’ll never be able to get there.  But mountains, for me, are memory.
  • What’s next on your reading pile? I just finished Colum McCann’s ‘Apeirogon’.  Absolutely required reading.   Brilliant.  I’m now reading Janine di Giovanni’s ‘Madness Visible’ about the Balkans.  Janine is a wonderful journalist who helped me out a long time ago and along with others is responsible for the road I now travel.  She showed me tragedy and great pain, but showed me that I need to bear witness to events.  And to remember…. After that I’m anxious to start Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, and after Barbara Kingsolver’s, both magnificent writers, both books on my bedside table.
  • What are you working on or thinking about now? The film/television rights to ‘Hania’ have been optioned and while I have said I don’t think I should write for it, I am thinking about what the director we’re now hoping to attach might bring to it.  A composer/pianist also contacted me about the stage rights and I’m interested to see what she’ll do.  I’ve put it to her that perhaps she could look at some piano recitals in Europe in a year’s time, performing some works referenced in the book,–Bach, Chopin, Penderecki– along with something new, interspersed with some very short readings from the book, I hope both in English and Polish.  I dream of things such as that.  Then after the New Year I’ll begin the slow process of developing the two books I want to do spinning both from and away from ‘Hania’.  I hope to spend time in Krakow next year, also Lviv and Kyiv, and Jerusalem, as I research and develop these two long term projects.  ‘A Requiem For Hania’ took almost eight years to produce.  I’m hoping these two other projects might take less time, but …. But.

Very exciting to hear that the film/TV rights have been optioned. I look forward to hearing how it all goes and also to the new projects. I spent a very short time in Krakow and loved it, a beautiful city and most welcoming people. Thank you, Greg, for such open answers and insight into your thinking, intention, and hopes for A Requiem for Hania.

Photograph of Greg Dinner wearing a blue shirt and wool coat against a background of trees and green leaves with sun shining. Photograph courtesy of the author.

A Requiem for Hania can be purchased from independent booksellers such as Kennys, O’Mahoneys or international sellers such as Amazon or Waterstones

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