Friday, January 15, 2021

Q&A with Greg Fields


Greg Fields is the author of the new novel Through the Waters and the Wild. His other books include the novel Arc of the Comet. He is based in Virginia.


Q: This is your second novel featuring your character Conor Finnegan. Why did you decide to write about him again?


A: Conor’s story clearly was not finished at the conclusion of Arc of the Comet. But then, none of our stories are ever really finished. As intelligent, sensitive, reactive creatures, we continue to learn and to grow by absorbing what’s around us – the conditions of our life and the people in it.


That process never stops, and it’s what unites us.


I saw Conor as a highly flawed character – filled with hubris, somewhat naïve, self-absorbed to an extent – but that made him all the more complex because he also carried some very positive traits, including intelligence, compassion, and a lingering idealism.


Conor’s evolution through loss, confusion, and despondence mirrors the human condition. And so I wanted to continue the examination, to see how Conor might reconstruct himself. In so doing, I was examining my own life.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Yeats’s poem The Stolen Child inspired the title:


Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand.

For the world’s more full of weeping

Than you can understand.


We live in loss, exiled from our true character and buffeted by the winds of others’ expectations and obligations. A certain strength is required somehow to cross these wilds and enter a more peaceful harbor. The title is a recognition of the inevitability of heartbreak, and a call to summon the courage to surmount it.


Q: Your website says you were inspired by the writers Niall Williams, Colm Toibin, and Pat Conroy. How did each of them influence you?


A: Pat Conroy has been my strongest influence in both style and approach. I first read Prince of Tides in absolute wonder that a writer could explore such intense themes with language that was almost musical, that dipped and soared and danced.


As I was writing Arc of the Comet, Pat gave a lecture at a local literary club. My wife surprised me with tickets to the event, and to the VIP reception afterward. I knew none of the 50 or so people at the reception, so I made my way to the hors d’oeuvres table. As I did so, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and when I turned, Pat was there, smiling. “We’ve not met. I’m Pat Conroy.”


For whatever reason, he sensed a connection, and we spent the next 20 minutes or so talking one to one as the rest of the guests circled around wondering about the clown monopolizing the guest of honor.


But it was Pat’s call, and I remember clearly his interest. We shared the same literary influences, some of the same experiences, and even the same birthday.


When I told him I was writing a novel he grew serious, then asked me if I could recite any of it. I cited the first few lines of the prologue, after which Pat said he would like to read it and that, if it were as good as he thought it might be, he’d offer a jacket quote for it.


We corresponded, he offered advice regarding substance and approach, and remained through the crafting of it a constant beacon. Sadly, he passed from pancreatic cancer shortly before the novel’s completion. My work ever since has been a reflection of his inspiration, his generosity, and his passion for the highest incarnations of the written word.


Niall Williams, the great and very humble novelist whom I’ve considered the Irish Pat Conroy, has since been quite helpful, offering encouragement in the development of Through the Waters and the Wild.


I once told Pat that on my best day I couldn’t approach what he could accomplish on his worst, and I feel the same about Niall’s bold, lyrical writing. We’ve agreed to spend some time together the next time I’m in Ireland.


Colm Toibin joins with a host of other writers, too numerous to list, whose passion for and commitment to stylistic, intense storytelling continues to light a path.


They employ various styles – Hemingway, Updike, Thomas Wolfe, Matthew Thomas, Garth Stein, and so on – but each has something a writer can absorb and from which he or she can learn. I’m forever grateful to each of them, and to anyone, really, who has the courage to pursue the craft.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I felt this book had to be more structured and more tightly written than my first novel, so I started with a general outline.


I knew, too, that I wanted to examine the theme of exile, and that the best way to do that might be to relate Conor Finnegan’s struggles to those of his grandfather, Liam, who left Ireland during the Irish Civil War of the early 1920s.


Each needed to show a resolve to change the overwhelming stresses that pressed down upon them and distorted who they were and who they wanted to be. So it began with a telling of the two stories, which could rather easily be linked.


The challenge was finding a way for Conor to emulate Liam’s amazing courage and find his own safe haven. All my chapter outlines proved to be more suggestions than directions. I realized I had to let the story evolve its own direction, and that I needed to trust my understanding of Conor’s character to lead the way to the end. Conor did not let me down.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve written a handful of scenes that will help comprise the next novel. While Conor’s story will continue, I think I want to focus on another character, one with different experiences, a different background, and a different approach to the world around her.


I do know that this next book will continue to examine what I believe to be the central questions we all must address – Where shall I go now? What shall I do?


