The Whole Megillah talks to Angela Cerrito, author of The Safest Lie (Holiday House, 2015, 181 pp.)
The Whole Megillah (TWM): You had a long journey with this book. What was your process?
Angela Cerrito (AC): Honestly, in the beginning there wasn’t much of a process. I went through many stops and starts as well as several attempts to tell this story different ways. I always went back to the original draft of the middle grade novel and re-wrote it. Finally, I stopped trying to fix that early original draft but allowed myself to use it as an outline (or an idea, actually) and gave myself permission to create something new with the same characters and in the same place and time. This worked for me and, after many years, I had a new first draft.
TWM: What was the most satisfying part of writing it?
AC: My agent, Caitlin Blasdell of Liza Dawson Associates, encouraged me to create more tension for Anna in each of environment and to revise in a way that made her more active in the story. Every time I had a challenge revising and could weave some of my earlier research into a new storyline was extremely satisfying… almost a tactile and audible “click” of things fitting together…finally!
TWM: What was the most challenging part of writing it?
AC: There were many challenges for me. It was difficult become immersed in research and then exit my office into the real world. During the writing process, it was a challenge that I couldn’t include everyone I wanted in the novel; many amazing, courageous people didn’t fit into Anna’s storyline. I have plans to add content to my website to share some of this research.
TWM: How did you come up with the character of nine-year-old Anna Bauman?
AC: In earlier versions, the main character was younger and named Roza. It was between one of my stops and starts that the character of Anna began to develop. When the project grew to a middle-grade novel, the main character was a bit older and, as I learned more about her family, she seemed to be a different person than Roza. While researching at the Jewish Historical Museum in Warsaw Poland, there was a portrait hanging above the research area. I asked about the artist, the girl in the portrait but nothing was known. I’m not sure how it happened, but the girl in this portrait inspired Anna.
TWM: How did you decide to write short chapters?
AC: It isn’t much of a conscious decision for me, I think I simply tend to write short chapters. I did so with my first book, The End of the Line, too. And my current work-in-progress also fits this pattern. Even though the chapters are short, the breaks feel natural to me. I hope they do to the reader as well.
TWM: Did you have any trepidation about writing about the Holocaust?
AC: Yes, I had a great deal of trepidation. And doubt. And fear.
TWM: How did you handle the trepidation, doubt, and fear?
AC: By talking long breaks and allowing myself a great deal of time to think and reflect. I continued to speak about my research to a variety of groups including students who were very enthusiastic. Probably most important was discussing the project with other children’s writers who were a huge support system as well as friends and family who offered encouragement.
TWM: What was the most surprising discovery you made during your research?
AC: One surprising discovery was a video clip of Irena Sendler shown to me at the Museum of Jewish History in New York. In that video, Irena describes how Anton used a big dog to help with the rescue operations. She smiles during the video, obviously impressed with the creativity Anton used to carry out his dangerous missions. Another surprise came to me after some time. Irena has always stated that she isn’t a hero, that she couldn’t have possibly completed these rescues alone. When I met her and in other published interviews, she always spoke of other people who helped her. I think, despite the repeated message, I didn’t take that information to heart initially. Probably because Irena is my hero. Instead, I attributed her comments to modesty which only increased my respect for her. In time, I learned the truth of her words. I often speak at ceremonies for The Days of Remembrance. I talk about the Warsaw ghetto, ZEGOTA and the child rescue operations. I like to create a new presentation for each event. A few years ago, I decided to focus on the people who helped Irena, those who she mentioned in our interview, in other published sources and in her authorize autobiography. It had been there in my research notes all along, but when I assembled the information in this new way, I learned a great deal.
TWM: How did the manuscript come to be with Holiday House?
AC: Holiday House published my debut novel, The End of the Line. I had a great deal of support from my editor, Julie Amper, and the entire Holiday House team launching this novel. I’m very grateful that they were just as enthusiastic about The Safest Lie. [TWM Note: Julie Amper is no longer with Holiday House.]
TWM: What advice would you give to aspiring historical fiction writers? Holocaust novel writers for kids?
AC: I’m not sure that I have advice for other writers, but I’m happy to share a few tips that helped me: Because language and memory can change with time, seek out sources that were written or recorded during the time period you are studying; avoid reading fiction set in this time period (however you may want to read fiction published during the time period, especially if it is something your characters may have read); compare sources; keep digging; ask for help from experts; prepare your translator for the subject matter; and show appreciation for everyone who helps you with your novel.
TWM: Why should writers avoid reading fiction set in the time period they’re writing about?
AC: I’m not sure this holds true for everyone, but my experience working on this novel was that I become absorbed in the world of my research. It was important for me to stick with non-fiction during the writing process. It helped me to know that the time and place I was writing about was created based on my research.
For more about Angela, please visit her website.