Q&A – The Baker’s Daughter
Lisa: The novel moves back and forth between two vastly different settings: present-day America on the Tex-Mex border and Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. What inspired you to pair the two?
Sarah: It does seem obscure, and that’s why I found their association so captivating. I spent a portion of my childhood in Germany where my dad, a career military officer, was stationed. My husband also grew up in Germany, speaks fluent German, and worked there during his summers in college. When we moved to El Paso, the local magazine asked me to write a feature article on the German community. “There’s a German community?” I asked. Yes—a thriving one. Way out on the corner of Texas, barely clinging to the edge of the United States, is a sizable German air force base. Apparently the Luftwaffe has trained fliers in the United States since 1958. In 1992, they consolidated their troops at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, just up the road from El Paso.
Not long after that article ran, I went to a local farmer’s market and met an 80-year-old German woman selling bread. I was completely smitten by her, and all that I imagined she might have experienced in her life. While picking out my brötchen, I asked how she came to be in El Paso. “I married an American soldier after the war,” she told me. Voila! Elsie, my 1945 protagonist, was born. My memories of living and traveling in Germany served as my imaginative landscape and fueled my hunger to research the country and its people during those last awful months of World War.
Teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso, many of my students wrote about their fear and anxiety regarding the deportation of family and friends. I imagined many in Germany (Aryan, Jewish, etc.) felt similarly.
Lisa: There’s a great deal of research that went into both storylines. Did anything surprise you?
Sarah: I was shocked and surprised at nearly every document about Germany and El Paso. I’d yell to my husband, Oh my God! Did you know… And despite living and working in Germany for years, despite living and working in El Paso now, he never once answered yes. Of course the research into Nazi Germany unearthed deeply disturbing facts. The Lebensborn Program, for one, took me months to emotionally process. I searched for every opportunity to disprove its existence. I didn’t want to believe. Then I realized that disbelief, unwillingness to confront the truth and take a stand, was a similar reaction to many German citizens. It was so unfathomable that it pained the soul. Not possible, I said. How could any human being do such things? Instead of pushing it away, I tried to harness that response and use it to shed light on dark secrets.
The same was true of our present-day border issues. Living within a mile of Juarez, Mexico, I’ve witnessed firsthand the dire struggle of illegal families. I see it on the news, at the grocery store, in my neighborhood. I felt it incumbent on me to speak—to tell the story and share what I’ve seen.
Lisa: So we have two women protagonists: Reba in present day and Elsie in the past. Which perspective did you find was the easiest to write? Which was the most difficult?
Sarah: The leading female characters came pretty organically to my imagination. The Josef chapters were the most psychologically taxing. I had to take all the historical information I’d gathered about the Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) and the horrors of the Nazi regime and flip my psyche—try to imagine it from the perspective of someone within. I had to remind myself that these weren’t barbarous demons; these were men. They knew right from wrong, just as we all do. They weren’t beyond human compassion. So then, I asked myself, how could they? Or, in this specific case, how could Josef rationalize and live with his actions. As the author, I had a responsibility to present his perspective without my own emotional judgments. That was difficult, but I believe those dark chapters are essential to the book. It’s important to remember the innocent as well as the evil—so that we can immediately recognize the latter if we see it again.
Lisa: Familial relationships play a significant role in the novel, specifically daughterhood. There are many similarities and some stark differences between how Reba and Elsie appear as daughters in the novel. Do you think that’s a product of culture or time or more?
Sarah: All of the above. The dynamic between mothers and daughters—women of varying generations—seems to be a reoccurring theme in my writing. Each new generation believes it is more advanced than its predecessor. However, history has proven to be a gigantic record spinning round on different threads but in the same motion. Our lives overlap whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. Both Reba and Elsie struggle to find themselves, to establish their own beliefs and make choices in alternate environments. Their places on earth may differ, but their journey is the same. The deep love and deep conflicts of daughterhood are undeniable. We accept, forgive, and learn from our mothers or we reject, condemn, and disregard. That choice is mirrored on the large-scale, too—in how we act as a people, as nations.
Lisa: I think this novel would work wonderfully for book clubs. What issues do you imagine readers discussing after they turn the last page?
Sarah: Oh, there are so many—love, forgiveness, exclusion, passivity, family dynamics, independence, courage and cowardice, and the list goes on. But mostly, after turning the last page, I hope all the issues in the novel penetrate and resonate in readers’ hearts and minds, thereby paying tribute to the memory of those who lived through those war-torn years and honoring the men, women, and families going through them now. I hope this book is a powerful illustration of just how influential one convicted person can be in changing the world—for good and for evil. All of history can be altered. If each of us took up the cause of good, imagine what we could do individually and together.
Lisa: And lastly, because I know readers will be wondering based on your title, do you have any recipes you regularly bake at home? You’ve taken us into The Baker’s Daughter’s kitchen, would you mind giving us a glimpse into your own?
Sarah: I’d love to! I greatly enjoy baking and cooking. I try to do it as often as possible. There’s something therapeutic in the culinary process. To me, recipes are like prescriptions. When I’m feeling stressed or anxious or simply need a mental reprieve, I head to the kitchen. I like to cook alone. I know this is different from many, but it’s a Zen space for me. I don’t have to talk or think too much. I can dream while I measure, crack, whisk, and pour. So long as I follow the instructions, I have guaranteed success. Baking satisfies all of my tactile senses: colors, textures, tastes, sounds, and smells. In under two hours, I’ve created something start to finish. It’s an instant gratification achievement.
That was a long-winded answer to the question: what do you bake? On a weekly basis, I bake a lot of savory dishes, but I love the holiday season when I get to try interesting, new sweet ones. Personally, I’m easy to please. The smell of almonds, sea salted and cinnamon sprinkled, roasting in the oven is just about the ultimate for me. However, my mom bakes a lean, mean peanut butter chocolate kiss cookie that my husband calls “the best cookie in the history of mankind.” As her daughter, I have the recipe. It’s a family tradition.