Author Interview – Tara Lynn Masih (Author of My Real Name is Hanna)

Today I am joined by the talented Tara Lynn Masih, author of My Real Name is Hanna. This YA historical fiction novel is out September 15th and has been featured on GoodReads’ Ultimate Fall Reading List for YA Fans! Told from the perspective of a young Jewish girl living during the Holocaust, this is a poignant and beautiful story about human connection and tenacity of spirit. Fans of The Book Thief should check this out!

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Book Blurb:

Hanna Slivka is on the cusp of fourteen when Hitler’s army crosses the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Soon, the Gestapo closes in, determined to make the shtetele she lives in “free of Jews.” Until the German occupation, Hanna spent her time exploring Kwasova with her younger siblings, admiring the drawings of the handsome Leon Stadnick, and helping her neighbor dye decorative pysanky eggs. But now she, Leon, and their families are forced to flee and hide in the forest outside their shtetele—and then in the dark caves beneath the rolling meadows, rumored to harbor evil spirits. Underground, they battle sickness and starvation, while the hunt continues above. When Hanna’s father disappears, suddenly it’s up to Hanna to find him—and to find a way to keep the rest of her family, and friends, alive.

Sparse, resonant, and lyrical, weaving in tales of Jewish and Ukrainian folklore, My Real Name Is Hanna celebrates the sustaining bonds of family, the beauty of a helping hand, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

About the Author

2889627Tara Lynn Masih has won multiple book awards as editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. Author of My Real Name Is Hanna (a Skipping Stones Honor Award Book) and Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories, she has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (including ConfrontationHayden’s Ferry ReviewNatural BridgeThe Los Angeles ReviewPleiades, and The Caribbean Writer). Several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press and archived at such universities as Yale and NYU, and awards for her work include The Ledge Magazine‘s fiction award, The Lou P. Bunce Creative Writing Award, a Massachusetts Cultural Council finalist fiction grant, and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Webnominations.

Interview

Where did you get the inspiration for My Real Name is Hanna?

My family and I were watching a documentary, No Place on Earth, about Esther Stermer and her family and friends who lived in Ukraine during World War II and, for the most part, survived the Holocaust. We were riveted. The strength of Esther and the perseverance of her family, who hid in underground caves and battled fear, anxiety, starvation, and the Nazis, was inspiring to us all. I took the DVD back to the library but couldn’t forget the Stermers. I’m drawn to stories set in nature. We live so far apart from it now. Thinking of hiding in the bowels of the earth from the evil above, and the lessons we all could learn from the family on how to survive not just physically but emotionally gave me the drive to retell their story through my own fictional characters.

You’ve been published before, but My Real Name Is Hanna is your first novel. How did your writing process differ for this compared to, for example, your short stories? Was it a difficult adjustment?

It was very difficult for me to go from decades of condensing story to expanding on it for the first time. I was astounded when I finished the first real draft in three months. But it was full of holes and lots of problems. It took almost 5 years to get to the finished draft, with lots of help along the way. And as you can see, it’s still not an epic volume. But I think my training in short stories helped me to distill three years into a short novel.

Historical fiction tends to require a lot of research to be done well; what kind of research did you need to do for this book? What would you say is the most interesting thing you learned in your research?

Oh my, every kind of research. From food to birds to animals to customs to the war and the history of the region. Those first categories were fun and relatively easy to research. There is a wealth of research online these days for writers. However, the history of the region was incredibly complex. I can’t say I still know or understand it all. Ukraine has changed hands so many times. I feel for the country. I learned one reason is because of its fertile soil. So much of war and conquest is over trying to dominate the best land that contains water and grows crops.

For me, the most interesting research I did was on the Stermers themselves and how they were able to live underground for almost two years. Much of Ukrainian history was kept under wraps by the Russian government until the 1990s. And so few Jews survived in that part of the world. We’re lucky to have the Stermer autobiography and the work of caver Chris Nicola, who discovered their story and worked hard to preserve it. I encourage everyone who reads the book to watch the film. Hear the real voices, see the real survivors.

What made you decide to write this story as a YA novel specifically, vs. writing for any other age group?

40919597_3532518026764140_7721455577267699712_nI wanted to tell the story from the perspective of a young girl, and I wanted to tell it in a relatively simple, almost fairy tale-like voice. I wanted the younger generation to read a story that hasn’t yet been told in a Holocaust novel. Everyone wants to be seen and heard in life. When voices are purposely ended, it’s a tragedy that goes beyond words. But we need to gather words as much as we can to retell each person’s story, for those who were silenced. As a writer, for me, the most important story I can tell is one that might make readers think differently about their lives or the lives of others. 

What is one message that you hope your readers will take from My Real Name Is Hanna?

Be kind to everyone, but especially to those who you may view as different from yourself. Understand their worth, especially if they are being attacked in some way. Speak out, stand up. As a fellow human being, you have an obligation. It can happen again, and, in fact, it is happening on a smaller scale in places such as Syria and on the U.S. border.

You must have read a lot of books about the Holocaust. Can you recommend any to readers besides the obvious bestsellers?

I did read a lot. Irena’s Children, by Tilar Mazzeo, is an amazing biography about Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved thousands of Jewish children at great personal cost. We need to read about more positive role models these days. Another biography that had a huge impact on me was Greg Dawson’s Hiding in the Spotlight, about his own talented, beautiful mother, who played piano for the Nazis without their knowing she was Jewish. Hence, the title. Hasen, a classic from the 1970s by Reuben Bercovitch, is a beautifully written and tragic tale about two boys hiding from the Nazis in the woods. It should be read more than I suspect it is. Finally, The Were Like Family to Me, by Helen Maryles Shankman, is one of the best story collections I’ve ever read, set in the real town of  Włodawa, Poland. As mentioned there are few fictional books set in this part of the world during the Holocaust, and her stories are layered, remarkable, and important and based in part on real historical figures and her own family.

What author has most influenced your own writing?

This may seem odd, but I’d have to say Mark Twain. Hearing his words read aloud in fourth grade are what made me fall in love with story writing. I loved his lyricism and his descriptions of the natural world and his willingness to take on tough cultural topics. It’s a coincidence that his words from Joan of Arc made it to the part openers of my novel, but a happy one, for me.

Many thanks for Tara for participating in this interview! Her newest book is available for purchase 09/15/18, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It’s sure to be a well-deserved success.

Read my review of My Real Name is Hanna here.

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Review – Rust & Stardust, by T. Greenwood

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Rust & Stardust
by T. Greenwood

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: August 7, 2018

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Synopsis: 

Camden, NJ, 1948.

When 11 year-old Sally Horner steals a notebook from the local Woolworth’s, she has no way of knowing that 52 year-old Frank LaSalle, fresh out of prison, is watching her, preparing to make his move. Accosting her outside the store, Frank convinces Sally that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested in a minute—unless she does as he says.

This chilling novel traces the next two harrowing years as Frank mentally and physically assaults Sally while the two of them travel westward from Camden to San Jose, forever altering not only her life, but the lives of her family, friends, and those she meets along the way.

rating

five

Sally Horner’s tragic ordeal inspired Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, but the real story is even more heart-breaking. I must admit that I was hesitant to pick this book up for fear that it would feel exploitative of the young victim of such a heinous crime. However, after seeing one glowing review after another, I decided to give it a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised by this novel.

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The subject matter obviously invites comparison with Lolita, and I think that draws attention to one of the novel’s greatest strengths: the focus is on the victim rather than the twisted mindset of the perpetrator. Nabokov’s work is an exploration of the depths of darkness; Greenwood’s book places the focus on the victim and feels more inherently respectful. Lolita is not so much about Lolita as it is about Humbert Humbert. Greenwood draws Sally Horner to the center of the narrative, giving her a voice and inviting us to empathize with her and her family.

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Florence Sally Horner

The novel maintains what feels like an appropriate distance from the sexual assaults which Sally suffered, generally skipping straight from the instigation to the aftermath. Greenwood refrains from using these events for cheap shock value and instead focuses on Sally’s attempts to process what is happening to her and her longing for home.

Rust and Stardust is told primarily from Sally’s perspective, but has multiple POVs throughout, often capturing the near misses when Sally encounters people who could potentially help her. Over and over, we hear things like, “Someone should do something about that.” These are the most heartbreaking part of the novel, in a lot of ways. Neighbors and teachers get a vague feeling from Sally that something isn’t quite right with her home life, but in the absence of any solid evidence, they feel helpless. These moments are heartbreaking because they are painfully relatable; who among us hasn’t witnessed something that was just enough to give us pause, just enough to leave a niggling sense of uncertainty at the back of our minds? Maybe it’s nothing, but what if…? Sally’s story forces us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about what to do in these situations.

