Hi Martha! Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for my blog. I love getting to virtually meet authors of books I love, and yours is no exception!
Let’s get started with the 2-minute Martha Hall Kelly intro as well as a tidbit that not many people know about you (your favorite song to jam out to, your least favorite family vacation, your weirdest food craving, etc).
Martha Hall Kelly is the author of Lilac Girls, the New York Times bestselling novel based on the true story of how socialite and philanthropist Caroline Ferriday brought a group of young Polish women experimented on at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp to the U.S. for treatment. She and her husband Michael, a media executive, have raised three lovely children and one fabulous mini goldendoodle. Martha is working on her next book, a prequel to Lilac Girls, coming soon from Ballantine Books. You can follow all the news at marthahallkelly.com.
What people may not know: My favorite song to jam out to? Either Stevie Wonder’s For Once In My Life or The Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men. Weirdest food craving? Had bear dumplings in Russia recently when I was researching in St. Petersburg and they were surprisingly delicious.
Alright, now let’s dive in to Lilac Girls! Your first novel, released on April 5, 2016, it shot onto the NYT bestseller list right away! You became interested in Caroline Ferriday, one of your three main characters, after a trip to the Bellamy-Ferriday house near your own home on a day that you were in a funk. You saw a photo of Caroline with the rabbits and decided you had to know her story (although you say you weren’t thinking of writing a book at the time). Had you considered yourself a writer prior to that time? Do you have other unpublished stories? It’s so hard for me to think that you didn’t even think you were going to write about her story, since you wrote it so beautifully!
I worked as an advertising copywriter for ten years straight out of college, writing mostly TV commercials and print ads, but never wrote anything close to a novel. I became a stay at home Mom once I had my third child, so I stopped thinking of myself as a writer after that. But I recently filled out a visa application and inked in ”author” to the profession box, so it’s nice to finally own that now.
I opted for the audio version, as a friend recommended it that way, and I think the three narrators REALLY brought the story to life. I read in this essay (interviewer note: be sure to click through to this link as there are beautiful maps of both Caroline’s New York and Kasia’s Lublin, Poland, that really embody the geographical references) that Caroline was the easiest for you to write, since her life was closest to yours (especially geographically), but that you were more able to get into Kasia and Herta’s characters after your research trip to Poland. I am wondering if, during your research, you came across stories about Herta’s younger life prior to her time at Ravensbruck. She is SO likable at the beginning, and you write her struggle so well to conform to the Nazi plans at the camp, but she is also clearly the villain in the book. I’m curious as to how you decided to have her make that shift, or if her early life suggests that pattern?
In Lilac Girls I wanted to show what it was like to go from a fairly normal German childhood, which Herta Oberheuser had, to participating, as a physician, in heinous experiments on healthy women. In my research, I found that, like many young women indoctrinated into National Socialism, Herta Oberheuser grew up steeped in Nazi propaganda. Her parents struggled financially and she wanted to be a doctor from a young age. From that, I showed her early life and used the transcripts of the Doctor’s Trial as a roadmap for her later life. In the transcripts, for example, she claims she felt like an outsider at the camp, since she was the only female doctor at the all-female camp.
When you were interviewed by Patricia Raskin, she asked about your takeaway from the story that you feel brings us hope. You talked about how Americans didn’t want to talk about the war or deal with the refugees yet they still rallied around the “rabbits” in an amazing way and really provided for them with “an outpouring of love and generosity”. It seems to me that we currently hear a lot of messages of hate and selfishness. Do you think the American people can and will rally like this again, especially after the election is over? Or have we drawn a line in the sand that precludes the love and generosity that our forebears poured out over these women?
This is such an important question. I hope Americans are looking to history to learn how to go forward in an informed way. There are so many frightening parallels. I do think there is a sad lack of compassion today for people who may not look or worship or vote exactly as we do. In Caroline’s time the upper classes felt morally bound to work for those less fortunate, not necessarily of their own race or religion, and the “every person for him or herself” attitude we see today was much less prevalent. I do think Americans can rally again if we actively look for ways to help others, regardless of religion and race.
In another interview on POLcast, the English-language podcast about Poland, you discuss coming home to re-write the end of the book, since the two rabbits that you got to meet in person were so forgiving toward the people who had performed these atrocities. Your Polish character, Kasia, has PTSD from what she suffered (before that was a labeled condition), and really has a hard time coming back home. Without giving too much away about the ending, can you give us a clue as to how the two endings are different?
I originally wrote the ending with Kasia being much more combative and angry and unhinged, the way I might have acted in her place. But as a novelist I have to constantly remind myself it’s not my attitudes and opinions that matter, it’s the character’s. So when I found out that the real rabbits were more forgiving and had decided to let go of that same kind of vitriolic anger I softened Kasia’s reaction.
In this post on your own blog, you talk about how the most common question you get asked by book clubs is “what happened to Herta after she was released from prison?” (click through for the answer if you’ve already read the book!). Are there any other gems of information that you learned after the book was edited/printed or that you couldn’t include for another reason (perhaps it didn’t advance the story) that you’re dying to share?
I wish I could have included the story of the babies and children of Ravensbruck, a terribly sad part of the already horrible camp, but it was not germane to my story.
When you talk about your forthcoming books, as you did on the POLcast episode, you tell us you’re writing a prequel to Lilac Girls about Caroline’s mother during WWI, and a pre-prequel about Caroline’s grandmother during the civil war. Does Caroline come from a long line of women who help? Or are you writing more “novels” in the future with fewer historical touchpoints? I’m so intrigued by the idea of generation after generation of women from the same family that are each influential… but I also find it hard to believe based on the way Caroline’s mother reacts in Lilac Girls to her “do-gooding”. Enlighten us!
Caroline came from a long line of philanthropic women, the Woolsey women. Her mother Eliza Mitchell Ferriday work tirelessly for the White Russians, the Russian aristocracy displaced by the Bolsheviks after the revolution. And Caroline’s great grandmother nursed soldiers on the Gettysburg battlefield and was a staunch abolitionist. Incredible women!
Wow, Martha! Thank you so much for your wonderful answers to my questions. I am SO looking forward to the next book (and the one after that)! You are an absolute treat to interview (and super speedy at responding!). All my thanks.