Jillian Cantor creates magic in the form of stories. Cantor, also a mom, writes historical novels for both teens and adults, and I’ve read many of them— including “Margot,” about Anne Frank’s sister, “The Hours Count,” about the Rosenbergs, and her latest, “The Lost Letter,” a historical novel that focuses on resistance workers during World War II Austria–threaded through by a love letter “that connects generations of Jewish families.” It tells the story of Kristoff, a non-Jew and Elena, the Jewish daughter of a master stamp engraver, who fall in love while working against the Third Reich. An unopened letter with a mysterious stamp on it leads the modern protagonist, Katie Nelson, to hunt for their story.
Kirkus Reviews has hailed her book as a “captivating historical novel. Excellent writing, unusual storytelling, and sympathetic characters make a winning combination.”
After racing through the book last weekend (it was definitely one of those read in bed until late night experiences) I was lucky to be able to email with her, and she told Kveller all sorts of fascinating stuff about her workgin process, her life as a writing mom, and her favorite Yiddish words.
How do you balance writing about something as dark as the Holocaust with the really powerful and uplifting romance plot lines in “The Lost Letter”?
What interests me most about writing historical fiction is thinking about how ordinary people existed and lived their lives in extraordinary times. There were all these horrific things going on in the years leading up to WWII, but people were still finding a way to work and take care of their families and fall in love, and that’s really what I wanted to write about.
Also, as I was writing, I thought of “The Lost Letter” as a love story first—and not just a romantic love story (which it is), but also a love story about fathers and daughters. The characters (and their relationships to each other) were really at the forefront for me, so even though part of the novel takes place amidst all the horrific events leading up to WWII, I was mostly focused on the characters and their relationships.
What inspired you to dig into the history of Austria, of all places, during WWII?
I didn’t set out knowing I was going to dig into the history of Austria when I first got the idea for the book. I knew the past story would take place in Europe, and as I was trying to work out the timeline and connect the pieces of how my 1989 story and my WWII story fit together, Austria made sense with when the events were happening in the lead up to WWII. So I started digging from there. That led me to the edelweiss and its importance in the history and culture in Austria, which plays a big role in the book.
You seem drawn to the contentious middle of the century for Jews, from the Holocaust to the Rosenbergs. What about that time period keeps you coming back?
Well, there’s certainly a lot that happened then that I feel is important to write about. With the Rosenbergs, I felt like it was something people born in the 70s like me (and later) don’t really know about because it’s not really widely taught in schools.
But we all should know about it. So that definitely drew me in. And there are so many Holocaust and WWII stories that aren’t widely known either. But I think I’m really drawn to that time because it’s far enough away that it feels historical to me but also recent enough to still feel relevant in today’s world. It was also a time when my grandparents were young married adults and my parents were babies–I like to think about what it was like for them, living through it.
How do you handle writing about Jewish topics for a general audience?
Many of my characters are Jewish but they definitely experience the world in a way a general audience can relate to. In “The Lost Letter” my Jewish characters deal with things like divorce, falling in love, and a parent getting dementia. A big part of the past storyline also revolves around the fact that Kristoff is not Jewish and that the man he works for and the woman he falls in love with are Jewish, and what that means for all of them after the German occupation of Austria in the 1930s. So I hope there’s something there for everyone.
How do you balance parenthood with writing and your own ambition–any secrets to share?
I have a pretty good balance going during the school year. I write when my kids are at school every weekday, and then at 3 o’clock I pick them up from school and put my mom hat on again.
My only “secret” to share is that writing/working comes first for me during the school day; my kids come first when they’re home. I truly treat my writing as a job and work at it every day when my kids are at school. So that means my house is pretty much always a mess, and I hardly ever manage to take a shower before school pick-up.
In the summer when my kids are home, admittedly all of this is a little more difficult, less balanced for sure. I’ve been getting up really early to write this summer and then doing things with the kids in the afternoons. But I’m getting less writing done than usual and my kids are some days watching more movies than usual. (My house is still a mess!) I’ve also just accepted that it’s summer and that’s okay and I’ll regain my balance again in the fall.
Do you tend to write big messy drafts, or more methodically, revising as you go?
A little bit of both. My drafts are pretty big and messy but I also will stop sometimes to go back and revise once I figure things out as I’m writing. I don’t outline, but I usually do have an end point in mind with some plot ideas/points along the way.
But how I get to them is often vague in my head in the beginning and as things come into focus I will stop and go back and do a little revising. I also like to have the first 50 pages pretty solid before I write the rest. When I’m drafting I have two documents open at all times–one with the draft and the other with a combination of random notes/ideas/things I’ve already cut and might put back in at some later point.
What other books are you reading this summer? What are your kids reading?
I recently read Mary Kubica’s latest, “Every Last Lie,” a fantastic character-driven domestic thriller and Sarah Dunn’s, “The Arrangement,” which I loved because the characters were well-drawn and relatable and it made me laugh. I’ve just started both Beatriz William’s latest, “Cocoa Beach,” and Michelle Gable’s “Book of Summer,” and I’m planning on taking “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid and “Hello, Sunshine” by Laura Dave to the beach with me later this summer.
My younger son just read all of “The Unwanteds” series by Lisa McMann and “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman. My older son just started “The Stand” by Stephen King and he just finished “Genuine Fraud” by E. Lockhart (which isn’t out until the fall but he joined a galley reads program through our library and is super excited to get to read early galleys–just like his mom.)
What’s your favorite Yiddish word?
Bubbeleh. My grandfather used to call me that all the time when I was younger, even in public (which used to embarrass me to no end as a pre-teen). I once asked him to stop calling me Bubbeleh and I think he said, OK, Bubbeleh. He died about 10 years ago, so now it makes me think fondly of him. (And it makes its way into every single one of my books!)
If you could describe yourself as any Jewish holiday, what would it be?
Probably Hanukkah. One of my best qualities is my tenacity and unwillingness to give up–I definitely would do something for eight days that was only supposed to be possible for one if only to prove someone wrong!
Joanna C. Valente contributed to this post.