In The Butterfly, Paul M. Hedeen takes us back to the fall of 1963, a few weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination. An obscure émigré Russian professor dies of a stroke—or so it is believed. The professor’s eccentricities and complicity create both mystery and jeopardy as his documents lead his student backward into a century of famine, political terror, and war and forward into a bewildering underworld of malevolent opportunists, unstable identities, and improvised histories.
When the student falls in with the troubled daughter of the Nazi elite, she becomes his lover, guide, and tormentor as both are irresistibly drawn into the dark aftermath of World War II. Memoirs, fairy tales, fiction, and scenarios interweave and reveal the postwar fate of Eva Braun and secrets concerning the famous Holocaust photo, “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.”
Paul M. Hedeen was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1953. Like many young people growing up in the 1960s and its anti-war counter-culture, he was drawn first to music, then poetry, creative writing, and the arts. He graduated from high school in 1971 and attended Kent State University the year after the shooting of four student protesters. He learned much at Kent about literature and writing. He also learned about the precariousness of life, the authoritarian nature of governments, and the ways that wars reveal a culture’s underlying contradictions. The murder of innocence and unmanageable institutional violence stayed with him and are themselves part of the energy and intent of The Butterfly. Importantly, KSU introduced Hedeen to a Russian professor who had a dark and mysterious past, a Polish officer pursued by Soviet agents, and the bizarre idea that even Eva Braun might be the object of art.
A brief stint in business followed college graduation, which was itself followed by graduate training in literature and writing at The University of Akron and Northwestern University. An academic career followed with postings in Maine, Iowa, and Michigan, scores of courses and hundreds of students taught, and critical and creative writing published with some regularity. As is the case in academe, most of this work was done quietly and more or less out of the public eye, but some garnered notice. Noteworthy among the publications are two novels, the forthcoming The Butterfly (BHC Press) and The Knowledge Tree (Wide Water); two collections of poetry, Under a Night Sky and When I Think About Rain (both from Final Thursday Press); and a co-edited anthology, Unrelenting Readers: The New Poet Critics (Story Line Press). Awards include a Fulbright Lectureship, Ukraine, 2008; Carnegie/CASE Iowa Professor of the Year, 1999-2000; and the Margaret Church Memorial Prize, best essay for 1985, Modern Fiction Studies, among others.
Hedeen, like so many modern writers, is interested in the burdens ideology and war have placed upon societies and individuals. Like Joyce, Hedeen seizes upon the “nightmare of history” from which his characters try to awake. Hedeen does not shy from dramatizing imagined fates of those who are drawn to evil for excitement, wealth, or love. In fact, his characters’ dark gifts are magical, and they mesmerize the innocent and paralyze the virtuous. While no Hedeen character is ideal, his innocents—Kaspar in The Knowledge Tree; Olesya, Katrina, and Fortunatus in The Butterfly—seem unable to resist the active and charming complicities of other characters like Zapruder (The Knowledge Tree) and Eisenbraun (The Butterfly). In The Butterfly there are even the more obvious examples of evil—Kapanelov, Blend, Hitler, and Braun—whom Hedeen reduces to a recognizable scale, thereby highlighting their malevolence.
Of particular fascination to Hedeen is the way history’s nightmare controls even the contemporary world. Hedeen’s victims are trapped by others’ actions in the past. Their reactions to these actions range from the comedic to the tragic. Hedeen knows that since Europe’s absurdists (Kafka and Camus)—not to mention America’s (Vonnegut, Hawkes, and Pynchon)—it is possible to express laughter and terror simultaneously.
Why did you choose to write about Eva Braun?
Eva Braun is a lightning rod for interesting energies and attractions. For that reason, she is a good subject for fiction. She is erotic. She is controversial. She slept with the devil, perhaps sold her soul to him, too. In my novel, she sleeps with several devils. On the other hand she was almost desperately ordinary and in many ways a victim. She is a person of contradictions and speculations. Along with her obvious defects, mostly tied to her vanity, she had virtues. She was loyal, even adoring, unto death. Like so many women, she became the plaything of men who exploited and destroyed her.
Did the characters Jürgen Blend, Constanze Kochen, and Olesya Feodosiyivna Aborovyk live?
