"My life is exuberant chaos,” a smiling Pam Jenoff says via Zoom from her home in New Jersey, which she shares with her husband, three middle-school-age kids, and five pets—a dog, a cat, a bird, a lizard, and a rabbit. “It’s a party all the time. We never close. It’s busy and fun, and there’s still crayon on the walls from when the kids were little. I haven’t cooked dinner since the first Obama administration. I just stay in my lane—I write, I teach law, and I mom. That’s it.”
Jenoff is a law professor at Rutgers and the bestselling author of 11 historical novels, most of which are centered on WWII and the Holocaust. Her books have sold more than three million copies worldwide, according to her publisher Park Row, and have been translated into 24 languages.
The author’s latest, Code Name Sapphire, out in February and partly inspired by true events, follows a Jewish member of an underground resistance network in 1942 Brussels who tries to rescue her cousin’s family from a train bound for Auschwitz.
“When I’m looking for a new idea for a book, I’m looking for what I call the gasp and the questions,” Jenoff explains. “The gasp comes if I can find a bit of history from the war that is so unknown that it makes me gasp and that hopefully will be something that readers will feel the same way about. In the case of Code Name Sapphire, the gasp was discovering this attempt by people to sabotage a train that was headed from Belgium to Auschwitz. After the gasp come the questions. I wanted to know how these people had been so brave as to attempt such a feat, and why more people hadn’t tried to do the same thing.”
Born in New Jersey in 1972, Jenoff grew up working class and developed a passion for historical fiction as a teenager (“We might have been stretched for a payday but I don’t remember ever not being able to get a book,” she says). After earning her undergraduate degree from George Washington University, she attended Cambridge, where she received a masters degree in history. She returned to the United States in 1994 and worked as the special assistant to the secretary of the Army at the Pentagon, then, two years later, took a job in Kraków, Poland, working for the State Department on Holocaust issues, including concentration camp preservation and the restitution of Jewish property that had been seized during the war.
“I went to Poland with a black-and-white view of the war—what I had learned from history books—and I discovered that everything was much more nuanced,” Jenoff remembers. “I came away from my years there really moved and changed by what I had experienced, and I’ve been writing about it ever since. My books are love songs to the people who lived through that era.”
While working in Poland, Jenoff began writing a novel set during WWII, but it wasn’t until 9/11—after she had returned to the States again and gotten a law degree—that she decided to seriously pursue a writing career. “It was that mortality moment,” Jenoff explains. “I have a joking phrase, ‘Dear God, I don’t want to die at the law firm.’ I love the law, but 9/11 was my mortality moment. I was a brand new attorney then, and I said, wow, I have always wanted to be a novelist. I have not done anything of substance to further that dream—and it went from there.”
Jenoff worked from five to seven each morning, before she went to her law firm job, on the novel that would become her 2007 debut, The Kommandant’s Girl. “I’m really good with productivity and discipline,” she says. “When I was an attorney, if I’d said, I’m not motivated to write a brief today, I would’ve lost my job. I believe in a businesslike approach to writing, in planning ahead to eliminate the possibility of writer’s block. I believe it can move that rock up the hill a little bit every day.”
Telling women’s stories is of particular interest to Jenoff. “I lean toward writing about women partly because women in history have been so under-credited and have not gotten the attention for so much that they did,” she says. “It’s exciting to see what a strong woman does when she’s thrown into new circumstances, and how she brings her inherent strength to bare to grow into a situation.”
Jenoff’s agent, Susan Ginsburg at Writers House, thinks the author has much in common with her resilient protagonists. “Pam is a force of nature,” Ginsburg says. “She’s a law professor, a mother, an author, and she takes care of it all so smoothly that it’s barely believable. It’s amazing that she manages to do all the things she manages to do. It makes me feel like such a slacker, and I do a lot. She’s never rattled, and she’s always thanking everyone who works hard for her as if she were not the real talent.”
Erika Imranyi, Jenoff’s editor, adds, “Pam is always striving to write her best possible book. Oftentimes with historical novels, the narrative can get bogged down in the history and lose some of the story elements, and Pam is great at balancing both. She takes historical accuracy seriously, but she also has a strong grasp of how to tell a story and grip readers, and how to leave them on the edge of their seats. She’s incredibly passionate about her craft and her subject matter. She knows where she falls in my heart.”
Keeping WWII and Holocaust history alive is Jenoff’s mission. “The generation of survivors is getting up there in years, and it’s critically important that we capture and tell their stories in whatever form we can,” she says. “It’s almost a kind of reverence when you approach history like this. I love bringing these stories to light in a way that makes people want to learn more.”
Jenoff grinds at her craft every day. She’s proud of her hard work (“It took me nine books to hit the bestseller list; before that I couldn’t hit a bestseller list with a baseball bat”) and delights in her blissfully imperfect life. “A person who hangs out with me on social media would get it pretty right,” she says. “Pam is a hot mess. She’s super crazy, she lives in squalor. If you see her in matching shoes and lipstick it’s probably an imposter. I’m overly caffeinated and sleep deprived. But I’m here. And I’m here for readers.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.