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Author’s Interview with Shirley Reva Vernick

Today, I am happy to welcome Shirley Reva Vernick to the blog.

Vernick is the author of four novels. The Blood Lie is an American Library Association Best Fiction for Young Readers pick and a Sydney Taylor Book Award honoree. Remember Dippy won the Dolly Gray Literature Award from the Council for Exceptional Children. The Black Butterfly is a Junior Library Guild selection.

She is a graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars. When not creating stories, she mentors incarcerated individuals with their writing via the Prisoner Express program.

Shirley! That last bit is intriguing all on its own! I am certain that we could spend an hour just talking about your work with the Prisoner Express program. What a mitzvah! But today, we’re here to chat about something altogether different and I’m excited to get started. Let’s begin, shall we? Tell us about your upcoming project.

Guest: Thanks for your warm welcome, Mirta! I’m a big fan of your work, and I’m delighted to be here today. My new upper-MG/early-YA novel is Ripped Away (Regal House Publishing, February 8, 2022). This story is based on the experiences of Jewish immigrants to London during the Jack the Ripper spree, when xenophobia ran high.

In Ripped Away, a fortune teller reveals that classmates Abe and Mitzy may be able to save someone’s life…and then she sweeps them to the slums of Victorian London in the middle of the Jack the Ripper spree. To get back home, they’ll have to figure out how the fortune teller’s prophecy is connected to one of history’s most notorious criminal cases. They’ll also have to survive the outpouring of hate toward Jewish refugees that the Ripper murders triggered. 

My purpose in writing Ripped Away is to illuminate this episode in history, as well as to inspire readers to contemplate possible responses to intolerance. National Jewish Book Award-winning author Anne Blankman calls Ripped Away “an engrossing adventure. From the moment Abe and Mitzy are swept back in time to the infamous Jack the Ripper, readers will clamor to find out what happens next.”

Host: I applaud your efforts and motivation for writing this book. Why do you think Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone genre?

Guest: Jewish history is incredibly rich—the people, places, philosophies, and so much more. This history is is important not just for contemporary Jews, but for the world, because Jews and their millennia-long experiences have been formative to modern sensibilities, science, ethics, politics, you name it. I believe that Jewish Historical Fiction allows meaningful access to these elements. It also inspires substantive conversations and cross-cultural understanding.

Host: That is very well said. Our history is so much more than what we normally find in school books, novels, and film. Do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?

Guest: Yes, the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. I still go back and reread his timeless tales.

Host: One of Singer’s quotes states:  “The greatness of art is not to find what is common but what is unique.” What did you discover that was unique, while researching Jack the Ripper and the Jewish community in the Victorian era? Were you moved or surprised by your findings?

Guest: Yes and yes! I was anguished to learn that London’s Jewish refugees, who had endured such hardship in Eastern Europe (think pogroms), finally got to a place that seemed reasonably safe, only to have the antisemitic attacks happen all over again. I was sadly surprised to learn that the city of London engaged in the antisemitic hysteria—for instance, examining the knives at kosher slaughterhouses.

Host: In researching your book, I found some interesting information on the protagonists. You state that these modern-day youngsters, Abe and Mitzy, are learning to deal with “formative issues” such as acceptance, hate, sacrifice, crushes, and the meaning of friendship. Can you pick a favorite amongst these two? Which of your characters resonate with you most? 

Guest: It’s hard to pick a favorite “child”! But if pressed, I would say that Abe resonates with me most. He is a social outsider in the way I often felt as a youngster, the nerdy, unathletic, insecure kind. The kind who wants friends but doesn’t quite know how to go about it. And, of course, he’s a writer.

Host: I understand being an outsider! My grandparents were among the Russian Jewish immigrants in Argentina during the riots and pogroms of January 1919—the so-called “Tragic Week.” Because of hateful rumors and insinuations, immigrant communities were attacked—none more so than the rusos.

In Ripped Away, you showcase how rumors about Jack the Ripper spread throughout London and how the Jewish community was implicated out of pure antisemitism. In today’s society, what with the advent of social media, rumors and false information are running rampant. Young people, in particular, are targeted. Their ability to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions seems to diminish while they spend countless hours scrolling online. How do Abe and Mitzy fare in Victorian London, where word of mouth spreads propaganda and false truths?

Guest: Abe, Mitzy and their new families must brave the police searches, riots and vitriol triggered by the antisemitic lies in Victorian London. I sometimes wonder whether they would have fared better or worse if social media had been available then. On the one hand, false propaganda can spread much more quickly and pervasively online. On the other hand, I’d like to believe that the voice of reason, of truth, might also be heard faster and more broadly with modern technology.

Host: Your bio is impressive, Shirley. How long have you been writing? When did you first consider yourself an author?

Guest: As a preschooler, I used to scribble on a scrap of paper and ask my mother what I’d written. Genius that she was, she read back “my” pithy prose or imagery-rich poetry. I figured, hey, I’m a writer already! Yes, I began early.

Host: One never knows when the writing bug will bite! I want to thank you once again for stopping by today. Tell us, where can we learn more about you and your work?

Guest: Thank you, Mirta! I really enjoyed this conversation and your thoughtful questions. Here are relevant links:

Author website: https://www.shirleyrevavernick.com

Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PS9LNn4w2qc

Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Ripped-Away-Shirley-Reva-Vernick/dp/1646032039/

Author's Interview

Author’s Interview with Barbara Krasner

This month, I will have the great honor of hosting the Jewish Book Carnival on this site. If you are not familiar with the event, let me tell you a little bit about it. Each month, a host welcomes links and posts from a myriad of other bloggers who are promoting works of Jewish content. It is an incredible format that allows us to share in rich and varied topics ranging from Children’s literature to Adult fiction and everything in between.

author, Barbara Krasner

Barbara and I met like many people do these days; that is to say, we met online. In preparing for the Carnival, Barbara contributed a link (don’t forget to visit this site on April 15th!) and also shared some information with regard to her new book. I had the pleasure of reading her latest work; and while it is not a subject that I normally lean towards, it is an important topic and is sure to have a long-lasting impact. Without further ado, please join me in welcoming today’s guest, Barbara Krasner~ author, blogger, and historian extraordinaire!  

Host: Barbara, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book. I found the format unique and unexpected. It pulled on my heartstrings; but more importantly, it brings up a subject that often is neglected. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop now and allow you to tell the audience about your­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ newest release.

Guest: Thanks, Mirta, for having me. I’m always interested in talking about Jewish historical fiction! My new book, 37 Days at Sea: Aboard the MS St. Louis, 1939, is a middle-grade novel in verse. It’s the story of twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons, traveling with her parents and nearly 1,000 other German-Jewish refugees bound for Cuba. But the ship is not allowed to land, and the captain receives orders to return the ship to Germany. Ruthie and her friend, Wolfie, take action to help minimize the despair.

Host: From reading your blog page, I see that you are a historian, linguist and an author. Your list of accomplishments speaks to the love for your heritage and dedication to your craft. Tell us what intrigued you about this particular period in time?

Guest: My mother told me something about the St. Louis growing up. I decided to explore it in 2010 and read Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie’s Refuge Denied, which determined the fate the passengers after the ship landed in Antwerp in June 1939. I contacted Scott and he gave me the names of survivors who lived in the New Jersey-Pennsylvania-New York area. One by one I contacted them and interviewed them in their homes during 2010. The narrative actually started as nonfiction, then transformed to poetry for adults, then poetry for kids, ultimately fictionalized.

There are many time periods I’m interested in: Jews in early America, the mass immigration period, the postwar period (Displaced Persons). The Holocaust period, for me, takes precedence because these stories must be told to remember and honor those who perished and to keep warning the world about the loss of human rights and genocide.

Host: I understand that you are specializing in Holocaust & Genocide Studies. The scope of such a curriculum must be daunting, to say the least. Have you always been a great reader? Do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?

Guest: I am currently a doctoral candidate in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Gratz College outside Philadelphia. I’ve always been attracted to historical fiction even as a young reader and loved Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series about a Jewish family in the early 1900s in New York City.

Host: Yes! That was one of my childhood favorites as well. As an immigrant myself, I found it to be highly relatable in so many ways. The focus on identity, assimilation, and pride in heritage was powerful for this young Argentine Jewish girl, trying to understand her place in the world.

With regard to the MS St. Louis, and the general understanding of America’s position towards Jewish refugees at the time, I feel that the history has been downplayed to the detriment of our society. Given your professional experience in this genre, I would assume you are accustomed to the grim and the tragic aspects attributed to the subject matter. What did you learn, while doing your research, that particular affected you?

Guest: I spent days researching the St. Louis at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee headquarters in New York City as well as several days at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. I interviewed about eight survivors who had been aboard the St. Louis as kids. What struck me most was the resilience of these people. I noticed in one survivor’s home all the Judaica that hung on the walls. He said, “Hitler did not survive. We did.”

Host: That, indeed, is a poignant statement. Resilient. The word is applicable to Ruthie Arons. Her innocence, hope, and courage touched my heart. How did this character resonate with you? 

Guest: Ruthie’s character is a composite of people I interviewed and then some. Writing in verse helped me better understand her character and how she would respond to situations.

Host: I found the verse format to be compelling. It painted a singular picture of the situation; and though the story is told through a child’s eyes, it is not childish. I was completely engaged. Barbara, tell us a little about some of the places you have visited and their connection to your books.

Guest: In 2008 I traveled to my grandparents’ “shtetlekh” in northeastern Poland to research a historical novel. While that manuscript is still in the drawer, standing on the same ground as my grandparents was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My grandmother’s hometown of Ostrow Mazowiecka felt like my hometown.

Host: I had a similar experience when I traveled to Argentina and visited the Jewish colonies in the pampas~ the land that adopted my Russian grandparents. I felt like a time traveler. Talk about research! I would love to hear more about this manuscript, stashed away in the drawer. Will it come out soon or are you working on something else?

Guest: I have a few projects I’m working on now that I guess one could characterize as Jewish historical fiction. Too soon to talk about them in detail, but both take place in America during the Cold War.

Host: I can relate…Stories take on a life of their own; and sometimes, books understand timing better than we do! Even so, I wish you all the best with this project and in your future endeavors. It is important work. Kol hakavod! Before we sign off, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Guest: Thank you, Mirta, for this opportunity. For more information about me, readers can check out my website at www.barbarakrasner.com and my blog, The Whole Megillah, at http://thewholemegillah.wordpress.com

Author's Interview

Author’s Interview with Claudia H. Long

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing author, Claudia Hagadus Long as the next participant in the interview series. I do hope everyone has been enjoying these posts; they have surpassed anything I could have hoped for as a new blogger. By her own description, Claudia “is a weaver of words, catcher of dreams, and chronicler of the spaces between the lines in the history books: women’s stories, women’s dreams, her-story.” She is a grandmother of “two spectacular grandsons, mother of two marvelous kids, chocolate-loving lawyer-mediator, wife and cook.”

author, Claudia H. Long

Claudia is the author of several historical fictions, many of which reference the anusim, Jews living as Catholics in colonial Mexico. Though these works are far from being Austenesque, I am delighted to share this platform with another passionate author.

Host: Bienvenida Claudia! Welcome! I’m so glad that you were able to accept my invitation. Your bio is creative and fascinating. Please tell us more about your work and your current release.

Guest: Hi, Mirta! Thanks so much for having me! I’m excited to be on your blog. As you know, my newest book, Nine Tenths of the Law came out on April 23, 2020, from Kasva Press. It’s a mixed contemporary-historical novel, and my first venture outside of straight historical fiction. It combines pre-pandemic New York City and flashbacks to various times from 1939 to 1945. I was drawn to this era because my mother was a Holocaust survivor. She died in 2014, and the following year, on the first anniversary of her death, my father sat down with me and told me her stories. It was pretty earth-shaking. My mother had never talked much about her life during the War, and my sister and I had very different views of that time period and what she had suffered. When my father told me her stories, from his vantage point of having met her right after the War, my sister and I were stunned.

I decided to write the story of two sisters, Zara and Lilly, who discover, in contemporary New York City, a menorah that was stolen from their mother in 1939. That really happened. From there, the book departs into fiction, and they chase that menorah all over, up into New Hampshire, down into the East Village, while a modern-day thief leaves a trail of mayhem in his wake. It’s really the story of sisters, of memories and of love. And Chinese food. (What’s a Jewish tragedy without humor?)

Host: Your family’s history is compelling. I can readily understand what intrigued you about that time period. but this is not your usual focus. Correct?

Guest: My earlier books took place in Mexico in 1690-1750, and I have long been fascinated by the Crypto-Jews of Mexico. These were the secret Jews who lived after the Expulsion and Conversion in Spain and Portugal in 1492. Some converted “at the point of a sword” and kept the old religion in secret. I have three books that center on this era. I grew up in Mexico City and I am partly descended from Sephardic Jews, so I was naturally drawn to that history. I also had a mad girl-crush on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz in college, so the poetry of the time-period was a natural fit! In Nine Tenths, the era was deeply inspired by my mother.

Host: I find that many people are unaware of what occurred during the Inquisition and Expulsion. I also think it’s a common error to believe that the death, torture and persecution was contained to the Iberian Peninsula; when in fact, countries such as my own native Argentina, Peru, Mexico, most of Latin America actually, were involved in some capacity. These stories must be told, and it is why I believe Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone, genre. What do you say?

Guest: Well, we can’t always read about Tudor England, can we? Now Historical Fiction is much broader, but when I was a younger reader that was the only era anyone wrote about. When I first read Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais I was beyond excited. And then, The Coffee Trader and A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss sent me into a tail-spin of delight. Here were Jewish characters who weren’t just “Jewish characters in other people’s books.” While it may or may not be its own genre, it is definitely a vital sub-genre and one that will provide much material for a very long time.

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: One of the best moments in research came when my first historical fiction book, Josefina’s Sin, was being line-edited. I had researched the book meticulously, using art, theatre and poetry as my sources for clothing and speech patterns. I was enthralled with every detail. I had checked every resource for period details. And I had Josefina sitting under a mango tree. Well. Yes, I’d checked, there was a mention of mangoes in 1730, this was 1690, so I thought I was ok. But I wasn’t! The editor informed me that mangoes weren’t introduced into Mexico until twenty years later, in1710. Luckily, papayas worked as well in the story!

On the other hand, I had someone write to me and quote Wikipedia, and tell me that what I had written didn’t happen. Historical fiction takes place in the interstices between known facts. True academic historians are always delving deeply into what’s known, to discover the details and revise accepted versions of things that border on myth. It’s not enough to say, This person was born here and died there, and so that’s all that happened. During that person’s lifetime she could have had a lover, lost a child, built a home, dreamed of travel, failed at business, longed for certainty…and no Wikipedia entry will be able to gainsay it. So research can give you what happened, but fiction will put it in context.

Host: I love that explanation! It is an accurate description of what we endeavor to do with our novels. It is a painstaking process, and for a newcomer—like me—it is rather daunting. How long have you been writing? When did you first consider yourself an author?

Guest: I’ve been writing for 35 years. I wrote a romance novel while my first child was an infant. It didn’t go anywhere, but I was enthralled with the process. I wrote mysteries for a while, and those never went anywhere either. Then I published my first mystery and the excitement of seeing my work in print was overwhelming, and I knew I was hooked! I then wrote five books under a pen name for a particular kind of publisher, and finally felt ready to tackle a “serious” novel. When Simon & Schuster bought Josefina’s Sin I felt I was really truly an author. But…that was my error. I was really, truly an author when I wrote that first romance novel 35 years ago. I just didn’t know it.

It’s a big mistake to consider publication by a “big 5” (now “big 4”) house to be the measure of merit. The Duel for Consuelo and Nine Tenths of the Law might be the best books I’ve ever written, and each had very different paths to publication. Consuelo and Chains of Silver are co-op published, The Harlot’s Pen is published by a large commercial Canadian publisher, and Nine Tenths of the Law is published by a boutique Israeli publisher (there doesn’t seem to be the emphasis on “big 4” companies outside the US.) If you’re writing, you’re a writer.

Host: Thirty-five years! Talk about experience! Tell me a little about your writing process, if you will. 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 a plotter, but that’s because I’m a lawyer. I don’t want to go into the project unprepared. But the funny thing is, once I start, the story and the characters rebel against my rigid outline (complete with multiple subparts!) and demand a life of their own!

Host: I am well acquainted with those unexpected developments and am happy to know that it happens to even an accomplished author! Tell us, Claudia, are you working on something now?

Guest: Stay tuned for the sequel—yes, an actual sequel! —to Zara and Lilly’s adventures.

Host: That sounds promising! Is there anything else you’d like to add before we sign off?

Guest: You can get all of my books anywhere and any way that you buy your books. For online ordering contact your bookstore, or go to Amazon https://tinyurl.com/yddvh2rp

Please do follow me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ClaudiaHLong

And check out my website at: www.claudiahlong.com

Author's Interview

Author’s Interview with Felicia Grossman

I’m excited to bring you another post in my author’s interview series. Joining us today is Felicia Grossman, author of American historical romance novels Appetites & Vices and Dalliances & Devotion. Felicia is a Delaware native. She now lives in the Midwest with her family and two dogs. When not writing romance, she enjoys eclairs, cannoli, and Sondheim musicals. Sounds like a girl after my own heart!

Author, Felicia Grossman
Photo credit: Allison Liffman Photography

I spend a significant amount of time hurling myself down the notorious rabbit hole in search of reading material specific to my genre. There is a plethora of historical fiction that speaks to the horrifying events of the Holocaust. These narratives are closely followed by tales of the Inquisition and, of course, biblical stories. On the other side of the historical fiction/romance coin, we usually find ourselves in an English setting, though sometimes we get to go to “the continent.” Imagine my surprise when I discovered Felicia Grossman’s work! Here we have an author that introduces Jewish protagonists in the context of early American history. I have to learn more about her. Join me, won’t you?

Host: Welcome to my blog, Felicia. I’m delighted to get to know you. Tell us a little about your work.

Guest: I’m so excited to be here. Thank you so much for having me. In 2019, I released a historical romance miniseries with Carina Press called The Truitts. The two books in that series are Appetites & Vices, which takes place in 1841 and Dalliances & Devotion which follows the next generation of the family in 1871. I also had a contemporary romance short story called The Sweet Spot in the Love All Year anthology this past September.

Host: Sweet spot, indeed! My favorite eras tend to be the Regency, Victorian and Edwardian periods. Tell me why you were motivated to set your stories in this time frame?

Guest: The historical romances I write are primarily set in the middle of the nineteenth century. I think I keep going back to that era because, due to emerging technology, a great deal of changes occurred all over the world. Travel became easier, both by land and water, as well as communication with the advent of the telegraph. There are a lot of parallels between that era and the era we’re in now. Additionally, the theory and philosophy written during that time period, especially in central Europe is extremely interesting and exciting to me.

Host: This time was certainly an important period for Jews, particularly in the field of philosophy. The Jewish Enlightenment movement, the Haskalah, was in full swing then, though there doesn’t seem to be enough focus on the subject—much to my chagrin. Why do you think Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone, genre?

Guest: Because Jews have mainly been a diaspora people for the last few eons, and thus have generally lived as a minority subject to a majority culture’s rule, our history is over looked. For example, saying something like “American,” or “western,” or “non-western,” history doesn’t necessarily include or capture our experience. Jews have lived in all those locations but had a completely different experience than the dominant class/culture/nationality. Thus, you could set a book 19th century historical novel in the Russian Empire or the Austrian or even the Ottoman, and while I had ancestors who lived in all those places during that time period, unless your characters were Jewish, the depiction of life would not be the same as what my ancestors experienced. It wouldn’t be our story. So I think, to get those stories, you need to need that more specific focus, if that makes sense?

Host: Yes! That completely makes sense to me and I applaud you for your efforts. I have long said we need to shine the light on our ancestors lives and celebrate their achievements, as well as their obstacles. I champion Jewish protagonists in lighter narratives, because I feel we do a disservice to our community by only speaking of the tragic and horrifying events of our past. Do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?

Guest: This is my favorite question because no one has ever asked me this but I truly think this book is why I write—or at least the feeling it gave me is what I want to create for other people. So the book is Out of Many Waters by Jacqueline Dembar Greene. It’s an MG novel I read in second grade, a few years after it came out. It’s about a Jewish girl who was taken aware from her parents by the church during the Portuguese Inquisition and she ends up on the ship that will bring the first group of Jews to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in 1655. It was the first time I saw myself in history before the late 19th century. I was always a history person but I always sort of knew that the stories were never about me or anyone I could have been that wasn’t either centered on the Holocaust or a very small recent experience. I wanted roots deeper than 1881 and I got it.

Host: It is amazing, isn’t it, how a book can have such an impact on our young lives. An extraordinary amount of time is spent researching for interesting facts and those small, important details that make our novels so affecting. Were you moved by any of your own discoveries? Was anything particularly surprising or touching, in a way you may never have expected?

Guest: For especially Appetites & Vices, I relied pretty heavily on Rebecca Gratz’s letters for both daily life references as well as what sort of Judaism my Jewish characters practiced. What initially surprised me was how similar Gratz’s observance level is to my own as well as her relationship to with emerging formal Jewish institutions in Philadelphia despite the fact she lived in the late 18th and 19th centuries. I would probably argue that Judaism for me now is much more similar to hers and my characters than it is to my own ancestors during that period who didn’t live in the U.S. It’s something I should have realized, both because a great deal of the current American institutions as well as the movement of Judaism I belong to were created by and for that initial small group of Jews from western Europe. And when the bulk of the American Jewish population came as refugees from the former Pale of Settlement between 1881 and 1924, assimilation into the existing Jewish culture was heavily pushed. I’d argue that it wasn’t until after the Holocaust that concerted, concentrated resistance to that sort of assimilation and the preservation of certain spiritual based Jewish movements from Eastern Europe took hold in the U.S. in a significant way. Thus, it make sense that my family would adopt the customs brought from those early generations and make them ours as well.

Host: I remember reading a quote—it’s on one of my Pinterest boards—that says: ‘You will always leave something behind: Your influence’. Rebecca Gratz is one of the many people who highly influenced American Jewry; though sadly, many in our community are not familiar with her work. There are so many men and women who have had a tremendous impact on our lives today. Needless to say, they would serve as great building blocks when creating characters for our story lines. Do you have a favorite character? One who particularly resonates with you?

Guest: While I’d say there’s always a part of me in all my POV characters, Ursula Nunes in Appetites & Vices was based on and written for early teenage me. All the frustration, all the loneliness, and yes, all the, for lack of a better word, bullying, were based on my own younger life. Her personality, her strengths, her likes and dislikes are also very much based on little me. The biggest difference is her hair and eye color. I wrote her and her HEA and arc for the girl I used to be and all the girls like us, who I think, deserve to see themselves win.

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

Guest: I’m from Wilmington, Delaware and set both Truitt books as well as The Sweet Spot, in the Wilmington area and yes, I’ve literally been everywhere I’ve described. The Truitt house is supposed to be Winterthur (even though Winterthur was built later) and the Nunes house is a specific house on Old Kennett Pike. The Levy house is based on a combination of houses in South Philadelphia near 4th and Delancey. Bedford Springs, the spa David and Amalia visit in Dalliances & Devotion, existed then and existed now (it’s owned by Omni). All the places in Pittsburgh and Gettysburg are also based on real places I’ve visited. That was what actually made those books so easy (and fun) to write, the setting was home.

Host: I completely understand. My experiences and familiarity with Buenos Aires and the other provinces in Argentina helped immeasurably when I wrote my first few books. The writing is richer, I would think, when the author is connected to the settings and events in the story line. Can you recall a favorite scene or setting from your work?

Guest: My absolute favorite scene I ever wrote was the carriage ride (on what is now Route 52) at the end of Appetites & Vices, with Ursula, her father, and her Uncle Bernard, where we learn that not only were they trying to marry her off to half of Jewish upper class Europe (I have an entire head cannon of actual specific people they had in mind, which gets mentioned a little in Dalliances & Devotion), but that, to protect her reputation, Uncle Bernard had used some fun quirks in Jewish law (which got threaded in earlier) regarding marriage (I took a Rabbi Michael Broyde course in graduate school and that particular area of Jewish law is his expertise).

Host: I am a little in awe of your academic background! Sometimes I have to pinch myself (figuratively speaking, of course!) when I have the opportunity to interact with educators, historians and published authors of renown fame. As I am relatively new to this craft, I often wonder how others got their start. How long have you been writing? When did you first consider yourself and author?

Guest: I’ve always been writing. I actually wrote my first full length manuscript my first year of college (it was WF/suspense). However, I didn’t decide to look into doing anything besides saving things on a disk and putting it in a drawer until the beginning of 2016, when my youngest started sleeping through the night. I’m not sure I considered myself an author until I opened that box from Harlequin with the physical, promotional samples of Appetites & Vices that I could actually hold in my hands because it all didn’t seem real until that moment.

Host: Ah! I know that feeling well! There’s nothing like holding that freshly printed book in your hands and knowing that it’s the culmination of your blood, sweat and tears! Let me ask you another question along those lines. Are you a “panster” – flying by the seat of your pants and writing come what may, or a “plotter”- starting out with a plot, and an outline and numerous spreadsheets?

Guest: I would say I’m a combination. I start with a pretty lose synopsis with a few tent poles but things often change while I’m writing. I love tropes and structure. While I totally get that people can find them limiting, I find them comforting. They’re like a guide that makes the entire task seem more manageable. So even when I play and twist them, I still have touchstones so I don’t get too lost.

Host: So tell us, are you working on something now? Perhaps something Downton-esque? Hint, hint…

Guest: I’m always writing and hoping to have some fun good news to share soon.

Host: I have no doubt that you will! Felicia, is there anything else you’d like to add before we sign off?

Guest: Thank you so much for interviewing me. I had so much fun! If you want more information about me or my books you can find me at:

https://feliciagrossmanauthor.com/

Twitter: @HFeliciaG

GR: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18443358.Felicia_Grossman

Author's Interview

Author’s Interview with Sherry V Ostroff

Sherry V. Ostroff, author

I have invited Sherry V. Ostroff, author of The Lucky One, a memoir, and award-winning Caledonia, a historical novel, for today’s interview. Sherry earned a Bachelor’s in education from Temple University and a Master’s in history from Millersville University. She taught all levels: elementary, secondary and college. Sherry devotes her time to writing, family, reading, and traveling. She lives with her high school sweetheart in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

I have had the pleasure of reading Caledonia. I was drawn to the storyline as it encompasses the history of Iberian Jews settling in, of all places, Scotland. The added intrigue of a modern-day woman, sort of floundering in her world of loss and mystery, connecting with her 17th century Jewish ancestor reeled me in. Throw in a couple of Highlanders and I was hooked! Let’s get started, shall we?

Host: Sherry, tell us what you’re working on these days.

Guest: My upcoming release is called Mannahatta. It is the sequel to my first historical novel, Caledonia. I expect the sequel to be out in the spring of 2021. Caledonia and Mannahatta are twin inter-generational stories covering two different time periods: 1696-1712 and 2205-2008. Both stories are in Scotland, Central America, and New York City.

Host: I am drawn to non-Holocaust, Jewish Historical Fiction. What motivated you to write about this specific time period?

Guest: This all started when I was drawn to an obscure historical event when the Kingdom of Scotland wanted to create a colony in the New World, in what is today, present day Panama. When I asked history teachers, history enthusiasts, and the Scots I’ve met on my many trips to Scotland, almost no one was aware of this remarkable event. I decided it was time for the world to learn about it.

Host: Why do you think Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone genre?

Guest: Someone a lot smarter than me once said, if you follow the course of antisemitism, you, you will understand world history.

Host: Sherry, your books deal with heavy subject matters. I am curious. While doing your research, were you particularly moved by anything you discovered? Did anything come as a surprise?

Guest: It is important to me, as a historian, to keep the facts. I know this is historical fiction, but my writing weighs heavily on the history side of the genre. Thankfully, in my research, I always come across interesting bits of information. For example, on a trip to the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, England, I learned that Admiral Nelson had a fear of dying at sea and his body tossed overboard. Therefore, he always had a barrel of rum set aside for such an event. When he died during the Battle at Trafalgar, he was preserved in the rum until the ship returned to England three months later.

This anecdote was brought to life in Caledonia by Cook Innes. This has happened many times while writing Caledonia and Mannahatta. My readers love these stories.

Host: Have you ever visited the locations you feature in your stories? 

Guest: For Caledonia, I have visited almost every place mentioned in the book and that includes most of Scotland. For Mannahatta, I have also been to lower Manhattan and have gone on tours which describe what the area was like in its early days. Since half of the book takes place at the end of the 17th and early 18th century, I try to visit places, like living history museums and historical societies that will help me understand the time. The only setting I couldn’t visit was Darien National Park in Panama. There are State Department warnings and restrictions because it is one of the most dangerous areas in the world. Therefore, I rely on the writing of others, those more adventuresome than me, and Google Earth is helpful.

Host: Which of your characters resonate with you most? 

Guest: The characters in my book are like my children. It is hard to say that I favor one over another. It’s interesting when a reader contacts me and tell me how much they hate arch-villain Nathan. I just smile because he’s also my creation, and I’m fond of him.
Some characters are fun to write. The one that fits that description is Cook Davey Innes. He befriends the main character, Anna, on a ship set for the New World. I didn’t mean for him to stick around. He was meant to bring some levity to the awful conditions on board, but his character kept growing and revealing more and more layers; a gift that kept on giving. And so, he makes a return engagement in the sequel, Mannahatta.

Host: Do you have a favorite scene or event in the book? Don’t give anything away!

Guest: In Caledonia, the scene that brought me to tears was the final chapter. It tied everything together: a man of integrity, a proposal, and a death bed. But one of my favorite scenes was the removal of the botfly that had infected one of the colonists in Caledonia. It was a gruesome description, but wonderful to write.

In Mannahatta, there are so many scenes. But I guess my favorites are two. Early in the book, the discovery of a 300-year-old artifact that was believed to be lost and held so much meaning in the book. Another favorite is at the end of the book, when the mysteries that started in Caledonia all come together in a very satisfying ending.

Host: Are you already onto the next project? Are you able to share what you’re working on and when we can expect to see it in print?

Guest: I have started the research for another project. Presently, I’m in the “read for enjoyment” phase. I can only say that my next book will be an historical novel. Again, it is something that not many know about.

Host: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Guest: I am available to meet with book groups and I offer 3 different book talks. They are not the usual kind of talks where the author reads an excerpt. These are discussions on the art of writing. One is called, “Fanning the Spark, The Creative Process.” This is about how an author gets an idea for a story and where they take it from until it is a book on a shelf. Another talk, my newest, is “The History Behind the Historical Novel.” In this talk I trace where the historical novel genre came from.

Host: I understand you are offering one signed book and one eBook (Kindle) each of Caledonia and The Lucky One. Readers, your comment, in the field below, is your entry in the giveaway. I will announce the winners next week, so stay tuned! Sherry is leaving us with an excerpt. Enjoy!




It was time. All my dad’s affairs were taken care of except for one last thing, a safe deposit box at a large bank in lower Manhattan. I put off emptying the contents because it was the final act of a tragic play with no encores. I feared if I wrapped up this last bit of business, I had accepted his death.

That’s how I found myself in a dank subterranean vault. I gathered up the contents of the box, balanced them in my hands, and walked out of the small room made available for the customer’s privacy. Wiping away a tear and sniffling quietly into a tissue, I handed back the nondescript key to the gray-haired bank clerk.

She eyed me sympathetically over her half-rimmed glasses attached to a chain around her neck, as I fumbled my possessions. “Miss Duncan,” she said, “maybe this will help.” She held out a plastic grocery bag. I guess she’d seen many come unprepared.

“Thank you,” I mumbled through my tears hoping she heard me.

I just wanted out of there. I ran up the steps and exited into the blinding sunshine, flipped on my sunglasses, and worked my way to mid-town and Penn Station.

My grandparents let me know beforehand what the box contained. There were no surprises, nothing of consequence: three $100 EE United States savings bonds, a copy of a title for a car sold years ago, a Boy Scout badge, a locket with my baby picture and a few strands of hair, and an envelope.

I held the plastic bag close and boarded the train that plied the northeast corridor of the New Jersey Transit. It would take over an hour and sixteen stops to reach the end of the line in Trenton. The train was full of people returning home after a day of working, shopping, or sight-seeing. A short elderly woman, who reminded me of my grandmother, sat next to me.
She smiled and complained at the same time, “My feet. These shoes are killing me.” She kicked them off and leaned back in her seat.

I nodded. I wasn’t in the mood for talking. Not today. Unfortunately, older people talk to almost anyone. The woman tried once more. “Hi, I’m Rose. Wasn’t today beautiful? If I had comfortable shoes, I would’ve done more shopping.”

I didn’t want to be rude, but all I could manage was a weak, “Hanna. Yes, today was nice.” What I wanted was to be left alone, lost in my thoughts remembering my dad and another perfect summer day that seemed to mock a national tragedy. On that day there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky to block out the sun or diminish the sky’s brilliant blue. For me, it was the coldest and dreariest day of my life. The day my dad was murdered.

The woman gave up, pulled out a book from her bag, and began to read. After a few minutes the train jerked forward. I settled in for the long ride home and tried to make myself comfortable even though there was never enough room for my long legs. Late arrivals scurried from car to car hoping to find a seat, only to be grateful to lean against a wall or a door. Some passengers were immersed in their phones or newspapers. Others stared blankly out the window. But the car filled with chatter as passengers discussed the latest gossip or the events of their day.

As the train lumbered toward its first stop in Secaucus, I clipped back my unruly hair, leaned my head against the cool glass, and gazed at the New York skyline. I would never get used to the missing twin towers. Their absence was like a gaping hole in a mouth full of teeth. No matter how you tried to cover it up, the smile was never the same.

A conductor collecting fares interrupted my thoughts. The snapping sound of his punch announced him, and quickly he was gone. The train continued southward to Newark, Elizabeth, and Linden while my thoughts returned to New York.

For twenty years my dad had worked at the World Trade Center as a senior accountant for one of the top firms on the east coast. He was well-liked and respected; he loved his job. He looked forward to going to work. Whether I was awake or not, his morning routine included a kiss on my forehead, a readjustment of my blanket, and a whispered, “Good morning, Sunshine,” before he slipped quietly from the house. He always arrived at his desk before anyone else, with a box of glazed doughnuts and fresh coffee to share with the overnight cleaning crew finishing their shift. His routine ended on September 11, 2001.

No one saw it coming, totally out of the blue, like the sky that morning. Everyone was in a state of shock. For me, it was the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. Although four years have gone by, I’ve still not accepted it. The gut-wrenching part — my dad wasn’t even supposed to go to work that day.

As the train arrived in Princeton, a taped voice on the train’s intercom continually reminded departing passengers, mostly college students, to “watch the gap.” They jostled their way to the exits and quickly disembarked. The elderly lady, my co-traveler, left without a word taking her lemon scent with her. After the first few stops the crowd thinned, and I had the luxury of the entire row to myself.

The next stations were Hamilton, then Trenton. From there it was only a half-hour on the Trenton Line to Philadelphia. If I had a few minutes to spare, I’d call my grandparents. They were anxious about my trip to New York.

Dad’s parents were my only remaining family. My mother’s parents died before I was born, and I lost my mother when I was very young. My grandparents became my guardians for a few months after my father was killed. They were good to me but were a bit overwhelmed with the shock of losing their only son and assuming a parental role once again. I vowed that as soon as college was completed, I would go out on my own but live nearby, so we could visit often.

I exited the train, mindful of the gap, and tucked the plastic bag under my arm. Fortunately, the Philadelphia train was waiting at the platform. I entered, quickly grabbed a seat, and continued to think how different my life would be today if events had been altered.

Dad had helped me move in the weekend before the start of classes. By the time we were halfway down I-95, I realized I forgot my new cell phone. He offered to return in two days with the errant phone. It was a great opportunity to spend the day together before I got too busy with classes, papers, and friends. He checked his schedule to confirm the day.

“Hanna, Tuesday works for me. My new assistant, Carly, can manage the workload. I want to give her some space without always being there to get her out of a jam. She’s got to learn and gain confidence.”

“Great. Let’s go where you and Mom used to hang out when you went to school here. Show me some of the highlights of downtown Philly and the best place to eat in Chinatown.”

“Yeah, sure. I’d like that, Hanna. It will be our day, just the two of us.”

Just the two of us. I didn’t want to tell my dad I was homesick. But then, maybe he already knew. I looked forward to our day together.

I was so disappointed when Dad had to cancel. He was expecting some important client, and Carly wasn’t experienced enough to handle it alone. The parents of my roommate Jess lived near Dad and were coming down to replace a broken monitor. They offered to bring my phone and save my dad the four-hour, round-trip drive. Yeah, saved my dad the trouble, but it hadn’t saved him.

Thinking about the “what-ifs” really gets me down. What if there had been just one minor fluctuation in the order of events leading up to 9/11? What if Jess’s parents couldn’t make the drive, or if Carly had more experience? My father used to tell me that hindsight is twenty-twenty. In this case, exploring all the possibilities was especially painful. There are no satisfying answers to the “what-ifs.” There are no do-overs — period.

 

 

Coming soon in 2021
Author's Interview

Author’s Interview with Michelle Cameron

I am pleased to introduce today’s guest, Michelle Cameron. Michelle is a director of The Writers Circle, an NJ-based organization that offers creative writing programs to children, teens, and adults, and the author of works of historical fiction and poetry: Beyond the Ghetto Gates, which won the 2020 Silver Medal in Historical Fiction in the Independent Book Publisher Awards (IPPYs), The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz, and In the Shadow of the Globe.

Michelle Cameron, author

She lived in Israel for fifteen years (including three weeks in a bomb shelter during the Yom Kippur War) and served as an officer in the Israeli army teaching air force cadets technical English. Michelle lives in New Jersey with her husband and has two grown sons of whom she is inordinately proud.

Host: Michelle, that is quite a fascinating bio. I’m excited to learn more of your work. Please tell us about about your latest project.

Guest: My Jewish historical novel, Beyond the Ghetto Gates, was published this past April. It tells the story of the 26-year old General Napoleon’s military campaign through Italy in 1796-7. When he reaches the harbor city of Ancona, he first encounters locked ghetto gates, and sends his Jewish soldiers to demolish them and emancipate the Jewish residents. Beyond the Ghetto Gates is also the story of two women – Jewish Mirelle, who must choose between her duty to her family and faith or her love for a dashing French Catholic soldier and Catholic Francesca, who is trapped in a marriage to an abusive and ultimately murderous husband.

Host: Why were you motivated to write about this time period?

Guest: My earlier historical novel took place during the rise of antisemitism and, as it included blood libels, book burning, torture, and more, in many ways it was a difficult book to write. I was explicitly looking for that rare beast – a joyous moment in Jewish history.

Host: Ah. Now you are speaking my language! Tell me more.

Guest: While reading about the Jews of the French Revolution, I happened upon Michael Goldfarb’s nonfiction book, Emancipation. In it, he describes the scene of Napoleon’s happening upon the ghetto gates. This highly dramatic moment had “novel” written all over it. One of the themes that runs through much of my writing is the tension between assimilation and safeguarding religious belief, which is why I was motivated to write about this time period. It also intrigued me because it was a historical episode many readers (and this writer) had never heard of before.

Host: I appreciate authors who weave accurate history throughout the storyline. In particular, I enjoy discovering, and highlighting, the beauty of our Jewish heritage. While doing your research, were you surprised at your findings?

Guest: While I could anticipate much of what I found in my research, there were actually two substantial surprises, both of which contributed mightily to the plotline.  The first was discovering that Ancona, Italy, was the world center of ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) making during this time. The artisans of Ancona were the first to illuminate these documents, and the ketubot (plural) had a highly distinctive shape. This shape – called an ogee arch, a rounded top culminating in a peak – allowed me to recognize when a ketubah came from Ancona in such far-flung exhibits of Judaica in Toronto, Edinburgh, and New York. It also gave my heroine a purpose and a desire: to contribute to her family’s legacy, as makers of these exquisite documents.

The second surprise was stumbling on the story of the miracle Madonna. In June, about eight months before Napoleon arrived, a portrait of the Virgin Mary in Ancona’s Cathedral purported to turn its head, smile upon the congregation, and weep. This was all documented in a Vatican recounting of the event, which included the fact that Francesca Marotti and her daughter Barbara – both characters in the novel – were the first to see the miracle.

Part of Napoleon’s campaign was the systematic looting of Italy’s artwork and religious artifacts. An anecdote tells of him denuding the cathedral in Ancona and seeing the miracle portrait. According to the story – which may be fabricated – something he saw as he stared at the painting shocked him. I couldn’t resist adding this scene! I should add that everything that happens to the portrait after Napoleon sees it is purely my invention. But the portrait itself became a critical plot device.

Host: Which of your characters resonate with you most? 

Guest: I think in many ways both of the main characters have a bit of me in them – Mirelle in her feeling toward her family and conflicting desire to accomplish something that is nontraditional, Francesca in her internal sense of rightness.

Host: What is your writing process? Do you know how it will end, as you get started?

Guest: Because research is such a critical part of my novels, I begin with a three-month “deep dive” into the material, just to get my arms around it. This is when I discover what parts of the story can be derived from the research. But since I love historical research so much, I make myself limit it to that three-month period. Otherwise, I might never emerge! But I do still keep researching, of course, as I hit the many, many times when I arrive at a scene where I don’t know what I need to know – and even consult my books and other research materials when I’m in the midst of revising.

In fact, I revised Beyond the Ghetto Gates more than I’ve ever revised any other novel. I thought I did know the end when I started – but my beta readers convinced me that I didn’t! In fact, I changed both the beginning and the end of the novel multiple times. The end itself is somewhat unusual, and many of my readers have been surprised by it. (Frankly, so was I!)

Host: How long have you been writing? When did you first consider yourself an author?

Guest: I’ve been writing since the fourth grade and always wanted to become a writer. It didn’t come easily. My first three novels never saw the light of day – thank goodness! When the third was rejected, I decided that I had tried and failed, and took a hiatus from writing. It was my youngest son whose love of writing brought me back to it – which is one of several reasons that Beyond the Ghetto Gates is dedicated to him. I first considered myself an author with the publication of my first work – a verse novel about William Shakespeare and the Globe theatre, called In the Shadow of the Globe.
 

Host: Are you already onto the next project? When will we see it in print?

Guest: Yes, I’m already deep in research for the next novel – a sequel to Beyond the Ghetto Gates in which Napoleon does something unexpected: takes a military expedition to Egypt and Israel. So we’ll be continuing with the same cast of characters. This novel took me about three years to write, so my earnest hope is that the next book will be out in 2023 – or earlier. But we’ll see.

Host: You are certainly keeping busy! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Guest:  Here are the links to my website and social media:

Website: michelle-cameron.com Facebook Author page: /michellecameronauthor
Instagram: @michellecameronwriter
Twitter: @mcameron_writer
In addition, Beyond the Ghetto Gates can be found at all online and brick-and-mortar booksellers, including: ​  Bookshop.org| Barnes & Noble | Amazon | Kindle | Books-A-Million 

Host: Thank you, Michelle, for spending some time with us today. I believe you are leaving us with an excerpt. I know we will all enjoy the read!

Guest: Yes, the following is from Chapter Two.  Thanks so much for this interview, Mirta!


Tall buildings loomed on either side of the street. Mirelle was used to the narrow space, but today the air seemed more fetid than usual, the close-packed homes more menacing. The buildings—many built centuries before and precariously expanded upward—were crumbling at their foundations. Apartments exuded the smells of a hundred cooking pots, paint curling under the sweat and filth of packed living.

Toddlers played in the streets, ignoring the refuse running down the center sewer. Housewives stopped to gossip, straw baskets crushed against their sides. The market was bustling, with vibrant oranges and lemons piled into pyramids, cut citrus samples sharp in the spring air, bundled chard and spinach, flowery clusters of cauliflower and broccoli, and long spears of artichokes piled high. Crusty breads, fruit-filled flans, and boxes of biscotti wafted enticing odors. But today all Mirelle felt were the centuries of dirt and sweat trapped inside the enclosed ghetto. The walls pressed in on her, making it difficult to breathe. On impulse, she decided to visit a different market—the one outside the gates, where she could feel sea breeze and sunlight on her face.

During daylight hours, the ornate, wrought-iron gates at the ghetto entrance were flung wide. Because her friend Dolce often designated them as a meeting spot, Mirelle knew their every nook and curve. As she’d wait, she’d run her fingers over the peeling patterns, twisting and curling. From dawn until nightfall, ghetto residents moved freely through the stone archway into the city of Ancona. As the sun dipped behind the horizon, however, city guards slammed the gates shut and chained a heavy padlock to the bars. The clang of the closing gates always raised the hair on the back of Mirelle’s neck.

It affected her generally carefree brother even more. Jacopo often railed against being imprisoned inside the ghetto.Just once, I want to see what the sea looks like under the stars,” he’d said one night as they stood outside, straining to see more than a few inches of night sky. “Just once, I’d like to walk freely out the gate and not have someone stare at me because I’m Jewish.”

Something had stirred in her chest as he spoke. A whole world existed outside the ghetto. If only they could both walk out of the gates freely!

But they were trapped. Day or night, whenever the Jews left their homes, they were required by law to don the yellow hat and armband that branded them as different. For as long as she could remember, Mirelle had covered her brown locks with a yellow kerchief before walking in the streets. She always wrinkled her nose in the mirror as she adjusted the badge of her faith. They make us wear yellow because it is the color of urine, she’d think distastefully. And of cowardice.

Her brother might feel caught inside the enclosure of the locked ghetto gates, but she felt doubly trapped—as a Jew and as a woman.