This interview is the first in a series of interviews with creative Jewish women to celebrate the launch of my latest book, 'The Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife'. Today, we meet author Deborah Kalb, who began her career reporting on Washington DC politics, but is now writing fiction for children, instead.
1. Tell me a little bit about how you become a writer.
I always wanted to write. I think in part it was because there are so many other writers in my family—my parents are both writers and so is my sister, and so are my aunt and uncle and some of my cousins. It’s like a family tradition of sorts!
2. What’s the first book you ever wrote? What did you learn from that experience that you’re still applying to your writing today?
Published or unpublished? J I can get back to the unpublished part of this in a later answer, but the first published books I wrote or edited were reference books for CQ Press. They dealt with various aspects of history, government, politics, etc., and I think they demonstrated an ongoing interest in those subjects that carry through to other projects I’ve worked on.
3. Tell us a little bit about the book you wrote with your father, ‘Haunting Legacy’. Why did you want to write it? What was it like working with your father on the project?
It was a wonderful experience to write a book with my father. The book took us six years to write, much longer than we had expected. We both were very interested in the Vietnam War—he had covered the State Department for CBS News during that period. Originally, we were going to write a book about John Kerry and the Swift Boat campaign against him in 2004. But the book’s focus expanded to include all the presidents who held office in the years following the war, and the impact the war’s legacy had on their campaigns and their foreign policy decision-making.
There is a chapter on John Kerry in the book, although he never became president, because the Swift Boat ads played such a major role in the 2004 election. We hoped that by writing the book, we could get the message across about the lingering legacy of the Vietnam War and how much it affected subsequent presidents, even years after the war had ended.
4. Why did you decide to switch from writing books like Haunting Legacy and The Presidents, First Ladies and Vice-Presidents to writing books for children, like your latest book The President and Me: George Washington and the Magic Hat?
There’s a common theme there—presidents! I decided it would be fun to write something for kids, and then decided to make it fiction rather than nonfiction. The book involves a 21st-century boy who travels back in time and meets George Washington at various points along the way, while also dealing with his own problems back at home in his own century. While the historical sections of the book required a lot of research, I got to use my imagination in the modern-day sections of the book, so it was a good combination.
5. What genre was more enjoyable to write? Why?
Of course, I would say the most fun was to write a book with my father! But in terms of genre, I think I find it more enjoyable to write fiction, because I like telling stories and having the flexibility to make things up if I feel like it!
6. Why did you want to write a children’s book specifically about George Washington? The idea is that this is the first of a series, called The President and Me. I’m going to go through the early presidents, so I wanted to start with the very first one.
7. What’s some of the feedback you got from your readers? I’ve been really impressed with the feedback from readers, both adults and kids. I just spent an hour with a fifth-grade boys’ book club yesterday and had a fantastic time listening to them analyze the book and the relationships among the characters. Overall, I’ve been told people like the history-fiction-time-travel combination.
8. What’s your next writing project?
Book two, John & Abigail Adams. In this book, the main character is a girl who lives across the street from my book one main character. She travels to Boston for a family wedding, and ends up spending a lot of time back in the 18th century with the Adams family.
9. Tell me a little bit about ‘Deborah Kalb, the Jewish housewife’ - how do you spend your time, how do you connect to Judaism?
Good question! One way I connect to Judaism is through my work on my book blog, deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com. Many of the authors I interview are writing about Jewish themes, generally Jewish history or culture, and I always learn a great deal from reading their books and conducting the interviews.
10. What ‘secret of a Jewish housewife’ are you willing to share?
This gets back to one of your earlier questions about the first book I ever wrote. I have spent basically half my life working on a (still unpublished) novel that I started many, many years ago. I would take it out every so often and write a new version of it. A few weeks ago, I pulled it out—after a 16-year break this time—and started revising it again! It’s been incredibly absorbing. I feel as if these characters are old friends of mine whom I’m meeting again after too many years apart.
11) Where can readers learn more about you and your books?
The best place to start is my website, deborahkalb.com. Thank you so much for all your great questions!
You can buy Deborah Kalb's latest book, The President and Me, George Washington and the Magic Hat, on Amazon HERE.
Annette Gendler, the author of ‘Jumping over shadows’ is an interesting woman. She’s a German-American convert who met and married her Jewish husband, Harry, in Munich in the 1980s.
Harry hailed from a family of holocaust survivors. His mother survived the war by hiding out in a French barn for four years, while his father survived by joining Stalin’s Red Army.
As the dust settled, the two holocaust survivors somehow found themselves rebuilding their lives in Munich, of all places, and probably looking forward to their two boys continuing the Jewish line that had been so precariously snatched from the jaws of the Nazis, just a few short decades earlier.
That’s not exactly what happened. Harry, their son, fell in love with a German non-Jewish woman called Annette whose family had their own historical reasons for frowning on a match with a Jew.
Without giving too much of the story away, Gendler’s memoir is a kind of fusion of three families’ stories: hers and Harry’s; Harry’s parents; and her own family’s personal history pre, during and post World War II.
I have to admit I was a little wary of what was to come when I first picked up the book, because I knew it was a book about a mixed romance, and I had no idea if Gendler took the final step of undertaking an orthodox conversion or not. The suspense of that particular story kept me reading it at thriller pace for the first chunk of the book, until the denouement.
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that while I found some parts of the book challenging, overall I enjoyed it tremendously, and it provided a different perspective on the phenomenon of marrying-out that I wasn’t so familiar with: that of the ‘shiksa’ girlfriend trying to grapple with some big questions of what it actually means to be married to a Jew.
Personally, I would have liked to have had more of Gendler’s observations from the later period in her married life, and to hear how she herself ultimately answered the question of what is means to be a Jew day-to-day, outside of discussions of the holocaust.
It was also interesting to learn that after World War II, Czechoslovakia summarily expelled all of its remaining German citizens, who left with very few possessions. This was one of the more challenging parts of the book for me, as a Jew, to read, because while it was certainly hard on these Germans, including the author’s anti-fascist grandparents, to leave their home, history and most of their belongings behind, the parallels with the deportation of the Jews by the Germans were too stark to ignore.
For anyone familiar with holocaust literature, the train journey described by the author was a walk in the park, despite its hardships, compared to those suffered by the Jews. It was one of the rare parts of the book where a mental barrier went up in my head, and I said to myself: I don’t feel sorry for these people. Compared to what happened to the Jews, this description of hardship is almost laughable.
Then, I reprimanded myself for being too harsh on these German expats. And then, I started to feel a little confused about whose side I was really on, anyway, and what the correct response should really be…
Which kind of encapsulates why parts of this book gave me an uncomfortable feeling, because Germans and Jews were on two very different sides of the barbed-wire fence, and feeling compassion for Germans of that generation is not something that comes easily.
I don’t know whether that’s a good thing, or a bad thing. Whether it’s good for a Jew to allow themselves to feel compassion for Germans of that era is one of the questions I’m continuing to ponder after reading the book. But let’s say this: challenging assumptions is nearly always a healthy thing and this book certainly encourages the reader to do that on a number of levels.
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