YA Author Tammar Stein Searches for a Hero in The Six-Day Hero

Tammer Stein

Tammer Stein

By Lindsey Wojcik

Nearly 50 years ago, Israel and the neighboring Arab states fought in what is now known as the Six-Day War. Just in time for the 50th anniversary in June, young adult author Tammar Stein's The Six-Day Hero will officially be released (it is currently available on Amazon).

While The Six-Day Hero is not directly about the conflict, it does aim to transport readers to the sounds, sights, and events of West Jerusalem during that time. The story follows 12-year-old Motti, a boy who dreams of being a hero, and thinks the only way to become one is by being a soldier like his older brother (who serves in the Israeli army).

Stein, the daughter of Israeli Defense Force soldiers, recently talked to me about her writing process, what inspired The Six-Day Hero, and her advice for other authors. 

Lindsey Wojcik: What made you want to pursue writing, specifically young adult fiction?

Tammar Stein: I love books, the physical feel of them, the look of them, the way that they’re gateways to making connections and getting lost in adventures. Even as a young child, I remember my mother scolding me to go outside and get some fresh air because I had been inside reading for hours. It felt inevitable for me to try and create that same kind of magic for someone else.

I never set out to write for young adults, but when my agent read my manuscript for Light Years, she felt it could be a great young adult title. The character was 20 years old; it never crossed my mind that that could be a YA title. But the themes were classic YA: figuring out who you are, who you want to be. We got great response from the YA editors and I never looked back.

LW: What is your writing process like? How has it evolved over time?

TS: My writing process used to be: sit, write, delete, and repeat 50 times. This is not the most efficient way to write a novel. Light Years, my first book, took me five years to write. It turns out that just because I knew a great book when I read it, didn’t mean I could just write a great book myself. My second novel, High Dive, was also kind of a pain to write. I wrote the whole draft of it, almost 300 pages, before realizing it just didn’t have that magic spark. And I started back on page one.

By my third novel, Kindred, I wised up. I outlined. Now I do that for all my books. Not necessarily a detailed breakdown of each chapter, but a strong, two-page outline so I don’t get lost getting from the beginning to the end. It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s helped me so much.

LW: What kind of research went into outlining and writing The Six-Day Hero?

TS: The first thing I did was read. Other than the fact that it lasted six days, I really didn’t know much about the war. So I read dozens of books on the subject. I read newspaper articles from the time period. I watched documentaries. I'm also the daughter of Israeli Defense Force soldiers, and once I had a good sense of the events, I started interviewing Israelis who had experienced the war. Some as soldiers, some as children. I ended up speaking with half a dozen Israelis, including my parents, whom I pestered on a weekly basis for more details.

LW: What made the Six-Day War an intriguing and important topic for you to write a fictional story about?

TS: In 1967, Israel teetered between existence and annihilation. By winning the Six-Day War, it averted annihilation…and began the modern dilemma of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This summer (June 5-11) marks the war’s 50th anniversary.

The West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Jewish Settlements are constantly in the news. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “How in the world did we get into this hot mess?,” the answer is, the Six-Day War. That’s the war that started all this. This is a 50-year-old hot mess. In this book, I look at the history of the war through the eyes of the people living through it. And it's the first English book for younger readers set during the Six-Day War, giving context and perspective to the complexity the world is still trying to solve. I do believe this is a situation that will be resolved one day. We will move on. We will find a way for all these millions of people to live in peace with one another. But to do that, we have to understand how it got started.

You cannot shape the future without knowing the past. But because there are so many hard feelings, because people are tired of constantly hearing about the same conflict, there’s this tendency to just want to move on, to ignore it. Especially when it comes to kids. So there’s no one writing about it, no one publishing about it. And kids are just left in this vacuum. They hear the news, but they don’t have any basis for truly understanding it. I wanted to change that.

To be clear though, the book is not about the war. The book is about Motti, a 12-year-old boy, who wants to feel heroic. But when you read the book, you learn about the history of the war through his eyes. The violent details of war didn’t strike me as the best way to tell a kids’ story. Rather, I wrote a book about the struggles of a 12-year-old, struggles shaped by the same forces that shaped the war. I hope the book will transport young readers to the sounds, sights, and events of West Jerusalem 50 years ago.

LW: What inspired you to write it from a 12 year-old’s point of view?

TS: Motti just came to me. It’s one of the moments that felt almost mystical. I just had this scene pop into my mind: a restless, bored kid forced to sit through an assembly, desperate to get away. Motti is a scrappy boy, always looking for mischief and fun. He struggles to shine in the big shadow cast by his successful older brother, Gideon. Straight-arrow/Gideon is now a soldier in the Israeli army, and Motti is equally proud and jealous. Over the course of the next month, everything Motti knows about Israel, his brother, and himself will be put to the test. He will realize that war is not a game, and he will face harsh challenges to be the hero he always dreamed of.

LW: The Six-Day Hero will be officially released in time for the 50th anniversary of the war. How does the book honor its history?

TS: When you hear that something happened 50 years ago, there’s this reflexive feeling that it’s ancient history. That it barely matters. But I spoke with people who lived it, fought through it, and are still haunted by what happened. The whole world is still being shaped by what happened. It’s far from ancient history, and I wanted to make sure that there was something there for kids to connect to.

LW: What's next for you?

TS: The Six-Day War was just one in a chain of wars for Israel. The history of an Israeli family can really be told by tracing the family’s lives through the wars they fought. Six years later was the Yom Kippur War, and my next book is about Beni, Motti’s younger brother, with the Yom Kippur War as the setting.

LW: What's your advice for aspiring authors?

TS: My best piece of advice is to try to balance a sense of urgency with lots of patience. Both are absolutely necessary to write a book. If you don’t feel urgency, you’ll never write. It’s always much nicer to plan to do it later, in the evening, tomorrow morning, over the weekend. If you don’t feel urgency, you’ll always put it off. But you have to be patient with yourself and your work as well. Your first draft will be terrible. Your sense of urgency will shout at you to share it with your family and friends, to start sending it out to agents, to publish it as an e-book. Don’t do that. You need to go back and revise. Then you let it sit for a month (or three) and come back to it with fresh eyes. And just as you get comfortable with your patience and want to keep tinkering with your manuscript forevermore, your sense of urgency needs to rise up again and urge you to send it out and share it with the world.

To learn more about Tammar Stein, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @TammarStein.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Modern City Scribe: 6 Questions With Historian and Author Wade Graham

Wade Graham

Wade Graham

By Adam Vitcavage

Wade Graham is a Los Angeles-based historian who has written two books exploring urbanism, landscape, and architecture. His first book, American Eden, entwined gardening and history into an insightful exploration on what gardens throughout history can reveal about our culture. His second book, Dream Cities, explores seven concepts, ranging from castles to malls that shaped the modern world.

While these ideas may sound tediously specific, Graham’s writing is engaging and welcoming. You don’t need to be an expert or academic studying these topics to enjoy the books. In fact, they weren’t written for that purpose. Dream Cities gives a person walking down the street an insight into why the world is the way it is.

Graham was kind enough to offer a primer on his book, what it’s like to write nonfiction for the general public, as well as briefly discuss his next project.

Adam Vitcavage: I wanted to start with your background. You seem to have a lot of titles, but they all seem to work hand in hand.

Wade Graham: I have done a series of things in life and still do a series of things. One of them is as an academic. I’m a historian; my PhD is in U.S. History and with a master’s degree in the History of Science. I teach at Pepperdine University’s graduate School of Public Policy. I teach Urban and Environmental Policy.

I also design gardens, which led to my first book American Eden. I’ve also done journalism, which is recently been about environmental and cultural topics.

Those things just are just a mix of cultural history and policy analysis.

AV: The structure of this book are the seven major trends of cities. There’s a little bit of biography and history. How did you come up with these seven trends?

WG: I was trying to answer a baffling question. If you look at modern cities—built since 1850—there are two things that are irreconcilable about modern cities. First, they are very chaotic. They’re made of all different parks; they’re not coherent. Pre-modern cities tend to have one type. You go to Venice and all of the buildings are the same height except for the churches. Everything is made out of the same stuff. Modern cities you don’t get that coherence. You get things banging into each other. There’s a skyscraper here, there’s a freeway there, there’s a mall over there, and a weird suburbia here.

Everywhere you go in the world, you see the same things. You can be in Mongolia and you can see skyscrapers that look the same as the ones you’ll see in Australia, Russia, and Detroit. You’ll see malls that look the same in Singapore. They’ll look a little different, but at the same time there are what architects call typologies. Which are not what buildings look like on the surface, but their basic form. Those are the same all over the world. That struck me as an odd fact.

Why would Melbourne look exactly like Moscow and exactly like Atlanta?

I tried to boil it down to what the basic types were and I got seven. I gave them names to treat them like types of birds. That way you can look out at any modern city and point at something and say that’s a mall or that’s a skyscraper.

In every case there was one person behind each idea who either invented it or built its example and sold it to everyone in the world. I had to begin with the biography of one—or sometimes a cluster—of architects, designers, and thinkers. Then I had to explain what the idea was. Each of these carries intention and an idea forward. In some cases these were very utopian ideas. Even in the case of slab high-rise skyscraper housing. It started as a utopian idea, but ceased being that. This book is my way to understand to see where these ideas came from and how they changed people.

AV: You wanted to know about this, but when did this idea first seep into your mind?

WG: It seeped into my mind when I was trying to understand landscape and how it structures space. One thing interesting about people in the west is that we notice a lot of things. I could look at your car and know a lot about you. I can look at your handbag and know even more about you. I can psychoanalyze you. But we’re pretty stupid about our physical environment. I can put a very well educated person in the street and ask them what they see and where it came from and they come up blank.

We’re trained in our culture to notice certain kind of objects and ignore the context we’re in. That struck me as interesting because context has a lot of meaning.

I live in a little 1921 wooden bungalow. It’s kind of unremarkable for my neighborhood, but it was utopian form. It was built by white Methodists from Iowa to build with the strict intentions to build a white, religious community on the west coast that was going to be different than the cities that they came from. Most of modern cities are a rebellion against cities at all. They’re anti-urban. The way we build cities is a rejection of the idea of a city. Even the skyscraper has its roots in the rejection of the city. Cities were thought to be chaotic and have too many things going on, too many mixes of people going on. They were meant to bring order and control to the city.

AV: How was the research for this conducted?

WG: It was really research intensive. Training as a journalist and as a historian makes you not question how much research needs to be done to get to the bottom of something. A huge amount of my research was based around going to the Los Angeles Public Library and going through their catalogue and making notes.

The way I write nonfiction is just to collect all of the footnotes you’re going to end up having and put them in order. Then you put sentences in between them. It’s a bit like building a building out of bricks. You go get all of the bricks and put them in the write order, then you stack them up one by one.

It was very methodical research: finding a clue then being led to another clue. The story just builds itself.

AV: I found your book’s voice very friendly. I’ve read some nonfiction that is a lot of academic, dry jargon. Yours was very intellectual, but very accessible. When you’re writing a heavily researched book like this, is it ever for the academic or for the general public who just happens to be interested in the subject?

WG: Absolutely not for the academic. I’m a reformed academic in a lot of ways. I learned as a journalist that you need to speak simply and clearly so that people get what you’re saying. To be honest with you, these books have been written for non-academic people. For smart people, yes, but for people who are generally interested in their culture. I have to hit my academic knuckles with a ruler to keep that type of writing out of the book. It’s difficult, but it’s required.

AV: Moving forward, are you working on another book?

WG: I am researching another book. I found myself really tired of all of that footnoting and the careful legalistic way of writing where you care about facts more than anything else. Also as a historian you’re taught to write from 30,000 feet. You see the big picture, you use statistical layers of proof, and that’s how you proceed.

When I moved to where I live now, which is three blocks from Dodger Stadium, one block from Sunset Boulevard, on a two-block long street that was put together in the 1910s and 1920s. It suffered white flight and gang infestation and now is reviving the way many of our central cities are.

I realized on this two-block long street that there were thirty different nationalities. Most of them were refugees from American wars. There are Cambodian refugees, Vietnamese boat people, Guatemalans whose families were killed by American bullets in the 1980s, there are Latvian refugees from World War II, and so on. I thought about how this is the history of the world on two city blocks. It’s also the history of the American cities rise then decline and rise again.

What I’ve been doing is interviewing every type of person in my neighborhood I can find. I mean every kind: homeless, prostitutes, gang members, prosecutors, old ladies, hipsters, skate punks, everybody. I’m trying to layer a story like a journalist would. It’s a collection of different stories, how they intertwine and how they coexist.

I’m trying a textured, more human thing than flying overhead way of academic writing. I’m writing the history of Echo Park. Through Echo Park, a history of Los Angeles. Through Los Angeles, a history of American cities over a hundred years.

To learn more about Wade Graham, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @wadelgraham.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

First Lady of Revision: 10 Questions With Author Louisa Thomas

Louisa Thomas (Photo credit: Jesse Rudduck)

Louisa Thomas (Photo credit: Jesse Rudduck)

By Daniel Ford

From Martha Washington and Abigail Adams to Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, the nation’s First Ladies have not only provided insights into the Presidents they were married to, but also reveal much about our country’s tastes, styles, and character.

Author Louisa Thomas’s new book, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, shines a spotlight on Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams and our only foreign-born First Lady. Based on letters, diaries, and a plethora of secondary sources, Thomas’s work paints a vivid portrait of one of the most overlooked figures in the early republic.

The author talked to me recently about how reading eventually led her to writing, her research process, and what compelled her to tell Louisa Adams’s story. 

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer or did the desire to write grow organically over time?

Louisa Thomas: When I was a kid, I wanted to be President of the International Olympic Committee (not a joke!). As I grew older, my ambitions were constantly changing: doctor, English professor, lawyer...never a writer. I wasn't one of those kids who wrote stories all the time (or ever). But I was a great reader—and that is probably why, in the end, I became a writer.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

LT: Virginia Woolf. Emily Dickinson. Don DeLillo. Wallace Stevens. Homer. Before that, Susan Cooper. And I was obsessed with this semi-trashy YA fantasy series, the Alanna series—The Song of the Lioness quartet. Also, my seventh and twelfth grade math teacher, Mr. Harding, and my Latin teacher, Mr. Cox. They were brilliant, funny, world-expanding. They cared about the right things.

DF: You formerly wrote for Grantland (RIP, sad emoticon), and your work has appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, and The Paris Review. Why did you jump into journalism in the first place? How has it changed from when you first started out and what do you think the future holds for the craft?

LT: I was lucky. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after college, and so I got an internship at Slate, which was, then, tiny and still pretty experimental. From there I became a fact checker at The New Yorker and then assistant to the editor, which was basically my journalism school. There was always some new subject to learn about. And I loved words—loved the way they sounded, the way the felt in my mouth. I was lucky to find myself at a place where every word mattered. Journalism has changed a lot since then—The New Yorker didn’t even really have a website when I was there. I think, for the most part, it’s changed for the better. There are fewer barriers to inclusion. There’s more weird and interesting stuff. There’s a lot of trash, but there was always a lot of trash. And The New Yorker is still The New Yorker. I feel very lucky to have come along when I did. The looming threat is economic. No one has figured out the model. When Grantland closed, I lost my job. I worry about how to make a living. But compensation comes in different forms.

DF: What is your research process like? Were there any hidden gems that didn’t make it into Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams?

LT: It’s long! I read thousands of letters. I read secondary sources—books, articles, monographs, biographies, dissertations, you name it. I read novels, which was more helpful than you’d think. It wasn’t until I reread all of Jane Austen, for instance, that I really understood why Louisa’s father’s bankruptcy had the effect that it did. We treat Austen’s books as if they’re romantic comedies. But they’re so much about money!

DF: When you finally sit down to write, do you listen to music, outline, or aim for a set number of pages? Does your voice come out naturally when writing something like Louisa, or do you find it more in the editing process?

LT: Some days, I wrote thousands of words; some days I only erased. It was pretty feast or famine for stretches. I am a huge reviser. I rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. In fact, I don’t think I’m a writer. I’m a rewriter.

DF: Early American history produced a plethora of colorful characters. Why did you decide to focus on Louisa Adams?

LT: She had a totally original voice. And because she wrote so much, and so openly, she was accessible in a way that few historical figures are. She made history human.

DF: John Quincy Adams wasn’t exactly the easiest fellow to like or get along with. What qualities did Louisa possess to not only match her husband, but also to carve out her own identity?

LT: She was warm where he was cold, social where he was silent, emotional where he was rational. She would have added: she was a woman where he was a man. Her gender was restrictive in so many ways—even that list of attributes indicates how much of the gendered conventions she internalized—but it was also liberating. So was being not entirely an Adams. She didn’t have to speak for the ages. She could speak for herself.

DF: Louisa has garnered some pretty high praise from the likes of Jon Meacham, Megan Marshall, and Joseph J. Ellis. What has that experience been like, and what’s next for you?

LT: I’m honored and grateful to have had such generous and insightful readers. When you work on for something for so long, and especially when you do it about someone rather obscure, you sometimes doubt yourself. No one was clamoring for a biography of Louisa Catherine Adams. So to feel as if maybe you’ve made a little contribution, it’s wonderful. And a relief. As for what’s next? I don’t think I’m done with the early republic. But we’ll see.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors and historians?

LT: Revise. Revise. Revise.

And revise.

DF: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?

LT: I have no idea how I pronounce my own name. Is it LouiSSa or LouiZa? I have no idea.

To learn more about Louisa Thomas, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @louisahthomas.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

New England Narrative: 9 Questions With Author Jay Atkinson

Jay Atkinson (Photo credit: Paul Bilodeau, Eagle-Tribune)

Jay Atkinson (Photo credit: Paul Bilodeau, Eagle-Tribune)

By Daniel Ford

As a relatively recent transplant to Boston and Massachusetts, I've done my best to immerse myself in the history of the area. Books like Stephanie Schorow's Drinking Boston, Nathaniel Philbrick's Bunker Hill, and Brian Deming's Boston and the Dawn of American Independence have given me a crash course in New England lore. (For the record, I was born and raised in Connecticut, but spent considerable time in New York City.)

Author Jay Atkinson's thrilling nonfiction narrative Massacre on the Merrimack matches those historical tomes in both substance and style. Hannah Duston's capture and daring escape from her Native American captors not only proved to be a harrowing tale, but also shed light on the political and sociological issues facing early North American settlers.

Atkinson talked to me recently about his research process, journalism, and the inspiration behind Massacre on the Merrimack.

Daniel Ford: What came first, the love of history or love of writing?

Jay Atkinson: I’m not a professional historian, or even an academic, really, though I’ve been teaching writing at the college level for 20+ years (the last eight at Boston University). I’m just a storyteller. My eighth grade English teacher, a very nice fellow named Andrew Melnicki, told me after class one day that I should consider becoming a writer. That surprised me, since I come from a blue-collar family and was, eventually, the first one to go to college. I had always loved reading stories, and there in junior high set out to learn how to write them. Hannah Duston’s ordeal is a great story, and that’s what drew me to it.

DF: Since you’ve also worked as a journalist, and currently teach it at BU, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism. Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

JA: I don’t know exactly where journalism is going, but I’m certainly interested in finding out.

When I see students getting their news from Twitter and other online sources, I tell them to start reading The New York Times every day and forget about the Web. I hope they listen, since the sort of in-depth, professional, intelligent reporting done by The New York Times (and other longstanding print/Web publications) is so superior to Internet-based junk that it’s not even worth talking about.

One of the most entertaining stories I have worked on (and I’ve been lucky enough to have a few that were pretty exciting) was my winter canoe trip down the Merrimack River for The New York Times. Last March, for the second time, I traced Hannah Duston’s route back to Haverhill after she and two companions killed ten of the Abenaki, scalped them, and stole one of their canoes.

DF: Narrative nonfiction has been a healthy trend for history in the last decade. What made you decide to go that route with your own work?

JA: Well, I write fiction, too. As a matter of fact, the next book I publish will be a work of fiction, and I’m currently working on a novel. Over my career, I’ve been a student of narrative writing—how it works and how it’s done. That’s what interests me most of all, whether its narrative nonfiction like Massacre on the Merrimack (Globe Pequot, 2015) or a historical novel like City in Amber (Livingston Press, 2005).

DF: You tell a really poignant story about what inspired you to write Massacre on the Merrimack. Could you share that with us, and explain how your hometown/state shaped the narrative?

JA: My hometown, Methuen Mass., was part of Haverhill until 1726. I grew up hearing Hannah Duston’s story, and always had it in the back of my mind as I progressed as a writer. It’s got everything a good story demands: compelling characters, violent conflict, adventure, a series of dramatic events and reversals, overarching tragedy, vengeance, and triumph. As a storyteller, what’s not to like?

DF: What was your research process like for this book, and what’s your research process like in general?

JA: I spent three years on the book. The first year, I was often in the Haverhill Library Special Collections room (where they have a jumble of Duston ephemera that’s never really been catalogued, but was invaluable once I sorted through it), Haverhill Historical Society, and Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen, Mass. A wonderful Nevins reference librarian named Maureen Burns Tulley was instrumental in researching and shaping Massacre on the Merrimack. I dedicated the book to Maureen, in the name of librarians everywhere.

The second and third years, I continued my research in various libraries, but also took my investigations outside, into the woods and onto the rivers that Duston knew. In my opinion, Hannah’s story is really about the beauty and danger of the New England landscape.


DF: Historians often debate about whether or not to use “politically correct” language when writing about the pre-colonial period. Does one use Native Americans or does one use “Indians/savages/etc.” Massacre on the Merrimack features the latter, and I was wondering if you went back and forth at all about that issue or you felt like your story needed to be rooted in the language of that time.

JA: Since in the narrative chapters of the book I was using what you could call Creative Nonfiction technique, I was limited to what I considered to be the prejudices, preconceptions, and preoccupations of the time period. To change the language to reflect current social mores would have seemed false to me. As a writer, my interest begins and ends at the level of the story, and telling it the way I did was the most honest way to do service to that.

DF: What really struck me about the book is that while Hannah Duston showcased extreme bravery and flintiness during her ordeal, her neighbor Goodwife Bradley exhibited the same traits multiple times! How fun was it uncovering these other stories during your research?

JA: I think the chapter that you’re referring to, which is entitled “The Fate of Other Captives,” contains the most interesting material I came across in my research. It fits with Hannah’s story, but is remarkable in its own way.

DF: You’ve written other nonfiction, but this book seems more personal based on your proximity to where the events take place. What’s next on the horizon for you and do you feel daunted at all about tackling another subject?

JA: Personally, I have no shortage of stories or story ideas, just a shortage of time. I’m happiest when I’m working on something.

DF: What’s your advice to up-and-coming authors and historians?

JA: All I can say is what my mentor at the University of Florida, the great Southern Gothic novelist Harry Crews, said to me when I finished my creative writing degree: “Son, go fix your ass to the seat of the chair, and get to work.”

To learn more about Jay Atkinson, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @Atkinson_Jay.


A Worm's Eye View: 9 Questions With Author Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard

By Dave Pezza

Author Jim Shepard’s latest novel The Book of Aron (you can read my review in March’s “5 Books That Should Be On Your Radar”) is available for sale starting today, and the author was kind enough to talk to me about his early influences, his research process, and how he got in the mindset to write about World War II from a young boy’s point-of-view.

Dave Pezza: When did you decide to be a writer?

Jim Shepard: I never really did decide to be a writer; I always knew I wanted to write, but that was a different thing. I was the first one in my family to go to college, so the idea that someone like me could become a writer was not a notion I entertained. What I did know was that I would write, for others or just for myself, however I made my living. I think my secret plan was that I would write, and others would give me food. I wasn’t sure why the latter would occur.

DP: Who were some of your early influences?

JS: When I first started to read I read cartoons like Schultz’s Peanuts, and then soon after that I read Stoker’s Dracula, and Edward Gorey, and Salinger, and a huge amount of nonfiction for kids: history and science. Stuff like the history of the Civil War, or All About Volcanoes. My father was determined that I would go to college and he figured the best way to get me there, besides staying after me about my grades, was to fill the house with books. But since he hadn’t gone to college himself, he figured I should only have books that would teach me something useful, and in his mind that mostly left literature out. Literature was certainly better than nothing, but real information was even more useful than literature. 

DP: World War II has peaked the creative interests of many fiction writers, what about this particular story of Dr. Janusz Korczak and his orphanage brought you write The Book of Aron?

JS: Because I write about so many diverse and off-the-wall subjects, old friends and students are often sending me links with subject lines like, Why don’t you write about this? One sent me that question about Korczak, and I told him it was because I’ve always been wary about writing centrally about Great Men and Women, especially figures who might be considered saintly, like Gandhi or Dorothy Day, since first of all I usually prefer the worm’s-eye view of history, and second, what conflict is supposed to measure up to their saintliness? In this case, though, I did go back to Korczak’s Ghetto Diary, just to check it out again, and while rereading it was struck by the reminder that of course no one in his orphanage wanted to be there. I thought, those poor kids: they must have been terribly conflicted about hating to be somewhere that had saved them. Imagine being the boy who for whatever reason made a saint’s life harder? That sense of feeling that you haven’t adequately appreciated what good fortune you have been given: that I felt like I could relate to. Suddenly it seemed like I had a new and unexpected way into the subject. 

DP: Was this book as hard to write as it was to read? I really enjoyed reading it, but every page brought me closer to what I knew must be coming. It made the ending so hard to read!

JS: Ha! I’d like to hope it was a lot harder to write than it was to read. And I do think that when you’re dealing with a subject like this, dread seems like an appropriate response to try to conjure. 

DP: At the end of your novel you have quite an extensive reference list, can you tell us a little bit about your research processes and how important it is to creating your work?

JS: My research for a project begins before I know I’m doing the project, since I’m always just reading around in weird areas that interest me just because they interest me, and not because I’m intending to write about them. At some point in my reading, though, something snags my interest in emotional terms—nearly always it’s a human dilemma that seems evocative or haunting to me—and at that point I begin wondering if I could write about this. Part of the way I then answer that question is by doing more reading, which either makes writing about the subject seem even more excitingly possible or it has the opposite effect. 

DP: Was it difficult writing from the first person perspective of a young boy, especially in the terrifying and inhuman world of the Warsaw Ghetto? How did you manage to get into such a mindset?

JS: I find it difficult writing from every perspective, but I’m drawn to the limitations a young person’s single first person sensibility, since from within it I can try to evoke the way in which the anxiety of what’s coming is always there in the reader’s mind but is opaque to those in the historical moment. It seems a useful way of addressing the ahistorical revisionist impulse that usually finds voice in the question, How could these people not have seen this coming? I also like the limitations, in terms of articulation, within which you have to work with a young person’s vocabulary: it feels to me like the restrictions poets describe when they talk about the sonnet or another form.  

DP: Do you have any other work in the pipe? Or will you be promoting The Book of Aron for some time?

JS: I have other subjects that I’d like to get to, when I get the time. Now you’ve made me depressed.  

DP: Do you have any advice to up and coming writers, particularly those interested in historical fiction?

JS: Go for it. Learning about the world is a great way of both making yourself a more interesting human being and expanding the arena of your autobiographical obsessions.  

DP: What is one random fact about yourself?

JS: How about the fact that I saw Murnau’s “Nosferatu” when I was 6 years old, and I haven’t been the same since? 

To learn more about Jim Shepard, check out his official website.


High-Octane History: 9 Questions With M.J. Carter

M.J. Carter    (Photo credit: Roderick Field)

M.J. Carter
(Photo credit: Roderick Field)

By Daniel Ford

As Peter Sherwood, author of The Murdery Delicious High Seas Horror: A Ghastly Getaway, will tell you, I’m a sucker for an investigative duo.

M.J. Carter’s historical thriller, The Strangler Vine, features a pair of inquisitive chaps (Blake and Avery) in an exotic locale (India), which made me happier than a history grad student who just finished his thesis (I’m just assuming, I’m still working on mine).

Carter took time out of promoting her book’s U.S. debut to answer some of my questions about her love of history, her research process, and her travels in India researching for The Strangler Vine.

Daniel Ford: What came first: Your love of history or your love of writing?

M.J. Carter: Good question. I was a massive bookworm as a child, but I never thought I’d end up being a writer. That seemed utterly impossible. But I also loved history. I had a very simple romantic sense of the past together with a nerdy fascination with just knowing all about it, and even now that’s still the background of my engagement with history. Also I’ll tell you a secret: Quite a lot of the time I really don’t love writing. I mean, it’s great when it’s done but brain-curdling when you’re doing it.

DF: You come from a nonfiction background, so was your research process drastically different while writing fiction?

MJC: No, the research is my comfort blanket when I write fiction. I know where I am with it. The difference with The Strangler Vine and my previous nonfiction work was that I could pick and choose what I took from my research and didn’t have to make sure that I had every fact for every phrase covered. So I had a lovely few months immersing myself in India and the East India Company, and then I had to write the damn thing.

DF: Related to that, you traveled to India while researching the book. What was that experience like and how did it shape your narrative?

MJC: I did. I took my whole family—husband and two kids, then about 8 and 12, and a big bag of pills and medications that we never used. We went to Madhya Pradesh, a little-visited state where The Thugs were most active, and their nemesis William Sleeman, who is a character in my book, operated. We started out in Jubbulpur, which Sleeman put on the map, in a really grim hotel where my son found a cockroach in the bed, and ended up in a magical palace by the river Nerbudda. That kind of summed it up; India gives everyone sensory overload. You see wonderful magical things and grim chaotic things. For me the most useful thing was getting a sense of the landscape, the smells, the heat, the vegetation. We drove up the same road that Blake and Avery take to Jubbulpur and we saw tigers and monkeys and birds. I couldn’t have written the book without that trip.

DF: Which literary influences did you revisit (or visit for the first time) when you decided to make the jump to fiction writing?

MJC: I didn’t consciously revisit anything, but subconsciously, 40 years of reading came to bear on it. For the relationship between Blake and Avery I realized halfway through I had been thinking about the books of Patrick O’Brien. After I finished, I reread Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone, and realized that though I thought I’d completely forgotten it, certain little elements from it had seeped into the book, which seemed really extraordinary. Also, a bit of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is in there knocking around.

DF: When you actually sit down to write, what’s your process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

MJC: I get my kids off to school and go and sit in front of my computer from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., or 4.30 p.m. if it’s my turn to do after school. It’s mostly perspiration and not inspiration. Music is too distracting. With the novels (I’m now on my third Blake and Avery) I try and plan it out as much as possible. With The Strangler Vine I thought I had a plan but actually I really didn’t know what I was doing and had to keep rewriting bits that didn’t work. But that was part of the learning curve.

DF: How long did it take you to complete your debut novel?

MJC: With the reading and research and working out the world around Blake, who was the character who came first, about three years, which is much shorter than my two nonfiction books. That was two books in 15 years!

DF: Despite the fact that The Strangler Vine takes place in India, a country and culture you hadn’t experienced before your trip, how much of yourself, and family, friends, etc., did you put into your main characters and themes?

MJC: There’s a bit of me in Avery—keen, clueless, blurting things about before thinking about them. I found his voice much easier to get than Blake’s.

DF: Now that you have one novel under your belt, what’s next? Are you making any plans to return to nonfiction?

MJC: I will eventually, but I’m actually really enjoying the rhythm of fiction, and making stuff up (it’s so great!) even though I like to qvetch about it. I’ve written a second Blake and Avery novel set in London in 1841 among journalists and pornographers (which came out of another bit of good research I stumbled on), and I’m currently on the third that is about the Alexis Soyer, an actual French chef who was Britain’s first celebrity chef.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

MJC: I love food, but I’ve had to go gluten free recently and it’s given me a really immoderate obsession with Victoria sponge. I am in quest of the perfect gluten-free Victoria sponge…

To learn more about M.J. Carter, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @MJCarter10.