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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IMG_4341 - Copy                                                     editor, agent, inspiration, muse, beloved friend, Brenda Bowen

Reading and writing provided me escape when I was young. Writing, even when I was a fledgling author, supplied me with an identity and a network of wonderful people from whom I could learn. It filled a deep hole in my soul and gave me a multitude of reasons to embrace each day, the good and the bad of it. So I suppose it could be said that no one single thing, but, instead, everything, my entire unique and particular life, has influenced my writing the most. Perhaps that’s a very broad answer but it’s an honest one and one I suspect holds true for most writers.

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Good grief…that’s a puzzler. I can only give my opinion. I believe the writer has to love language, words, the music of communication, the choreography of thought expressed. But love of these things is not enough. Unless the writer has a rare natural voice, he or she must read widely, write regularly, exercise daily the writing muscle in order to gain control of it. And most of the time the author must have something to say. It is usually not enough to spin beautiful or humorous phrases; there must be substance to the words. And there must be a willingness on the writer’s part to sacrifice, not only words, sentences, passages, entire chapters if they do not advance the plot or contribute in some measurable way to character development, but authors must also be willing to sacrifice time, relationships, pleasures. Finally, the author must experience life with all of the senses and re-purpose that experience into the subtle movement of the tale to be told. Even then, this recipe may not yield a good author, but it certainly improves the odds.

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This award is an extraordinary gift. I have spent so much of my life writing books. For two years or more a single title consumes me. Then it’s published and perhaps it receives some attention, perhaps it does not. There is a certain amount of grieving that goes on when the work to which you have dedicated years of your life vanishes from book stores, library shelves, reading lists, and people’s hearts and minds. To have a committee pluck your book out of heaps of old volumes, hold it up to the light, and proclaim to the world that this book is a thing of value, worthy of a second look twenty years after its publication…it is remarkably moving and I am grateful beyond measure.

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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.

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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.

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DSC05364Generally, I research for approximately a year before writing the first word. Once I’ve front-loaded enough information on the time period to have a working grasp of it, I write a quick and skeletal initial draft. In the second year of a book’s creation I revise, revise, revise, filling in the gaps in the narrative, smoothing the connective tissue, obsessively inserting and deleting words, sentences, entire paragraphs, pages, and chapters. Along the way I show drafts to colleagues, and then to an editor. After each outside reader gets back to me with a critique, I rewrite again. It is not uncommon for me to go through twenty or more drafts of a book before it enters into production. And even when the book is in galleys, I still feel compelled to make changes, to tighten, to find the perfect word to replace one that isn’t quite precise enough.

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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.

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