From Chef to Author

I’m always intrigued by the paths that spark an author’s first novel. For me, it was being an expat in Hong Kong with no job, no family, and almost no friends. For Laura Morelli, it was the conventions of academic scholarship that made the history of art dull and inaccessible. For accomplished chef, Cathy Lewis, it was the discovery of a tattered suitcase containing a worn red journal that belonged to her father and mementos from his six-week trek in 1933 through Europe with his Boy Scout Troop on their way to the 4th World Scout Jamboree held in Godollo, Hungary. Her father documented in his journal that while on the way to the Jamboree, in Vienna he met a 16-year-old German Hitler Youth, a former Boy Scout. After conversing with the young man her father wrote, “I found him to be a fine fellow.”

That discovery made Cathy wonder: did this young man turn out to be one of Hitler’s Wehrmacht responsible for the death of millions, including her own relatives? Ultimately it sparked Cathy to write The Road We Took.

~~~

With the rise of anti-Semitism around the globe, I am reminded of my mom’s journey to Panama. That sojourn led to a new life in the U.S., one she had never foreseen. Her life began in South America.  My mom’s father was a bit of a nomad, relocating their family around South America during the early years of her life. 

My grandparents escaped Poland in March 1919, leaving all of their families behind. The Polish border town of Baranovichi had suffered occupations by Russian and German troops, causing political upheaval and instability. Anti-Semitism was on the rise there as the constant presence of German or Russian troops contributed to the atmosphere of biased hatred.

My mom’s parents had family living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and it was there that they married and began their family in 1924 with the birth of my mother, Matilda. In January of 1944, at age nineteen, my mother moved from Quito, Ecuador, to just outside of the canal zone in Colón, Panama.  She moved into a simple Panamanian flat and began her new life.

She found gainful employment as a translator teaching Spanish to officers at Ft. Sherman, the U.S. Army base there. Ft. Sherman was located on the (northern) end of the Panama Canal, directly opposite Colón. Matilda Silverstone met Captain Raymond D. Lewis of Rochester, New York, at the officers club on base.  It was there that their courtship unfolded.

After a whirlwind romance, they married in July of 1944, while the war in Europe raged. Both my parents confessed to “love at first sight,” and it was kismet.

The U.S. Army granted my father and his bride a two-week leave after their wedding. 

My dad decided the best way to celebrate their marriage was to bring my mom home to Rochester to meet his family, but the trip was delayed by a few months due to government red tape. Once cleared to travel, the newlyweds boarded a U.S. Naval ship, anchoring at the port of New Orleans, Louisiana, where my mom set foot on American soil for the first time. The U.S. Army provided transportation to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and from there, a train took them all the way home to Rochester.

Unbeknownst to my father, his father published a wedding announcement in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle stating that the captain had a whirlwind marriage to a “Matilde Perla,” the daughter of an Englishman and a Spanish-American woman,” which was an outright lie. My mother’s maiden name was originally Zilberstein, but at some point, her father anglicized it to Silverstone. 

The intention seemed evident to my parents, rightfully outraged by this willful obfuscation.  My grandfather was ashamed that not only did his firstborn marry an immigrant but a Jewish immigrant. My mother’s family was orthodox and furious that she married a “goyim.” The marriage did not get off to a good start, having neither in-law’s blessing.

That was just the beginning. My mother was beautiful. My father was under the assumption that his family would receive his new bride with open arms. They would love her as he did and be kind to her in his absence once he returned to the base at Colón. As it turns out, that was a false hope. 

My father’s sisters resented my mother’s beauty and “power” over my father. They discounted my parents’ love for each other, believing that my father made a gigantic, ill-informed mistake. The expression of animosity came in the form of a letter written by my dad’s younger sister.  She accused my mother of using her beauty to charm my father, labeling their relationship “juvenile,” based solely on physical attraction.

His family warned my father to remind his wife not to speak of her background or history.

My father returned to the base at Colón, while my mother lived on the top floor of her in-law’s home. Imagine being barely twenty years old, married, without her husband, in a new country, away from her family, while living with a family that despised her.  Those wounds never healed; they were a specter, haunting her throughout her life.

Mom was naïve as to why her new family was rejecting her, but they were cowards at heart like most bullies. They ignored her, eschewing her very existence.

My grandfather was put in charge of the finances to be doled out to her, as she had no bank account, my father thinking it would be easier to have his father handle the money. How embarrassing for her to ask for money for personal items-my grandfather expected a detailed account of how she spent every penny. Mom lived with her new family for a year and a half. Not once did my father’s two sisters or brother ever ask her to go to a movie, shopping, or a meal. Eventually, my grandmother warmed to my mom, but she was the only family member who did. 

My mom busied herself with language classes and American history lessons at a local high school. It was there that she heard the pejorative sentiment of hatred toward Jews, blaming them for the world’s many ills, even World War I. Jewish jokes were a daily staple spoken by students and faculty.  Despite that, she tutored students in Spanish, making money to keep her from having to beg her father-in-law.

She wrote her husband every day, never speaking of her ill-treatment. She did not complain to my dad, but that suppression came at a cost to her health and emotional well-being. Until my father returned home from the war in January 1946, my mother lived a solitary life, lonely and skeptical of her supposed family and new country.

Honoring my mom through writing has helped me to grapple with the reality of anguish and pain she endured. On her behalf, I press on to sound the battle cry illuminating the message of how senseless hatred can destroy a life, a family, a world.

Thank you, Cathy, for sharing your family’s story. Prejudice and hatred based on differences such as religion, ethnicity, or skin colour should have no place in civilized society. I hope The Road We Took will illuminate many hearts and minds.

The Road We Took by Cathy A. Lewis ~~ In 1933, before World War II, and the Holocaust, the world was unaware of Hitler’s plans to exterminate millions.

Author Cathy A. Lewis discovered a tattered leather suitcase containing her deceased father’s journal documenting his six-week trek through Europe in 1933 while on his way to the 4th Boy Scout World Jamboree.

Inspired by her father’s historical recount, The Road We Took is the four-day epic tale of a desperate group of Jewish citizens attempting to escape Nazi-occupied Germany.

Fascinating characters come together in a narrative of extreme courage, budding adolescent love, and their fight for survival.

Life in Germany will never be the same as Hitler and the Nazis advance their propaganda campaign, to systematically murder the Jewish population.

And this was only the beginning.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Woman on Fire: Nazi-looted Art – the Story that Burns Within

I’m delighted to have Lisa Barr on the blog today. Lisa is the author of WOMAN ON FIRE, THE UNBREAKABLES and an award-winning WWII historical thriller FUGITIVE COLORS. Lisa’s career includes being an editor for The Jerusalem Post, managing editor of Today’s Chicago Woman, and managing editor of Moment magazine. Today, she shares the story behind her writing. When you read it, you will realize that she too is a woman on fire.

