Open book with Susan Dworkin

GREAT BARRINGTON — Susan Dworkin is known for writing about difficult topics.

The Becket resident's most famous work, "The Nazi Officer's Wife," documents the survival of a young Jewish woman from Vienna who escaped the Gestapo and eventually fell in love with a Nazi.

Dworkin helped Edith Hahn Beer tell her story by conducting lengthy interviews and reviewing documents Beer had improbably saved. The book was extremely personal for Dworkin; some of her family members had survived the Holocaust.

"It changed my life," she said of writing the book.

Dworkin now focuses on agriculture (she used to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and the climate, aiming to bring issues related to the world's food security to a broader audience. In 2009, she wrote, "The Viking in the Wheat Field," a biography of the late Danish scientist Bent Skovmand who helped create the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. And in 2014, she finished "The Commons," a novel set in 2165. By then, climate change has crippled the U.S., and a wheat plague threatens to send the nation into starvation. That is, until an agrarian revolution, led by an unexpected voice (a pop singer), gains momentum.

"It's completely fiction except it's based on pretty solid background in agricultural science," Dworkin said.

Dworkin will be reading from "The Commons" at The Bookloft in Great Barrington at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18. She answered some questions by phone in advance of the appearance.

Climate change is obviously at the core of this novel. What is your favorite work of fiction that is focused on the topic?

["State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett] ... It was a novel about a woman who goes hunting for her professor in the jungle, who disappeared, and finds that there's a tribe there which has somehow enabled women to have children way into old age. And that's what this professor has been looking for. [It's] a kind of biological sci-fi novel because it's about these things that we search for to improve life — robotics, things that we can find, artificial food — that will somehow or another improve and solve all of our terrible problems. And that creates [the] worst problems ... [Dworkin cites weeds overcoming different herbicides and diseases thwarting various antibiotics as examples.] ... It's a very interesting time where we have these huge advances in science that then create their own antithesis.

How about nonfiction on that topic?

A lot of the nonfiction that I've read in recent years was older. It was by E.O.Wilson, who studies ants and finds the whole world, the whole world, in the behavior of ants. And Norman Borlaug, who was the man who invented the green revolution, reinvented the wheat field and figured out how to vastly increase the yield of wheat. And [he] warned, when he got the Nobel Prize, warned against the abuses of corporate agriculture and of big corporate agriculture, what they call "big ag." Those people wrote in their time [both] 40 years ago, and they said, everything we now know ... I just read a wonderful book called "Lab Girl" by Hope [Jahren] about the madness of the passionate scientists, the kind of obsessive thrill of discovery, which is the great positive piece of what we're doing now.

You're somebody who's written in a number of different genres ... who's your favorite author who's been able to accomplish something similar in that breadth of subject matter?

I am a great Erik Larson fan, a huge Erik Larson fan. He's a man who writes novelized nonfiction. You wouldn't call it fiction. I mean, "The Devil in the White City" is not fiction; it's nonfiction, but ... it holds the reader like fiction. I'm a great fan of his because I believe that people have to study history ... otherwise they're doomed to relive it, like the wise men say. And a writer like that who can make history live and still be accurate [is admirable].

Was there a biography that you read prior to [writing "The Nazi Officer's Wife"], or maybe during that time, that helped you?

Actually, no. The truth is that "The Nazi Officer's Wife" was — I kind of derived that story with her. She wrote that story by giving me these huge interviews, and she had all these papers, these letters, this extraordinary collection of letters, which most people who are writing about that period don't have. They don't have documentary proof.

What was your favorite book as a child?

Upton Sinclair wrote a series of books called the Lanny Budd [Series] about a young man who had all these political adventures through the first and second World Wars. And, of course, Upton Sinclair was the guy who wrote "The Jungle." He was a big social realist, and I loved those books because they were about a teenager in recent history ... They opened the world for me and made me a history buff ... I really think that people should really try and live not just in their own time but in the time before and the time to come. They should think about their lives as having a cause and having an effect. It just makes the world we live in today so much more comprehensible.

What books are currently on your nightstand?

"The Red-Haired Woman" by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate. [It's a] very interesting book, sort of metaphoric book about the nature of fatherhood in politics. The idea of the yin and yang of tyranny, the fatherliness of tyranny and the horrible oppression of tyranny ... In its most obvious sense, it's about a young man who goes to dig a well with a master well-digger in the search of water. Who is this master? Is he really a master? Is he really a father figure? Is he really the guy who tells you [you have] to dig that well? It's about Turkey, but only in the smallest way, I think.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions