Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Q&A with Kim van Alkemade




Kim van Alkemade is the author of the new historical novel Counting Lost Stars. Her other novels include Orphan #8. She taught at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania for many years, and she lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.


Q: You write that your own family history was an inspiration for Counting Lost Stars--can you say more about that, and about how you created your characters Rita and Cornelia?


A: My father, who wasn’t Jewish, was born in the Netherlands in 1934. He survived the Nazi blitz on Rotterdam, grew up under German occupation, and suffered through the Hunger Winter of 1944-45. He told me about seeing bodies in the street who’d been murdered by the Nazis, about taking his pet rabbits to the butcher to be slaughtered for meat, and about Allied airdrops of food after liberation.


My aunt Petronel witnessed their Jewish neighbors, who lived upstairs in their shared townhouse, being arrested in the dead of night. One of those neighbors left some paintings with my Oma for safekeeping that a surviving relative reclaimed after the war.


My family’s experience informs Cornelia’s story line with Leah, but my dad was also a big inspiration for the character of Jacob Nassy. When my brother read a draft, he recognized our dad in Jacob’s handsome looks, charming personality, and troubled mental health.


My mom came of age during the Baby Scoop Era, the years after World War II when millions of young American women were pressured by social workers and welfare agencies into surrendering their illegitimate babies for adoption.


One of my mom’s high school friends “went away” to hide her pregnancy at an unwed mothers home. After giving up her baby, she returned as if it hadn’t happened, never speaking of it again.


This sense of things left unsaid was a theme in my mom’s Jewish family, where my grandfather’s childhood at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the destruction of our Russian and Polish relatives in the Holocaust were among the topics we just didn’t talk about.


My parents met in 1960 in the Empire State Building, where my mom was a young secretary in the office where my dad worked. The idea of uniting these two very different story lines—World War II Holland and 1960s New York City—was inspired by the way my parents’ very different histories were combined in me.


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


A: It took a long time to settle on this title! In the end, it emerged from a collaboration between myself, my agent, Mitchell Waters, and my amazing editor at William Morrow, Tessa Woodward. I think it’s absolutely perfect.


The word “counting” evokes the punched cards and the computers and the lists, but also the magnitude of the horror of the Holocaust, where the numbers of people murdered is beyond comprehension.


“Lost” not only refers to the millions of victims lost to the Nazi campaign of genocide, but also the loss experienced by individual characters in the novel, including Rita’s baby and Jacob’s mother.


“Stars” of course suggests the six-pointed stars that Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis, but the idea of stars and constellations is a recurring theme throughout the novel.


Q: The writer Natalie Jenner called the book “a much-needed portrayal of humanity at its most selfless to inspire us all.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I love Natalie’s response to the novel! I did a lot of research into people who participated in the Dutch Resistance during the German occupation of Holland, some by hiding Jews, others by forging documents, some by taking up arms and others by documenting what they witnessed.


What I took away from that research is that individuals who do incredibly brave things or survive the unspeakable don’t usually think of themselves as exceptional.


In my novel, I wanted to portray characters whose bravery is motivated not by grandiosity but by love—whether that’s the bravery to confront a social welfare system intent on separating young mothers from their babies, or the bravery to step into the stream of someone else’s fate to ensure their survival.  


I wrote most of this novel during the Covid pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and immigration crackdowns. I often felt I wasn’t doing enough—that I wasn’t doing anything, really—to help make positive change in the world, sitting as I was behind a desk with my nose in a book or my hands on the keyboard.


In the end, though, I came to think of this novel as my contribution. Some readers may become more alert to challenges we face in our own times after reading about a historical era during which evil temporarily triumphed over good, barbaric crimes were perpetrated with modern methods, and information about people’s ancestry was used against them.


In the end, though, the job of a novelist is not to inspire readers to take action, but to instill empathy. If a reader comes away from reading Counting Lost Stars with a softer heart, I will have accomplished what I set out to do.


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


A: So much research! And so much of it was really heartbreaking. I read diaries written by Etty Hillesum and Philip Mechanicus, both of whom were Dutch Jews murdered by the Nazis.


The YIVO archive at the Center for Jewish History provided me with an archival document written by a German Jewish Holocaust survivor who had been forced to work with the Hollerith punched card computer in the Labor Office at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.


I became quite distressed after spending hours and hours delving into databases such as Yad Vashem’s “Transports to Extinction” and the Arolsen Archives’ collection of index cards compiled by Holland’s Jewish Council.


I felt a deep sense of responsibility to portray the historical facts concerning the Holocaust correctly, but seeing a typed card for an unnamed baby who was put on a train to Auschwitz would break anyone’s heart.


Something surprising I learned in my research, that you’ll see in the novel, is how a German woman named Gertrud Slottke, the secretary to Hitler’s appointed “Jewish Expert” in Holland, was the one who ultimately compiled the transport lists that sent Dutch Jews to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor. In 1967, Gertrud Slottke was actually convicted for the murder of 83,000 Jews, including Anne Frank.


As soon as I came across this historical person, I knew I wanted her to be a character in the novel. I’m really drawn to conflict between women, which I also portrayed in my first novel, Orphan #8, in which a nurse encounters the female doctor who conducted medical experiments on her in the orphanage where she grew up.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I’m drafting a novel set in the 1950s about a woman painter on Monhegan Island in Maine. I love spending time in the art world, and I’m crazy about my main character, but that’s all I can say about it at this time!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think book clubs that choose Counting Lost Stars will find many so topics to discuss, from women in the workplace, the ethics of adoption, the impact of childhood trauma, and the way computer technology continues to shape our world.


I’m really proud of my depiction of lesbian relationships in the novel, and of introducing readers to aspects of World War II they might not have known about before.


Also, I love connecting with readers! I often do virtual visits with book clubs and libraries, so if you’d like me to participate in an event, reach out and let me know! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment