The Whole Megillah (TWM): When did you first discover you wanted to be a writer?
Kathy Kacer (KK): I always loved writing. As a kid, I wrote poetry, short stories, songs, you name it. I kept journals and still have the ones I wrote as a teenager. I sometimes go back and read them when I’m struggling to capture the voice of a young girl. I never thought about actually becoming a “writer.” But during a leave from my “real” job as a psychologist, I decided to try and write a story about my mother who had survived the war in hiding. That eventually became my first book, The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser. It was only after that publication that I thought about this as a career.
TWM: I understand your parents were Holocaust survivors. How did that affect your worldview? How does that affect what you write?
KK: Being the child of Holocaust survivors has influenced every part of my life. I grew up not only in a family of survivors, but also in a community of survivors, many of whom spoke openly about their experiences during the Holocaust. I was incredibly curious about their lives and wanted to hear more and more. And I grew up passionate about that history and determined to write those stories down.
TWM: Some editors have said, “No more Holocaust stories.” What’s your take on that?
KK: My primary goal is to write compelling stories for young readers. And I believe that there will always be a market for these good stories. Mine happen to be set during the Second World War and the Holocaust. But they are universal in their themes of survival, struggle, courage, tenacity of spirit, etc. So as long as the stories are gripping and the themes are universal, I think you can write about anything, even the Holocaust, and there will always be a market.
TWM: What did you like to read while growing up?
KK: I guess it’s no surprise that I loved to read historical fiction as a kid. I read Margaret Mitchell, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk — pretty ambitious stuff for a teen.
TWM: How do you prepare to do research? What is your process for note-taking, etc.?
KK: I do start off by reading everything there is to read on the topic that I am writing about — the Shanghai Ghetto, the St. Louis, Terezin. I read adult non-fiction, historical fiction, etc. Since I am often writing about a real person, I am constantly thinking about the questions that I will ask that person in light of all the reading that I have done. When I finally meet with the “subject” of my story, I am well-prepared with the history and with my questions. I don’t record my interviews. I take copious notes, inserting bits of dialogue (as the survivor recalls conversations), and key moments that will come together in the story that I will be writing. No matter how many questions I ask — and I ask a lot!! — as soon as I sit down to write, I realize all the things I failed to ask. So I go back for more interviewing. If I count up the hours of interviews that I conduct with one person, it probably adds up to about a hundred per book.
TWM: What challenges you the most in your writing?
KK: I think the thing that challenges most of us who write about real people in a real time is to maintain the delicate balance between staying true to this important history while trying to create a story that engages the audience.
TWM: What is your greatest satisfaction in your writing?
KK: I love the entire writing process. I love researching the history; I love interviewing survivors; I love creating the story and making sure that it is engaging and informative. I probably don’t like the re-writing part as much as creating the first draft. But writing in general is a joy and a passion.
TWM: Of all the books you’ve written to date, do you have a favorite? Why?
KK: I have to confess that this is a question that kids ask me all the time. But after 18 books, it’s a tough one to answer. I will say that because The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser was my first book and was a story about my mother, it holds a special place in my heart.
TWM: What book do you wish you’d written?
KK: There are two books that come to mind. The first is I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors by Bernice Eisenstein. I often think about writing about my own personal experience of this, but I’m not sure how to do it justice. Bernice certainly did in this exquisite book. The second book that I wish I had written is The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer — also a Holocaust story. I read this sweeping historical fiction a few years ago and was mesmerized by the story and by her beautiful writing style. It made me wish that I wrote like that!
TWM: Please tell us about your new book, The Magician of Auschwitz?
KK: The Magician of Auschwitz. Another remarkable story! For some time I had wanted to write about Herbert Levin who had been known as Nivelli the Magician. But I couldn’t find a way into the story that would touch young readers. And then — through a whole bunch of circumstances and connections — I was introduced to Werner Reich. Werner had been imprisoned in Auschwitz as a young teen and was a bunk mate of Nivelli. It was Nivelli who introduced Werner to magic. In meeting Werner, I knew that I had found the way to write the story.
The challenge here was creating an accessible picture book about the Holocaust for young readers. There is no hiding where this story takes place — or how terrible were the circumstances there! And yet, this is a story about magic, even in the darkest of places, and the gift of friendship and kindness that can exist alongside the horrors of this time. That’s what I wanted to capture here.
Werner lives on Long Island. He is 87! Strong, vibrant, funny! I continue to be in awe of his optimism and generous spirit.
About Kathy Kacer
Kathy Kacer is a children’s author who is dedicated to writing about the Holocaust in a way that is sensitive to the age and stage of development of young readers. Her many books include The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Clara’s War, The Underground Reporters, Hiding Edith, The Diary of Laura’s Twin, To Hope and Back: The Journey of the St. Louis, Restitution, and Shanghai Escape.
A winner of the Jewish Book Awards in Canada and the United States, as well as the Yad Vashem Award for Children’s Holocaust Literature in Israel, Kathy has written unforgettable stories inspired by real events. Her books have been translated into 20 languages and sold to Germany, China, Italy, Thailand, England, Japan, Korea, Israel, Brazil, Belgium, and other countries. Her novels are stories of hope, courage, and humanity in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Although she has been writing for many years, Kathy only became a published author in 1999. Before that, she worked as a psychologist with troubled teens. Kathy teaches writing at the University of Toronto, Canada (Continuing Studies). She also speaks to children in schools and libraries around the world about the importance of understanding the Holocaust and keeping its memory alive. In addition, she lectures in universities and colleges on the topic of teaching sensitive material to young children.