CM: When did you first develop an interest in writing?
DL: I’ve loved to read since I was a little girl; my love of reading led to an interest in writing. Thanks to my mother, I still have some of the “books” I wrote as a seven- and eight-year-old, with titles like Something Happens to Tuggy and The Captured Boys. (You can see the covers on my website here: http://debbielevybooks.com/about/.)
To me, switching from lawyering to writing doesn’t seem like such a giant leap. So many lawyers are word people, and although I know we like to make jokes about impenetrable legalese, excellence in lawyering often depends on excellence in writing. (Not always, I know. But often.) Anyway, there was no single moment when I decided to make the career change. I’d always been interested in writing. I left the practice of law to work as an editor at a newspaper chain that covered the legal profession. And then I left that to write books for young people.
CM: What made you decide to write books for children?
DL: Once I had kids of my own, I rediscovered books for kids. Once again, my love of reading these led to an interest in writing them. Favorites in our house were the Frog and Toad books (by Arnold Lobel) and the George and Martha books (by James Marshall). And, oh, all of Shel Silverstein’s poetry!
CM: What directed your interest to the history surrounding WWII?
DL: I think the combination of my mother being a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and my father being a bona fide war hero (he enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor, served on a destroyer-escort in the Mediterranean, and was awarded the Legion of Merit after his ship was torpedoed and he tirelessly tended to the wounds of his shipmates, saving the lives of many) made this interest inevitable.
CM: Your book The Year of Goodbyes is a true story based on your mother’s experience fleeing Germany in WWII. How did that personal connection make it easier and/or more difficult to write the story?
DL: The personal connection made it easier because it produced in me a certainty that I wanted—even needed—to tell this story in the way I told it. It also made it easier because I had my mother, living right here in Maryland near me, to interview endlessly, and I had her treasure trove of documentation and artifacts, and I had access to her friends (acknowledged in the book) who also survived and made it to this country.
The personal connection made it harder because—well, because it was personal. It was painful to unearth the memories—for my mother, certainly, who had lived them, but for me as well. But because of that certainty I felt about wanting/needing to tell the story, the pain was something we were both willing to go through.
When I talk with students in schools I visit, sometimes I bring up two seemingly contradictory lessons for writing, and also for life, that I’ve taken from working on The Year of Goodbyes.
First: Be Vulnerable. To do the research for a book like this, which involves investigating and revisiting the deaths of my own family members in the Holocaust, was hard. It opened up old, old wounds and memories for my mother. It meant months of sorrowful research for me. But we both opened ourselves up to the sorrow and the pain, and it made her an incredibly good source for this book, and it made my writing so much better than it was in all the other ways I had tried to write her story—because here I wasn’t telling the story from a distance. Making yourself vulnerable—by which I mean, able to be hurt and to be sad—makes you honest and real and that shows in your writing as much as in your relationships.
Second (and exactly the opposite of the first lesson): Be Invincible. Yeah, be vulnerable but also be invincible about the things you care about—unstoppable, unbeatable. After I’d written a draft of the book, I read an article in the online magazine, Gawker, which began like this: “Remember when you were in like sixth grade and your teacher asked you to read “Number the Stars” and you quietly thought to yourself . . . ‘jeez Louise, how many of these Holocaust books are there?” Well. A comment like that could stop a writer in her tracks. It’s like saying—you dummy, don’t you know the world already has as many books about the Holocaust era as it needs? But it didn’t stop me in my tracks. I was vulnerable in letting myself absorb the story, but invincible in believing that actually, the world *could* use my mother’s story. Maybe I was right and maybe I was wrong, but that is where a willingness to be vulnerable and a steeliness about being invincible led me on this project.
CM: Why did you decide to write The Year of Goodbyes in verse?
DL: I tried writing the book as a straightforward narrative. I really did. It didn’t work. The story seemed to have a will of its own, and practically insisted on channeling itself into the free (and blank) verse format. As you know, nearly every chapter in The Year of Goodbyes begins with one of the handwritten entries from the poesiealbum. Writing the narrative in free verse seemed to flow naturally from, and echo and honor, the poesiealbum entries. Also, one of the things I love about poetry is how much expression can be packed into an economical package. Each word matters so much. I wanted to write my mother’s story in that way—where each word mattered, the way each friend and relative mattered to her.
Another things about writing the book in free verse: Although people, including pre-teen people like mother at the time of the story, don’t walk around talking and thinking in poetry, I do think that free verse is good at capturing something essential about the way we think and react, especially under stressful conditions. It’s urgent and attentive. It creates rhythms, and then changes the rhythms, like a heartbeat that quickens, and then calms, in the face of danger.
Finally, I’ll point out here that the story is told in the first person—the reader is in the head of my mother as narrator. My intention was to make the reader feel as close as possible to the tension, emotions, and events experienced by my mother as a pre-teen. I wanted the reader to experience this real-life person as someone with a young person’s voice. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable doing this if I had not worked in close collaboration with my mother. But I was lucky enough to have her.
I didn’t write The Year of Goodbyes the way I did for the sake of novelty. I just tried to find the most immediate and accurate way to depict my mother’s last year under the Nazi regime, which in turn, I hoped, would illuminate the shared experience of others who have been persecuted.
CM: Was it easier or more difficult to write the story in verse?
DL: Weirdly, wonderfully easier. I struggled for a long time to write something else. When I turned to verse, the story unfolded.
CM: What was your research process like?
DL :A good answer to this very important question would require another blog post entirely! I’ll just say that I am grateful for my legal training and career. When I was an associate at the D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now called WilmerHale), I developed good research skills, really picky, skeptical research skills. Working as a lawyer instilled in me the notion to keep digging, to make sure I don’t draw conclusions before they’re warranted. You don’t have to be a lawyer or go to law school to develop these skills, of course! I’m just giving credit where credit is due.
CM: Is there any advice about writing you would like to pass on to aspiring writers?
DL: Read. Read a lot. Not so you can imitate the writing you like, but so you know what you like, and what you don’t.
CM: What would Jutta want people today to remember about about WWII?
DL: My mother died in 2013, but I know what she would say because she was asked this question many times when she spoke about her experience and when we did presentations about The Year of Goodbyes. She would want people to remember that an event like the Holocaust can happen again. She would want people to remember that demonizing others, scapegoating a minority, refusing to acknowledge the humanity of people who don’t look like you, speak like you, or worship like you—these are all ingredients for the rise of demagogues and their willing followers who would rather blame The Other for their problems, or their nation’s problems, than look for thoughtful and rational solutions.
Debbie Levy writes books—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—for people of all different ages, and especially for young people. Before starting her writing career, she was a newspaper editor with American Lawyer Media and Legal Times; before that, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now called WilmerHale). She has a bachelor’s degree in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, and a law degree and master’s degree in world politics from the University of Michigan. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Rick Hoffman. Theyhave two grown sons. Besides writing, she loves to kayak, boat, and fish in the Chesapeake Bay region, swim, bowl duckpins, and tramp around the woods. And, of course, she loves to read.
Find more information about Debbie, The Year of Goodbyes, and her other books on her website.