Barbara is fascinated by immigration and has been reading immigrant novels since she was a teen, exploring questions such as - What compels a person or a family to leave everything they know behind and go off into the unknown? What adventures and obstacles await and how does the immigrant handle them?
Today I get to chat with Barbara about her passion, themes, and research.
Barbara, why do you write history? Why not some futuristic dystopian novel or fantasy or zombie story?
This one makes me laugh, because I only watch TV on demand or reruns– never live. Maybe I live in the past? I think history gives us a perspective on the past that is not apparent in the present. For my own writing, let’s say my novel about my grandfather’s village in 1920 Poland, I want to feel what life was like. I’ve been to the village but can only imagine.
Is there a period or event in history that especially fascinates you? Why?
I think the turn of the 20th century is of special interest – up to maybe 1920. I am drawn to the fashion and the lifestyle and the development of technology that changed the way we live and work. I always think about how my great-grandmother Bryna must have felt when she saw her first airplane. An immigrant from Russia arriving in the U.S. in 1901, she lived into her nineties. I think about all the changes she experienced.
I’m guessing you love research. (If not, I don’t want to know about it.) If so, what is your favorite method of research? Or where do you get your best info?
I’ve been a genealogist for many years. That discipline I think paved the way for archival research – the gloves, the pencil, the lock-your-things-in-a-locker-outside-the-research-room. It also gave me access to additional sources most don’t know about, like city directories, census records, death certificates, cemetery records.
Got a research story to share? Some obscure detail you tracked down or some accomplishment you’re particularly proud of?
Some will say that you should not share your book ideas with anyone. I have to disagree.
I mentioned to one of my advisors at the Vermont MFA program that I was working on a biography of Emma Lazarus. She shared with me a story about how she sat next to an accomplished writer and his partner and they lived in Emma’s old house in Manhattan. She’s the one who told me about the magnificent two-floor mahogany library there. I also consulted an adult biographer who lives in nearby Princeton. I asked to meet her for coffee and it turns out she’s a good friend of one of those owners. Through her, I was able to get permission to visit the house.
The biographer also led me to another biographer who was very helpful in giving me additional contacts, such as Emma’s family, and in providing photos that have never appeared in a young reader’s book about Emma.
Amazing! I totally agree with you by the way. Sharing our research and history with others only enriches it, as far as I'm concerned. So typically, what is your approach to researching, plotting, and writing the historical book?
It took me a long time to figure this out. I was on retreat and working on my Poland novel. I was walking along the gravel path from my cabin to the main house and told myself, “I have to go to Warsaw.” At the time, in 2001, I meant I had to take my main character to Warsaw. It wasn’t until 2008 that the idea hit me that I should literally go to Warsaw and to my grandparents’ villages. That trip changed my novel dramatically and sparked some other work, including poems, short stories, and a photo exhibit at a local Jewish community center.
Now, I have to think where my book will take me. For Emma, I’ve visited Manhattan (which is very close to where I live), Concord and Newport. I love where the research takes me. I also love finding little tidbits and how sticking to factual accuracy enhances either the biography or the novel.
And speaking of accuracy, when you write biography, how do you handle dialogue and fleshing out anecdotes and sketchy info on your subject? Do you invent dialogue for your historical characters or stick to direct quotes?
In my Emma biography, I try to get into her head and wonder what she was feeling. I did not invent any dialogue. It’s been a challenge, because information on her life is rather sketchy, especially her early years.
For another project, a picture book biography, the dialogue is a blend of paraphrased direct quotes and fictional dialogue. The direct quotes used language that would not be readily understood by today’s kids.
Let’s say you’re helping a middle – high school student with research ideas. What advice would you give?
- Place your subject in context. Read novels of the period – they often provide an excellent reflection of the times. Look at what was happening in the state, the country, the world at that time.
- Also, reach out to experts – authors, research librarians, professors. Many are willing to help.
I’ve written several books about my New Jersey hometown and have done a number of school visits to share the history. One letter I received said, “I used to think our town was boring and now I know it’s not!” Another student made his parents take him on a tour of the town with my book as a guide. I was happy to see the kids take pride in their town, especially since my interest in the town began when I was in fourth grade and our town was celebrating it’s 100th birthday.
The photo above is one of 30 photos chronicling the remains of Jewish life in Poland. To see more visit this gallery of photos at Barbara's website.
Barbara, has authored several books and more than 100 history articles for adults. She also contributes to children’s magazines, including Appleseeds, BabagaNewz, Calliope, Cobblestone, Footsteps, Highlights for Children, and Odyssey. Her focus is typically on Judaica, science, and history.