As I mentioned last week, I'm participating in the Sydney Taylor Award Blog tour. And today I am tickled to have as my guest, Susan Lynn Meyer who won an honor for her first novel, Black Radishes.
Susan, congratulations on such a great accomplishment with your first novel. You really earned it!
I will say, the title had me fooled. I’m not familiar with black radishes. I assumed the character was reduced to eating rotten or frost bitten radishes! But I love that the radishes were a device for the story and for outwitting the enemy. That was terrific! Have you eaten black radishes? And, if so, how did you like them?
I know—the title BLACK RADISHES is evocative to Americans because so few of us have heard of them or tasted them. So people imagine in their own minds what the title means, and I love that. And it isn’t just Americans who form their own interesting impressions based on the title. In fact, while I was writing the book, I spent some time with a French novelist who was also writing a World War II era novel. We talked a lot about our works in progress, and he said to me at one point, “So who were the Black Radishes?” He thought that it was the name of a French Resistance group! I love that idea, because in fact when you read the novel you find out that in it black radishes play a role in Resistance activity.
I do like the taste of black radishes, but you have to eat them in the right way, the way they are eaten in France. First you peel off the black skin. Then you make very thin slices of the white flesh. Place them on top of a buttered chunk of baguette. Delicious!
Gustave actually never gets to eat the black radishes during the course of the novel, however. The Germans are greedy for this delicacy and take them away from the French whenever they have the opportunity. So in a way, the black radishes also stand in the novel for the lost freedom of the French people.
True. This story is so grounded in history and research. I felt that as I read and visiting your website confirmed it. (Seems to me you mentioned crawling under bridges in France to see construction dates.) Talk to us about research – how you approach it, what you’ve learned about how to research, and about your favorite way to gather info.
What works best for me is a “total immersion” method of research for historical fiction. I read everything I can about the period, especially first-hand accounts, such as memoirs. I love reading newspapers from the time, because they give you a very vivid sense of what daily life was like. They can be painful to read, too, because of their immediacy—they are written just as terrible things are happening, and the writers are living through those terrible times and don’t know yet how the events will turn out.
I also watched later films set in the time (because those film historians have already done some of the work of constructing the visual appearance of daily life). I was also able to locate and watch actual newsreel excerpts from France in the 1940s. Those were very informative, even though they had to meet with Nazi approval in order to be shown. The best thing of all, of course, if it is possible, is to talk to people who lived through the time, and I was lucky enough to know and to meet several such people. You can go to the place—and I loved doing that—but you can’t go back to the time. Not directly, anyway—you can by reading, looking at photographs and film footage, and talking to people.
Do you speak/read French or did you get help from a translator? What tips do you have doing research in a foreign country?
I do speak and read French. I learned in school, though, not at home, and I’ve never lived in France, not for longer than a short visit. So I work hard at it and I make lots of silly mistakes. There was the time I meant to offer to help someone carry his “mattress” down the stairs, but I accidentally offered to carry his “mistress”. . . !
Ooops! (Sorry. I laughed out loud on that one!)
It would have been very hard to do the kind of research I did without speaking French, because I talked to some people who spoke only French. Then, too, I just hung around and listened to conversations, sometimes struggling to make sense of things I didn’t quite get, or processing the language with a few-second delay. Sometimes that confusion can be interesting and productive though. It makes you really notice how the language is working and really think about what people are saying.
BTW, the slide show on your website is terrific! Seeing that castle and the bridge - after having just finished the book – it was really emotional for me. Can you talk about what it felt like to go to Saint-Georges and to walk the ground where your father lived and where your character met with so many adventures?
Thank you! Well, being there was a very intense experience for me. I traced the path where my father once rode his bicycle and where Gustave rides his. I walked through the chateau, Chenonceau, which is built over the river (check out the photos on my website if you find this hard to imagine!) and I walked through the woods behind it, thinking about what it would feel like to cross the chateau in an attempt to escape the Nazis.
I walked and rode back and forth over the peaceful river Cher many times during the week I was there. That river once was the Demarcation Line between the Occupied Zone and the Unoccupied Zone, and it was such a difficult barrier to cross, a barrier between death and life for some people. And now it is so easy—you can walk back and forth several times a day and never know what happened there. That is, unless you stop and read the plaques by the side of the road. I seemed to be the only one doing that. But maybe that is because the people who live in the village already know that history in their bones.
I love that you included the Author’s Note which helps the reader know how truth and fiction are woven together in this story. Can you talk about that a bit?
I felt a kind of ethical hesitation about making the novel too close to my father’s actual life story. I feel as if his life is his story to tell. But on the other hand, the novel grew out of anecdotes my father used to tell me and my five brothers and sisters as we were growing up. As a child, I loved the funny stories about his French childhood, especially about the mischief he and his sister and friends used to get into. Gradually I came to understand too why he and his family left France, although he did not say much about that. But his stories have always lived in my memory and I always wanted to know more. That’s where the novel came from. Some of his stories are so good, and the anecdotes are so telling, that I used them, though in modified form and shaped to my own purposes, in the novel. For example, the “looking-up game” that Gustave and his friends play in the first chapter, where they trick adults into looking up at the sky—that comes from a real game that my dad and his friends used to play. But to make it work with my purposes in the book, I added in the part about the adults thinking that the boys see a German bomber in the sky—so they get very angry at the boys when they realize it is all a trick. The boys aren’t yet as aware as the adults are of the realities of the war. That’s an example of the way my father’s stories became transmuted as they became part of the novel.
Is it true that Gustave’s story continues in a book you are working on now? Please tell us about that.
Yes! I am thrilled that Delacorte has given me an advance contract for my second novel, a continuation of Gustave’s story as he and his family come to the United States in 1942. Rebecca Short will again be editing the book. (She and Francoise Bui edited BLACK RADISHES.) In the new book, which is tentatively titled GREEN AND UNRIPE FRUIT, Gustave has to deal with his family’s new poverty in America, with adapting to a new language and a new culture, and with the loss of his French identity. He and his family are much safer in America and are grateful for the refuge they find. But on the other hand, Gustave is startled to encounter segregation and anti-Semitism in America, to find out that America doesn’t quite live up to its promise that there “all men are created equal.”
Wow! Another must read. I'll buy it. But don't take too long!
Thanks Susan for coming by to talk with us. Here's hoping Black Radishes keeps getting the love it deserves! And btw, I bet you’ve got a picture of black radishes you can share with us, don’t you?
Here I am with a radish and the novel at a book signing! Thanks so much for having me on your blog.
Superb! I loved having you here, Susan. Do come back!
Also, I thought both you and my readers might enjoy this entry on black radishes over at the Weird Vegetables blog!