17 Nov 2013

Alan Wynzel “When I was German”

2 Comments Book Reviews


Today I am presenting on of my reading highlights of this year.

I accidentally stumbled upon this gem via a tweet and am very pleased to share this remarkable memoir with you today.  

“When I Was German” by Alan Wynzel is a bitter sweet childhood memoir of a young man growing up in his own private war zone that is the marriage between his German mother and his Jewish father in America during the 1960s and 1970s.

It is a moving tale about a child caught in the parent’s volatile relationship, the clash of their cultures and personalities and the resulting identity issues for the young men brought on by conflicting ideas and role models.
Wynzel’s perception of the Jewish and the German cultures is a very interesting perspective and one that benefits particularly from being told by the point of view of an adolescent. His childhood fantasies, his perception of films and comments about Germans in the US (particularly about the 1976 Munich Olympics hostage drama) and the descriptions of the family holidays in Germany are insightful, heart breaking and thought provoking. Being German myself and living abroad – even twenty years later than this book’s story – I can relate to many of the author’s experiences.

Wynzel does an excellent job at describing his experiences realistically and honestly, making this an engaging and compelling page turner for me. This is an interesting and unique life story that deserves to be told and read.




Tell us a little about yourself as writer and a person

As a person I’m a bit of a contradiction.  I’ve worked in Technology mostly in Corporate America for years to pay the bills, and as such I appear conventional, but I’m really not.  I’m not your average American guy.  I don’t follow sports, I don’t play golf—I’m more interested in the arts, in creative things, in the offbeat and off-center.  I have my own opinions and I not a joiner of groups or a cheerleader for any, and this has gotten me in trouble at work sometimes, my being a non-conformist; I don’t buy into the corporate mindset, I do better in small companies than large ones with all their procedures, culture, and behavioral norms.  I’m also a father to two teenaged children who are both creative in their own ways and I’ve always encouraged them to pursue their creative dreams, especially since I deferred mine for so long.  As a writer, I’m driven to do it…I’m just compelled to write, and while sometimes I may take long breaks from it if I don’t write for a while I feel like something is wrong.  I started writing novels about 20 years ago and haven’t quit since.  I always have ideas, I’ve explored different genres but found I do my best work either in memoir or “fictionalizing” my own life.

What made you decide to write your memoirs?

I really had to get an understanding of what happened in my home when I was a child.  I had very strong opinions regarding who was the bad guy (my father) and who was the good guy (my mother).  But I knew my feelings had been shaped by my mother, and I had to sort it all ouT

Tell us a little about the history of the book. Did you write and publish right away or did you hesitate

I didn’t hesitate but I had to go through a few editing iterations to get it right.  But once I felt I had it right, I plunged right into attempting to publish conventionally by querying agents, editors, and publishers.

Was it difficult to publish something so personal?

Yes.  It’s a lot of dirty laundry to air, and it makes me feel vulnerable.

How much of the material did you know would make it into the book before you started writing and how much changed during the process?

The original version was much more anecdotal, and many of the anecdotes were not necessary.  I was advised by an agent to really edit it down, and I identified what themes I wanted to pursue and how to best keep them flowing.  I cut the original 150,000 words down to less than 100,000.  I know a lot of good “stories” got cut but they diluted the overall impact.  The agent remarked it was one of the best edits he’d ever seen.  I still have his letter, somewhere.  Unfortunately he didn’t think he could sell the book so he didn’t sign me on.

Was it cathartic or painful to write it all down.

Yes.  It was hard to keep my distance.  In fact, it’s still painful to read.

How do you feel about your childhood now?

I have a better perspective on it now.  I understand better how it shaped me as a person, I understand my parents better, and I realize that, despite all the bad parts, I had a lot of fun.  I try to remember the good things, the fun, and the love my parents did give me, in their own way.

How do you feel about Germany and the Jewish faith?

Very mixed feelings.  I married (and since divorced) a Jewish woman whose father was a Reform Rabbi.  With her I embraced a Jewish identity and life, and her father “converted” me because, given matrilineal descent, I was not technically Jewish.  We are raising our children Jewish, and while I identify with being Jewish, I just don’t care for observance and all the “belief” involved in religion.  I’m not sure I believe in g-d; at least not in the standard perception of g-d.  I see too many problems with religion as a means of social control.  I could go on, but that’s the essence of it.  As for Germany, I identify as German reluctantly.  I have too many bad associations with the place to want to be German.  And it goes without saying, Nazism, WWII, and all the apologists.  Suffice to say, “When I Was German”…a past-tense statement.

Who would play the family in a film?

Great question.  For my father I would say Alan Arkin, because Arkin sounds just like him and he has the NYC Jew thing down.  For my mother?  I don’t know.

What is your life like? What do you do for pleasure and work when you are not writing?

I work in Technology and things are tough right now because I was laid off a few times recently and while still working in the field, I’m making only 2/3 of what I used to.  But for fun, I like to spend time with my kids (although that’s less and less as they expand their own teenaged lives).  I read a lot, I like to hike, bike, go out for drinks and dinner when I can.  I can’t afford much more.  Everyone please buy my book so I can afford to go on vacation next summer.

Who are your literary influences? What are your favourite books/ films/ albums?

I’m strongly influenced by Hemingway and Bukowski.  I’ve read a number of the classics and lot of 19th century lit (Dickens, Twain, all the Russians) but nowadays I stick with contemporary (post-WWII) writers.  I enjoy Vonnegut (feels like I’m sitting talking to a friend) and Cormac McCarthy—with him I feel like I’m reading a modern master.  But what I’m talking about is contemporary literature.  I don’t read “popular” books at all.  No interest.  And I read a lot of WWII (and some WWI) history, ranging from very academic campaign analyses to war memoirs.

What would your friends tell us if we asked for your best and your oddest qualities?

I’m a ranter.  Just like my old man.  And a complainer.  Just like my mother.  On the good side, I’m funny, in different ways…clever, witty, or sometimes, downright raunchy.  Having said that, I’m tactful about it…usually.

What would you take to a remote island?

Sofia Vergara, a case of tequila and an enormous “DO NOT RESCUE” sign.  Not kidding

What are you writing at the moment and where would we find out about your next projects?

I completed a novel earlier this year that I will be publishing in the near future, once I get When I Was German rolling.  The novel is a fictionalized account of my experiences in the recent Great Recession, where I was laid off twice, went broke, had a major relationship fail and struggled with drink and despair.  It’s called The Seventh Round and details one week in which the protagonist’s life disintegrates, piece by piece. 


Follow my writing blog http://avoicefromlakevalleyroad.blogspot.com/

my poetry blog http://poemsfromelmstreet.blogspot.com/

and on Twitter @alanwynzel for updates.

About this author

I was born and raised in Morristown, NJ. The years I spent there in a home on Lake Valley Road shaped my life and my writing, which began there, when I was 11. That home was a battleground where my mother, a German woman who grew up in Nazi Germany (she was Catholic) and suffered deprivations and loss in WWII poured her sorrow into me and fought with my father, a NYC Jew, for posession of my soul. My childhood memoir, When I Was German, tells that story.

When I Was German is available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Apple, Smashwords, and Kobo. See my writing blog for links to all these purchase points.

Now, at 49, I’m still writing. I’m divorced, have two teenaged kids, and was out of work for almost 2 years in the Great Recession. I’ve been writing about that, too. A novel, The Seventh Round, that I will publish soon, tells that story. And another is in the works. I’m most prolific, and adept, at telling my own life story, whether in memoir, or fiction.

Like Hemingway said, write what you know.

As for the writers I most admire, well, Hemingway, of course. And Bukowski…I can’t read any other poetry but his. I am influenced and mostly read contemporary writers like Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, George Orwell, and Gunther Grass


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: