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Author’s Interview with Magdalena Ball

Joining me today on the blog is author, Magdalena Ball.  Magdalena, or Maggie as I’ve taken the liberty to call her, is a novelist, poet, reviewer and interviewer who grew up on Lenape land (NY) in the US, and currently lives and writes on Awabakal land.

She is Managing Editor of Compulsive Reader, Vice President of Flying Island, and her work has been widely published in literary journals such as Meanjin, Cordite, and Westerly, along with many anthologies. She is the author of a number of fiction and poetry books published in Australia and overseas.

From Argentina to Israel, from across the pond to down under; what a thrill it is for me to host authors from around the world! Thank you for reaching out to me, Maggie. I was honored to receive your email and I know the audience will be delighted to learn more about you. Please tell us about your new book, Bobish.

Guest: Hi Mirta, thanks so much for inviting me to talk with you! Bobish is the story of my great-grandmother, Rebecca Lieberman Samberg, who migrated from the Pale of Settlement to NYC on her own at the age of 14. I began researching Rebecca after finding an evocative photo of her (which is now the cover) among my mother’s photos and quite frankly I found her story fascinating. My daughter was studying the Russian revolution and began asking me questions about whether my grandparents were in Russia at the time of the revolution and when I started digging to find out what the correspondences were, I began to realise (as one often does when researching personal history) how linked my family story was with the broader historical waves that were happening through the twentieth century.

Rebecca’s story is the story of the Ashkenazim – who were ring-bound into that area of the western Russian Empire—modern day Belarus, Lithuania, Eastern Poland, Western Russia and Moldova known as the Pale of Settlement – the poor shtetls made famous by Fiddler on the Roof that existed only until 1917 outside which Jews were generally not allowed to live. Unfortunately as the power of Tsar Nicholas II began to wane and after his assassination and in the lead-up to the Russian revolution, life in the shtetls was also unlivable as waves of violence (the pogroms) began to sweep through the villages and the violence, particularly in place where Rebecca lived (Grodno, which is in modern day Belarus) and also Galicia in Poland, was becoming unbearable. I don’t know what she might have witnessed before she left so young, or why she went alone—I could not find those records, but it was enough for her to go, and her story begins with her arrival in NYC, her ship arriving at the Statue of Liberty.

From there it follows her life and the information I’ve been able to get from census records, interviews, landing papers, and anything else I could find along with more general historical research, as it unfolded in the new world where, among other things, she ended up working in the ill-fated Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (she was sick on the day it burnt down), told fortunes with tea-leaves, met my grandfather (who was, by all accounts, an unpleasant and unhappy man-again, who knows what atrocities he might have seen before he took his own journey), and raised three children who all became musicians. 

Host: My own grandparents and great grandparents were immigrants from Imperial Russia. They found refuge in Argentina, thanks to Baron Maurice Hirsch and the Jewish Colonization Association. When I look at old family photographs and see the simchas, the weddings, the bar mitzvahs and ordinary birthday parties, I stop and offer a prayer of gratitude. Their very existence (and mine!) was due to their immigration. Had they remained in the Pale, it is very likely they would have died either at the hands of the Cossacks and their ilk, or from the Nazi onslaught.  I don’t believe that we acknowledge that fact often enough these days; yet, it is that particular fact that was the impetus for my research. I began learning about my family’s history at an early age, encouraged by my father who was equally curious. What intrigued you about this time period? 

Guest:  To me, it seems like this point in history is the genesis of who my family is and what they’ve become (the art, the darkness, and the spirituality) but also the point of original trauma, so it is of great personal significance but also I felt that there was much literature about the Holocaust but not so much on the pogroms and that early diaspora was massive – some 2.8 million European Jews migrated to the US during that period, with 94% coming from Eastern Europe – so it was a critical period in time, and I felt very drawn to understand more about that and what it would have felt like. 

Of course Rebecca lived through both world wars, and my book does touch briefly on how the news from those wars would have filtered through to her. For example, any family who survived the pogroms and WWI would have been killed for certain by Nazis—all surviving Jews in Grodno were rounded up and taken into the woods and shot. So I did feel the need to engage with that and how she would have been feeling through it.

