It's Sunday, and some people are excited for football. Not me. I'm excited for our latest #BeyondTheBio segment, with the incredibly talented Meg Wiviott. Meg's historical fiction Paper Hearts is inspired by two Jewish women, whose small act of rebellion during the Holocaust was their friendship. It will leave you with tears in your eyes and hope in your heart. Let's get to it.
James: Hi Meg! Thanks for joining me today! Paper Hearts tells the real-life story of Fania and Zlatka, two women who were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In fact, the heart from which your book derives its title can still be found in the Montreal Holocaust Centre. Can you tell me a bit about the history of this heart?
Meg: The history of The Heart is what PAPER HEARTS is all about. Fania and Zlatka became friends in Auschwitz. They were slave laborers in the munitions factory in Auschwitz. For Fania’s twentieth birthday, Zlatka decided to make her friend a “card”. She and the other women who worked at their station in the Union Kommando stole the paper, the pencil, and the scissors with which to make the card. If any of them had been caught with any one of these items, they would most likely have been put to death. Zlatka went without her bread ration, so she could make the glue to hold the Heart together. Nineteen young women signed messages in secret to Fania. They wrote messages of hope and freedom to Fania in their native languages: Yiddish, Polish, German, French, and Hebrew. A month after Fania’s birthday, Auschwitz was evacuated and the girls were sent on a Death March into Germany. Fania kept The Heart with her, tucked under her arm, through unimaginable conditions, through the Death March and two more camps until they were liberated by the Soviets in April, 1945. She kept it with her as she rebuilt her life and in the mid-1980s donated it to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, where it is part of their permanent collection.
James: How did you first learn about the heart?
Meg: I heard about the documentary film “The Heart of Auschwitz” which was released in October, 2010. It was made by two French Canadian film makers who saw The Heart in MHMC and decided to try to find the women who signed The Heart. The movie documents their efforts.
James: I'm sure that writing a historical novel such as Paper Hearts must involve tons of research. What was that process like?
Meg: Long. Difficult. And inspiring. I stared with the documentary and with the MHMC’s website. Then I read everything I could get my hands on about the Holocaust in general. Then I moved on Auschwitz specifically: how it was set up, how it operated, who was in charge, and about the companies who contracted with the Nazis to use prisoners as slave laborers. Then I narrowed my focus to survivor stories. I also relied heavily on the Shoah testimonies that Fania and Zlatka made for the Shoah Foundation. (For readers who are unfamiliar with the Shoah Foundation, it was created by Steven Spielberg after he made “Schindler’s List”. It is an archive of audio and now visual testimonies made by survivors of genocide. The Foundation has expanded to now cover not only the European Holocaust, but survivors from other acts of genocide including: Rwanda, Nanjing, Armenia, Cambodia, Guatemala.) I also had countless emails with Fania’s daughter, who was extremely helpful and supportive, and the staff at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.
James: Was there travel involved as well?
Meg: I went to Montreal to go to the MHMC and to meet with the film makers, who generously gave me a copy of their film. I spent the next two days holed up in my hotel room watching and rewatching the film. It was inspiring. It was also January…in Montreal…and it was too cold do do anything outside.
James: What truths do you want your readers to take with them once they finish reading Paper Hearts?
Meg: That even in the midst of unbelievable acts of cruelty, it is possible—and imperative—for acts of kindness to shine through. It is through kindness that survival is possible.
James: The writing in Paper Hearts is absolutely stunning, but it's also very unique in the fact that the entire book is made up of short free verse poems. What prompted you to write the novel in verse?
Meg: The short, and perhaps flip answer is: It was easier.
The longer and more accurate answer is: A writer has to get up every day and “go” to the place she/he is writing about. I had to take myself to Auschwitz every day. I had to put myself in Fania and Zlatka’s shoes. It was hard. Truthfully, it was impossible. But I got as close as I could imagine. I discovered I could go there in small pieces--what I thought of as vignettes. I created small snapshots of what I imagined life to be like for Fania and Zlatka. It was easier for me as a writer to face the horrors that way, and therefore, I assumed, it would be easier for readers.
James: You've also written a picture book, Benno And The Night Of The Broken Glass. But you haven't written anything else for young adult readers...not yet at least! Which begs the question... For those of us who just finished Paper Hearts and want some more YA historical fiction, what should we read next?
Meg: Oh, but I have written other stories for young adult readers, but none that any editors want to publish…not yet at least.
For those who are looking for more YA historical fiction check out:
AUDACITY, Melanie Crowder
AN UNINTERRUPTED VIEW OF THE SKY, Melanie Crowder (Philomel, coming in June 2017)
BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, Ruta Sepetys
MY LADY JANE, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
THE HIRED GIRL, Laura Amy Schliz
PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG, Anne Blankman
TRAITOR ANGELS, Anne Blankman
THE EMPEROR OF ANY PLACE, Tim Wynne Jones
WOLF HOLLOW, Lauren Wolk
IVORY AND BONE, Julie Eshbaugh
I could go on and on. Readers can check out my Goodreads Author page.
James: Your next project is also set during World War II, but it's set in New Mexico. What can you tell us about that?
Meg: Hmmmmm…what can I tell you about that? I tend to be somewhat superstitious when it comes to talking about a story before it’s “real”. What I can tell you is that it’s finished and my agent has sent it out, so I am waiting, waiting, waiting. It’s currently titled HIKING WITH OPPENHEIMER. It’s set in Los Alamos, New Mexico during 1944-45.
In the meantime, I’ve just started another YA historical, which is still too new to talk about.
That's it for today's interview with Meg. If you have any questions for Meg or want to let her know how much you love Paper Hearts, be sure to check out her website or her GoodReads. And, educators, be sure to check out how to get Meg to visit your school or library! And, whatever you do, be sure to come back again next week, when we'll be talking to another amazing author!