Author’s Notebook | The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights by Kitty Zeldis

Zeldis, Kitty. The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights. New York: HarperCollins, 2022. 345 pages. 

Writing the Past (WTP): What motivated you to write Dressmakers of Prospect Heights?

Kitty Zeldis (KZ): I had long been interested in New Orleans, a place that figures importantly in the background of one of the central characters, Beatrice Carr.  I first visited the city in 1988 and fell instantly in love. The look of it, the melange of cultures—Southern, French, Spanish—the food, the music, the history, all contributed to its appeal.  After that trip, New Orleans was on my radar so when I came upon the book Empire of Sin by Gary Krist, I dove right in.  It was from Krist that I learned about Storyville, or The District as it was also called—a designated area in which prostitution was legal during the years 1898-1917.  Not only legal, but on full and lavish display, as Basin Street, which was across from the railroad station, was lined with brothels, one more opulent than the next. Their owners—often women—became celebrities of the demi-monde, important individuals who wielded influence and power. Prostitution was a huge business that in turn helped fuel other businesses as hundreds of musicians, cooks, waiters, servants and more were needed to keep the wheels turning.  Guides to sin city were published and these so-called Blue Books, widely available, were designed to inform the constant influx of tourists and pleasure seekers about the vast array of choices that were available. Although filled with ads for the various houses of ill repute as well as for restaurants, cafes, clubs etc. the Blue Books were chiefly a listing of prostitutes.  One of the entries read like this: Caucasian, twenty-one, Jewish.  Jewish!  This was news to me. As an Ashkenazi Jew myself I had heard many immigration stories, stories in which those who were chased out of the old country found their way to a new one.  But the story of a Jewish prostitute in New Orleans was not something I’d encountered before and since I am a novelist, not a historian, I decided that I wanted—no, needed—to imagine my way into such a life and in doing so, write it.    

The other strand of this story came from my grandmother, Tania Brightman.  She was an unhappy, difficult woman, prone to terrifying outbursts of rage.  She was also a troubled and even traumatized soul who did not fully understand the impact of her tragic past and how it had shaped her, much less expect any help or solace.  I did not like her and as I grew up, found it easy to distance myself from her; we lived in different states. So when she died, I was wholly unprepared for the flood of grief and regret I felt.   I wished I had been more patient, more understanding, more loving. Of course, it was too late to make amends to her.  But writing, as I have long thought, is a form of redemption, and it was through my writing that I could reframe her story, giving her the dignity and the compassion that I’d withheld from her in life.  I looked at her life and used significant events in her past, particularly from her youth, to shape the backstory of my character.  And although my grandmother never became a prostitute or madam, and never even visited much less settled in New Orleans, it is her spirit that animates Beatrice Carr and I can only hope I have done her justice.  

Author Kitty Zeldis

WTP: How did you conduct research for this book–the time period, New Orleans, dressmaking, just to name a few areas?
KZ: I did a lot of reading and made a research trip to NOLA for that section of the novel.  I had wanted to see that row of mansions I described but alas, every single one had been torn down and not a brick remained.   I also looked at photographs—New Orleans, Russia, Brooklyn—as I find they help to bring the period and characters to life. I love to look for details of dress, architecture etc. to fill out the vision in my mind. 

WTP: What were the challenges? The satisfactions?
KZ: Writing a novel set in the 1920s was harder than I had anticipated. There is less visual information readily available and something about the time period seemed more resistant to my inhabiting it.  But when I felt I succeeded, it was especially satisfying especially given the difficulty. 

WTP: Please describe any vetting practice for this book. How has accuracy been ensured?
KZ: I did my best to fact check and consult people I’d met in New Orleans at both the historical society and elsewhere to verify information.  The publisher, HarperCollins, also employed a copy editor who did question certain facts and I addressed all those questions seriously.  

