Happy Sunday, book nerds! It’s James, and today I’m joined by Alan Gratz, who’s written over a dozen novels. His most recent novel, Refugee, tells the story of three different refugees, and it’s easily one of the most important books I’ve read this year. If you haven’t read it yet, you’ll definitely want to after checking out today’s interview. Let’s get to it!
James: Hey Alan! Thanks so much for joining us today. Your new book, Refugee, is one of the most important books I've read this year. Can you tell our readers a bit about what they can expect?
Alan: Thank you! Refugee is the story of three different kids in three different eras in three different parts of the world, all of whom are trying to get to safety with their families. It's the story of Josef, who flees Nazi Germany for Cuba with his family aboard the MS St Louis in 1939; of Isabel, who escapes Cuba with her family on board a raft bound for Florida in 1994; and of Mahmoud, who with his family is driven from Syria by civil war, and sets out for Germany on foot in the present day. I weave all three of the stories together in alternating chapters, and link all three families in the end.
James: You've connected three different stories spread over several continents and many decades. Was it hard to draw the parallels between these stories?
Alan: Unfortunately, no. The plight of refugees today is much the same as it was thirty years ago, and seventy-five years ago. The tools may have changed--refugees today, for example, use their smartphones to get from country to country--but the refugees in all three eras face perilous water crossings, closed borders, intolerance, and more. It was distressingly easy to find the parallels.
James: Which of the three main characters came to you the easiest?
Alan: I suppose Josef was the easiest--the story of the MS St Louis is the most well-documented of all three of the stories, and Josef is a lot more like me than the other kids, so his character came very naturally to me.
James: Tell me about the research you did as you were writing this novel. Were you able to talk to any real-life refugees?
Alan: I didn't talk to any real-life refugees, no. I read a lot of refugee stories though. There are books about the MS St Louis, so that was easy. But for the Cuban story, I had to rely a lot more on newspaper and magazine articles, a few books, and recorded interviews with Cuban refugees who came to the United States by raft. For the Syrian story, I had to use contemporary reporting--The New York Times, NPR, the Washington Post, al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Independent, etc.--to get a handle on what was, and still is, going on.
James: This book broke my heart in a hundred different ways, but I think the hardest thing to read was the way that country after country rejected the refugees. Why do you think there's been such a historical tendency to reject refugees?
Alan: People fear what they don't know and don't understand, and refugees are often from countries with cultures and religions different from the ones where they find shelter. Refugees also need help--they need food, water, clothes, jobs, a place to life--and many people begrudge giving that help to foreigners when there are doubtless people in their own country going without. But I think ultimately it comes to the otherness. When a hurricane strikes Florida, you don't see the people of Alabama and South Carolina turning Floridians away, because they know them. They're just like them. But when a hurricane hits Cuba, or Haiti, or Puerto Rico, many people choose to ignore those in need because they don't identify with them.
James: I know that this book was written before the current Presidential administration. However, in many ways, it feels like a direct response to some of today's news headlines. If President Trump was ever to read your book, what do you hope he'd take away from it?
Alan: Ha. Well, I doubt that would ever happen. But I hope he would take away from it what I hope everyone takes away from it: that refugees don't have one face, they don't have one skin color, or one religion, or one point of origin. Refugees are people who didn't choose to leave their homes. They aren't knocking on our door looking for a handout because they choose not to help themselves. They were driven from their homes by violence and persecution, and as the greatest nation in the world, I think we can make room for them in our country and in our hearts.
James: What's next for you, Alan? Anything you can tell us about your current project?
Alan: I'm currently working on a book called Grenade, about the Battle of Okinawa. I got to visit Japan seven years ago, and while I was there I met a man who was a boy on Okinawa during World War II. He told me that the day the Americans landed, he and all the other Okinawan boys were pulled out of middle school by the Japanese army, lined up, and each given a grenade. Then they were told to go off into the forest and not come back until they had killed an American. That's the first chapter, and the story is told in alternating chapters between an Okinawan boy and a young American GI hitting the beach for the first time as a soldier until they finally meet.
James: One last question, so let's make it a fun one... I know you're a fellow pizza lover. What's your favorite pizza toppings?
Alan: Just plain cheese! Boring, I know--but it’s the essence of pizza.
That’s it for today’s interview with Alan, but before you leave, be sure to sign up for our newsletter. As a PickMyYA subscriber, you’ll be given access to exclusive giveaways, book recommendations, and more! And don’t forget to come back again next week when I’ll be interviewing Lily Anderson about her new book, Not Now, Not Ever.