The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you come up with the idea for this book? Why this story? Why this timeframe?
Bruce Askenas (BA): I got the idea for Shadows of Shame, the story of a Jewish reporter in New York, because I worked with the records of the German American Bund at the National Archives. In 1980 I was a young archivist when my boss asked me to describe a collection of Nazi records, which had been sitting on shelves since just after Pearl Harbor. So I rolled up my sleeves and began wading through box after box of Nazi Bund records. The actual idea for Shadows came from a Chicago newspaper clipping I found telling of a local reporter posing as a German immigrant to join the Bund. I mulled that over for a year or so while I went through the records and decided that if I was going to write about the Bund as a story and not history, I would have to move the setting to New York, the national headquarters of the Bund, where fascinating and horrifying things were happening.
There was so much interesting stuff going on in New York in 1938 and 39 that I had my plot all set by the time I started writing. The most intriguing happening was the George Washington birthday rally at Madison Square Garden in1939, including an attempt on the American fuehrer’s life by a young Jewish man, which I describe in my penultimate chapter, Also, I knew the city (my mother grew up there) and the most interesting historical figures were from New York, like Tom Dewey, who I used in my plot. New York City it was.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing it? Your greatest satisfaction?
BA: My greatest challenge was learning how to write while I was doing it. I finished my first draft on February 22, 1989, the fiftieth anniversary of the GW birthday rally. I think I was the only one in the world who remembered the date. Shortly thereafter began a tumultuous period in my life. In the next six years I went through divorce, remarriage, divorce, remarriage, and moving twice. And, oh yes, I lost my manuscript in the second move. I was bereft, but at the end of that period, settled in a new home with a new wife and a baby on the way, I began to write again, working on some new ideas for YA books.
At the end of ten years I’d produced three books, all with Jewish protagonists, each one progressively better in quality of writing. And then I found my lost manuscript, packed up in a box in the bottom of my filing cabinet. I began to read it. The writing was awful, 300 pages of awful, but the story was good. So I started to rewrite. And it got better and better and better, until I had something I could be proud of. If I hadn’t lost the manuscript and gone on to practice my writing in young adult books, I might never have learned how to write a decent sentence. I did have some help. My third wife was an English professor for thirty years and a good writer herself. If I hadn’t had the good sense to marry her I might still be a lousy writer. My greatest satisfaction is talking to my wife about books and writing.
TWM: How did you conduct research for the book?
BA: For the first draft of Shadows of Shame I did all my research at the National Archives, using the original documents from Record Group 131: Records of the Alien Property Custodian. The records of the German American Bund and several smaller German groups were part of this record group, as were some records from seized Italian groups. I worked on these records, taking notes of their content and location, which were very important for the guide I was preparing. At the time I was doing this, the 1980s, archivists did not have computers. There was one computer in the main office of the division which was used mainly for word processing. Archivists were encouraged to use this machine to familiarize themselves with the new technology, which is how I got to write the first several chapters. But there was no money in the budget for expensive machines for workers. I wrote my guide copy on a big Remington typewriter from the 1950’s. An expense was Write-out, which came in inch and a half white bottles, complete with a small brush applicator to erase any typing errors, of which there were many. I took notes on that typewriter for the book, especially after I bought my own computer to use at home. By the way, I still have that old Remington, in my home office. In the 1990s everyone at the Archives got laptops, and the old typewriters were deemed disposable. I took mine home rather than see it go to scrap.
For subsequent drafts I used my manuscript, typewritten notes, and Wikipedia for such research as still needed to be done. I mentioned earlier that I had the plot complete before I started writing. It held up marvelously well and any research I had to do for later drafts were mostly setting. A friend who grew up in New York lent me a book of historical maps of the city, which proved invaluable.
TWM: How did you find your publisher?
BA: I found Acorn Publishers through Reedsy, a service which provides a meeting place for authors, illustrators. editors, designers, and other book professionals. I felt Shadows was good but I wanted someone with an editor’s eye to go over it. I was willing to pay for a professional opinion. I picked Shelly out of a line-up of editors. She was experienced, she was affiliated with a small publisher, and she was located in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’d been to writing seminars at the University of Virginia so I was familiar with her home town. She began work and soon I was getting comments and compliments about my writing. Now don’t get me wrong, Shelly was not afraid to criticize, It took two months for her to edit and me to rewrite, but when we were finished I had something publishable. And then Shelly revealed that she had told her colleagues about my work and they wanted to see it. And that’s how Holly and Jess invited me to join the Acorn family.
