Lifetimes upon lifetimes: Conn College prof’s short stories explore Holocaust inheritance and modern love and loneliness
Courtney Sender remembers listening to her grandmother speak — emotionally, tearfully — about almost all of her family in Czechoslovakia dying during the Holocaust. She lost everyone except for one brother.
“So siblings, nieces, nephews, parents, grandparents — everyone — killed,” Sender says.
“She would tell stories about her family and she would cry every time, even though it was 60-70 years later. For her, it was so alive, and she was so alive to me that it always felt very present.”
Most of Sender’s grandfather’s family members, meanwhile, managed to escape their home country of Germany.
Sender’s grandfather died before Courtney was born, and her grandmother, to whom she was very close, died a few years ago. But the familial history continues to have an impact on Sender and her writing. Sender touches on characters grappling with the past in her debut book, “In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me,” which will be published on March 1 by West Virginia University Press.
Sender — who became the writer-in-residence in fiction/visiting assistant professor at Connecticut College in 2022 — will do a public reading at the school on April 3.
“In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me” boasts blurbs from such bestselling authors as Ann Patchett and Alice McDermott.
“Here, ancient loss works its way deep into the psyche of modern characters, stirring their unrelenting lust for life,” the book jacket states.
Very different levels of tragedy
Sender says that the origins of a lot of her writing can be traced to the fact that our personal tragedies, even when not as big as historical ones, come to occupy similar spaces in our minds.
She explores that conflict in the short stories of “In Other Lifetimes.” And it’s something she has experienced.
“There’s always been this kind of uneasy comingling to me between the aliveness of the Holocaust stories and my grandmother and all of that, and the experience I was having in my 20s, which was a lot of longing and loneliness, and wishing I could find love and failing to find love and going on these stupid online dates that never led anywhere, and having to experience rejection,” says Sender, who is now 34.
“These two things feel so unequal in terms of import and in terms of how my brain and my heart deals with these very different levels of tragedy. And yet in my own life, not having love felt like a big tragedy in my 20s. So I was always living in this space I felt was this uncomfortable co-existence, I guess, between this giant Holocaust tragedy and this little tragedy that my dates weren’t going well.”
Echoing the fact that her family’s history in the Holocaust has always felt alive to her, Sender has ghosts exist over some characters’ shoulders in “In Other Lifetimes.”
In various stories, modern young couples come together and tear apart. In a woozily fantastical sequence, a young woman is revisited by all of her former loves at the same time.
The story of a woman tangled in a romance with a married man weaves in with her grandmother’s remembrances of the Holocaust and how life kept her going in the midst of all the tragedy.
A young man and woman’s relationship shifts as they visit Berlin and then a site that had been political-prisoner camp during WWII.
All the single ladies
Sender says that, in a lot of ways, this book is also a love letter to smart single women. In many of the stories, she notes, there is a friend character, or there are two women who are supposed to be competitors but who end up befriending each other.
“On the surface, it looks like a romantic love story. Under the surface, it’s really about friendship love, especially with women,” she says. “That’s been my interest in part because in my life, my 20s did feel like a fever dream of wanting love and failing at love essentially. I had a lot of empathy for other people in my position. It was very hard, but we were also very young, so we’re supposed to know there’s hope ahead. But it doesn’t feel like that when you’re in it. I really was trying constantly to capture both the immediate feeling of being bereft as people move on around you — that’s the feeling in the heart — and the feeling in the brain, which is, ‘I know I’m young, I know I have time, I know this can work out, but even if it doesn’t, there’s a fulfilling life that can be made that way, too,’” she says.
“That’s where I hope the book winds up. I hope the book takes a swerve and has the characters discovering that romantic love is good, so is friendship love and even there’s the possibility that the self can be enough. … I hope the book is sort of a consolation in that way by the end.”
The magic and the real
Sender, who grew up in Bergen County, N.J., always wanted to write. Her two favorite books remain “The Little Prince” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Every time she travels to a new country, she buys a copy of “Little Prince” in the language of that place.
