The ProsenPeople

Writing in Between Whatever

Wednesday, June 08, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sophie Cook shared the how her family’s heirloom furniture inspired her first historical novel, Anna & Elizabeth, while she was still in high school. Sophie is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

None of the writers I know make their living as full time writers. Especially not novelists. They all have day jobs and, often, families or family members who need attention. Many conversations and some really good advice books try to help writers continue to write while working full- or part-time to support themselves.

I cannot presume to give advice; I can only tell you how I have done it. I am completing my third novel, on top of a memoir to my name—as well as many memos, letters, briefs, etc. during my career as a lawyer and a manager. I probably did all of them the same way, although not with the same pleasure. So I’ll focus on being a novelist in snatches of time.

The advice we all get in writing workshops is to write for three hours a day, in and out of weeks. I’ve only done that on vacation or when I was able to attend a retreat for writers. It’s wonderful, but quite a luxury. So I’ll try to get beyond the recommendation to the reason for it.

To create a world for your reader, as a novelist does, you do need to be immersed in the imaginary world where your novel’s characters live. Of course you do that if you sit at your laptop or notebook for a long stretch, although there are times when nothing happens and that is very discouraging. I do it by keeping my story in my head, so whenever I’m not thinking about work or errands I can re-enter that imaginary world, even when I’m away from my yellow pad or computer.

One very useful piece of advice I got was to leave any stretch of your writing a little bit up in the air, even if you know what comes next. That gives you a beginning for your next writing opportunity and, in my case, something to think about when I’m not writing. So while I’m doing other things, that bit germinates. I imagine what she says, what he does, what the weather would be at that time when I start up again. I enjoy this exercise, and when I finally can sit down, whatever I imagined gives me a start for the next episode. Then I get up, with maybe an unsolved problem in my head.

I love my characters and what they do—even the bad ones! Although there tends to be a higher emphasis put upon stylistic excellence, for me, it’s the spirit of the work that matters: the emotional impulse behind the novel, the importance of the telling of this particular story that compelled the writer to persevere and the reader to turn the page. As a fiction writer, I live for the moment when a character jumps off the page. That moment justifies the frustration that went on before.

And don’t be too hard on that day job. It serves you as a novelist by giving you models for the heroes and the villains, in different forms, of the life you create on the page.

Sophie Cook was born in Hungary. Her family survived the Holocaust and came to the United States in 1951. Before her retirement this year, Sophie worked as an attorney for federal agencies, a mediator, and a manager for non-profit organizations.

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Heirlooms from Hungary

Monday, June 06, 2016 | Permalink

Sophie Cook’s family history and childhood experience of surviving the Holocaust in Hungary inform her first historical novel, Anna & Elizabeth. Sophie is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

My historical novel Anna & Elizabeth was born late one afternoon, when I was a teenager. I was sitting in our living room in New York City, surrounded by family furniture my mother had rescued from our family’s Holocaust persecution in Budapest, Hungary. The furniture, like my immediate family, was a survivor from a shipwreck. But like my family, the chests and armoires I was looking at had been lovingly restored and full of stories.

In March of 1944, when the deportations started, we had to leave our apartment as Jews to go into hiding. I was six years old. My brother and I were separated from our parents until February 1945, when Russian troops liberated Budapest. We were finally reunited with my mother and father, both of whom had miraculously survived; late in 1944, Hungarian Nazi thugs had murdered my beloved grandmother and my great-aunt. Because the two old women had been shot and thrown into the icy Danube, my mother would never again go near the river.

It is amazing how much loving parents can do to heal a child’s tragedy. Living in a rented apartment while my parents prepared to leave a country that had betrayed them, I could be a child again. My brother and I played with the colored shards of a stained glass window, shattered by the bombing; eating the home-baked bread my mother made for my father’s workers was an exciting treat. (With rampant post-war inflation, workers at my father’s stove factory wanted to be paid in kind.) My mother, my brother, and I left Hungary in early 1947, and my father followed us shortly afterwards, before the Iron Curtain would have cut us off and nationalized his factory. After long delays spent as refugees in Western Europe, we happily reached New York in 1951, when I was 14 years old.

I still don’t know how my mother managed to repair and ship the Biedermeier family furniture that she insisted on bringing to New York, but I was proud that our shabby railroad flat in the Hungarian neighborhood of Manhattan, for which we paid $185 per month, was beautifully furnished. I also knew that my mother had gone to so much trouble because these heirlooms represented for her the cultured, tolerant world of her youth, swept away by the war and the Holocaust. My children and I now share this furniture and the memories that go with them.

In high school, I took a class in creative writing. One late afternoon, sitting alone in our apartment, the furniture started to speak to me. My ancestors’ furniture is from the early part of the nineteenth century, before the dark and heavy Victorian styles took over. The pieces are smaller, the fruitwood that was used lighter, and veneer on the surfaces glows with the same kind of gentle shine as the polish used for violins. As I sat in the dusk, I had a vision of large, cheerful families that lived among the furniture, of girls with long braids having piano lessons, of women enjoying long afternoon coffees with cake and whipped cream.

At that time, my understanding of our family’s past was sentimental and incomplete. It took many years for a high school essay to grow into the historical novel of Anna & Elizabeth—by which time I knew much more about my background and Hungary’s history. As a novelist, I also wanted to create compelling characters and settings. But my early attempt drew upon a story and feelings lodged deep in my consciousness.

Novels should be absorbing, entertaining, funny, and sad, as I hope mine is. If they come from the heart, they reach the hearts of their readers, regardless of their own background. As I continue to write, I aim at plumbing my own depths in order to do so.

Sophie Cook was born in Hungary. Her family survived the Holocaust and came to the United States in 1951. Before her retirement this year, Sophie worked as an attorney for federal agencies, a mediator, and a manager for non-profit organizations.

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