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling – Niall Williams


Especially now, as an already fast-paced world copes with social uncertainties, violence, and a raging pandemic, we need our stories to remind us of our shared humanity.


We cannot overcome the challenges we face – either collectively as a pluralistic society, or personally as thinking individuals looking to carve out our own harbors in a complex word – without the realization that what we share is far deeper than what drives us apart.


Our stories, in all their styles and genres, do this, and we need to draw from them now, more than ever.


We all have our stories, and these stories can feed the hungriest of souls.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jason Pinter


Jason Pinter is the author of the new novel A Stranger at the Door. It's the second in his Rachel Marin series, which started with Hide Away. He is founder and publisher of Polis Books.


Q: You write that your character Rachel was inspired by a comment your wife made after your daughter was born. How did you end up creating Rachel?


A: Shortly after our oldest daughter was born, I made a (bone-headed) comment about how we didn’t need to leave the baby monitor on all night. My wife told me I would never understand what it felt like to carry a child inside of you, and then worry about it being outside of you. Needless to say, she was completely right.


That was partly the germ of the idea for Rachel Marin, in that she’s someone who’s endured a terrible trauma, and because of that molded herself into both a protector and a fighter. But those two sides often compete against each other. She wants to fight for justice, but has two children who depend on her.


How do you reconcile a desire to fight for others when those closest to you need you as well? I loved the potential for a character like that in a thriller novel, someone who was smart, capable, and skilled, but had to always had to battle the internal and external.


Q: How do you think she's changed from one book to the next?


A: In Hide Away, Rachel has every intention of flying under the radar. But after she gets involved in the central murder in that book, she realizes that her skills are useful, both to fight for justice but also to allow herself something of a life. Since her own trauma, she never fully allowed herself to heal.


In A Stranger at the Door, Rachel is allowing herself to move on, to take on a new vocation, to tentatively enter a relationship. But of course, we all know what happens to well-laid plans.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything surprising?


A: For both Hide Away and A Stranger at the Door, I did a lot of research with both law enforcement and forensics, learning everything from what kind of gear police use during their investigations, to what happens to a structure during a house fire.


I enjoy that part of it, learning those important trades, and then the key is blending them seamlessly into the story so that the research adds dimension to the plot and characters rather than overwhelming them.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book? 


A: I hope readers are both entertained by the suspense and mystery, but that the characters stay with them. It was hugely important to me to make Rachel and those in her world, her children Eric and Megan, and Detectives John Serrano and Leslie Tally, feel real. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Hopefully enough people will enjoy the first two Rachel Marin books that I’ll have the chance to write more, but in the meantime, I’m working on a standalone thriller and something else totally different.  And that’s all I can say for right now!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you to all the readers who have come along for Rachel’s journey so far. During these strange and challenging times, writers appreciate readers more than ever!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 15



Jan. 15, 1929: Martin Luther King Jr. born.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Q&A with Paige Bowers

Photo by D.J. VanCronkhite


Paige Bowers is the author, with David Montague, of the new book Overnight Code: The Life of Raye Montague, the Woman Who Revolutionized Naval Engineering. Bowers has also written the book The General's Niece


Q: How did you and David Montague end up writing this biography of his mother, Raye Montague?


A: My agent originally approached Raye about writing her memoirs after seeing her on Good Morning America a few years ago. Ultimately, Raye needed a writer to work with, and after some discussions with her and her son, they determined the writer should be me, which was a tremendous honor under the circumstances.


I worked with Raye and David to put together a proposal, which my agent then brought to publishers in the fall of 2018. Unfortunately Raye went into hospice and then died right around the time the book found a home at Chicago Review Press, which published my first book, The General’s Niece.


Because of Raye’s death, the book shifted from being her memoir to becoming her biography, and David signed on to the project to help me unearth her papers, answer my seemingly neverending questions, and direct me to other people in his mother’s life to interview.


Over the course of the year it took to finish what we had begun while his mother was still with us, David was a constant sounding board and resource, just the best possible partner I could have asked for in this process.


Neither of us could have done this without each other. And both of us are incredibly proud of this special book that resulted from us working together to tell the story of his mother’s truly inspiring life.


Q: As a Black woman, what were some of the key obstacles Raye Montague faced in her career?


A: Because of her color and gender, Raye was treated as less capable than her White male colleagues. As a result, she worked easily twice as hard, if not more so, to break glass ceilings at the U.S. Navy and then to create opportunities for other women and people of color.