TWM: This is your first novel for adults. Why the shift from YA?
BA: Shadows is my first novel for adults but, as I said earlier. it is also the first novel I wrote. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, it is also the first one I found a publisher for. My three YAs were self-published , not because I thought they were bad, in fact they’re quite good, but because I started writing late in life and didn’t want to waste any more time in putting them before the public. As I said before, I feel I cut my writing teeth on the YAs, and Shadows wouldn’t be as good as it is without them, As to why I wrote for young adults after the disappointment of losing Shadows, I felt it would be easier. Boy, was I wrong. Writing for children (I squeezed a picture book in there) and young adults is as hard as writing for adults. The research is the same and the writing, while maybe not as sophisticated in terms of language, has to be sharp and to the point. Kids are not dummies.
TWM: How has your work at the National Archives in Washington helped (or hindered) your writing?
BA: Back in college I tried to write short stories, science fiction mostly. A cousin of mine became publisher of Analog, my favorite SF magazine, about this time. I couldn’t wait to send the editor a story, but he didn’t like it and gave me no encouragement. I decided science fiction was not for me. I kept writing into the beginning of my career at the National Archives, when life got in the way: marriage, a son, trying to get ahead at the Archives. If my boss hadn’t come up with the Nazi assignment I might have never started writing again. But it wasn’t until I retired (after 33 years) and started my three YA books that I became an author.
TWM: Do you belong to a writer’s group?
BA: I have many friends who are writers. The first organized group I attended was the old Jewish children’s book conferences which were held in the Fall at the 92nd Street Y in New York. They were organized by Barbara Krasner, who now is responsible for The Whole Megillah and many other book-related enterprises. I don’t belong to a formal writers group other than my Acorn family, a bunch of Acorn authors who stay in touch, and my own family—my wife who is almost finished with her YA novel, my twenty-four year old daughter who wrote a memoir of her transgender experience complicated by schizophrenia, my brother who writes business books, and my sister-in-law who edited and contributed to a collection of women’s reactions to death and the saying of Kaddish.
TWM: Which authors inspire you?
BA: The first adult books I read were Exodus by Leon Uris and Hawaii by James Michener. I was eight years old and felled by a disease called dystonia which left my legs twisted and shaking. I couldn’t go to school but I could read. I read those two and many others over and over. I read Reader’s Digest condensed books I found in my mother’s nightstand. I developed a lifelong love of science fiction. My favorite book of all time is The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester.
TWM: What advice would you give to writers who typically write for younger readers and now want to reach adult audiences?
BA: My advice for writers of fiction, whether writing for children or adult, is to follow your heart and then follow your story. Don’t cage your imagination. Children are not dummies, as I said previously. Neither are adult readers.
TWM: What’s next for you?
BA: In the future I am planning on publishing one of my YAs with Acorn. Aglow in the Bronx: A Christmas Fable is a Christmas story told by a twelve-year-old Jewish boy. I hope it will be out in late November 2017. I am also seven chapters into Pins and Needles. a historical ghost story, where the main ghost so far is a sixteen-year-old girl who dies in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. She’ll be joined in a later chapter by her younger brother, who dies in battle in WWI. The main live character from that point will be the brother’s wife. I don’t know how far I’ll go with it but I’ve got historical events lined up for the wife to get involved in through the 1950s when we meet her again as an old lady, and the title character in the first of my YAs, Auntie’s Ghost. I see the two ghosts acting as a kind of Greek chorus. Who knows? It could be a series.
About Bruce Ashkenas
Bruce Ashkenas had a full career at the National Archives where he worked describing records, including those of the German American Bund, which were seized as enemy records upon United States entrance to World War II. The background of Shadows of Shame lies in those years when he daily read the intensely anti-Semitic words of the Nazi Bund. Mr. Ashkenas has also written three young adult novels, Auntie’s Ghost, Sick Street, and Aglow in the Bronx. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia with his wife, daughter, and dog.