“Both are these are fables so it is the magic mixed with the real. I view them almost as sacred or religious texts,” she says, adding that “One Hundred Years” is like a Book of Genesis and “The Little Prince” is like its own Bible.
“I’ve always been interested, even when I was little, in making the magic and the real co-exist,” she says.
After getting her bachelor’s degree in English from Yale, Sender earned her MFA in fiction from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.
Detour into divinity school
Sender has had her share of writing success. Her essays and articles, for instance, have appeared in The New York Times’ Modern Love and The Atlantic. She has won first place prizes including one from Graywolf Press.
But early on, when she was living in Baltimore after graduate school, she produced a novel manuscript. Her agent raved about it.
“I was told I was going to be the next big star. I was 25 or 26, and it didn’t work and no (publisher) wanted to buy that book. So I was sort of bereft in Baltimore and decided I needed to focus my attentions elsewhere,” she says.
Since she had been writing for a long time around topics of religion — not just Judaism but the origins of the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — she applied to divinity schools and became a student at Harvard Divinity School.
Her time there helped her move into writing “In Other Lifetimes” from a new perspective, where she could overcome what happened with her novel manuscript.
“I never really strayed from wanting to be a writer, but I think there are periods in a writer’s life where you’re flailing a little bit for subject or approach or voice, and I think I needed that year or two to recalibrate,” she says.
Morphing into a novel — and back again
“In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me” took shape over many years. There was a point where Sender put it together as a novel — and then she untangled it back into short stories again.
That happened when she was the George Bennett Writer-in-Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., in 2019-20.
Since it was during the early part of the pandemic, she had a lot of time to sit with pages “spread out in a circle around me on the floor, which is how I work. I have to orient myself toward whichever story and character (I’m working on). I noticed there are themes, of course, in the stories that recur — lost mothers, and fathers with complicated relationships, and lovers who leave and return, and the ghosts, so I just started thinking: could I combine these characters into a single narrative arc? I did that, but I think what wound up happening was it lost to me what I was interested in, which was these multiple refractions. I view this book as mirrors on mirrors on mirrors.”
A different side of history
In addition to her teaching job at Conn College in New London and her writing, Sender has a part-time gig as a staff writer for “Noble Blood,” an iHeartRadio podcast. It’s about historical nobles and royals “and all of the bloody, sexy, murderous hijinks they get into,” she says.
Sender had been following the work of the podcast’s host, Dana Schwartz, for many years. She was also a big fan of the podcast and so applied when she saw an ad for a writer.
For “Noble Blood,” she gets to research things like Thomas Jefferson’s sending a moose across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1700s. She learned more about Queen Isabella of France and Ivan the Terrible of Russia.
She says it has fed her own writing in terms of thinking about history in new ways.
Sender says the podcast “aligns with a lot of what I’m interested in, which is to find the women’s perspective on history — for me, it’s often been with the Holocaust — but thinking about history through kind of a slanted lens.”
About the book
What: “In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me” by Courtney Sender
Published by: West Virginia University Press
Release date: March 1
List price: $19.99
If you go
Who: Author Courtney Sender
What: Book launch reading of “In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me”
Where: Blaustein first floor, Connecticut College, Mohegan Avenue, New London
When: 4:30-6:30 p.m. April 3
Open: To the public
An excerpt from Courtney Sender’s story “I Am Going to Lose Everything I Have Ever Loved”:
We begin with facts: You loved me first. Before you knew it, you have come to say. From the instant you saw me. This story of yours, of course, is a fairytale. You only smiled at a girl-who-could-have-been-any-girl on a bridge, river flowing under her, traffic rushing behind her, brown curly hair and an hourglass her dress wasn’t trying to hide.
Of course, I believe you loved me from the instant you saw me and centuries before. Time bends, Samuel, in a story that is true. All our love was packed into that first smile.
No. No, you are going to leave me, and when you do you aren’t coming back …