Q: What do you see as Raye Montague's legacy today?


A: Not only did she change the way the Navy designed and built its ships with a computer program she debugged and then successfully used to create the Oliver Hazard Perry frigate, but she spent a lifetime mentoring others, encouraging them to stay in school and to not let obstacles stand in the way of their dreams.


David has grabbed the baton his mother passed to him, and is often speaking to schools and other groups about the causes that were dear to her heart. Like her, David is a brilliant, charismatic mentor and public speaker who is actively engaged in making the world around him a better place in which to live.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I began by sifting through books for greater detail about Arkansas history, specifically during the Jim Crow era. Then I did some secondary source research about the times in which Raye lived, because while she had a truly extraordinary life and career, the historical moment provided a backdrop for this story that made it all the more remarkable.


Then, David sent me a huge box of his mother’s papers, which I scoured for detail and insight about her life. He also directed me to a wide range of people who his mother knew, and I interviewed them at length.


I also interviewed David about his memories of his life with his mother. David is a former federal investigator, so he too would conduct interviews when possible and share the results with me. Aside from the multiple phone calls a week to clarify things, and to gather more information, David and I were often kicking emails back and forth about details big and small.


Then, I drove out to Little Rock to meet with David in person, go through more of Raye’s papers, and interview even more people in person. The entire experience was rich, rewarding, and something I’ll never forget.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Over the years, I’ve learned that any time I talk about what I’m working on, something goes wrong with the project in some way! So I’m definitely working on something, but I’m not quite ready to talk about it yet. I promise to let you know as soon as I can, though.


Other than that, readers can expect to see David and me out in the world talking about Overnight Code.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As I wrote, I’d find myself inserting little footnotes here and there that, yes, illuminated a certain point, but were also grounded in conversations that David and I had that were sometimes really funny or evocative of our youth. I'd giggle when I did it.


When I look back, I realize that I was not only working with David to write a story about his mother, but dropping little bits throughout the book to illustrate the fun we had doing this, and the friendship that developed between us as a result. David Montague is truly one of my favorite people, no doubt about it!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Paige Bowers.

Q&A with Anita Abriel


Anita Abriel is the author of the new novel Lana's War, which takes place on the French Riviera during World War II. Her other novels include The Light After the War. She lives in California.


Q: In our previous interview, you said Lana's War was based on true events. Was Lana based on a historical figure?


A: Lana is fiction, though there were many '"White Russians" in Paris at the time. Alois Brunner is a real character. The Gestapo was based at the Hotel Excelsior in Nice - there is a plaque in front of the hotel today telling about its involvement during World War II. And everything that Brunner was doing, and his flight after the war, is based on fact.


Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?


A: I did a tremendous amount of research on the French Riviera during World War II. When I started, I had no idea that it was the center of such a tragic part of the war. The French Riviera has always been a symbol of luxury and sophistication and pleasure. It was surprising and horrifying to learn what went on there.


Q: Do you prefer writing historical fiction or fiction set in the present day?


A: I love writing historical fiction. I feel a special connection to it because of my mother's past. And I have always been a big reader of historical novels.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from Lana's War?


A: I hope readers learn about an aspect of World War II that they didn't know before. Mostly, I hope they take away the idea that women can be incredibly strong when they need to be. Lana lost everything but that didn't stop her from risking her life to help others.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on a book set in Italy during World War II. It will be out next year!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I always want to thank my readers for taking these journeys with me. And thank bloggers for writing about them!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Anita Abriel.

Jan. 14



Jan. 14, 1896: John Dos Passos born.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Q&A with Mameve Medwed



Mameve Medwed is the author of the new novel Minus Me. Her other novels include Mail and How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Minus Me?


A: I’m from Bangor, Maine. I like to write about Bangor, Maine, and Cambridge. It started with the sandwich place in Bangor, the Coffee Pot. There are lines out the door for their sandwich. We craved them. After they closed the place down, I wrote an op-ed about it for The Boston Globe. I was obsessed with their sandwich.


I [thought I’d write about] a couple in Maine who wanted to open a sandwich shop. I like writing about hapless husbands, people in good marriages but mismatched in some ways. I remember writing notes to my husband when I was going away, and I thought, What if someone’s really going away?


Q: The novel takes place in a small town in Maine. How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Bangor is a big city, 30,000 people. I had in mind a smaller town. I’m interested in small-town life, how you know everybody. In all my books, I’m interested in class, the different strata of a community, the telltale marks of class within a community. Some people can’t wait to get out of Dodge and some don’t want to leave.


Q: In our previous interview, you said that “it’s just as hard to write funny as it is to write with impressive gravitas. As Trollope said, easy reading takes hard writing. There is something lovely and satisfying about entertaining a reader and distracting someone from an illness, a hard day, tough times.” What do you see as the right balance between comedy and gravitas, especially now?


A: When I set out to write, I’m very serious, not planning on being funny, and it just comes out that way. And we all need some humor, especially now. It’s just the way I write.


I feel like this book, like all my books, has a serious theme, but always with comic overplay and a twist.


Q: How would you describe the relationship between your character Annie and Ursula, her mother?


A: Annie really resented her mother for a lot of reasons, some of which were wrong. I think she felt abandoned by her mother. She was larger than life, off being famous.


As a child, she saw a good parent and a bad parent without any gray areas. I was happy when I could get Ursula to save the day. She was a fun character to write.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I never know how it’s going to end. I write domestic comedy, so I knew it would have a happy ending.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A bunch of essays about very eccentric members of my family who are defined by objects. I’ve published a few in the Globe and The New York Times. I really love writing essays. And I have a vague idea for another novel.


Q: Anything else we should know about Minus Me?


A: It’s funny. It has sadness. I love to write about long-term marriages and families, the small domestic things that stand in for larger things like love and loss.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mameve Medwed.

Q&A with Mark E. Klein


Mark E. Klein is the author of the new novel Franklin Rock. A physician, he is based in Washington, D.C.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Franklin Rock?


A: Franklin Rock has been brewing for a number of years. In fact, I wrote a few of the early chapters—or facsimiles of them—about seven years ago.


I began with the concept of a character who could time travel and would be the vehicle for the important themes I wished to present in the book. I knew that I wanted to write what I often referred to as a “save the world” book. By that I mean I knew I wanted to write something that would have an impact on the reader, not just a good story but one that had the potential to alter the reader’s view of life.


I understand how it might sound presumptuous, but I have always felt a responsibility to help improve the world. I created a protagonist whose mission was to do just that.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: In a very real sense, I have been doing research on this book for over 20 years. Franklin Rock is my third book; the first two were nonfiction.


The first, What Do I Do Now: A Handbook for Life, is a self-help book. My second book, The Currency of Life: Uncovering the Clues to Why We’re Here, is more or less a philosophy book. Many of the themes in Franklin Rock come from those books.


I have also read numerous books on Einstein’s relativity theories and quantum physics and the consequences of those discoveries. While of course these are complicated topics, the implications of these theories, which are easily explained in lay terms, are absolutely fascinating.


I sprinkle these in during the discussions between the protagonist, Franklin Rock, and his mentor, Professor Niemeyer. I think readers will find these some of the most fun and interesting parts of the narrative.


Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Not only did I not know how the book would end when I began writing, I had little idea of where it would go after the first few chapters.


In nonfiction there is little wiggle room. You can’t—or at least you shouldn’t—make things up. Fiction is liberating. Writing fiction for me is the equivalent of painting yourself into the corner of a room and then merely drawing a door on the wall behind you and stepping out.


It’s hard to get stuck. If you’re clever enough, there is always a way out of any scene. I never worried about where Franklin Rock was going. I just decided, as Franklin does in the book, to let it come to me. Fortunately, it did.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I have been a physician for over 40 years. Medicine is an immensely rewarding profession. It is an honor to have patients seek your counsel and to have the opportunity to make a difference in multiple people’s lives every single day.


It was a natural progression for me to want to make an even greater impact. Franklin Rock seemed like the perfect vehicle.


Our news is filled with violence and fear. Occasionally a “feel-good” story makes its way onto our screens, but most of what we are fed is troubling and often depressing.


Franklin Rock is not some Pollyanna story. This book is chock full of truths about how our world really works. Franklin teaches us that there is every reason for us to live with great optimism and to welcome, not fear, the future.


People want hope, they want optimism, they want to be happy. Once you understand how the world works, you realize that all of these are not only achievable, they are always readily available if you know where to look.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have already begun the sequel to Franklin Rock. Franklin will address many of the issues that confront us, both as individuals and together as a society. Some of the characters will undoubtedly return for an encore, and new ones will make their appearance.


I can promise readers more optimism, more fun, and no stress. No one will ever get shot in a Franklin Rock story!


Q: Anything else we should know


A: When I read novels, I like the book to move along. When I wrote Franklin Rock, I made sure that the story would flow and that each chapter could stand on its own. I am confident that it will be a fun, easy read.


