Ear­li­er this week, Andrea Simons wrote about trans­form­ing her fam­i­ly mem­oir into a nov­el, which was pub­lished ear­li­er this month: Esfir Is Alive. Andrea is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

As a writer, I’m drawn to auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal events for inspi­ra­tion. I use old pho­tos as ref­er­ence mate­r­i­al, I con­duct inter­views and record con­ver­sa­tions, I comb through let­ters and offi­cial doc­u­ments. I’m a stick­ler for get­ting things right. I once drove a hun­dred miles to check out the road sign that appeared in a sto­ry to see if it read Fall­en Rock Zone” or Falling Rock Zone” — and when I found both signs in sim­i­lar loca­tions, I flipped a coin and con­vinced myself that no sane per­son would ever check such a detail. 

Non-evi­den­tiary mate­ri­als, espe­cial­ly remem­brances, are hard­er to ver­i­fy. When I once gave a com­ing-of-age nov­el to my child­hood friend Joanie to read for accu­ra­cy, she wrote sev­er­al times in the mar­gins, Oh, I remem­ber that.” In those instances she was wrong: they had been man­u­fac­tured. What Joanie recalled was more of a truth­ful impres­sion of our child­hood rather than a fac­tu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion. From her reac­tion, I knew I was onto something. 

In that book, I wrote about a girl named Aman­da who over­hears adults talk­ing about a dis­turb­ing inci­dent. In my mem­o­ry, I had gone to hide in the woods; in the nov­el, Aman­da turns in the oth­er direc­tion, head­ing to the drug­store to order an egg cream. This Aman­da, I soon dis­cov­ered, was not me; she would lead her own life. And the old­er I get, non­fic­tion and fic­tion are so inter­twined in my sto­ries that I often for­get what real­ly happened.

In writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, the author has even more press­ing oblig­a­tions. I longed to tell the sto­ry about my uncle Abra­ham, a World War II nav­i­ga­tor killed in 1943 with eleven crew mem­bers aboard a B‑17 Fly­ing Fortress on a train­ing mis­sion in Flori­da. A rev­er­en­tial fam­i­ly fig­ure, he seemed too good to be true.” I set out to ani­mate him into some­one I could call my own. But his­to­ry beck­oned. I read man­u­als on the B‑17, poured over per­son­al nar­ra­tives of ser­vice peo­ple, down­loaded pho­tos of Flori­da in the 1940s, and even attend­ed a World War II avi­a­tion exhi­bi­tion, crawl­ing into the body of a Fly­ing Fortress. I imag­ined the thrill of direct­ing one’s course through the sky and the lone­li­ness of being away from home. 

Before long, my fic­tion­al Abra­ham spent a day off from fly­ing at a local plan­ta­tion where local black com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers were reen­act­ing slav­ery. A Jew in the South, Abra­ham became a man immersed in racism and prej­u­dice. I gave the sto­ry to an avi­a­tion expert who found no tech­ni­cal mis­takes, and was impressed by the per­son­al­i­ty of the pro­tag­o­nist. To him, Abra­ham was a real man. To me, he was alive for the first time.

My lat­est nov­el, Esfir Is Alive, was inspired by the true sto­ry of a twelve-year-old sur­vivor of a Holo­caust mas­sacre and my ances­tral fam­i­ly in a Beloruss­ian vil­lage. In tack­ling such an immense tragedy, I had two guid­ing prin­ci­ples: what­ev­er Esfir did, it had to be with­in the realm of her per­son­al­i­ty, and what­ev­er hap­pened in the nov­el had to accu­rate­ly reflect the events of the time. If my fic­tion­al char­ac­ters were to be viable, they had to make their own deci­sions. If I could accom­plish these lofty goals, the read­er would feel the truth” as my friend Joanie had years before.

Although my moth­er did not live to read my nov­el about Esfir, I think that she would have approved. She may have said that she did not remem­ber my family’s vil­lage, which she vis­it­ed as a child, to be exact­ly as I describe. But I think she would have agreed that even though Esfir hadn’t been a real mem­ber of our fam­i­ly, she was a true Jew­ish girl of her time.

Andrea Simon is the author of the mem­oir Bash­ert: A Granddaughter’s Holo­caust Quest, the new nov­el Esfir Is Alive, and sev­er­al sto­ries and essays. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the City Col­lege of New York and lives in New York City.

Relat­ed Content:

Andrea Simon is the author of the mem­oir BASH­ERT:, A GRAND­DAUGH­TER’S HOLO­CAUST QUEST, her recent nov­el ESFIR IS ALIVE, and sev­er­al pub­lished sto­ries and essays. The recip­i­ent of numer­ous lit­er­ary awards, Andrea holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the City Col­lege of New York where she has taught writ­ing. She lives in New York City.