Saturday, November 18, 2023

Q&A with Florence Reiss Kraut


Florence Reiss Kraut is the author of the new novel Street Corner Dreams. She also has written the novel How to Make a Life. She worked for 30 years as a therapist, clinician, and CEO of a family service agency, and she lives in Rye, New York.


Q: What Inspired you to write Street Corner Dreams and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: I have always been interested in family stories, as is my daughter who is an ancestral sleuth.


While researching my mother’s extended family she discovered that my mother’s first cousin, who came from an orthodox Jewish background, became a gangster in Brooklyn, after he had graduated from college with an engineering degree. He was a card shark and a racketeer who was later murdered in a gang war.


If that wasn’t intriguing enough, she also discovered that his parents treated his death and burial differently, one disowning him as a son and the other insisting on a traditional burial and mourning.


I had never heard the story, but just having those few facts I began to play with the possibilities of writing a novel about this young man, whom I called Morty, and his family.


What turned a smart young man with a promising future, to a life of crime? What did his parents fight about? Why was he murdered and what effect did his death have on his family?


I love historical fiction and I especially love family sagas, so I began to work on the development of the storyline, finding answers to all the questions that I posed as I formulated the story.


The events happened in the first half of the 20th century, and the characters immigrated to grinding poverty in Brooklyn in 1914, just before the United States entered WWI. They lived through the terrors of the Spanish Flu pandemic, Prohibition and the growth of all kinds of illegal activities, the Great Depression and the run-up to WWII, all incredibly impactful on this small family of four.


As I answered the questions I posed above, about what made a nice young man turn to a life of crime, I developed the family characters: Golda, the mother, Ben, the father and Sylvia, the sister.


And I peopled the book with ancillary individuals: Cousin Surah and Rabbi Levy, the people who helped the new immigrants Ben and Golda to make a life; Rudy and Paulie, the friends who supported and challenged Morty; Anna, the love of Morty’s life.


All these characters pushed and pulled Morty as he grew up and took the steps to become a gangster. And then I needed to figure out if there was any way out for him and his family.

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


A: The research for the novel was great fun.  I read biographies of famous Jewish gangsters of the era, finding out how and why they entered a life of crime.  I read about the Spanish Flu epidemic in New York City, what the disease looked like and how it sickened and killed its victims.


I researched the Great Depression: the causes, the ways in which ordinary people were impacted and impoverished. I learned about the antisemitism in America in the 1930s in the lead-up to WWII, and how prevalent it was across the country.


I learned many things that surprised me. The gangsters affiliated with people from their own religion or country of origin. They hung out on street corners, in candy stores and luncheonettes and fought with each other for control of territory and different rackets.


Prohibition aided in the development of the organization of crime, as the gangsters bought and distributed the illegal alcohol to underground nightclubs, speakeasies, and stores. 


And after prohibition was ended, this organization persisted and Jewish and Italian mobsters formed what became the National Crime Syndicate and Murder Incorporated, which was responsible for about 1,000 murders. 


I also was surprised to learn how many immigrant families living in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn at that time, had family members who were affiliated in large and small ways with criminal activity.


The first half of the 20th century was full of interesting events and political upheaval, which I learned about and formed the background for the book.


Q: The writer Virginia Weir said of the book, “The enduring power of family is at the heart of this compelling read, proving that sometimes the dreams you give up can lead to something better.  What do you think of that description?


A: Street Corner Dreams, like my first novel, How to Make a Life, is a family story and traces a particular family from immigration to integration into the great American dream.


Without the family love and sacrifices made to help one another, most immigrants would never have achieved success in the strange new world they entered. The dreams they came with were often unachievable, and some family members gave up their dreams in order to help others achieve theirs. 


Ultimately, the power of the family pulling for one another leads to larger success for all.


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


A: When I began my first novel, How to Make a Life, I knew that the novel would end with a hundredth birthday party, but I wasn’t sure whose party it would be.


With Street Corner Dreams I thought the novel would end after WWII, but as I progressed I realized that the ending I had thought of would not work with the characters I developed.


I went back and reconstructed the storyline, changing many of the trajectories of the characters until I came up with a believable and satisfying ending. 


It was a challenge, but a good one, to relax a little and let my characters and my plot lines grow themselves. So yes, I made many changes along the way.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have just begun to work on another historical novel, set in the first half of the 20th century. But I find that if I talk too much about it before I write it, I lose the juice behind it. Suffice it to say it will be a historical novel, but perhaps not so much about a family.


I enjoy writing historical novels, but I love mysteries also. So perhaps I will write one soon.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love my characters. For me they become real people with flaws and strengths, just like all of us. Readers always tell me that they connect to my characters and that they remind them of people in their own lives. That makes me very happy.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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