Host: I wholeheartedly agree with your point on the Holocaust. It falls to us to write of other time periods and of other narratives that showcase the beauty of our faith and resilience of our people. As an independent author, I follow the age-old adage: write the book you’d like to read. As a fan of Austen, Gaskell and the Bronte sisters, I have tried to emulate that particular style while introducing Jewish characters and storylines in unique settings, such as the fictional town of Meryton or the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata (modern-day Argentina). How have you incorporated your facts and research with your creative side and personal preferences?

GuestMy book is a hybrid work that is both poetry and memoir. I would say that it’s historical non-fiction but I was really not able to get at everything so I used the poetic form for a number of reasons – firstly, because when you’re looking at history – it really is never simply a telling – you not only have to pick and choose what to include but there is always an element – even if you were there – of recreation.  So I wanted to lean into that complexity in a way that poetry does well, but I also wanted to bring myself into the story – to point put myself in the frame as it were. One of the key things I wanted to do was to find that point of rupture – the migration and the pain and loss – all Rebecca had to leave behind, which in her case became mental illness, and then physical illness – she died quite young – and try, by the sunlight of empathy and compassion – to heal those dark places. 

Host: Maggie, your work is truly unique and inspirational. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it, and yet, it is familiar. I can identify with those key factors of immigration, pain, and loss, because I myself am an immigrant. And I must say, you’ve hit the nail on the head. These nuanced and complex emotions must find an outlet; and more often than not, we see the manifestations in mental and physical illnesses. The immigrant experience is an important story to tell. As Jews, we certainly have sufficient material to draw from. Do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?

Guest: Am I able to call Where the Wild Things Are Jewish fiction?  Certainly Sendak was Jewish and his work does seem to reckon with the idea of being ‘different’, of being an outsider, and by all accounts the Wild creatures were modelled on Sendak’s immigrant relatives who would pinch his cheeks and tell him he was so cute they could eat him up. There is a reading of this work that suggests it is a counter to the Grimms styled fairytale tropes where the otherness is evil, and instead Sendak and Max leans into that wildness and calls it beautiful.

Host:  That sounds interesting! It makes me think of two books I recently read. Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood and Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver both have the magic realism vibe and Jewish mysticism that I so enjoy. Both books lean heavily on the history of Jews in Imperial Russia. I do so appreciate authors who weave accurate history throughout the storyline. While doing your research, did anything affect or move you? Did anything come as a surprise?

Guest: I knew that my great-grandfather Simon Samberg (the “Fish Smoker” in the book – a reference to his profession) was not a nice man.  He was known for his great rages, his drinking and gambling. Sometimes he would upend card tables and he was visibly cruel to Rebecca.  My grandmother Eve, who is also in the book – Rebecca’s daughter – never spoke of him, but I was able to find out more about him through interviews and records that I found.  He was, in many ways, an antagonist in the book, but what surprised me was how literate his was. He spoke some twelve languages, and apparently was an excellent nimble dancer.  The shock for me was when I realised that the musicality of his children – a musicality that has been passed through the family, and a kind of dark intelligence, came from him.  In many ways, though Rebecca is the focus of the book, what surprised me was how important it was for me to engage with him, and forgive him – to find empathy for what he would have also had to give up – to leave behind, and who he would never have seen again in the old country.  I was surprised by how clearly I was able to feel the burden that weighed and broke him.

Host: That is the beauty of writing, I think. The process of fleshing out a character forces the author to delve into the inner workings of that person. You have to truly understand the whys. I myself have found peace and healing when writing, and those poignant passages have become very near and dear to me. Did you enjoy writing a particular scene? Are there any favorite sections in your book?

Guest: I’m not sure if favourite is the right word, but some of the poems that seem to cover a lot of ground and work really well in public readings are “Empire Erased” which goes through the process of an immigrant on arrival at that time – the motion through the line, the checks, the perception and “A Careless Cigarette” which works through the day in 1911 when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down – a day when Rebecca, who was known to read tea leaves and had a certain prescience, did not go to work (luckily for me)! 

Host: Our families have lived through hellish times, but the key word is that they lived! It might not have always been pretty, but they always dreamt of a better tomorrow. When I write of my family’s experience, I focus on that particular strength, that daring—that audacity to believe that their children and their children’s children will have better days. Through dark days and moments of despair, we must fall back on our emunah. We must have faith. That is the lesson of the Festival of Lights we have just commemorated. That is also the lesson we must glean from our matriarchs and patriarchs. With your work, Maggie, you’ve honored your ancestors and ensured that this history is not forgotten. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we say good bye?

Guest: Thank you so much for the opportunity to engage with you in this way – it has been an absolute pleasure.  Bobish is now available on Amazon and directly from the publisher. The book is available wherever good books are sold, and if you would like to read it but cannot afford to purchase, please just go ask at your local library – libraries are wonderful places and they will often just buy in a book if you want to read it so please just ask. I would be more than happy to send out personally autographed book plates to anyone who purchases the book and am also always happy to do book club visits – by Zoom if you’re not near me. 

I am finding that poetry is very hot right now (!!) and that lots of readers and book clubs want to engage with it but aren’t quite sure how. Bobish is a really great place to start as it is memoir, and history but also poetry and so it’s pretty easy to engage with – there is a clear underlying narrative and story to follow but it also allows for that complexity and subtlety that poetry can encompass – which I think works particularly when in a memoir like this where there are gaps, and layers of experience that are in different times and places.  I can be contacted via my website

Author's Interview

Author’s Interview with Libi Astaire

I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest. Libi Astaire is the author of the award-winning Jewish Regency Mystery series; Terra Incognita, a novel about modern-day descendants of Spain’s secret Jews; and The Banished Heart, a novel about Shakespeare, secret Jews, and 1930s Berlin. She lives in Jerusalem, Israel.

Libi Astaire, author

As an avid fan of all things Austen and being hot-wired for Jewish historical fiction, I was thrilled to discover Libi’s collection of Jewish mystery novels. The Banished Heart most certainly does not take place in London’s Regency period; my heart was not all aflutter for a Mr. Darcy or a Captain Wentworth, but there is a certain Austenesque quality to Astaire’s story about Herr Hoffmann that set my heart pounding. Austen was known for her shrewd observances of communal mores. The biting social commentary within Astaire’s The Banished Heart cannot be denied. Without further ado, let’s get on with today’s author’s interview.

Host: Libi, I’m excited to hear about your new release. Please tell us all about it.

Guest: The Wreck of Two Brothers, the sixth novel in my Jewish Regency Mystery series, is about two young men who share the same name, Judah Herzveld, but different fates. One is a member of London’s Jewish community, the other is a visiting non-Jewish Dutch diplomat. When the diplomat is found murdered in London’s Great Synagogue, suspicion naturally falls upon his English namesake. But is there really some long-buried connection between the two men that has led to the fatal encounter? Or is the shared name just an unfortunate coincidence that threatens to destroy the life and happiness of an innocent man? As usual, my detective, Mr. Ezra Melamed, has only a few clues to help him unravel the tangle of lies and deceptions behind the mystery of who killed the young diplomat.   

Host: Number Six? Kol Hakavod! I’ve enjoyed following Mr. Melamed throughout your previous novels. What draws you to this particular time period?

Guest: When people think of the Regency, which lasted from about 1790 until 1820, they usually think of the novels of Jane Austen. Even though Austen’s novels are wonderful, there was much more going on than young people getting married! For instance, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to make changes in everyday life, including the creation of an increasingly prosperous middle class, while the Napoleonic Wars were very much on people’s minds. So, the Regency was a time of change and social instability, in many ways, which creates lots of possibilities for mystery and intrigue.

I was also intrigued by the Ashkenazic community living in England at this time. While many people are aware there was a Sephardic community, most don’t know there was a sizeable Ashkenazic community too. So, I’ve really enjoyed researching this community and sharing this information with my readers.  

Host: I appreciate authors who weave accurate history throughout the storyline. While doing your research, did anything affect or move you? Did anything come as a surprise?

Guest: I used to write about Jewish history for several publications, and I was often asked to write about the Holocaust, which is of course very sad and moving; but it’s hard to stay in that dark place for long stretches of time. I therefore looked upon my mystery series as a kind of escape. Yes, it’s Jewish history. But it’s fun! Of course, there was plenty of poverty—the vast majority of the Ashkenazic community in London was extremely poor. And there was anti-Semitism, as well as discriminatory legislation. All that is in my series. But I’ve also tried to capture the positive energy and optimism of an immigrant community on the move—hopefully upward, although some of my characters do stumble. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a mystery for my detective to solve.      

Host:  That is exactly what attracts me to your work and storylines. Your characters are nuanced and diverse. Do you have a favorite among them?  

Guest: I started writing the series a decade ago, and there are about a dozen characters who have recurring roles in the stories—sometimes playing a major role and sometimes appearing in just a scene or two.  It’s a little community, and I love spending time with all of them. Having said that, I do have a special place in my heart for my two narrators, who take turns narrating the stories—Miss Rebecca Lyon, a Regency miss who aspires to being an author, and General Well’ngone, a young Jewish pickpocket who aspires to eating a good meal by a warm fire.

Host: Have you visited any of the locations you have written about?

Guest: I’m a big believer in visiting locations you write about, and I’ve been to England several times, including a year I spent studying theatre in London. Unfortunately, many of the Jewish locations I write about no longer exist or they look very different today. For instance, the Great Synagogue was destroyed during the Blitz of World War II. Fortunately, there is an abundance of visual history from the period—maps, aquatint prints, etc.—and so I’ve been able to reconstruct some of my locations from these images.      

Host: As I’m relatively new to the craft of writing novels, I am curious to know your process for putting “pen to paper.” Are you a panster or a plotter? Do you begin with an outline and know how the story ends from the get-go; or do you go with the flow, and allow your characters to lead the way?

Guest: I’m definitely a “pantser.” I do write a brief synopsis before I begin writing—and have a good laugh when I read it over after the book is finished. The kernel of the story is there, but the personality of the new characters is usually different from what I originally imagined. And then there are the characters who appear out of nowhere and end up playing an important role. I think if I knew “whodunnit” from the get-go, I’d never write the book. Part of the fun of writing the series is that I’m often surprised by what happens.

Host: Are you working on something now? What was your motivation for this new project?

Guest: I’m about to begin work on two holiday-themed novellas for a new collection of short mystery stories. I like the challenge of the novella—writing a satisfying story in less than 40,000 words—and I like the challenge of including information about the Jewish holidays without sounding too preachy. I hope to have the collection on sale around Purim.  

Host: I wish you the best of luck with your projects and applaud your dedication and creativity. I’m excited to read the excerpt you’re sharing today! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Guest: Thanks so much for inviting me, Mirta! Please see the links below:


You can get introduced to the Jewish Regency Mystery series for free with the first volume in the series, Tempest in the Tea Room

Excerpt from Chapter Four of The Wreck of Two Brothers:

“I AM NOT AGAINST PROGRESS,” said Mrs. Lyon, “but I do think some young women today are much too forward. I should hope none of my daughters would rush to view a dead person’s body.”

Mrs. Lyon cast a stern glance in the direction of her daughter Rebecca, who had been gazing intently at the sketch of the Dutchman’s face. It was not because Rebecca thought she knew him, but because, being something of an artist herself — as the collection of painted dishes in the breakfront in her family’s drawing room testified — she wondered how the Bow Street Runner had achieved so much with so few strokes.

Mr. Melamed had returned to his home on Bury Street, bringing with him a copy of the sketch the Bow Street Runner had made earlier. This sketch he was now showing to those still gathered in his drawing room: Mr. and Mrs. Lyon and their daughter Rebecca, Mr. and Mrs. Baer, and Daniel and Mordechai Deerfield. Esther Deerfield was upstairs in the nursery, where her son and the younger Lyon children were having a light supper.

While the servants had cleared away most of the remains from the party, the drawing room, which was usually kept in immaculate order, was still in a state of casual disarray. Those who had remained were also making themselves more at ease than a visit in that drawing room usually permitted. For while their degree of intimacy with Mr. Melamed differed, the tragedy had created a connection between them more quickly than a purely social engagement could have done. Thus, a stranger looking upon the scene could have been forgiven for thinking he was observing an extended family at rest on a long Sunday afternoon at home instead of a gathering discussing a murder.

“If you had been blessed with more sons, Mrs. Lyon, you might be more charitable,” said Daniel Deerfield, politely coming to the defense of his absent sibling. “If Eva seems unusually bold for her sex, I am afraid it is because Mordechai and I treated her more like another brother than a sister.”

Mordechai Deerfield, who had already consumed several small fish sandwiches and had now drifted back to the buffet table to see what else there was to eat, commented, “Yes, the fault, if any, is entirely ours. But in one respect I do agree, ma’am, her behavior today was odd. Eva never struck me as the fainting kind.”

“I doubt she has had a wide experience with viewing human corpses,” said Daniel.

“And I hope she does not intend to remedy her lack of experience,” said Mrs. Baer, who had assumed the duties of hostess and was busy with pouring out more tea. “I cannot think why she insisted on going to the synagogue before going home.”

“She said she had misplaced some notes she had written during the previous committee meeting, which she needed to help her prepare for the meeting tomorrow,” said Mr. Melamed, who was looking fatigued from the long day. “She thought someone might have found them and placed them in the cupboard in the upstairs room.”

“Were they there?” asked Mr. Baer.

Mr. Asher Baer and his wife were the owners of a kosher coffee house on Sweeting’s Alley. Like his wife, he possessed an abundant supply of plain common sense. That, along with his ability to think through a knotty problem with clarity, had made him a welcome confident when Mr. Melamed was confronted with some puzzling crime affecting the Jewish community.

“No, they were not,” replied Mr. Melamed. “Thankfully, the Runner accepted her explanation and allowed the Deerfields to go home.”

“I am sure that is all very well,” Mrs. Baer commented. Then, turning to Daniel and Mordechai Deerfield, she said, “But you, gentlemen, are her brothers, and you might drop a word in Miss Deerfield’s ear that now she is engaged she should be more worried about finding ways to please her fiancé than finding committee meeting notes.”

“Herzveld surely knows what he is in for,” said Daniel Deerfield. “He practically grew up in our home. By the way, sir,” he said to Mr. Melamed, “you did not mention the murdered man’s name. Is the information being kept secret, or have they not yet identified the body?”

Mr. Melamed had been expecting the question. In fact, he was mildly surprised no one had asked it earlier, while they were passing around the sketch of the Dutchman’s face. It could be explained, he supposed, because the murdered man was not a member of their community, and so no one in the room expected to know him. Therefore, the man’s name was just one detail among many — and not one of the more interesting ones. As for why he had not mentioned it, on that point Mr. Melamed was clearer. First, he wanted to know if anyone had seen the young Dutchman — where, at what time, and with whom — and for that the sketch was enough. Mention of the name would only lead to useless speculations, after a suitable period of stunned silence.

But because his son-in-law had voiced the question, Mr. Melamed replied, “It is no secret. He carried a card-case. And he was identified by an acquaintance, a Mr. Hendriks, who is a member of the delegation from Holland. His name was Judah Herzveld, and he was also part of the Dutch delegation.”

As he expected, his announcement was greeted with astonishment — looks which ranged from slightly puzzled to outright, open-eyed amazement.

“There are probably dozens of Judah Herzvelds in Holland,” said Mr. Lyon, the first to recover and break the uncomfortable silence.

“Still, it is a strange coincidence,” said Daniel Deerfield.

“It is positively ghoulish,” said his younger brother. “Almost like a ghost rising from his grave to—”

Miss Lyon gave a little gasp. For an admirer of the Gothic novel, which she was, this surprising turn of events was thrilling — almost like one of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe’s stories come to life! She could almost hear the iron chains, which had surely been wrapped around the poor ghost’s legs, clanging in the hallway when —

“Stuff and nonsense,” said Mrs. Baer. “If it had been a ghost, it would not have allowed itself to be killed.”

“I stand corrected, ma’am,” said Mordechai Deerfield, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “What would a ghost have done?”