WTP: I was particularly struck by the pacing of the narrative. Please describe your writing process. Do you start with the character? A problem? Do you write an outline?
KZ: I generally start with a voice—it’s as if someone is speaking to me, telling me her story.  When the writing is going well, I feel as if I am transcribing rather than inventing; it’s as if I’ve become a conduit for someone else’s experience.  While this doesn’t happen all the time, it’s thrilling when it does.  I don’t like writing outlines but since this novel was bought on sample chapters, I did have to write a synopsis which is kind of an outline.  However, the final version of the novel was quite different from the synopsis; the story I thought I was going to tell did not turn out to be the same as the story I ended up telling. 

WTP: You write historical fiction for both adults and young readers. Are there differences in your approaches? Your research? The writing process?
KZ: Actually, the process is pretty much the same for both genres.  I started writing historical fiction for kids before I turned to writing it for adults.  Something about the past calls to me; it always has. So it felt natural, and even inevitable, to start writing historical fiction for adults as well.

For more about Kitty Zeldis, please visit her website.
This interview is simultaneously published Writing the Past, February 2023.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Mid-Week Field Notes–February 1, 2023

Field Notes

Some very quick things:

  • Mazel tov to all the winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards from the Association of Jewish Libraries. You can see the list here and follow the blog tour to learn more about the authors, illustrators, and their books here. The Whole Megillah will be participating in the blog tour, interviewing middle-grade author Meira Drazin, whose Honey and Me earned an Honor. Stay tuned.
  • My own book, Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems (Calkins Creek/Astra Books for Young Readers, 2022) earned a Sydney Taylor Notable. I am grateful.
  • Rejections came in this week from two poetry literary magazines. Sigh.

Have a good week!

Posted in field notes, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Mid-Week Field Notes–January 25, 2023

Field Notes

Some very quick things:

  • I highly recommend the Tupelo Press Poetry Manuscript Conference, with publisher Jeffrey Levine and editor Kristina Marie Darling. I went into it with one manuscript and came away from it with quite another. If you have a full-length manuscript, please consider it.
  • Work is starting on a proposal for a new historical novel in verse! I’m excited by the possibilities of this new World War II-era story!
  • There’s still time to register for the January 26 event commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Mercer County Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Education Center, together with William Paterson University, Saint Elizabeth University, and Bergen County Community College, presents Dr. Barry Trachtenberg of Wake Forest University about “The United States and the Holocaust: Old Debates, New Approaches.”

Have a good week!

Posted in field notes, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mid-Week Field Notes–January 18, 2023

Field Notes

Some very quick things:

  • In advance of this weekend’s virtual Tupelo Press Poetry Manuscript Conference, publisher Jeffrey Levine has given me feedback on the first twelve pages. Mic drop! His comments help me see the potential in these poems and where I need to take them.
  • The Jewish Book Council announced the winners of the National Jewish Book Award today. Mazel tov to the award recipients!
  • There’s still time to register for the January 26 event commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Mercer County Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Education Center, together with William Paterson University, Saint Elizabeth University, and Bergen County Community College, presents Dr. Barry Trachtenberg of Wake Forest University about “The United States and the Holocaust: Old Debates, New Approaches.”

Have a good week!

Posted in field notes, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mid-Week Field Notes–January 11, 2023

Field Notes

Happy 2023! Some very quick things:

  • I am leaning hard into poetry this year. I’m now a member of three Amherst Writers & Artists poetry-writing groups.
  • I am enjoying the weekend conversations over at Becky Tuch’s Lit Mag News.
  • The Jewish Book Council has announced the winner of the Fall 2022 Natan Notable book.
  • Interested in publishing a poetry collection? Here’s an interview with poet and poetry publisher Diane Lockwood that’s helpful.
  • A wonderful review of Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems (Calkins Creek, 2022) appears in the latest issue of AJL News and Reviews: “This gem of a historical fiction novel is a rarity in so many ways…Through her brilliantly crafted poems, Krasner employs accessible format and does a fine job in relaying one of the most complicated and heart-wrenching episodes in American history.”
  • Save the date, January 26, for International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration (which is actually January 27). The Mercer County Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Education Center, together with William Paterson University, Saint Elizabeth University, and Bergen County Community College, presents Dr. Barry Trachtenberg of Wake Forest University about “The United States and the Holocaust: Old Debates, New Approaches.”

What 2023 writing goals have you set for yourself?

