Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Q&A with Susan Krawitz

Susan Krawitz is the author of Viva, Rose!, a new historical novel for kids. It focuses on a girl in early 20th century Texas who is kidnapped by Pancho Villa's forces. Krawitz is a freelance writer and editor, and she lives in Stone Ridge, New York.

Q: You write that the idea for Viva, Rose! came from your own family--how much is based on family history, and how much did you invent?

A: The characters of Rose and [her brother] Abe are based on real people, my grandfather’s first cousins. Their family had settled in San Antonio, Texas, instead of the east when they emigrated from Russia.

Apparently, they occasionally visited their relatives in Brooklyn, and when I was a kid, an uncle liked to tell stories about them. He said Rose was a red-headed singer, and Abraham liked to wear full cowboy regalia so he could look like a rube and pool-shark the locals at the billiards hall.

He also claimed that he’d ridden with Pancho Villa’s gang during the Mexican Revolution—but had also been spying on him for the U.S. government. Some of these stories were confirmed in a 1932 article in a San Antonio newspaper that my sister discovered. And that confirmation was actually what triggered Viva, Rose!.

The novel’s depiction of Abe and Rose’s parents and brother are based on real family members as well. And the final scene in the story actually happened—but not with the same characters.

Many of the characters in the Villa camp were also inspired by real people. Apparently, the Mexican Revolution attracted a colorful group of adventurers from all over the world. But the plot for the story was entirely an invention. Basically, I mixed a bunch of real-life people together and created a made-up story soup.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

A: I wrote down all I remembered about the stories my relatives had told me of Rose and Abe, and then dug into research on the internet to find all I could about them, their family, and Jews in the turn-of-the-century west. Genealogy websites were helpful for tracking down facts and also adding a sense of how things really were in that time and place.

I also researched Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, and details of life in early 1900s El Paso. I found all kinds of interesting things along the way, including something called the Schiff Plan, which was a program created by a wealthy Jewish businessman to settle Eastern European immigrants in the west instead of the overcrowded cities in the east.

But a really helpful source of information was a book written by journalist John Reed, who I used as a character in Viva, Rose!. He spent months living with and writing about Villa and his cause, and was perhaps the very first embedded journalist.

His book is called Insurgent Mexico, and offers intimate sketches of both sides of Villa as both a heroic revolutionary and  ruthless commander. This book really helped me to show these sides in my book as well.

Q: Was there a big Jewish community in El Paso during the time in which the book is set?

A: I don’t know the actual size of the Jewish community in 1915, but by then, Jews had been in El Paso for decades. El Paso is on the Mexican border, and many capitalized on international trade opportunities by working as peddlers and merchants.

The first synagogue was formed in 1889 and by 1915, there were two congregations, one reform and one Orthodox, a splinter Orthodox group as well, and a Jewish cemetery. So it seems the community was fairly robust.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Pancho Villa?

A: I’m not sure if there are misconceptions about Villa, because he was apparently a very complicated fellow. All the stories about him, both laudatory and damning, may very well have been spun from strands of truth.

But it seems that his life was a harsh one from childhood. He saw his sister brutalized by the son of the ranch owner his parents worked for, and the backlash from standing up for her (he either attacked or killed the brutalizer) was the thing that pushed him into life as a bandit.

Pancho Villa’s legend is all about polarity—he was the Robin Hood of the revolution, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, and he could also be a cold-blooded, ruthless leader.

There are many stories of Villa’s acts of kindness as well as acts of absolute cruelty—there’s a story of a woman came to him complaining that he’d imprisoned her husband wrongly, and Villa supposedly not only shot the husband in front of her, but shot her as well. 

John Reed’s writings show his more human side, the genuine yearning to help his people, and many acts of kindness and generosity, but Reed seemed to have been caught a dose of revolutionary fervor and may not have been an unimpassioned observer.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m finishing up an adult novel and working on a sequel to Viva, Rose! because this family is just loaded with interesting real-life material!

Rose and Abe had a brother named Eli who changed his name to the Irish-sounding Elliot Sullivan and moved to New York City to become an actor.

He actually succeeded, and had a lengthy career on the screen and stage that lasted up to the 1970s. But he apparently was a “revolutionary” thinker, and was blacklisted in the fifties during the McCarthy era.

Not that this will figure into the book, but I’m fascinated by the price people can pay for their idealism, as well as the world of New York theatre in the early 1900s. And I’m interested in seeing the ways Rose will intersect with this place and its people.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For many years, I had a recurring dream that I was walking through my grandfather’s abandoned house. The roof was leaky and the floors were rickety, but it held room after room of marvelous knick-knacks and treasure.

I think the family story that became this book is the tangible, real-life actualization of this dream. And that makes me wonder what kind of undiscovered family treasure we all harbor. I heartily and enthusiastically encourage writers to take a walk through their own house of family history. Who knows what you’ll discover?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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