~~~

I try to imagine what would happen if my laptop and phone were confiscated, my ability to access research was quashed, my manuscript set afire, my editor and anyone in the writing world arrested for working with me – and anything I write would be considered a crime against my country. 

This was the fate for scores of writers, artists, teachers, architects, entertainers in Nazi Germany. The “idea-makers” were persecuted for their creativity and not complying with the Aryan ideal of “what is art”.  Hitler and his henchmen were determined to eradicate those he considered to be the “degenerate” and influential segment of German society. They went after the avant-garde – particularly artists – with a vengeance and cruelty never seen before.   

Why?

As a daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I needed to know what made someone both a murderous madman and an artist bent on destroying other artists. Through my research I discovered that Hitler before he rose to power was once a painter. He’d been rejected twice from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. His work was considered mediocre, uninspiring, behind the times. He resorted to selling painted postcards on the street and later house painting to make a living – his dream of living as a true artist was never realized.

I believe these early rejections paved the way for what would come later … payback. From 1933 – 1945, the Nazi “elite” destroyed thousands of artworks, confiscated the most valuable paintings for themselves, and sold major “Degenerate” works to anonymous buyers through secret Swiss auctions, and then poured the profits into the Nazi war machine. 

It was a cultural rape and robbery on an unprecedented scale, beginning in Germany and spreading like wildfire throughout Europe.

This period of history not only fascinated me, but also it found me … Flashback to 1991, when I was a young reporter and editor living in Chicago assigned to cover an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago called “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany”. When I walked into the museum and viewed the walls filled with artwork that the Nazis denigrated, chills covered my entire body. I knew right then that I was not simply covering a storyI had discovered the story that would forever change the course of my career. Soon after, I pivoted from journalist to author, writing about this aspect of Holocaust history that remains to this day front-page news: Nazi-looted art.  

Over a 10-year period – between babies, jobs, divorce, and remarriage — I researched and wrote what evolved into my award-winning debut historical thriller FUGITIVE COLORS, a suspenseful tale of stolen art, love, lust, friendship, jealousy, deception, and revenge on the “eve” of World War II. It is the story of what happens to young Julian Klein, who gave up his orthodox religion to move from Chicago to Paris to paint freely … and the price tag for following his passion. 

My second novel, THE UNBREAKABLES, while it is contemporary – still revolves around art. It is the story of Sophie Bloom, a sculptor who loses her marriage, herself, and her passion, only to rediscover her joie de vivre – a lust for life, love, and art – in the South of France. It’s sexy, empowering, and artful. 

My new novel, WOMAN ON FIRE (HarperCollins, March 1, 2022) combines it all. It marks a return to both my stolen art and journalistic roots. The novel is a gripping tale of a young, savvy journalist who gets embroiled in a major international art scandal centered around a Nazi-looted masterpiece – an Expressionist painting by an artist murdered by the Nazis – forcing the ultimate showdown between passion and possession, lovers and liars, history and truth.

The novel is historical, contemporary, and suspenseful – and of course, filled with strong, fiery women and risky journalistic pursuits. As a writer, I have tried repeatedly to choose a different historical path  … but then, like a woman fighting an undertow, I’m pulled back in, unable to relinquish my Bohemian painters and their provocative brushstrokes set against a WWII canvas. For me, this is the most powerful, destructive, and compelling period of history that has cleaved to my soul. Like an Expressionist painting, it evokes all my emotion, stirs my imagination, and just won’t let me go. 

Thanks, Lisa, for sharing your passion. The compulsion to understand history and the people who launched such horror upon individuals and ultimately, the world is a powerful force. I wonder what will be said about our time and some of those using their power to destroy others?

Lisa’s new novel, Woman on Fire, is available for pre-order. It will be published in March 2022. You can contact Lisa on social media at her website www.lisabarr.com on Instagram/Twitter: @lisabarr18, or on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/FugitiveColors

Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr ~~ After talking her way into a job with Dan Mansfield, the leading investigative reporter in Chicago, rising young journalist Jules Roth is given an unusual–and very secret–assignment. Dan needs her to locate a painting stolen by the Nazis more than 75 years earlier: legendary Expressionist artist Ernst Engel’s most famous work, Woman on Fire. World-renowned shoe designer Ellis Baum wants this portrait of a beautiful, mysterious woman for deeply personal reasons, and has enlisted Dan’s help to find it. But Jules doesn’t have much time; the famous designer is dying.

Meanwhile, in Europe, provocative and powerful Margaux de Laurent also searches for the painting. Heir to her art collector family’s millions, Margaux is a cunning gallerist who gets everything she wants. The only thing standing in her way is Jules. Yet the passionate and determined Jules has unexpected resources of her own, including Adam Baum, Ellis’s grandson. A recovering addict and brilliant artist in his own right, Adam was once in Margaux’s clutches. He knows how ruthless she is, and he’ll do anything to help Jules locate the painting before Margaux gets to it first.

A thrilling tale of secrets, love, and sacrifice that illuminates the destructive cruelty of war and greed and the triumphant power of beauty and love, Woman on Fire tells the story of a remarkable woman and an exquisite work of art that burns bright, moving through hands, hearts, and history.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

A surgeon’s advice…on how to write books

May 1, 2019 carries the burdens and celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the 442nd Regiment heading off to fight in World War II. The 442nd was made up of the Japanese American men taken out of internment camps all over the west coast; they fought valiantly at home and in Europe to prove their loyalty to the US. By no coincidence, award-winning author and retinal surgeon Andrew Lam releases Repentance (Tiny Fox Press) on that commemorative day. I’m delighted to welcome Andrew to the blog.

A Surgeon’s Advice . . .  on How to Write Books by Andrew Lam

I’ll never forget the first time I had to tell a stranger their loved one had died under my care. I did it over the phone, in the middle of the night. The woman’s voice rasped; I’d woken her up. I didn’t tell her that I’d only met her father in the emergency room two hours before. I didn’t mention I was exhausted and only a few months out of medical school. I tried to conceal the truth—that I wasn’t sure what to say because I’d never done this before.

For a long time—years, in fact—writing my first book felt like that. I had no idea how to begin. I didn’t know if I would be any good at it. I worried I’d embarrass myself. I wanted to write a fabulous book, just like I wanted to be an excellent doctor, but in both medicine and writing, good intentions do not mean you’ll be any good at either.

No one starts out being a skilled surgeon or best-selling author. It takes years of practice, and lots of failure. I didn’t think about this back in college, when I chose to go to medical school simply because I wanted to help people. But now that I look back at all the ups and downs of my arduous training, and also have a few books under my belt, I’ve singled out five lessons that helped me succeed at both careers, and can be applied to almost any challenging endeavor.

Just do it. You never know how far you can go until you take the first step. It may come to nothing. It may mean taking a risk. But you only get one life and if you feel passionate about your idea for a book, screenplay, or other creative project, turn off the TV, carve out some time from your family, take a break from Facebook, and just start doing it.

Find fulfillment in the journey, not the end point. It is very difficult to excel at something you are not passionate about. Any goal worth achieving entails some degree of unpleasantness. Hard work. Long hours. Rejection and failure. The only way you will outlast these trials is to believe you are doing something truly worthwhile. There is no way I could have become a highly specialized retinal surgeon without enjoying what I learned in my psychiatry and pediatrics clerkships. I spent years learning things that have little to do with the surgical discipline I now practice; but they were necessary to hurdle in order to achieve my ultimate goal. As a writer, you may write an entire book and then scrap it before starting a new one that finds success. If you do not find joy in the process—if writing starts to feel too much like “work”—you should find another hobby or seek a different topic that inspires you.

Help others—they will help you. No author can do it alone. We all need teachers and friends to read and critique our work. There is simply no other way to improve. We need friends and connections to help us find agents and editors and more friends who are willing to attend events and leave book reviews. I am indebted to scores of surgeons who taught me how to save sight, and scores of others who helped my books succeed. And whenever I can help someone else, I try to do so if I can.

Gain trust by paying attention to detail. The most humbling part of my day occurs when patients who need an operation give me their trust within minutes of meeting me for the first time. That is an incredible honor and privilege. When I operate on a patient going blind from a retinal detachment, that person is trusting that I will be as meticulous with her as I would be with my own mother. In a similar way, authors consider it an honor whenever a fan takes the time to read their book. We are also asking readers to trust us. Nonfiction readers trust that the writer is an expert on the subject. With fiction, authors must write convincingly about characters, time, and place, because readers quickly see through anything less than genuine. So we should write about what we know, and convey details that make our prose authentic. I know about history, medicine, being a husband and father, and being Asian American. These are the themes I write about the most.

Find something that matters. When I chose a medical field, my most basic desire was to find one that mattered. I chose to be an eye surgeon because of how precious sight is to all of us. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I have to tell a patient they’ve gone blind and I am powerless to help. But I am always completely engaged because the stakes are so high. Writers must choose topics that matter to people. Stories that center on a controversial topic, an important historical event, or a way to help others improve their lives are all more likely to succeed. If your book isn’t about something important, it won’t be important to readers. Make sure it matters.

That night on the phone in the hospital, I stumbled through an explanation of how my patient had died—his initial presentation, our attempts to resuscitate him. The daughter was grief-stricken. It occurred to me that this conversation would be one of the most important of her life, a thought that gave me energy when I’d had none. We talked for a while, and I learned more about her family, and the way they’d loved the man I’d only known for the last two difficult hours. That was many years ago. Today I project the confidence of a surgeon who’s performed thousands of successful cases. The years between then and now were long and arduous, but it was entirely worth it and I’d do it again.

Writing books is just like that. Successful authors work hard, delay gratification, and learn from their mistakes. They take risks, never stop learning, and remain authentic. They enjoy the journey and know it is impossible to excel at something one does not find fulfilling. These qualities can be applied to any profession or goal. And those who adopt them may ultimately discover that their greatest satisfaction comes, not from the success they attain, but from the work and dedication that took them there.

What great life lessons, Andrew. Many thanks for sharing your journeys as surgeon and writer. Best wishes for Repentance. I’ve already put it on my TBR list.

Repentance by Andrew Lam ~~ France, October 1944. A Japanese American war hero has a secret. A secret so awful he’d rather die than tell anyone–one so entwined with the brave act that made him a hero that he’s determined never to speak of the war. Ever.

Decades later his son, Daniel Tokunaga, a world-famous cardiac surgeon, is perplexed when the U.S. government comes calling, wanting to know about his father’s service with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII. Something terrible happened while his father was fighting the Germans in France, and the Department of Defense won’t stop its investigation until it’s determined exactly who did what.

Wanting answers of his own, Daniel upends his life to find out what his father did on a small, obscure hilltop half a world away. As his quest for the truth unravels his family’s catastrophic past, the only thing for certain is that nothing–his life, career, and family–can ever be the same again.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.