Posted in field notes, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Author’s Notebook | My Name Is Hamburger by Jacqueline Jules

Jacqueline Jules, My Name Is Hamburger. Kar-Ben, 2022, 240 pp.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What motivated you to write this story? Why verse?
Jacqueline Jules (JJ): I love writing in verse. Before I ever wrote anything in prose, I wrote poems. I am the author of three poetry chapbooks and a full-length collection for adults. My poetry has appeared in well over one hundred journals. I am also the author of Tag Your Dreams: Poems of Play and Persistence, a collection of sports-themed poems for children. So I am very comfortable with the format. My Name Is Hamburger did not begin as a verse novel. I decided to write the story in verse when other prose versions failed. Once I began the story as a series of poems, the character’s true voice emerged. Before My Name Is Hamburger, I had separated my poetry from my prose. Merging the two forms felt so natural and right for this novel. Looking back, I am surprised it took me so long to figure that out.

Author Jacqueline Jules

My Name Is Hamburger was inspired by my own childhood growing up in a small southern Virginia town as the daughter of a Jewish German-speaking immigrant. It is the most autobiographical book I have written even though many of the events in the story are fictionalized. When I write, I strive for emotional truth rather than literal truth. Trudie’s emotions in My Name Is Hamburger were mine growing up. Writing this story was a reflective journey into my past.

TWM: What were the challenges? Satisfactions?
JJ: My Name Is Hamburger includes a pivotal scene in which the main character Trudie and her father visit the famed Japanese cherry trees in Washington, DC. This recalled my own fond childhood memories of viewing the cherry trees at the Tidal Basin with my family. The first versions of this novel began with a trip to Washington, DC to see the beautiful blooms. This scene now occurs on page 61 of the book in a poem titled “Daddy and Daughter Day.”

The cherry blossoms are waiting for us.
I can already see how pretty they will be
in my father’s smile as he backs the van
down the driveway. “We’re off,” he says,
reminding me of the song in Wizard of Oz.

My Name is Hamburger began as a slim chapter book which I abandoned and picked back up over a fifteen-year period. I expanded the story and changed the plot multiple times but a Japanese cherry tree always played an essential role. Seeing My Name Is Hamburger finally in print after literally hundreds of revisions is very satisfying—a dream come true. It is my first book for middle grade readers.

TWM: Did you work from a plot outline?
JJ: When I write a new adventure in my chapter book series, Zapato Power, I start with an outline because the pacing of each book in the series needs to be similar. However, I don’t use an outline for my other writing. Instead, I write notes in which I brainstorm possible directions for the story. Every time I am stuck I stop and write notes, asking myself questions like: Could the character do this? Is this plausible? What should happen next? These notes guide me through each section of the book I am writing.

TWM: Why is this story important for kids today, Jewish and non-Jewish?
JJ: Trudie’s story is one of resilience. During the course of the novel, she learns that her perceptions of others and how they see her are not always correct. She becomes more comfortable with her place in her community as a Jewish minority and the child of an immigrant. She discovers the strength to say her name with pride: “My name is Hamburger. An all-American food.”

Young readers of all faiths struggle with self-acceptance. When Trudie accepts that she is “different, but not in every way,” I hope young readers will be prompted to embrace their own differences, to see their family traditions and background as sources of joy.

TWM: Which authors/poets inspire you?
JJ: I am an avid reader. I read two or three middle grade novels a month. It is always hard for me to choose a favorite author because I may encounter a new author in the next book I pick up. Looking over my GoodReads list from the last few months, I can say I especially enjoyed Splendors and Glooms by Amy Laura Schlitz, Cursed by Karol Ruth Silverstein, and No Vacancy by Tziporah Cohen.

TWM: What’s your next project (if you can talk about it)?
JJ: I am excited about Moses and the Runaway Lamb which will be released by Kar-Ben in May 2023. This picture book recalls the midrash of the little lamb who ran away during Moses’s days as a shepherd. Moses searched for the lost lamb and tenderly brought her home in his arms. The midrash says this is the moment when God chose Moses to be a leader of the Jewish people. According to the rabbis, this act of compassion for the smallest in his flock demonstrated that Moses would be the kind of leader who would take care of everyone.

For more about Jacqueline Jules, please visit her website.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mid-Week Field Notes–January 4, 2023

Field Notes

Happy 2023! Some very quick things:

  • I go through a detailed process to assess the previous year’s accomplishments that include what worked, what didn’t work, what should I stop, what should I start, and what should I improve. Then I use those reflections to generate a set of goals for the next year. So here are my writing goals for 2023:
  • Complete works in progress–These include literary writing (poetry, memoir, short story, novella) for the adult market and revisions of contracted books and drafts for the YA market. I suspect I’m overly ambitious here, so I’m focusing on the contracted YA novel in verse and my first full-length poetry book, oh, and a new short story to eventually go into a collection.
  • Continue to lean into Amherst Writers & Artists–I have been writing with this method for maybe ten years or more. I became a certified facilitator in 2013. Last year I launched Writing Family History, Writing the Past, and Using Photographs to Craft Story workshops. I’ll continue to do some of that and I’ll offer new workshops like Short Shrift: Writing the Short Story. At the same time, I’ll continue to write with groups I’m already a part of (novel, poetry) and I’m going to participate in a beta test of a novel writing group (that I hope will help me with both fiction and memoir). I’ll also be serving as editor-in-chief of an anthology of craft essays and readings.
  • Become a well-rounded literary citizen–I want to continue to attend and participate in literary journal and other readings plus read a poetry book a month and a novel in verse every other month. I also enjoy reading memoir (reading Stanley Tucci’s Taste: My Life Through Food right now on my Kindle). This goal also cements my commitment to send out my work twice a month.
  • Expand my academic CV–Because this also involves writing, I’m stating it here. I will most likely be working on proposals to turn my doctoral dissertation into a book for three potential academic publishers and want to see a couple of papers I wrote about Yizkor books get published. I also have a new article idea that I want to explore.
  • Enhance my genealogical skills–I include this one here, because my family history often fuels my literary writing. I’m taking a course that will give me a certificate in Advanced Skills with the National Genealogical Society. I also plan to continue teaching Family History at the university level.
  • In December, I held a workshop through AWA about goal-setting. I’m going to set up a quarterly goal review and accountability group. If you’re interested in joining, please comment below. There is no fee.

What 2023 writing goals have you set for yourself?

Posted in field notes, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

#52snapshots 2022 | Week 52–Your Town’s Famous Residents, Ghosts, and Legends

The final prompt of this blog series asks us to write about famous residents, ghosts, and/or legends from our hometown or current town.

I actually wrote a book about this, Legendary Locals of Kearny, New Jersey (Arcadia, 2015). I wrote about the Civil War general after whom the town was named, Phil Kearny, sports heroes, teachers, doctors, military leaders and soldiers, business and civic leaders, and neighbors. It was probably my least successful book about my hometown, but then it was also my fourth book about my hometown. Still, it was fun to research and write to recognize local legends.

In many forms I’ve written about Sanford L. Kahn (“Sandy”), who was the town’s first Jewish World War II casualty. He was only nineteen when killed in action and became the namesake for the town’s post 538 of the Jewish War Veterans. In Legendary Locals, I wrote this:

“Sandy Kahn of Chestnut Street enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1943 at age 19. In February 1944, he wrote his family in Kearny, “Don’t worry about me. I still have a long time before I hit combat. For all anyone knows, I may miss it.” Six months later, his parents received a telegram stating their son was missing in action. Later they learned a German sniper’s bullet instantly killed him during the battle of St. Lo in northern France. Sandy became the first Jewish soldier from town to be killed in World War II. The local post of the Jewish War Veterans bears his name—Sanford L. Kahn Post 538.”