I am also confident that when the reader has completed Franklin Rock, he or she will have gained something useful from Franklin and his friends and will have some interesting concepts to contemplate further, all with a bit more joy and hopefully a wide smile.


My hope is that if enough people read Franklin Rock, the needle will move, and our world will be just a bit better than it was.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 13



Jan. 13, 1926: Michael Bond born.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Q&A with Connie Palmen

Connie Palmen is the author of the novel Your Story, My Story, now available in an English translation by Eileen J. Stevens and Anna Asbury. The novel is based on the lives of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Palmen's other books include The Laws. She lives in Amsterdam. 


Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath?


A: When you a write a novel, there is never only one reason to do so, there are a lot of reasons, tangled themes, fascinations, love for a specific genre, love for other novels, the never ending need to understand more about life and about yourself.


The theme that guides a lot of my novels is the sometimes devastating influence of how we talk about other people. After the suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath, the life of Ted Hughes became the subject of gossip, nasty stories, myths, biographies. It was no longer his.


Q: What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and the historical as you worked on the book?


A: Combining history and fiction was walking on a thin cord between fact and imagination. I was guided by the 88 poems of Ted Hughes in Birthday Letters.


Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I have been reading every poem, story, essay of the two poets, and I read every biography and the main books about them.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Hughes and Plath?


A: Hughes was not a monster and Plath was not a saint. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am still doing research for my next novel and I wrote essays on Vivian Gornick, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath. It is a continuation of a small collection of essays I wrote on famous, talented, and rather destructive women like Patricia Highsmith, Marilyn Monroe, Marguerite Duras, and Jane Bowles.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Caroline Gertler

Caroline Gertler is the author of Many Points of Me, a new middle grade novel for kids. She is a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she lives in New York City. 


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Many Points of Me, and for your character Georgia? 


A: The initial idea came from wondering what it would be like to be the child of a famous artist who died young. I wanted to create a mystery for that child to uncover—something about her father’s art that only she could understand. A gift from him through time. 


And I also wanted to write a bit of a love letter to the Met, which feels like a second home to me.  


Q: You work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art--how did you use your art background to write the book, and did you need to do any additional research? 

A: I’m part of the incredible volunteer organization at the Met. I went through a year-long training program to become a docent. I’ve given Highlights tours of the general collection, and now, I focus on Old Master paintings. I did work at the Met—in the main bookstore—right after finishing my master’s degree in art history. 


I didn’t really have to do much additional research to write the book, beyond the fun stuff of deciding which artists and paintings to include and reference, and thinking about how art is taught to students.  


Q: Is Georgia's father based on any particular artist? 


A: Hank Rosenbloom is an invented artist, but I loosely based him on the artist Paul Feeley, a lesser-known color field artist, who has a painting in the Met’s collection. He died in his 50s. I was also inspired by Mark Rothko, who committed suicide, leaving behind his children. I envision Hank Rosenbloom’s art as Rothko meets Feeley!  


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book? 


A: I hope there’s catharsis for kids in reading about Georgia’s struggles to come to terms with her grief and figure out her own identity. I also hope they’ll gain a new appreciation for art, and there’s a touch of escapism for readers who dream of exploring New York City and the Met.  


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: I’ve just handed in a draft of my second book to my editor. It’s another stand-alone, contemporary middle grade novel. 


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: I learned about Asterisms, which are the subject of Hank Rosenbloom’s final series, through a wonderful science class I do with my daughter at the American Museum of Natural History. I’d never heard of Asterisms (which are groupings of stars not formally recognized as constellations) before.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 12



Jan. 12, 1952: Walter Mosley born.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Q&A with L. Bordetsky-Williams

L. Bordetsky-Williams is the author of the new novel Forget Russia. She is a professor of literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and she lives in New York City.


Q: Forget Russia was inspired by your own family's experiences--at what point did you decide to write the novel, and did you know much about this history as you were growing up?


A: In 1980, at the height of the Cold War, and the Iran hostage crisis, I had the opportunity to study Russian language for a semester at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow.


This experience not only changed my life but it influenced the course of my life. I met many of the religious and dissident-type Jews of the Soviet Union.


Some of them were Refuseniks, people whose exit visas had been denied, and others said they could never leave because one of their parents had a “secret job,” which would prevent them from ever getting an exit visa.


Those Refuseniks had lost their jobs and were having a very difficult time just surviving. Many of those young Soviet Jews were the grandchildren of the Bolsheviks.


Their ancestors had believed in the ideals of the 1917 Revolution and had flourished until Stalin had them put to death or exiled to labor camps during the height of the purges of 1936-1938. They had inherited a legacy of terror and fear. I have never forgotten them and the time we spent together.


About a year before I went to the Soviet Union, I was having lunch at my grandmother’s apartment, and she told me her mother died on a boat in Russia. She was a woman who did not speak much, but when she did speak her words always contained great meaning.


I probed more into her story with my family and discovered from my uncle that my great-grandmother had been raped and murdered. This information simply stunned me. I didn’t understand why no one had ever told me this.


My grandmother had suffered from depression, and I then knew why. As an old woman, when she was ill, I once heard her cry for her mother and that absolutely broke my heart.


When I studied Russian language, she began to sing me songs of her girlhood—songs of unrequited love that made me feel she must be trying to tell me something about her own life experiences.

I wanted to grasp how such a horrific act of violence would affect the subsequent lives of women in a family. This is a very large question, but it was one of the questions that prompted me to write Forget Russia.


I also was aware that my grandparents, both Russian Jewish immigrants, had returned to the Soviet Union in 1931, during the height of the Depression.


My grandfather was a carpenter, who longed to return and build the revolution. He sold everything and borrowed money for the ship so his two small children, my mother and aunt, ages 5 and 3, and my grandmother could take an arduous journey back to Leningrad. They only stayed nine months. If they had stayed any longer, they would have lost their American citizenship and never could have gotten out.


On some level, my book looks at the nature of destiny—as I met these young Soviet Jews, I saw what my own life might have been if my ancestors had made other decisions. I began to see how interdependent our lives were despite our apparent differences.


I decided to write the book after I returned from the Soviet Union. So, you could see it’s been with me for a very long time!  


Q: The novel covers most of the 20th century--what kind of research did you need to do on the various time periods and locations, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I did a tremendous amount of research for the novel over a number of years. I read accounts of American Russian Jews, who, just like my grandparents, went to the Soviet Union in the 1930s.


They were heartbreaking accounts of Americans who couldn’t leave the Soviet Union once the purges reached a peak in 1936-38. Many were imprisoned and exiled to labor camps. Many did not survive.


I had the opportunity to interview a few American Jews from Russia who went to the Soviet Union with their parents in the 1930s and managed to return to this country.


I also read accounts of other Americans who went to the Soviet Union in hopes of getting work since there was very little work in America at the height of the Depression. I also researched a great deal about the Ukraine during the Civil War following the Russian Revolution.


I was surprised to find out that the Americans were originally very welcome in the Soviet Union. Ford Motor Company even had a plant in Nizhni Novgorod, which encouraged many unemployed Americans to settle in the Soviet Union.


In the beginning, it sounded like it could have been quite exciting for a young person to be there. There was even a baseball team set up!


However, that all changed drastically when Stalin’s purges swept the country in 1936-38. The dream turned into a nightmare. These stranded Americans got no support from the American government as well. They were truly alone.


I also discovered that the Ukraine was very unstable during the Civil War that occurred after the Revolution. Anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalists controlled the Ukraine, and at other times the White army retained controlled, but once the Red army re-established rule, the retreating and defeated armies went into Jewish shtetls and massacred many Jews.


My poor grandmother was just a teenager when her mother was raped and murdered in one of these pogroms.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: It seems that no one can actually forget Russia no matter how hard they try. My grandfather longed to go back and his wish was realized in 1931. While I believe he must have been disappointed with the harsh living conditions there, he never spoke about it.


My grandmother, with all of the tragedy she experienced there, occupied herself in her last years when she was physically fragile and blind by singing to herself the love songs she knew from her girlhood there.


Q: Why did you decide to write a novel rather than a family memoir?


A: I originally started the book as a memoir of my time in the Soviet Union. I wrote it and then put it away for many years.


Over time, as I returned to the manuscript, I felt the novel form would give me more freedom to write of the different generations and their experiences with Russia/the Soviet Union.


I knew the outline of the family history, but ultimately, I had to imagine, through my research, what life in the Ukraine and Leningrad was ultimately like for my characters. The fictional world has its own truths, and to get at the truth of what I wanted to express, I found I needed to fictionalize my actual lived experiences.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m in the process of planning a second novel. It’s germinating!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Given how terribly immigrants and refugees are being treated right now, it’s important to remember that America’s greatness depends on the varied experiences that immigrants bring to this country.


I’m really saddened to think that if my grandmother were to try and come into the country now to seek refuge from hate and violence, she would be turned away.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb