Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Interview with Monica Hesse for They Went Left

They Went Left

by Monica Hesse
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: April 7th 2020
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
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Germany, 1945. The soldiers who liberated the Gross-Rosen concentration camp said the war was over, but nothing feels over to eighteen-year-old Zofia Lederman. Her body has barely begun to heal; her mind feels broken. And her life is completely shattered: Three years ago, she and her younger brother, Abek, were the only members of their family to be sent to the right, away from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Everyone else--her parents, her grandmother, radiant Aunt Maja--they went left.

Zofia's last words to her brother were a promise: Abek to Zofia, A to Z. When I find you again, we will fill our alphabet. Now her journey to fulfill that vow takes her through Poland and Germany, and into a displaced persons camp where everyone she meets is trying to piece together a future from a painful past: Miriam, desperately searching for the twin she was separated from after they survived medical experimentation. Breine, a former heiress, who now longs only for a simple wedding with her new fiancé. And Josef, who guards his past behind a wall of secrets, and is beautiful and strange and magnetic all at once.

But the deeper Zofia digs, the more impossible her search seems. How can she find one boy in a sea of the missing? In the rubble of a broken continent, Zofia must delve into a mystery whose answers could break her--or help her rebuild her world.

Can you briefly describe THEY WENT LEFT and its characters?

Yes! It’s 1945. World War II has just ended, and 18-year-old Zofia Lederman is beginning to figure out how to put her life back together. She last saw her younger brother Abek three years ago, when the two of them were the only members of their family to be sent to the right, away from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Everyone else in her family was killed. 

Now, Zofia’s journey to find Abek takes her through Poland and Germany, meeting others like her who are searching for their loved ones. But finding one boy in a sea of missing means delving into a mystery whose answer could break Zofia, or help her rebuild her world.

Who would you say is your favourite character from the story and why?

It’s hard not to say Zofia. She’s fragile but savvy, she loves fiercely, and she’s setting off on this impossible quest, even though she knows how small the chances are that it will end well. 

But I actually love all the characters in this book: Josef, who Zofia immediately feels attracted to but who is hiding secrets of his own; Breine, an heiress whose first fiancé was killed and who is now planning a wedding to her second—a man she’s known only for a few weeks. In a lot of ways, this book is about creating your own family, and I like all the members of this family.

How did the story occur to you? Did you find inspiration anywhere?

A lot of my books begin when I see a photograph that I can’t get out of my head. This one was of a young bride in a displaced persons camp in 1945. A few months before, she’d been a prisoner at Dachau; now, she was getting married and trying to have a normal life.

I felt like a lot of books I’d read about World War II all finished in the same place: the end of the war. But, the war ends—and then what? Holocaust survivors had been sent to camps hundreds of miles away from their homes, with no idea what happened to their families, in an era before email or cell phones, when even the postal system was broken. And if they eventually got back to their homes, that sometimes meant living next door to neighbors who had supported the Nazi regime. The war ended, but survivors’ stories were only really beginning.

If you could choose one song to describe your book, which one would it be?

When I’m working on a historical book, I like listening to the music that would have been popular that year. In 1945, there were two songs in the top ten that really resonated with me. Doris Day sung “Sentimental Journey,” which is about setting off on a long voyage and reflecting on the past. And “I’ll Buy That Dream” is usually sung as a duet between a young couple imagining the life they’re going to have in the future. I’ll choose those songs, because they represent what Zofia needs to do: dream about the future while coming to terms with what happened to her in the past.

If your book was going to be made into a movie, who would play your characters?

Oh, that’s every author’s favorite fantasy question. For Zofia, someone like Sophia Lillis or Maya Hawke has the right quality of being both fragile and wise beyond her years. For Abek—maybe Noah Schapp from “Stranger Things”? For Josef, Alex Wolff—or Alex Wolff’s doppelganger, at least—is who I was picturing through most of the book.

What drink and place do you think will go with your book to have a perfect book date?

This is definitely a cozy-place book. A read-at-home-in-your-favorite-chair book. I think it would pair well with cookies and milky tea, but I think everything pairs well with cookies and milky tea. Zofia’s favorite dessert is chocolate babka, and I think a warmed slice of that would be pretty perfect, too.

Can you recommend your readers any other books in case they are left hungry for more once they finish THEY WENT LEFT?

My other two YA novels are also set in World War II, so if you want to stay in that time period, pick up Girl in the Blue Coat or The War Outside!

What would you say is the most difficult part of writing a book?

…All of it?

Nah. For me, personally, the hardest part is the part that’s unique to historical fiction. You want to tell a compelling story that readers will race through. But you also need to honor the truth of the time period you’re writing in. You have to get your facts right; you’re writing about events that could have happened to someone’s grandparents.

What’s next for you?

As a matter of fact, I did just start on my next book! It’s my first historical work that’s not in World War II. I love it now, but if I say anything more, I’ll jinx myself out of loving it.

Monica Hesse is the New York Times bestselling author of Girl in the Blue Coat, American Fire, and The War Outside, as well as a columnist at The Washington Post writing about gender and its impact on society. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and their dog.

1 comment:

  1. This book sounds exciting--I've recently started reading YA historical fiction and have enjoyed them.