Sanford “Sandy” L. Kahn, Courtesy Kahn Family

But lately, I’ve been thinking of Father Washington, priest of St. Stephen’s Church on Kearny Avenue, who was one of the four chaplains who went down with the USAT Dorchester in 1943. I wrote the following for his entry:

“On December 7, 1941 Father John P. Washington was on his way back from treating his mother to the movies when he heard the devastating news on his car radio that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Born in Newark in 1908, Father Washington served as associate pastor at St. Stephen’s Church. When he arrived home, he notified the church pastor, Father George Murphy, of his desire to enlist. Father Murphy, a World War I veteran, was sure to approve. Despite eye damage sustained in a street fight years before in Newark, Father Washington was accepted into the U.S. Army. He waited impatiently for his overseas duty request to be granted while at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland.

Father John Washington (Courtesy St. Stephen’s Church)

“Father Washington joined three other chaplains at Fort Miles Standish in November 1942: Reverend Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed), Reverend George Lansing Fox (Methodist), and Rabbi Alex Goode (Jewish). On January 3, 1943, the four boarded the USAT Dorchester, a troopship with 900 passengers and crew, leaving New York harbor as ship 23 in a 64-ship convoy headed toward a destination only known to a few—Greenland.

“To get to Greenland, the ship needed to move through U-boat-infested waters. The chaplains sought to calm the nerves of the newly drafted and enlisted men. Father Washington’s amiable personality made him popular with the men. But when a German torpedo hit the ship on February 3, all four chaplains sprang into action. Each gave up his life vest to a passenger or crew member. Linked in prayer and hymns, they went down with the ship into the icy depths of the Atlantic. A stained-glass window at St. Stephen’s commemorates the beloved pastor. Washington Avenue, previously Eilshemius Avenue, memorializes the brave and selfless chaplain. He received several posthumous awards, including the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism, the Purple Heart, and a Special Medal for Heroism, authorized by Congress.”

Who would you write about from your hometown or current town?

This is the final #52 snapshot for 2022. I did it! I wrote 52 snapshots following Sonja Livingston’s Fifty-two Snapshots: A Memoir Starter Kit. I hope this blog series inspired you to write some memoir pieces of your own.

Want to write memoir? Check out my workshops starting January 8 for Writing Family History and January 10 for Writing the Past.

Posted in #52snapshots, 52 Snapshots, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Mid-Week Field Notes–December 28, 2022

Field Notes

Some very quick things:

  • Thanks, @Arlene Schenker, for letting me know Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems was reviewed this week in the Sydney Taylor Shmooze!
  • This is the last week of my commitment to Sonja Livingston’s Fifty-Two Snapshots: A Memoir Starter Kit. I’ve written and blogged about fifty-two memoir vignettes.
  • I am slogging through revisions on two poetry books. I hope it’s true that when the revision process brings you to a total mess, a breakthrough is imminent.
  • I’ve examined my 2022 accomplishments and decided what I should start doing, stop doing, and improve doing. I’ve set up my 2023 goals, which I’ll post next week. One goal is to improve my literary citizenship. For me, this means attending more readings, sending out my work twice a month, and reading at least one memoir and one poetry book per month. Anyone have suggestions for reading? Have you set your writing goals for 2023?
  • The January issue of my free monthly newsletter, Writing the Past, will be issued on Sunday, January 1. To sign up, click here. The featured interview is with Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, author of Midlife Medium: A Genealogist’s Quest to Converse with the Dead (2022).
  • Check out my January workshops! These include Writing Family History, Writing the Past, and Writing the Short Story.

Happy New Year! Here’s to a great 2023 for writing!

Posted in field notes, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 5 Comments

#52snapshots 2022 | Week 51–The Color Wheel

The prompt this week asks us to focus on colors: Choose a color, make a list of objects with that color, choose one object to write about. I choose green–and blue–and wrote a poem that involved another person who shares these colors as favorites and I put us into tension with one another. When he was blue, I was green, and vice versa. I am incredibly drawn to an olive green, which was the color of his car, either Sherwood or April Green.

What this prompt forced me to do was to open up my imaginary box of Crayola or Venus Paradise coloring set of pencils and see the differences in hue, shade, and light. I wish I hadn’t tossed out my color wheel of Benjamin Moore paint choices, because those names are so distinctive. Central Park Green, for instance (which is the color of the room I’m writing in).

What color would you write about?

Posted in #52snapshots, 52 Snapshots, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment