Interview with Author
Question: Can you give us a little background about the storyline in the new book, Ash?
Answer: The story takes place in the heart of Germany, on the outskirts of Warsaw. It is a first-person narrative of one young girl’s journey from a safe and loving home to life within the confines of Auschwitz. She loses everyone she loves: first her dad, then her mom. But an unlikely source gets her moved from a hard labor job to a job in the Infirmary. While this is bad in that the infirmary was known as the Waiting Room for the Chimneys, it is here she first meets Ash. And Ash helps cling to the hope that is so very hard to find there.
Question: There are many subtle details about life within the Auschwitz camp. But there are very few identifying the main character, the young girl. She is never given a name and the reader is never told what year specifically it is. Why?
Answer: In addition to having to wear the Star of David that identified them as nothing more than Jews, when they arrived at Auschwitz, prisoners were further dehumanized by a number that was tattooed onto their skin. There are stories of even very small children being tattooed. Survivors speak of how it was hard to recognize even your loved ones after awhile because with no hair and no weight to provide a body shape, everyone looked the same. It was even hard to distinguish sometimes a male from a female. When the Holocaust is taught, it is often spliced with numbers that are so large they are hard to comprehend: 6 million Jews, between 2-3 million other so called undesirables. I did not describe my main character nor give her a name because I wanted the readers to picture her in whatever way they wanted to. I wanted the reader to understand that the prisoners were all stripped of humanity, they were torn down to living skeletons. I didn’t want my reader to finish the book and say, “_______ had it very hard.” I wanted my reader to finish the book and say, “They had it very hard.” My character isn’t only herself, she is a representation of 9 million people who had beating hearts, dreams and families. I did not provide a specific year because the hunting, murder and torture of these people took place over the course of four long years. It didn’t really matter which year she was in; she could have been in any of the years. If it bothers the reader that much, there are minute details that could give the idea that it is the winter of 1942-43 when she is arrested: if it had been later than that, everyone inside the synagogue would have been murdered at the scene and access to luxuries such as a radio would have been severely limited, if not impossible.
Question: Who is Ash? How does he get into the women’s camp at the end of the book?
Answer: That is the for the readers to determine. Ash is my very favorite character, my most favorite from all of the books I have written. This is the first time I have ever written about a character twice. He first appeared in the book The Character alongside Anna. Ash is the same in this book, too. He provides my main character with enough incentive to continue getting up, to not run into the fence on purpose. As I mentioned earlier, 9 million is a big number, and it does not include the number of people who survived. There were survivors of Auschwitz. I wondered, “How did those people stay alive?” I mean, the average life expectancy ranged from 2 weeks if you were sent to isolation in Block 11 to a few months if you managed to avoid that torture. The only transport ever to leave Auschwitz after arrival was the 300 women who were on Schindler’s list. Inmates at the camp truly did say that the only way out was through the chimneys. I don’t know how I would survive those conditions. But I do know the way I’ve survived just about every challenge in my own life is by the power of my imagination. My fictional characters provided me with friends when I had none and they provided the mental escape I needed in order to survive. Putting Ash in Auschwitz was probably the hardest thing I’ve done as writer because I love him; he is very special to me and I was very frightened that the brutality that existed in that camp would take the spark out of his stories, out of his smile. But it didn’t. And I believe that’s a testament to the strength of our imaginations and to the power of the mind to shield us from the full truth, if the full truth is something that could literally kill us.
Question: So is Ash real?
Answer: I don’t want to answer that. In the book, there are a few, subtle clues that tell readers what I imagine him to be. He has hair when no one else does. He does not look like a skeleton, when everyone else does. He manages to get to the women’s camp just in time. Giselle claims she doesn’t know anyone with his name; the woman in line says there’s no one beside the girl. And he doesn’t appear in the book until after Maman, the main character’s source of comfort, dies. Still, stranger things did happen in Auschwitz. Miracles existed: a woman did manage to smuggle in a photograph of her family, even when she was completely naked. This was based on a true story. One woman refused to become a Kapo, even though accepting the position would have garnered her extra rations and even though denying the position put her at immediate risk of death, because she said she wanted to “live with dignity, even in Auschwitz.” She didn’t want to have to berate or hurt anyone else. The miraculous part is that this woman did, in fact, survive. Giselle was a real person who really did save lives by performing secret abortions; she too, miraculously, survived the camp. A baby was born in Auschwitz on the eve of liberation and, because the soldiers were abandoning the camp, the mother–and baby—were able to survive. Miracles did happen in Auschwitz. So, ultimately, it is up to the reader to determine Ash’s presence, whether he was a real man who befriended a young girl or if he was a product of her imagination.
Question: What was the hardest chapter for you to write?
Answer: Hm. There were several really hard places for me. I think the hardest, though, was when her hair was cut. I cried a lot in that one. Also, the last chapter….I was so afraid of that chapter.
Question: What was your favorite story from Ash?
Answer: Oh, goodness. I loved the one about the snow angels. I guess my favorite would either be that one or the one about the star. Honestly, though, I just love everything about Ash so those chapters in which he was a part made the rest of the book easier for me to write… and re-write… 🙂
Question: One of the most interesting characters for me was Maman and how she chooses death or numbness.
Answer: Survivors talk about how they became used to seeing death and dead bodies. They talk about how the smell of burnt flesh became normal. Once shock and fear wear off, the heart has to protect itself, so it becomes numb to everything: numbed to the pain, numbed to the degrading words, numbed even to joy. But these were still living people. They would trade anything on the black market inside Auschwitz for bread; some of them would trade bread for a cigarette. Almost anything was available, if you knew how to get it and were willing to trade for it. Although they did become used to living around the dead, they were not robots. People did break down when confronted with the sight of a loved one who was dead. And they did try to keep their heritage alive; there are numerous stories of survivors who did what they could to keep Yom Kippur or the Sabbath, for example. Some survived and some didn’t, but they were not lifeless robots who had forgotten completely how to feel. I think that’s part of why Ash is so important to the main character: every time she starts to feel numbed to life, he’s able to remind her that, no, she still has the feelings. Her heart is just trying to shield her from any additional harm. Maman lost hope; she was a mother forced to watch her child suffer every day. She was a widow. She probably knew that, even if they survived the war, they would have no home: how was a woman supposed to provide for her daughter if she didn’t have a job or a house? Also… I’ve lived life in a numbed state: it’s almost as dangerous as a bullet. And it’s important to let my readers know that, if they ever reach a moment where they realize they can’t feel joy over a joyous occasion and they don’t grieve or feel sad at appropriate times… find someone to talk to. Hope has a harder time getting in the door if you can’t see color.
Question: Your last book, Dance For Me, came out in December 2013. Does it usually take you so long to finish a book?
Answer: Well, once I finish a book, I usually take 3-4 months off from writing. It generally takes that long for another character to show up and start telling me his or her story. Initially, I had the idea for Ash around May of 2014. But in addition to some pretty serious life challenges, I really wasn’t very sure I wanted to tackle a book about the Holocaust and I certainly was not overly fond of the idea of putting Ash in Auschwitz. In fact, I was all but resistant to the idea. I was very scared to write a book about this topic. I know a lot of information about it: I’ve not only researched it since I was a teenager, but I’ve spoken with survivors and Holocaust experts like Martin Gilbert. I know a lot about this period, but I was not physically a part of the Holocaust and, because of that, I was reluctant to write something that might be construed as pure entertainment. I care, passionately, about the Holocaust and its survivors. When you care about something so deeply, you second guess every word. In essence, I didn’t think I could do it. Ultimately, though, I am very character driven—and I missed Ash, I wanted to hear his stories again. The book was nearly completed several months ago, but then I lost a significant portion of the book and had to re-write it. In fact, I’ve re-written the entire thing twice. So, even though it’s taken until now to actually get it published, there has been constant writing and re-writes and behind-the-scenes work since early 2014. That’s about normal. There will always be deadlines, but they will always come second to the story. I will always choose to follow the story rather than a deadline.
Question: Do you know what your next work will be about?
Answer: Not yet… emotionally, I’m pretty drained from this one, and I’ve learned not to force a story. But writing is a part of me, as much a part as the air I breathe. Another character will come and I write her/his story.
Question: If a reader wanted to get in touch with you—is that something you are open to and, if so, how can they reach you? Also, please provide the ways by which we can purchase your books?
Answer: I LOVE my readers. Receiving e-mails and letters from them makes my day and astounds me. It is a true blessing to be able to do something I love deeply and have other people respond to it. I answer every e-mail personally; feel free to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org Also, the books are all available online at Amazon or through your favorite retailer; you can also request the book in person from Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million or other retailer. I hope you enjoy the books, feel inspired to create meaningful relationships with those around you and, most of all, know that you are never alone!