Monica Hesse '03 Publishes New Book
With a column in the Washington Post and a novel on the New York Times bestseller list, Monica Hesse ’03 has a lot to say. In the below Q&A, the English major talks about the impact her Bryn Mawr education has had on her career, her latest book, and more.
What was the inspiration for this book?
They Went Left is my third set in the World War II era—I've been researching this time period for six years. And what I noticed was how many stories just drop off with the end of the war. The last page of the book is about V-Day, or about the liberation of a concentration camp. I wanted to write something that picked up where those books left off, because for many survivors, the end of the war was the beginning of their journey. Families had been ripped apart and were now scattered in different directions, hundreds of miles from home. Now, on a continent that was completely broken, in an era without internet, reliable telephones, or the postal service, they had to find each other.
What's the connection between your work as a reporter and your writing?
I've been at the Washington Post for 13 years, writing about everything from dog shows to presidential campaigns to dishy, bizarre Academy Awards after parties where I'm the only person in the room who's not astronomically famous. I've been a long-form feature writer and a reporter on the National staff—and right now I'm a columnist, writing about gender and the way it shapes and is shaped by society. Writing novels started as a fun side project—a chance to linger on a subject for a whole year, instead of the day or two you typically get for newspaper articles. But it's become its own parallel career, and the two kinds of writing are more similar than different. Stories are the way we make sense of the human experience. No matter whether I'm writing about real people or fictional characters, I'm thinking about the same things: who is this person, and what makes them tick? Even if they're a villain in the story, how do they see themselves as a hero in their own life?
How did your time at Bryn Mawr influence your work?
Bryn Mawr is the first time I ever took a writing class (which was also, incidentally, the first non-4.0 grade I ever got), and I probably wouldn't have even considered journalism as a career if I hadn't stumbled into a Bi-Co News meeting my first year. Being part of a small, welcoming community that encouraged everyone to try everything—I can't even describe how helpful that was to me. I now have colleagues who went to larger schools, and they talk about how cutthroat their own college newspapers were, how it was impossible to get a byline if you hadn't been the editor-in-chief of your high school newspaper. My high school didn't even have a newspaper. A setting like that would have snuffed my career before it even started.
Did any particular professors who stand out as an influence on your career?
Bethany Schneider was my thesis advisor, and the first class I took with her felt revolutionary for how much it embraced—I don't know how else to put it—utter weirdness. The idea that there was always a new way to look at something. I remember coming to her and saying, "Hello, I think I would like my thesis to be about cannibalism in literature; I'll probably study some Herman Melville and some Tennessee Williams and some back issues of People magazine covering the Jeffrey Dahmer trial," and Bethany said, "Oh yep, totally. Sounds great."