By DEREK WILEY
Of the Keizertimes
The Hidden Letters of Velta B., written by Keizer author Gina Ochsner, will be released Tuesday but the journey to writing her second novel began 11 years ago with a story in the Boston Review.
Ochsner was reading Regeneration by Latvian author Pauls Toutonghi.
“His use of language, his lyric register, how he was describing what happened to Latvians during World War II and the occupations, was so unique, so unlike other narratives we hear about World War II, that I thought I have to find out more,” Ochsner said. “I literally ran to my car and got there [Jackson’s Books] as fast as I could.”
Working the counter that day was a Latvian woman, Dace Berzins, and the two started a friendship.
“She brought all of her family books and albums and shared with me some really central and important things about Latvian culture, the songs, music, poetry, just Latvian take on life and how they look at things,” Ochsner said. “That continued to fuel that initial curiosity.”
Then Berzins told Ochsner she must visit Latvia, and in particular the capital city, Riga, and the River Daugava. Berzins asked Ochsner to bring her back some river mud.
“It was like this test, how truly interested in Latvia are you?” Ochsner said. “That was the first test and then there were many other little tests that Latvians had for me. Are you really serious about Latvian culture? If you are, this is what you need to do or this is what you need to pursue, research or find out more about.”
Between 2006-2010, Ochsner went on five different trips to Latvia.
“I just wanted to learn about the culture,” said Ochsner, who didn’t know the end result would be a novel. “There’s always something because I love to write.”
She started with a short story, which was published in the New Yorker and became chapter one of The Hidden Letters of Velta B.
But chapter one turned into two, three and four. The final result was 12 chapters over 299 pages.
“You’re never done,” Ochsner said. “The publisher said you have to stop. It was their call. I would have kept going and going. That was part of the revision process, how to get 257,000 words down to 100,000. There were a few fun people that had to be edited out but I always save and they’ll be reincarnated in something else. There’s a Heaven for edited scraps.”
Ochsner’s novel looks at the complicated history of Latvia. When she was touring the west end of the country, a college student pointed to a place where all the Jews in town had been drowned. Ochsner had researched the town and read nothing about it.
“There are several different sets of history for Latvia, the ones that Latvia writes and the ones that Soviets wrote and a history that can never be written because the people who are involved in some of these things are still alive,” Ochsner said. “That’s what I wanted to explore in this book, a town that has several sets of history that collide and conflict with one another and how will people reconcile themselves with difficult histories.”
The characters come from the people Ochsner met on her trips—Latvians, Russians, Jews and Gypsies.
“I thought she [Gypsy] was important because several times in Latvia I was told they have no Gypsies and that’s while one was standing right next to me with their hand out selling something,” Ochsner said. “It was an interesting phenomena of obvious denial and I wondered what was behind it and it’s a deep-seeded dislike for the Roma in Latvia.”
Ochsner’s main character is Maris, a boy with extraordinary ears who, with the help of his great grandmother’s letters, brings healing to a town burned by the sins of its past.
“It really is a story about a community making the decision to come together for reconciliation and forgiveness and renewal,” she said. “That really is the main message. Love is always a hard decision. It’s easy to hate and that’s what those folks figure out, in the end.”
While the book is finished, Ochsner isn’t done with Latvia. She plans to revisit all the towns and relocate all of the people she interviewed.
“There is a very distinct, unique and robust literary tradition in Latvia and they’re proud of that tradition and they should be,” Ochsner said. “It’s part of what kept them culturally and linguistically alive during the soviet occupation. It’s really quite an amazing thing.”
Next, Ochsner plans to travel to Bulgaria and Moldova to visit with a group of bear tamers.
“I love to travel,” she said. “You always discover something that’s undiscoverable and you just can’t get it from reading something online or from a book. You kind of just have to see some things for yourself.”