Monday, December 19, 2022

Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch




Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the author of the new middle grade historical novel Winterkill, which is set in Ukraine in the 1930s. Her many other books include Traitors Among Us. She lives in Brantford, Ontario.


Q: What inspired you to write Winterkill, and how did you create your character Nyl?


A: The Holodomor, Stalin's genocide by starvation of Ukrainians in the 1930s, is a topic that's so huge and unknown that in some ways it defies being written as a novel. How do you write about millions of deaths that have been propagandized out of existence? Stalin is believed to have said, "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."


I knew I needed one person in my novel that kids in North America could identify with. Would they identify with Nyl, a boy living on a small farm in a country they likely had never heard of? It wasn't until I learned about a Canadian journalist named Rhea Clyman that I found my way into this story.


Rhea was the rarest of gems at the time. She was a Western journalist writing from the Soviet Union who refused to take Stalin's bribes in return for writing propaganda. Instead, she reported what she really saw and because of that she was one of the first journalists in the world to get news out on the Holodomor.


In one of her articles, she wrote about meeting a Canadian girl named Alice who was starving in Kharkiv. Alice became my window into Winterkill. Her conflict and interaction with Nyl made the story possible.


Nyl is a composite of many young people of the time. I based his personality and his actions on first-person accounts.


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


A: I was able to speak to some Holodomor survivors decades ago, but I primarily relied on first-person accounts in the form of memoirs, diaries, testimonies.


One extremely useful document was the Commission on the Ukraine Famine: Report to Congress, which is 554 pages of eyewitness, survivor, and diplomat accounts of the Holodomor. It's available online and is searchable by word. This document and others can be found at


I also found Anne Applebaum's Red Famine to be a devastatingly useful resource, as was Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands.


I wanted to understand how the perpetrators justified what they did so I also read personal memoirs written by Soviets who did the actual rounding up of food, the destruction of evidence, and so on. I also read memoirs of the high-ranking officials who were benefitting from the atrocities they were committing. 


The one memoir that dismayed me more than it shocked me was written by an aristocratic British woman who had married an elite Soviet scientist and lived in Kharkiv during the worst of the Holodomor.


This was at the time when dead bodies littered the streets and emaciated children clustered under doorsteps together for warmth. She wrote about the inconvenience of having these people litter the market when she went out to buy ice cream. She wrote about how outrageously expensive food was, and it was all the fault of the "kulaks" -- a pejorative name for Ukrainians.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Juxtaposing concepts of industrialization with the rhythms of farm life, the story and its grim events, together with an elucidative author’s note, provide important historical context around history that has resonance for current events." What do you think of that description, and how would you compare the period you write about in the novel to Russia's invasion of Ukraine today?


A: I agree with the Publishers Weekly review. This history does provide context for Russia's current actions in Ukraine.


Stalin committed the Holodomor in the 1930s because he wanted Ukrainian land and Ukrainian wheat but didn't want Ukrainian people. Putin bombs maternity hospitals and schools. He bombs civilian infrastructure. He intentionally kills civilians.


The Holodomor, like Russia's current war, has the goal of erasing Ukrainians as a people. Neither Stalin nor Putin believe Ukraine or Ukrainians have the right to exist. 


For those who think the current war can be stopped through negotiation, they need to understand history. Russia's end goal is to erase Ukrainians and to repopulate the land with Russians. This is not war, not invasion. This is genocide.


I was doing the final edits for Winterkill on Feb. 24 [when Russia invaded Ukraine]. I feel absolutely sick to my stomach how accurately Winterkill predicts and depicts the current war, even down to its title, as Russia uses the cold of winter as another weapon from his genocidal toolbox.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Nyl and Alice?


A: Both young people are idealistic but they see the world from opposite ends of the spectrum, based on their perceived truths. In that way they're not much different from the people around us. But even though their views of the world are opposite, they're able to build a wary friendship out of mutual respect. Each lifts up the other.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I had begun a companion novel to Winterkill but I cannot continue on that until Ukraine wins this current genocidal war. So now I'm working on a novel that I had started a long time ago and it seems right and allegorical in the current circumstances. It's set during medieval times in what is now Ukraine, about a real girl who was captured as a slave and becomes an empress.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There are links on my website to learn more about the Holodomor:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch.

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