I’m thrilled to welcome author, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields to my blog for a second time, on this happy occasion to interview her about her writing. For those of you who missed her guest storyteller post back in November of last year, here’s a recap of her biography.
Kansas City native Rochelle Wisoff-Fields is a woman of Jewish descent and the granddaughter of Eastern European immigrants. She has a close personal connection to Jewish history, which has been a recurring theme throughout much of her writing. Growing up, she was heavily influenced by the Sholom Aleichem stories, the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. Her novels Please Say Kaddish for Me, From Silt and Ashes and As One Must, One Can were born of her desire to share the darker side of these beloved tales—the history that can be difficult to view, much less embrace.
She is also the author and illustrator of This, That and Sometimes the Other, an eclectic anthology of short stories.
Before becoming an author, Rochelle attended the Kansas City Art Institute, where she studied painting and lithography. Her preferred media are pen and ink, pencil, and watercolor. Her artwork is featured on the covers of her books and within them as well. Her coffee table companion book to her trilogy which will feature character portraits, A Stone for the Journey, is due out in the spring 2017.
Rochelle maintains a blog called Addicted to Purple where she facilitates the internationally popular flash fiction challenge known as Friday Fictioneers. She and her husband, Jan, raised three sons and live in Belton, Missouri. When she takes a break from writing and illustrating, Rochelle enjoys swimming, reading and dancing.
All three of your novels in “The Havah Gitterman Saga” are wonderfully rich in historical detail. How did you approach your research? And how much information did you already have to hand, due to your Jewish background?
Wonderful questions to which there are no simple answers. One would think that growing up Jewish, I would have come into these novels with more ammunition. However this is not the case. We were secular Jews so I really didn’t know a lot about liturgy and traditions.
When I was born in 1953, memories of the Holocaust were fresh in everyone’s minds. The massacres called pogroms in Eastern Europe that occurred forty years prior to Hitler took a backseat.
I credit my mother with what little knowledge I had of my Eastern European heritage. Her father came from Poland in the early 1900’s as she put it “at the age of 19 with nothing but the shirt on his back and became a self-taught tailor.” She said he didn’t know his own birthdate because the pogromists customarily destroyed the synagogues first, which is where birth and death records were kept.
I’m grateful for the internet, which holds a wealth of information and Google is my friend. Wikipedia is a good place to start. Such sites as Jewish Gen and Jewish Virtual Library are also great resources as well.
Jewish Gen has a holiday calendar that was invaluable for keeping dates straight and true to life. It was how I knew that Bayla’s birth on December 1st, 1899 was first night of Hanukkah. When she celebrated her 8th birthday in 1907 it also fell on the first night of Hanukkah.
Old newspapers are wonderful resources. One website I used, especially for the third in the Saga, AS ONE MUST, ONE CAN, is www.vintagekansascity.com. It’s full of treasures from a newspaper called “The Kansas City Journal.” The character of Judge William H. Wallace came from those pages. I couldn’t have invented a better nemesis for Havah.
What inspired you to write the first novel, Please Say Kaddish For Me, and did you plan from the beginning for it to be a standalone novel or part of a trilogy?
In the beginning, I planned to write my grandfather’s story, but no one in the family seemed to know much about him aside from what I already knew about him. Yet, I wanted to tell the dark side of Fiddler on the Roof. That part of history that few, including some of my Jewish relatives, know nothing about.
There is a version of the mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer said in honor of the dead that we recite in my synagogue on Yom Kippur. After each line, the name of a site of persecution is said such as Treblinka, Auschwitz, etc. One of those places that I knew little about, until the beginning of my research, was Kishinev.
Curiosity piqued, I began my research trail. One of the first things I learned was that the bloodbath on Easter weekend 1903 took the lives of at least 50 Jews, including children. Not only that, but it was the first internationally recognized pogrom. Since it was in what’s now known as Moldova and not Poland, it became clear that this story had nothing directly to do with my grandfather. (I did name a character in the third book Sam Weiner after him.)
Mind you, when I started PLEASE SAY KADDISH FOR ME I was greener than grass in May. I had no clue how to write, I only knew I had a story to tell. As good fortune would have it, I’d met a fellow Hebrew student Annie Withers who was also a professional writer. Thanks to her, I ended up in three different critique groups.
I can’t tell you how many revisions I did as I learned the craft. I mean I really can’t, because I lost count a long time ago.
I didn’t see myself writing a second novel. I thought that once I completed PSKFM my work would be finished—until I read about the pogrom in Odessa, Ukraine in 1905 and the response of the Kansas City Jewish community. So began my work on FROM SILT AND ASHES. As I learned more about writing and about my characters I found myself bouncing between the two novels and, practically, writing them simultaneously.
At one point, I thought I’d completed both of them and began work on AS ONE MUST, ONE CAN. About 60,000 words into it, I landed a contract for PSKFM and FSAA with agent Jeanie Loiacono.
When I picked the third novel back up to complete it, my characters had changed so much over the course of the stories that I whacked a good 40,000 and, for all intents and purposes, started over.
Who are your favourite three characters in the saga, and why?
This is a tough question because the answer can vary from day to day and I have so many characters it’s tough to choose only three. Of course I adore Ulrich, Havah’s dear friend and benefactor, however I’ll have to go with the three who have grown and changed the most over the course of the three novels that cover a ten year period.
Havah Cohen Gitterman, the main character and lynchpin of the trilogy, has her childhood ripped from her in one night. She’s often selfish and headstrong. I really like her because she’s also forgiving and willing to learn. No matter what curveballs life—or a cruel author—throws her way, she’s determined to rise above them. For example, when she loses the manual dexterity in her right hand she becomes proficient with her left. She has a mother’s heart, big enough to accept her daughter’s blindness and adopt three traumatized orphans as well.
Lev Gitterman is one of those three orphans and Havah’s nephew by marriage. In PLEASE SAY KADDISH FOR ME he started out as a nine-year-old boy who was only meant to be mentioned once or twice. However through FROM SILT AND ASHES and AS ONE MUST, ONE CAN he took it upon himself to become one of the most important people in the books. There is a tenderness about him that I love. He’s able to work through the trauma and abuse that have beset him his entire life and rise above it.
The third character I have to include is Nikolai Derevenko, a Russian doctor. I only meant for him to be Ulrich Dietrich’s sidekick. Ironically, I’d have to say that, of all of the many characters, Nikolai is the most complex. That alone makes him one of my three favorites. Over the course of the three novels, he goes from being a confident surgeon to a haunted man who has seen too much. His past and present collide in the third book. Writing his redemption was a great experience.
It’s unusual for a publisher to allow an author to illustrate her own book cover. What is your artistic background? And do you consider yourself primarily an artist or a writer, or both in equal measure?
As long as I can remember, I wanted to be an artist. According to my mother, no piece of paper in the house was safe. Everything had to be drawn on. As far as training is concerned, I attended two years at the Kansas City Art Institute before deciding I had different ideas about art than my instructors. In retrospect, I was a bit hasty and quite immature. I do consider myself both illustrator and author in equal measure.
While working on a book, how do you organise your writing time?
Organise? Organisation has always been a challenge for me. I’m pretty spontaneous and tend to flit from one activity to another. However, before I retired from full time employment, I did have to be quite disciplined. Since my hours as a cake decorator were mostly early morning to late afternoon, I would rise between three and four in the morning to write.
Since I wrote the major bulk of AS ONE MUST, ONE CAN post retirement, my time was more flexible. However, as a creature of habit, I found that my best writing time is before sunrise.
With the first draft, do you edit as you go, or save it until the end?
When I wrote PLEASE SAY KADDISH FOR ME the first time, I wrote it from beginning to end. Being a novice I considered it finished. In retrospect, I had a lot to learn. With AS ONE MUST, ONE CAN I edited as I went. In fact, when it comes to editing, I’m guilty of editing my emails and even text messages.
Are you easy to live with when absorbed in a project?
If you asked my husband Jan, I think you’d probably get a resounding, “No!” He’s put up with many late suppers and the absentee wife.
Who is your favourite author, and why?
Without question, my favorite author is Geraldine Brooks. She is the maven of historical fiction. Her books PEOPLE OF THE BOOK and CALEB’S CROSSING are brilliant examples. Her extensive research and use of the language of the times give authenticity to her work. Her characters tend to be three dimensional and practically walk off the page. I want to be her when I grow up.
What are you working on at the moment, and do you have any ideas for future projects?
The next work in progress is A STONE FOR THE JOURNEY, which will be a coffee table companion book for Havah’s trilogy or as my publisher has dubbed it, “The Havah Gitterman Saga.” The plan is for the book to be hard-back containing at least 180 8”x 10” full color pictures of scenes from the novels as well as character studies.
When my publisher, after seeing a few of those character portraits I’ve posted on my blog, asked if I would be interested in producing a coffee table book, I didn’t have to think twice. This is really the fulfilment of a childhood dream.
Prior to obtaining your first deal with a traditional publisher, did you ever consider self-publishing?
No, not really. However with seeing the success of such novels as THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, that was ultimately picked up by a traditional publisher and made into a movie, I might reconsider on a future project.
Do you have any writing tips for aspiring authors?
Before you can break the rules, you have to know the rules. Be willing to listen and learn. Nobody’s first draft is perfect. (I’m not sure the 20th draft is perfect.)
To be a writer, one should first be a reader.
Be aware that these days, the author must be willing to be his or her own publicist. Social media is important. Set up a blog and interact with your commenters. Build your brand. Join blog writing challenges. Not only are they wonderful for honing your craft, but for networking as well.
Know your audience. Today’s readers have short attention spans. Most won’t read such classics as GONE WITH THE WIND or EAST OF EDEN (more’s the pity) where there’s a slow build to the action. The action must begin in the first chapter.
If you truly believe in your writing, don’t give up! To quote agent Terry Burns, who, incidentally turned my novel down in 2008:
“Publishing is a process of trying to have the right product in the right hands at exactly the right time, hitting that window of opportunity while it’s still open. … 85% of all authors give up or just put it out themselves with little success. The publishing world belongs to those who are persistent, grow their craft, and who do the extraordinarily hard work of getting established in business.”
Available in print and on Kindle
Review: Please Say Kaddish For Me