Author’s Notebook | My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region by Alina Adams

Alina Adams, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region. History Through Fiction, November 2022, 353 pp.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this book?
Alina Adams (AA): There is no pretty way to put this: I am a nerd. And, as a nerd, I love learning new things. When I learned that, roughly 20 years before the establishment of the state of Israel, the first Jewish, independent region of the 20th century was actually located on the border between Russia and China, and it was authorized by no less than Josef Stalin (a notorious antisemite himself), I knew I had to write about it. And, as a novelist, I knew I had to turn it into a historical fiction!

Author Alina Adams

TWM: What were the greatest challenges? Satisfactions?
AA: Writing historical fiction is always a delicate balancing act between sticking to the facts, and making the facts work for your story. My heroine, Regina, is fictional. But her life is based on many similar people from her time and place; well-educated, urban Jews who thought they could escape the Antisemitism of the USSR by establishing their own, rural, communal, Socialist homeland. It did not go well. A reader said to me, “I had no idea things were so bad there!” My response was, “You knew how awful things were in the rest of the Soviet Union, but you thought things might have been good there?” All the problems of the USSR, including the mass arrests, the constantly being watched, the forced confessions, the food shortages, the lack of free speech, the oppression, were just as prevalent in the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) as everywhere in the Soviet Union.

As far as satisfactions, it’s been wonderful to introduce this piece of Jewish history to people who thought there were pretty well versed in the subject of European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, only to discover there was an entire, fascinating chapter they’d missed!

TWM: How did you conduct research about the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan?
AA: I started with Masha Gessen’s incredibly well-researched book, Where the Jews Aren’t. I also found a treasure trove of photos, posters, and historical documents at Swarthmore College’s archives. But the biggest “get” for me was my mother remembering that there had once been a Russian and Yiddish propaganda movie, Seekers of Happiness, which urged all the Jews of the USSR to move to Birobidzhan. And then she found it on YouTube! We watched it together, and it was fascinating to see what the government wanted people to believe the area was like… versus what it was actually like.

TWM: How did writing Nesting Dolls inform the writing of this book?
AA: I was born in the former Soviet Union. My July 2022 HarperCollins book, The Nesting Dolls, takes place in Odessa, USSR during the 1930s and the 1970s, and in modern-day Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The Nesting Dolls was based on my own family’s stories, and the stories of others I’d heard growing up. My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region is me venturing out into a subject I knew less about. It required much more research and much more putting myself in a stranger’s shoes. Which is, at the end, what all writing – and reading – is about!

Three Generations of Alina Adams’s Family

TWM: How did you come to publish with History through Fiction?
AA: I love history. But, sometimes, it doesn’t fit exactly into the story I want to tell. History Through Fiction‘s mission is to “provide readers with compelling narratives that also act as valuable historical resources. Our books, though fictionalized, include important primary and secondary source materials that are disclosed to readers through a variety of traditionally nonfiction elements such as footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography. This way, readers may enjoy a fictional narrative while also examining the historical foundation upon which that narrative is based. By combining elements of fiction and nonfiction, our authors provide readers with an immersive experience that is both entertaining and educational.”

As soon as I read that, I knew they were the perfect publisher to combine my tales of what really happened, with my tales of… what I imagine could have happened.

TWM: What writers inspire you?
AA: I like to span the gamut. Two of my favorite writers are George Orwell and John Steinbeck. I love how Steinbeck makes it clear what readers should feel/think about a situation… without telling them what they should feel/think about a situation. He lets you draw your own conclusions. As for George Orwell, I adore Animal Farm. There is not an excess word in that perfect, tight, screed of a book, which makes its points with an efficiency I can never hope to match.

On the other hand, when it comes to historical fiction that just moves and keeps you turning pages, I adore Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline and Master of the Game. I used to tell people, he is who I want to be when I grow up. I still do.

TWM: What’s next for you?
AA: I like to say that the most time-consuming part of writing isn’t the writing, it’s the promoting. In addition to getting the word out about My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, I also have a re-print of my 1994 Regency Romance, The Fictitious Marquis. At the time when it was published by Avon Books, I had no idea that it would turn out to be the first Regency Romance featuring Jewish characters written by a Jew. Who knew? In addition, wintertime is figure skating season, which means it’s time to promote my Figure Skating Mystery Series. Initially published as paperback originals by Berkeley Prime Crime, I partnered with The Ice Theatre of NY to provide skating videos which are now included as part of the story in the re-released enhanced ebooks.

Something I tell aspiring authors is that writing is a business, and if you don’t devote as much time to marketing as you do to writing, there might not be anyone to read your efforts!

For more about Alina Adams, visit her website.

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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