Q: What inspired you to write this novel-in-verse based on the lives of your grandmother and great-grandparents?
A: I wrote this book after my grandmother Mary passed. She struggled with Alzheimer’s for many years, and I wanted to record her stories.
Another reason is that after my grandmother passed, my daughter Phoebe contracted scarlet fever.
In an hour, my daughter went from completely healthy to having a 104-degree fever. She was so sick, she hallucinated that it was snowing in her room, and she saw train full of children that had come to take her home.
If you’ve read the book, you know that my great-grandmother Jeanne lost one of her children to scarlet fever, so this experience was terrifying to me. We were waiting for the doctor to call back in the middle of the night, readying to go to the ER, and I was holding my suffering child.
I remember praying for my great-grandmother to help me.
The connection was so palpable. I felt like she was with us in the room that night. It made me start to think about trauma that is held and passed from one generation to another within a family.
I began to ask big questions about why my great-grandmother’s child was taken, and why my daughter lived. (I’ve never been more grateful for scientific advancements and antibiotics.)
I also began to wonder if inter-generational healing can take place, through shared experience, memory, and storytelling.
Q: How much did you know about this family history as you were growing up?
A: Whenever people ask me this question––I answer––you could not stop my grandmother from telling stories!
She loved to talk about Detroit during the depression, the Ford factory, and the poverty that her family faced.
She was a feisty broad, who had the ability to capture an entire room, with her humor and heart.
I ate it up. I sat at her feet and listened for hours. I never tired of hearing the stories of our family.
She told many stories about her parents.
They were tough.
They were hard.
They were war-torn.
They were orphans.
They didn’t understand who she was, or what she wanted to become.
I began to wonder who my great-grandparents really were, when they were young. What were their hopes and dreams? What were their passions?
That’s when Call Me Athena really started to take shape. I asked these questions, and then I listened. The stories started to flow through me. The flood gates were opened – and I began to see the movies of their lives unfold. I just listened and wrote.
Q: What did you see as the right blend between fiction and history as you wrote the novel?
A: Readers are often shocked to hear how much of this story is true!
Gio was a stowaway on an ocean liner from Greece, and Jeanne really did run away from a convent in France to join her lover in America and start a new life.
My grandmother was Henry Ford’s elevator girl in the ‘30s, and she really did convince him to give her the job during a chance meeting. I told you she was feisty!
My great-grandmother Jeanne wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt describing her family life as an immigrant, Eleanor Roosevelt sent a Christmas tree to their house Christmas morning, and she helped my great-grandfather secure a job at the Ford factory.
Even though a lot of the framework of the story is true, I had to make up all the details, and character motivations and emotions, and that’s why I labeled it historical fiction. I had to create a story that would make readers want to read until the end, and I didn’t want to be tethered to reality.
The main change I made to the story was that Mary’s twin sister died when they were babies, and in Call Me Athena, she’s still alive at 16. I struggled with that choice, but I had a dream that Marguerite came to me and asked me to help her live.
My grandmother’s twin was ever-present for her; she talked about her all the time, even though they didn’t have many years together.
I loved giving them that time, and that closeness––years to live as sisters in the book.
Q: The Booklist review of the book says, "Call Me Athena is a kaleidoscope of moments from the past, yet its real strength is the way it takes such different times, places, and stories and shows how commonalities like love, grief, and hope can connect a family over the course of generations." What do you think of that description?
A: I think they nailed it!
They were able to pinpoint the main reason that I wanted to write this story.
I find great resonance and resilience in multi-generational stories that try to bridge the gap between the past and the present. As I mentioned earlier, I feel like these connections can feel very present in our lives, and this can affect the choices we make, and who we become.
Even though Call Me Athena is a historical novel about one American family, I believe the themes that are present in the book––identity, family, freedom, equality, feminism, and hope––are themes that are timeless.
While writing this book, I learned that sometimes the best stories can’t be told in one generation.
My greatest hope is that parents and children will read Call Me Athena together, and it will encourage them to share their own family stories.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: That’s a good question!
I’m keeping my latest idea close to the vest, but I can tell you that I am currently working on another historical novel in verse that takes place in the lush and lusty setting of Venice in the 1600s.
I’m super excited to share more about it when it’s done!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m so grateful for my talented agent Allison Hellegers at Stimola Literary Studio; my publishing company Andrews McMeel, who made this book possible; also, Hülya Ozdemir, who gave permission to use her gorgeous art for the cover. (You can her on Instagram @huliaozdemir––she’s incredible.)
And I’d like to send a huge hug to all the incredible readers who have supported Call Me Athena in the last few months since the release. Thanks for reading, sharing, and spreading the word! I love you all!
If you want to learn more about Athena and projects to come, you can follow me on Instagram @colby_cedar_smith and Twitter @colbycedar.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb