Category: Letters From Rifka


imagesphoto by Ria Novosti

Because I had decided to use the epistolary format to tell Rifka’s story, I needed, within the internal logic of the book, to provide her with the means to write. She would not have had access to writing paper, nor the luxury to carry that paper with her. She also would have been unable to send letters. Rifka’s entries to her cousin were more self-soothing/interior explorations than a real attempt at correspondence. So, I decided to give Rifka a book to travel with. My Aunt Lucy remembered that she had carried books with her though she couldn’t remember the titles. Giving Rifka a book helped to expand the reader’s understanding of her character, as well as providing a vehicle in which she could record her tale. After doing a bit of research, I felt Pushkin, whose poetry I knew only in passing, seemed the best option…his work would have been in print and it’s possible Rifka’s family, particularly her cousins, might have had a copy of it. At that point I began dedicatedly studying Pushkin’s body of work. After going through it the first time, I combed through it again, this time with Rifka’s journey in mind. I recorded sheets and sheets of quotes and excerpts from Pushkin’s verse and ultimately matched up a brief selection of his poetry with each chapter of my book, using the Pushkin quotes to prepare the reader for what was to occur next in Rifka’s story.

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I attempted to start this book many times with no success. I would bring a first chapter to my writing group, read it, then throw it away. I probably drafted seven or eight first chapters. Part of the challenge was converting the impressions and memories of an eighty year old woman back to the sensibilities of the child she had been. Another part of the challenge was separating the woman I knew from the fiction I wished to create. But possibly the hardest challenge was simply finding the voice. One night, after several frustrating months of disappointing false starts, I posed a question to myself before going to sleep…How can I capture this girl’s voice? In the morning, in the shower, it came to me…letters. Once I put Dear Tovah at the top of the page, everything began to fall into place.

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That’s a difficult question to answer. Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned is that even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me. My respect for historians and journalists rocketed over the years as I realized how precise they have to be. At least, in writing fiction, the bar is not set quite so high for factual responsibility. I did my best in understanding the sensibilities of the time period and representing time and place with reasonable accuracy, but I fear I never rose as completely to the challenge in my two year writing process as a good journalist does in a week.

For additional information: http://www.childlitassn.org/phoenix-award

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I wanted, first and foremost, to honor the memory of my grandparents. As I worked on the book though, my focus shifted. LETTERS FROM RIFKA morphed from being simply a memorial to my grandparents to a tribute to my great aunt’s extraordinary courage and humor. My primary concern, I suppose, was finding a way to tell my aunt’s story. The tales she most clearly remembered dated to her later life, involving subjects and themes I feared would be less interesting to young readers. I needed to gather all the wisps of memories from her youth: tales of the pogroms, her passage to the U.S., her detainment on Ellis Island. From these tiny fragments came RIFKA’S story arc.

for additional info: http://www.childlitassn.org/phoenix-award

DSC04448-2When I was a child, escaping into books helped me through some challenging times. Creating worlds of words gave me both the power to comfort myself and a platform on which to construct a universe I controlled. Writing as a profession was a natural progression from that early childhood relationship with the written word. In my career as a writer I have loved the idea of opening young minds to new experiences, to helping them understand that survival is possible even under the most difficult circumstances, and to assist them in the evolution of their own innate compassion. It has been a blessing to do this work that has given me so much and to know it has been meaningful to others, too.

For additional information: http://www.childlitassn.org/phoenix-award

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While researching a book I am insatiable. I want to know everything about my subject. I read thousands and thousands of pages. My brain crunches all of that research into a single story; details gleaned from my research rise up at just the right moment to illustrate the text. Of course, less than 2 percent of what I’ve read actually makes it into the finished book, but probably 80 percent of what I’ve learned is subtly woven into the story. When the book is finished I have no desire to return to that subject again.  I feel as if I have exhausted the topic and the topic has exhausted me. And, therefore, I have little or no interest in writing sequels.

08feb2013bc 009I fear none of my family in Russia survived WWII.

DSC07583I think Aunt Lucy had her doubts that her life was interesting enough, or that I would do a good job telling her story, or that I would tell the right story. When I sent her a copy of the finished book I wasn’t certain what she’d say. My aunt was a smart and astute critic. To my delight she approved of Letters From Rifka and felt a quiet pride at being the inspiration for it. How sweet her approval tasted to me. Her children and grandchildren were also tickled to have their mom’s life recorded, honored, and celebrated in such a way.

Untitled-Duplicated-02 - CopyNo, I’m sad to say my Aunt Lucy died in December of 2009 at the age of 97. In her obituary she was credited with being the inspiration for the character of Rifka. She was an exceptional woman, sorely missed not only by her family and friends but by readers of the book who have come to know and care for her and her fictionalized story.

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I’ve been to New York City many times, I’ve traveled long distances by boat, and just a few years ago I visited Belgium, but I’ve never been to Russia or Poland. For the most part I have relied on research to help create credible settings.