The Interview – Part I

Discuss your writing process:
I wish I could say I have a particular writing process.  Then I could publish a self-help book and probably make more money than I will writing fiction.  My process is putting my derriere down  in front of the computer and not getting up until the sun goes down. But am I successful in doing that?  Sometimes.  Like a lot of writers I am easily distracted.  In fact the deeper I am into a story or a problem, the more easily distracted I am. Emails, Facebook, playing with the cats, re-runs of Law & Order are all a conspiracy to keep me from my work.  It’s a never-ending war fighting these forces of evil every day. 

However I can say that my novels develop from images I have of characters that make me want to tell their story.  I have to live with those characters a while before I’m sure I want to stay with them for the time it takes to write the novel. (And with me, it takes months, maybe years.)

You did extensive research and traveled to Russia working on your latest book. How did that experience impact you? Did the story evolve with the research, did you do the research, then the story came… or did you know the story and find research that worked?
The research and the story evolved differently with the two novels that I wrote.  With FLYING OUT OF BROOKLYN, I had a short story, which I was expanding into a novel and since it was set in Brooklyn, 1943, it was easier to read up on the time and place through back issues of the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  After I had set the place and time and I was far along  into the story, I went to Brooklyn and happily found a Williamsburg neighborhood which actually matched my image of the location in my book.

With SOWN INTEARS, the idea evolved from something my father said on a tape he recorded a few years before his death. He came from Russia and he spoke of his mother trying to keep him from getting sick during the influenza epidemic of 1918.  I had this strong image of a mother doing all she could to protect her child, which I couldn’t shake.

I decided to set the novel in 1905 when times were turbulent. I depended a great deal on material in the archives of the YIVO Institute in New York, which has marvelous files and photos of that time in Eastern Europe and Russia.  The Institute also collaborated with Yale University on a massive encyclopedia (now online), which gives information on just about every subject of daily life of that period. Additionally, I read some biographies of ordinary citizens and military officers, as well as taking many forays onto Google. 

The trip I took to Russia and the Ukraine came after the first draft and again I was happy to discover that my images of the countryside and the places of former shtettls were similar to the ones I describe in the book.  Being in a place you’re writing about helps to enhance your senses about that environment and hopefully you’re able to transfer that experience to your reader.

The historical details in Sown in Tears are exquisite. When you started the story, did you already know you wanted to educate readers on a (primarily) little known historical place and era? Or did that come about solely as a way to support your story?
I feel my first responsibility is to the story, even when it’s historical.  Initially I was going to set it in around 1914 or 1918, but in looking into it, I realized that the upheaval in Russia, World War 1, the influenza epidemic and the great immigration from Russia was too much for me to handle all at the same time.  Not that 1905 isn’t turbulent, but a lot of changes were just beginning to happen.  So I tried to immerse myself in the happenings, the anti-semitism, the pogroms, the general frustration of the people (which is why the government used the Jews as their scapegoat for the troubles) the beginnings of underground revolution and worker movement and the Russian defeat in the Russian/Japanese war. Then I had to let it go, and fashion everything around my story and the fictional village of Koritz.  Since it is a novel, not a documentary, I took some liberties and composited some events into the book.

Leah is a woman of her times, but she also works as a study for contemporary women trying to work, raise a family, and have a love life – against the backdrop of what people in her community will think about her and how they can impact her life. How much did you think about contemporary readers relating to Leah – and how much did you simply write a historical figure and let the character either resonate or not with today’s audience?
I always had the time of the book in mind when I thought about Leah and her obstacles, but I really believe that women have always had some of the same problems no matter when they lived.  To me, Leah’s journey will not only resonate for Jews, but the story is universal for everybody (but I guess most authors feel that way about their characters). Her having to juggle everything at the same time in the midst of chaos is a timeless story, for today’s women as well as past generations. Necessity gave her the greatest challenges, but ultimately the most opportunities.  She was strong-willed, which is a trait that women have shared in many eras and forced to be resourceful, which women have been all through the ages.

Check Back Nov 15 for Part II!

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.