Yes, in a manner of speaking. Blend are Kochen are types of evil, Blend the active perpetrator, Kochen the passive fellow traveler. To a large extent they are representations rather than fully drawn characters. Kochen is based upon the historical character Constanze Manziarly, Hitler’s dietician. She disappeared as she tried to escape Berlin during the last hours of the battle. She was last seen being escorted into a subway tunnel by Russian soldiers. Out of respect for her likely terrible fate, I changed her name.
In contrast, Olesya Aborovyk represents everything people should admire about Ukrainians. She is smart, strong, principled, loving, long-suffering, loyal, and simply and naturally beautiful. She is a foil for Braun and Kochen. As a foil, Aborovyk enlarges our appreciation of Braun’s situation. Braun and Aborovyk love, but Braun is destroyed by her love, for its objects and motives are ruinous. Aborovyk loves out of adoration and devotion. As a person of little outward power, she is a victim. That she is tasked with caring for Braun is a supreme irony. Aborovyk endures because of her inner strength and her ability to love what is good. Her victimization shows that the male world cares little for her virtues.
Why manipulate the prose? Why make a novel out of other forms of storytelling?
I wanted the story to be a challenge met by the novel’s various texts. So much of what we think we know we imagine in various forms and languages. To what extent are truth and knowledge the product of our modes of inquiry and expression? The Butterfly is “impressionistic,” much in the same way as Monet’s pond flowers. Who is to say what is most real, a photograph made of light and chemicals or Monet’s thousand daubs of paint?
This impressionism affects topic and form. What might be remembered in a memoir, for example, is different than what might be visualized (imagined) in a scenario. As for the latter, the novel’s scenarios are sharp, immediate, visual, and brief. In particular, they are written in the present tense rather than the past and take the reader into the moment with none of the distancing that takes place in conventional narrative writing.
Is this novel a self-conscious quest narrative? If so, why?
The novel is self-conscious, meaning it does not try to disguise its artifice. And, yes, it is a quest for answers and for love. I think it is everyone’s quest to find love. And the greatest form of love is transgressive love. A transgressive love breaks the rules and in that way transcends them. Transgressive love disobeys social conventions and requires courage, for the lovers are frequently ostracized and punished. Underlying love’s great and personal quest, perhaps deriving from it, is the quest for validation, to be redeemed in the other’s eyes. One thinks now of Kapanelov and Blend. Even bad people want to be happy and believed. Even bad people want to be innocent again—perhaps more so than others.
Your use of endnotes is unique, for they are also a part of the story. Tell us about them.
The notes, like the “Notes and Acknowledgments” and “Editor’s Foreword,” should be read as part of the novel. All show that the compiler, the character Warren Hart, cannot simply trust someone else’s research and texts. Hart is overbearing. He is a meddler and is worried about the scrutiny that will come his way. His own legacy is his preoccupation. He has a weak ego. The front matter and notes dramatize his character even as they advance our understanding of what happens and why. He is manipulative, as both a character and a writer, and something of a show-off. He hopes he can control our understanding not only of him, but also of his past. More seriously, perhaps, the notes constantly remind us of the provisional nature of knowledge. No one’s story is, finally, simple or finished. There is always more to know and say. Hart’s inability to polish the text to the point where its self-consciousness disappears will be difficult for readers who want to escape into the story. I understand that. But what is dramatized in this novel and erased from others are its traces of other forms of meaning.
Read part 2 in the author interview/blog series: Paul M. Hedeen Discusses the Importance of Historical Settings and the Famous Holocaust Photo “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa”—the Inspiration Behind His New Historical Fiction Release The Butterfly
Read part 3 in the author interview/blog series: Paul M. Hedeen Discusses His Inspiration and Why He Chose to Write About Eva Braun in His New Historical Fiction Novel The Butterfly
Advance Praise for The Butterfly
“…fascinating…sheds light on a difficult period in human history…” —Fred L. Holmes, director of the film Dakota
“…engaging…as packed as an ammo train and almost as threateningly explosive…” —Gary Eller author of Thin Ice and Other Risks
“…life changing! This book opened my eyes…” —Adriana A., NetGalley Reviewer and blogger at Books With Adri
Categories: Author Interviews