Kathy Kacer recently published a new novel, Stones on a Grave, with Orca Press. The Whole Megillah asked her some questions about this new book, which was recently named a 2016 Sydney Taylor Honor Book!
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write Stones on a Grave?
Kathy Kacer: This book is actually part of a series of books called “Secrets.” We are seven authors writing seven books about seven female characters. The seven girls have all grown up together in an orphanage in a small town in the early 1960s. At the start of each of our books the orphanage burns down and the seven girls are given a chance to go off on journeys to discover where they came from and the circumstances of their births.
We seven authors were able write our books in the style and genre that we knew and loved. Within the series there is fantasy, humor, mystery, and historical fiction. The books are stand-alone and can be read in any order. But the girls are all related and linked to each other. It’s a fantastic concept, I think!
When I was approached to be part of the series, I knew immediately that I wanted to write a story about a girl who discovers her Jewish roots, and learns that she is linked to the Holocaust in some way. That’s how Stones on a Grave came about.
TWM: That’s so fascinating! How did you conduct research for the book?
KK: In Stones on a Grave, Sara discovers that she was born in a DP camp at the end of the war. She travels to Germany to try and find that camp and find any documents related to her birth. The most important research for me was related to the DP camps that were established in Europe after the war. I did a lot of research on those camps, what activities went on there, where they were located, who lived there after the war, and for how long. I also did a lot of research on Bad Arolsen and the International Tracing Service which houses documents and research on Nazi persecution during the war. Sara goes there to try and learn more about her mother and father.
I try to do as much research as possible for each of my books, and then I pick and choose the pieces of that research that will be relevant to the story that I am telling.
TWM: How different was your experience in writing this book vs. your others? Why do you think that was?
KK: Writing the beginning chapters of this book was a new experience for me. I was writing a series with six other authors and we all had to agree on the starting point for our characters—where the orphanage was that they lived in, what it looked like, who ran it, how the fire started, etc., etc. There were a million details to work out and coordinate with the other authors. We all had to be careful not to trip over anyone else’s story, and we had to carefully synchronize our time lines and story lines.
Once we had established the beginning chapters of our books, the seven of us were free to go off and write the stories that we wanted to write. At that point, the process of writing was no different than many of my other historical fiction books.
TWM: How did you come up with the idea of the dogs? Does that have any special meaning to you or to survivors in general?
KK: So many people have told me how much they love the dogs that are part of my book. But it really has nothing to do with survivors. When I was in Italy on a book tour a few years ago, I met a wonderful teacher there who was teaching several of my books in her classrooms. She and her husband had a dog named Tex Willer named after the fictional cowboy character of an Italian comic series. I loved the dog’s name and told my friend that I would find a way to include a similar dog in a future book. I thought about it when I was writing Stones on a Grave.
TWM: How did you come up with Sara’s two love interests?
KK: Originally, as I was thinking about the plot for this book, I thought it might contain a theme about neo-Nazism. That didn’t turn out to be something that I wanted to pursue. But I created the character of Luke to bring attention to some issues of discrimination that were relevant to my story and to one of the other stories in the series. It was a great way to link two of the books. Realizing just how nasty Luke was also gave my character, Sara, the ability to resolve to leave her sheltered world behind her and set off to discover the truth about her roots.
All seven of the authors in this series decided that each of our books would contain a love interest and an important first kiss. The character of Peter was everything that Luke wasn’t; he was kind and helpful and genuine. I wanted him to first be a friend to Sara—helping her maneuver her way around Germany—and then became more than that!
TWM: What was the most challenging scene to write?
KK: (Spoiler alert to those who have not read the book!) It was definitely challenging to write about the doctor’s revelation that he is Sara’s grandfather. He discloses some painful personal events about his wife’s death and about Sara’s mother. I really had to think hard about how much I wanted to write in this regard and how I would do it in a way that was sensitive to my teenage audience.
TWM: What was the most satisfying scene to write?
KK: I didn’t realize that Sara’s necklace would have the Hebrew word, tikvah, inscribed on it until I was in the middle of writing that chapter. Tikvah of course means “hope” which was the name of the town that Sara came from—a town that meant very little to her until then.
I loved writing that scene and loved that moment of uncovering something that I had not planned or thought about. It’s kind of magical as an author when that happens.
TWM: What inspires you to continue to write Holocaust-related material?
KK: Just when I think I’ve written the last Holocaust-related book I am going to write, another remarkable story comes to me and I feel compelled to write about that. I am realizing that there are still so many stories that I want to write—so much in this history that I think is important and has not been developed in books for young readers.
TWM: You certainly are prolific. What’s up next for you and do you have any plans to work with a U.S. publisher?
KK: I have a new book coming out next fall that is my first non-Holocaust book! It is a story about a young first nations girl who was taken to a residential school in the early 1900s. Here in Canada we have a terrible history involving the treatment of first nations children in residential schools. I am writing this book with a young aboriginal woman named Jenny Dupuis. This is her grandmother’s story and it is called I Am Not a Number.
After that, I return to a story about the Holocaust. I am writing a book that revolves around the trial of Oskar Groening, a former SS officer who was recently convicted of being complicit in the murder of 300,000 Jews in Auschwitz. Groening is 94 years old and is probably one of the last Nazi war criminals who will ever be brought to trial. The book is actually a true story about a young 19-year-old student who traveled to Germany to attend Groening’s trial and be a witness to this history.
All of my books are distributed in the U.S. (along with about twenty other countries), though I continue to work primarily with Canadian publishers. I am always open to the possibility of working with a U.S. publisher if the opportunity comes along!
For more on Kathy Kacer, visit her website.