On top of Greenwood’s delicate handling of such an ugly subject, Rust and Stardust is simply artistically lovely, with lyrical prose that could have you turning the pages for the pure music of her words. This is emotional and not an easy read, by any means. It will reach into you and wrap cold, unforgiving fingers around your heart, but I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

How sad was it that grief had a shelf life, he thought. It’s only fresh and raw for so long before it begins to spoil. And soon enough, it would be replaced by a newer, brighter heartache – the old one discarded and eventually forgotten.

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Have you read Rust and Stardust? What were your thoughts?
How do you feel about reading books based on real-life crimes? Does it make a difference when the victim is a child? Discuss in the comments!

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Review – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Historical Fiction / Contemporary

Length: 388 Pages

Release date: June 13, 2017

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one in the journalism community is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband, David, has left her, and her career has stagnated. Regardless of why Evelyn has chosen her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s Upper East Side apartment, Monique listens as Evelyn unfurls her story: from making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the late 80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way. As Evelyn’s life unfolds through the decades—revealing a ruthless ambition, an unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love—Monique begins to feel a very a real connection to the actress. But as Evelyn’s story catches up with the present, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

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To say that I loved The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo would be an understatement. This is one of those books that ends leaving you aching for another page, another chapter.

As far as structure, this book can be divided into three separate categories:

  1. First person perspective of Monique, who is struggling with the dissolution of her marriage as she interviews Evelyn Hugo, aging Hollywood darling and ex movie star
  2. First person perspective of Evelyn Hugo as she reveals her life story to Monique
  3. Newspaper/magazine article asides describing various significant events of Evelyn’s life as seen through the limited perspective of the press

This structure is very effective in calling attention to the wide gap between Evelyn’s reality and the constructed version propped up in the press, where rumors are sometimes reported as fact and vice versa. The Evelyn Hugo that exists in the public’s mind bears little resemblance to the Evelyn Hugo that Monique discovers throughout the story.

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The book touches on a variety of social issues; racial issues are at the forefront early in the novel. Struggling to find her footing in Hollywood, Evelyn Hugo is subjected to a whitewashing makeover reminiscent of Rita Hayworth. With bleach blonde hair and a new last name to sweep her Latina heritage under the rug, the studio hopes to make her more palatable to the masses. While this wasn’t explicitly forced upon her, it’s clear to her that her success to dependent on going along with it. She seems to be okay with this at first, realizing only afterwards how taxing this will prove to be, such as when she struggles to determine whether speaking Spanish in front of her Latina maid is worth the risk of exposure.

This need to hide aspects of her identity foreshadows what is easily the main conflict of the novel. Evelyn spends most of her life in love with another woman and hiding it for the sake of her career and reputation. She is a bisexual character who owns the label “bisexual,” something that is strikingly rare in fiction. She is not an “I don’t like labels” bisexual or an “I went through a phase” bisexual (why straight authors feel the need to write such characters I’ll never understand), she is explicitly bisexual and goes so far as to call out another character for failure to use the correct word. “Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that,” she says.

Throughout her rise to fame, Evelyn struggles to reconcile her shame, not of her identity itself but of her own willingness to hide it for the sake of success, with her sense of understanding that she’d probably do it all over again. She is hungry for fame, success, the adoration of the masses, and yes, money.

Reid has constructed a picture of an intensely realistic, flawed, captivating woman. At moments, it’s easy to feel as if you’re reading the memoir of a flesh and blood person. There are intensely fun passages which can feel like getting the inside scoop on real-life Hollywood royalty, but Evelyn’s unflinching honesty about her own personal demons makes the book so much more than that. This was compulsively readable and completely lovely.

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Also by Taylor Jenkins Reid…

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Review – Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

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Pachinko
by Min Jin Lee

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 496 Pages

Release date: February 7, 2017

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Yeongdo, Korea 1911.

In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.

Through eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

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“Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”

This quote neatly encapsulates many of the struggles experienced by the central characters of Pachinko. This is a generational tale which begins with Sunja, a young Korean woman whose unexpected pregnancy by an older, married man sets off a chain of events that leads her to immigrate to Japan in the early 1900’s. There, she must learn how to build a life for herself and her children, while she grapples with the difficulties of being treated as an inferior and outsider by those around her. The story follows Sunja and her family into the 1980’s.

Pachinko’s characters are well-developed, particularly in the first half of the book. Sunja and her children are very fleshed out, and allow the reader to explore the differing struggles of a first generation immigrant to those of her children, who must come to grips with being treated as visitors in both their ancestral homeland of Korea and their birthplace, Japan. Through it all, themes of resilience, loyalty, grief, patriotism, and faith tie their stories together.

The further removed from Sunja the story becomes, however, the less engaging it is. While I enjoyed this novel immensely overall, I do have to say that the first half felt clearly stronger. Lee successfully manages to get the reader emotionally invested in Sunja and her children. By the time the focus shifts to her grandchildren, the book seems to lose steam somewhat.

This novel is very character-driven; this is not a fast-paced or action-packed novel. The appeal lies in emotionally connecting with the central characters and watching them grow up in a changing society, exploring what separates each generation and what binds them together. The book is long and meandering, and while the prose may drag a little here and there, the book is overall a delight. I found myself unable to stop turning the pages; Sunja felt like a flesh and blood person to me, and I wanted to see her through to the end.

Purchase links

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Also by Min Jin Lee…

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Free Food for Millionaires

In her critically acclaimed debut, National Book Award finalist Min Jin Lee introduces the indelible Casey Han: a strong-willed, Queens-bred daughter of Korean immigrants who is addicted to a glamorous Manhattan lifestyle she cannot afford. Fresh out of Princeton with an economics degree, no job, and a popular white boyfriend, Casey is determined to carve a space for herself in the glittering world she craves-but at what cost?
Lee’s bestselling, sharp-eyed, sweeping epic of love, greed, and hunger-set in a landscape where millionaires scramble for the free lunches the poor are too proud to accept-is an addictively readable, startlingly sympathetic portrait of intergenerational strife and immigrant struggle, exposing the intricate layers of a community clinging to its old ways in a city packed with haves and have-nots.

 

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ARC Review – My Real Name Is Hanna, by Tara Lynn Masih

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My Real Name Is Hanna
by Tara Lynn Masih

Coming September 15, 2018

Length: 208 pages

Genre: Historical fiction, YA

five

Blurb via GoodReads:

Hanna Slivka is on the cusp of fourteen when Hitler’s army crosses the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Soon, the Gestapo closes in, determined to make the shtetele she lives in “free of Jews.” Until the German occupation, Hanna spent her time exploring Kwasova with her younger siblings, admiring the drawings of the handsome Leon Stadnick, and helping her neighbor dye decorative pysanky eggs. But now she, Leon, and their families are forced to flee and hide in the forest outside their shtetele—and then in the dark caves beneath the rolling meadows, rumored to harbor evil spirits. Underground, they battle sickness and starvation, while the hunt continues above. When Hanna’s father disappears, suddenly it’s up to Hanna to find him—and to find a way to keep the rest of her family, and friends, alive.

Sparse, resonant, and lyrical, weaving in tales of Jewish and Ukrainian folklore, My Real Name Is Hanna celebrates the sustaining bonds of family, the beauty of a helping hand, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

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I don’t know where to begin with this book. Hanna will stay close to my heart for a long time to come. My Real Name Is Hanna explores one of the darkest times in history, but does so with a remarkable spirit of hope and faith in mankind. Central to the theme of this book is a sense of connection which transcends divides such as religious beliefs.

One of the most touching relationships in this book is between our young Jewish protagonist, Hanna, and her elderly Christian neighbor, Alla, who takes on a somewhat grandmotherly role to Hanna. Hanna’s parents don’t entirely approve of the work which she does for Alla, assisting her in decorating pysanky, a kind of Ukrainian Easter egg which is intricately decorated and rich with symbolism. At one point in the story, Alla gifts Hanna with a pysanka decorated with symbols from Jewish folklore, a gesture which speaks to a deep abiding love and the mutual respect they have for one another’s cultures and beliefs.

Hanna’s father examines the bird painted on the egg and speculates on the meaning behind it. Perhaps it is a phoenix, which would symbolize patience, or perhaps it is the Ziz, which would be a symbol of protection.

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This passage is, in a lot of ways, the crux of the novel to me. Alla and Hanna connect, not by ignoring their differences, but by embracing them, finding ways to bridge the gap, and a mutual habit of never addressing one another with a sense of superiority. This merging of cultural traditions in a time of sharp division and iniquity was a poignant symbol of hope in the fundamental goodness of people.

There is a lot of darkness in this book; it is a YA book, so it avoids going into grisly detail about some of the worst of Nazi atrocities, but it is honest and clear about the fact that Hannah and her family are facing the imminent threat of death. They endure unspeakable hardship, sustained in large part by their love for one another. They have lost their home, almost all of their possessions, and any sense of security in their own country, but familial love endures as they hold on by a thread.

Inspired by a true story of a family that survived the Holocaust by hiding out underground, this novel is a timely reminder of all that’s at stake when we fail to acknowledge the humanity of the Other. Above all else, we must value kindness and connection.

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I received an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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