Thursday, April 6, 2017

Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the author of the children's novel Making Bombs for Hitler, now available in the United States. It focuses on Ukrainian children who were slave laborers for the Nazis. Her other books include Adrift At Sea, Dance of the Banished, and Last Airlift. She lives in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Making Bombs for Hitler?

A: It’s been in my mind for a long, long time. Both of my in-laws survived World War II in Ukraine and [a friend’s] parents survived under similar circumstances. I was hearing stories, but never seeing it in books—it made me curious.

I didn’t start on this topic until many years later [after my first book]—I couldn’t get people to talk to me. If they were found out, they could be sent to the Soviet Union, and later they were still afraid. Under Putin’s regime, too, it was not much better. People who escaped from there are under the same fear of being discovered.

How do you get people to talk? In 2001, Hope’s War came out. There was a mention of slave labor…[but] I still didn’t have enough information to write a book.

Afterward, I was touring with that book, and people would come up to me and say, my mother, or my father, was an Ostarbeiter [slave laborer]. I got [information] in the mail. There was an accumulation of first-person accounts.

I’d had enough books written by that time that people trusted me with their stories. A university professor in Toronto said, I know a person who was a slave laborer; she will talk to you. She died two years ago. She was the one who was able to tell me what it was like then…

Q: How did you research the book, and what particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: It took me to a really dark place to write this book. I was weeping as I was writing it. I found it difficult to believe people could be so awful.

It was uplifting that the people who survived had an attitude like Lida, trying to find beauty in the most horrible things. In many ways, this enabled them to survive.

Also, it was sheer luck—taking one step one way or the other was the difference between life and death. There are a lot of reasons these people were able to tolerate it—they had hope for something. Lida had a desperate need to find her sister.

Q: What reaction have you had to the book so far?

A: In Canada it won the Silver Birch Award, a readers’ choice award…It has been ongoing. It’s my most popular book by far. Even though it was out in 2012 in Canada, everybody knows that book. It’s had a profound effect.

What humbled me was when the book was being read by kids through the Silver Birch Award—they’re really passionate about the books they choose. I’d get all these letters from kids. It was phenomenal. One 9-year-old said after reading about Lida he was so appreciative of his parents; he has nothing to complain about. It gives context.

The book was just out in the States at the end of February, and I’ve had an outpouring of emails from kids, adults, teachers, parents—I’m overwhelmed. It’s a transformational experience for them.

I’m blown away by how articulate the responses are. One woman said, This is like my own great-grandmother; I had to put it down after reading the first few pages--she was never able to describe what she went through, and you’ve given me back my great-grandmother. Another man said, We know people go through this, but people have forgotten.

What kids do—they’re doing YouTube videos. A couple of kids are reading the entire book on YouTube. There are others who have done trailers. There are all these conversations.

I try to respond to the kids. Parents will send me pictures on Twitter of their kids holding the book. People have told me their kids are really passionate about the book. That’s what makes me feel positive about humanity—I want people to step on the shoes of Lida to see what it feels like to be her.

It’s a scary world now—in many ways, the scariness is from a lack of empathy. People are feeling it’s us and them. If you have a vehicle where people can think like someone else, it can change the way their mind works.

Reading a historical novel plunges you into that time…If reading a book makes a child think, I’ve done my job.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished another World War II novel. Making Bombs is one of  a trilogy that’s already out in Canada. I’ve just started what I hope will be a [new] trilogy. I’m waiting for edits. In the meantime, I’ve wanted to clear my mind of sadness [and am working on] an adult thriller set in 1970…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, please click here.

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