Sunday, August 27, 2023

Q&A with Meryl Ain


Photo by Diana Berrent Photography



Meryl Ain is the author of the new novel Shadows We Carry. It's a sequel to her novel The Takeaway Men. She is also the host of the People of the Book podcast, and she lives in New York.


Q: Why did you decide to write a sequel to The Takeaway Men?


A: First and foremost, I had many requests from readers asking me to write a sequel. My first novel ends in 1962 when the twins, Bronka and JoJo, are 15. Those who read the book wanted to know what happened to the girls as they got older. This dovetailed with my own thoughts.


Although I did not originally envision a sequel, I realized that I had much more to say on the subject. I especially wanted to bring the story into the late '60s and '70s during a time of political and cultural turmoil in the United States.


As children of Holocaust survivors, not only did the twins have to deal with the unrest in the country, but also the shadow of the Holocaust, which continued to hover over them.


In addition, since they were on the cusp of the women's liberation movement, they were still impacted by the societal expectations of women before women's rights were codified into law.


The other major theme that changed from the first to the second book was the treatment of former Nazis living in the United States. In The Takeaway Men, they were allowed to hide in plain sight, but by the end of the '70s, they began to be brought to justice.


Also in the first book, both the subject of the Holocaust and the trauma of survivors had not yet been brought out of the closet. In Shadows We Carry, there began to be a public reckoning with these issues. 


Q: How do you think your characters have changed from one novel to the next?


A: The twins move into adulthood in the second novel. JoJo is faced with an unexpected pregnancy in the years before Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973. She plays the cards that have been dealt her and tries to make the best of things.


Bronka is in search of love while she is also intent on having a career as a journalist. At the beginning of her career, she is met with sexism and discrimination. Bronka is concerned with her Jewish roots and Jewish authenticity -- her sister not so much.


In some ways, their parents become more acculturated to the U.S. but still retain their original fears and suspicions. The former Nazi, who is hiding in plain sight in The Takeaway Men, takes on a more public role.

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


A: I have been researching the Holocaust and its aftermath for much of my adult life. I spoke with and interviewed friends and acquaintances who were survivors and children of survivors. I read nonfiction books, pored over documents and periodicals, and watched films.


I was especially surprised when I learned that there was a community called German Gardens in eastern Long Island, which required residents to show proof of German lineage to live there. I used this community as a setting in a section of my book that explores neo-Nazism. 


This German community still exists in Yaphank, a hamlet in Suffolk County, and it was one of the German American Bund’s main centers of activity before World War II.


In 1935, the German American Settlement League bought a large tract of land in the hamlet and the neighborhood soon became a Nazi community for those of pure Aryan lineage. The fliers that were distributed at the time inviting German Americans to live there read, “You will meet people who think like you.”


The main street, which ran the entire length of the community, was named Adolf Hitler Strasse.


This and other street names honoring Nazis have since been renamed, but it wasn’t until May 2017 that the requirement to be of German ancestry was dropped; New York State prosecutors reached a settlement with the League to end any discriminatory housing policies and practices. 


Q: The Foreword Clarion review of the book says, "Shadows We Carry is an insightful novel that probes the complex, painful question of what it means to be Jewish in a post-Holocaust world.” What do you think of that description? 


A: I think that’s an accurate description of one of the major themes in the novel. I wanted to raise the question of Jewish identity -- Who is a Jew? But I also wanted readers to think about the larger issue of bloodlines in Jewish as well as non-Jewish families.


Are we defined by our genes or our environment – nature vs. nurture? How do buried secrets affect families from generation to generation? Do the “shadows we carry” determine who we are? How do we learn to live with them? And who is responsible for the misdeeds of previous generations? 


Equally important themes are antisemitism, prejudice of all kinds, individual responsibility, women’s rights, and gay rights.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am in the initial stages of drafting a third book. Numerous readers have suggested that the story of the twins should be a trilogy. At first, I didn’t even want to consider it. But now I’m thinking that I may have more to say.


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: Although The Takeaway Men was published during Covid, I did two live programs and 80 virtual ones.


My favorite part of being an author is to meet with book clubs and other interested groups and talk about my books. I’m currently scheduling book events. Those interested in having me speak can reach me through my website:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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