Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight On . . . Libby Cone. I am very excited to introduce you to Libby and to her novel War on the Margins. As I have mentioned
repeatedly a few times, I did my doctoral research in Guernsey and thus have a soft spot in my heart for the Channel Islands.
As most of you know by now, the Channel Islands were occupied by the Germans during World War II. What many of you may not know is that persecution of Jews was no less present there than on the Continent.
In an odd kind of coincidence or convergence of . . . well, something, Libby and I have much in common. We both started out life in the sciences, we both ended up in the book world, and we both focused our research on the Channel Islands.
Libby concentrated on Jersey, and her book War on the Margins features documents and letters dating from the war and explores the lives two Jewish artists, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, who lived together, hiding their true relationship by saying they were stepsisters. They were extremely active in the Resistance in Jersey, and their story is amazing.
Libby talks about how she came to be an author.
I have lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for twenty years, having moved here from Boston in 1990 to do a nuclear medicine fellowship at Penn. Had anyone told me that I would be thinking about writing a novel ten years later, I would have laughed. But Pennsylvania has been a great place of transition and reinvention for me. When I first arrived, it took a while to become acclimated, to stop pronouncing the first "l" in "Schuylkill," to realize that Broad Street was Fourteenth Street, to eat a soft pretzel. But I also began my career here, at the late lamented Graduate Hospital in 1991, and my roots began to grow.
I think being away from the scrutiny of family and others who have settled expectations can be a very good thing in one's growth as an adult. I surprised myself with my own readiness to embrace a career after so many years of training. The harder lessons came later, as I found myself in the middle of the 1997–1998 Allegheny debacle, when a large Pittsburgh-based healthcare system with a ruthless and arrogant CEO took over the Graduate system, only to go bankrupt a year later. That was when I realized that it was power politics, and not merit, that ruled the day. I learned, probably later than most, that people in expensive suits could look me in the eye and lie; that money and power trump quality and altruism; that no good deed goes unpunished. Yes, I am thin-skinned.
Fortunately, I was an early user of the Internet, and this brought me my husband, a guy from Lansdale, who is still the most straightforward and unpretentious individual I have ever met. Philadelphia was (and is) the hotbed of progressive Judaism, which also began to draw my interest. I realized that, as far as the suits in the administrative offices were concerned, my career was just a job like any other. I sought something more meaningful. I began to take Adult Ed courses. Then I matriculated as a part-time graduate student in Jewish Studies at Gratz College in Melrose Park while working mostly full-time as a radiologist.
I was looking up Manx cats on the Internet one day when, instead of finding the Isle of Man, I ran across the Channel Islands and saw some information about their occupation by the German forces during World War II. Being as stubborn as I am thin-skinned, I delved into this little-known story of the Holocaust in microcosm. When I found I was boring everybody at lunch with the topic, I knew it was thesis material. My adviser, who doubtless plows through many doorstop dissertations, suggested I do an offbeat treatment. Thus the idea of the novel was born.
No doubt as I was reinventing myself as a writer, I was identifying with the Surrealist artists Claude Cahun (Lucille Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe), who, at a similar age, were reinventing themselves as Resistance propagandists on the occupied Island of Jersey. They, too, were resentful of bureaucracy, which, in the case of the occupation, was the tool used to control the Islands' inhabitants and to single out and further oppress the handful of remaining Jews.
War on the Margins became the poster child for self-publishing. A few months after I self-published the paperback, I heard from a British publisher. The hardcover was brought out in the UK, and the e-book in the United States, by Duckworth in 2009. Writing is still not paying the bills, but in terms of career satisfaction, it is endlessly exciting. While I still enjoy reading CT scans, the possibilities of a blank Page 1 in an Office document never fail to thrill me.
Thanks so much, Libby. It is fascinating to me how you stumbled across the German occupation of the Channel Islands and how you couldn't turn your back on the story of these women and the Jewish population of Jersey. The letters and documents found throughout your novel bring the stark reality of the occupation to light. Look for my review of War on the Margins in the next couple of weeks.
Photos: The photos of Moore and of Moore and Cahun's tombstone are from Libby Cone. The photos of a German bunker by the sea and a German-built silo in a field (click to enlarge) were taken by me in 1983 (scanned from slides; sorry about the quality). The German presence was still very much felt in the 1980s.
War on the Margins at Powell's
War on the Margins at Book Depository
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War on the Margins has been nominated for a People's Book Prize.
Libby Cone earned an MA in Jewish Studies in 2006 and War on the Margins grew from her thesis. She lives in Philadelphia.