J. Kasper Kramer is the author of a new middle grade novel for kids, The Story That Cannot Be Told. She is an English professor, and she lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Story That Cannot Be Told, and for your character Ileana?
A: For about five years, I lived in Japan, where I taught at an international school in Tsukuba, Ibaraki. Some of my coworkers and best friends were Romanian women.
One night, a friend came over to tell me some fairytales as research for another book I was writing, but then she started telling me stories about growing up under Ceausescu and Communist reign. Sitting there listening, taking notes as fast as I could, I realized I had a very different book to write.
Ileana was inspired by my friends, who were about the same age in Romania in the 1980s. She also has pieces of me and, of course, just a lot of her own personality, which grew as I developed the story.
Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, "Kramer’s debut novel is rich with connections to today’s world while easily sidestepping the pitfall of heavy-handedness." What do you think of that assessment, and what connections do you see to today's world?
A: I think The Story That Cannot Be Told is one of those books that sort of sneaks important lessons in when you’re not really looking.
While I’m writing any story, my first goal is always to make sure it’s a good story. Anything I’m trying to “say” doesn’t matter much if people don’t enjoy reading what I wrote, because then they’ll just put the book down, right?
I suppose that’s what I felt the Kirkus review was getting at—Story says something meaningful but not at the expense of plot or character.
As to the connection to today’s world, when you look at the U.S. now and Communist Romania in the 1980s, I think there are some surprising parallels, many of which I didn’t even notice while I was drafting. I actually wrote an essay about this, which is up on Writer’s Digest.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Here’s the crazy thing: I hate titles. Desperately. I think I’m terrible at them.
But this one just popped in my head while I was still in the thinking/research stage of the book, and it was so much the perfect fit that it stayed put all the way to publication. (This will surely never happen again in my career!)
The title refers to an actual story in the book that Ileana is forbidden from telling. As a storyteller, this is difficult for her, especially because she suspects that the story may have some kind of magical power—and she just might be right.
Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: The research for this novel was intense. I have no idea how many history books I read or articles and dissertations I ordered. I emailed experts and tracked down hundreds of blog posts from Romanian expats. My favorite kinds of research involve collecting photos and cooking food, and I got to do a lot of that, too.
Most importantly, though, my Romanian friends helped me by translating documents and speaking to relatives about their family history. After the first draft was finished, they each went through it on the phone with me, page by page, pointing out all my many mistakes. Plainly put, I couldn’t have written this book without them.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a few projects in various stages. There’s a MG ghost story set in 1910 NYC, as well as a folklore-inspired MG set in contemporary Japan. I’m also revising a YA historical fantasy set in 1850s Poland about a young woman whose family believes she’s a changeling.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Between starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly, as well as a Junior Library Guild selection, this debut experience with Story has already gone well beyond my wildest dreams.
But more good news is coming—and it’s in the shape of a foreign rights deal and a stunning new cover reveal! If you’re interested in getting a peek, follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb