Folks ask me, a devoted writer of other’s memoirs, why I’ve neglected my own family stories to write historical fiction.
I’ve tried to conjure the tales I would tell, but I know so little of my family history. Unlike my clients I can’t tell such tales as growing up in an Eastern European shtetl, experiencing the Great Depression, fleeing from Russian invaders of Germany at the end of WW II, or even having been a wealthy Long Island beauty in the 1930’s.
There is no one alive to satisfy my curiosity about my ancestors in Eastern Europe or in Paterson, New Jersey after their emigration from Lodz, Poland in 1900. I’ve slight interest in genealogical research. It’s not the tree I care about, but the leaves on the tree— the stories about people that reflect their life struggles, their strengths, their values.
Ultimately my curiosity led me to read about their era. I was hooked by delving into the popular literature that my grandparents might have read. I searched the used bookstores for anything I could find about the reality of life in early twentieth century America, especially in the New York Metropolitan area where I was born.
Then came my lust for the facts. I sought out primary and secondary sources about the Spanish Flu, WWI accounts, the complexity of the social and political life of the times, and I began to fantasize what part my ancestors might have played in the drama of the nascent labor movement, The Great War, the stock market boom of the 20’s, and the big crash of 1929.
Once my ancestors took on a life of their own in my imagination, I knew that they would populate my first novel of historical fiction. I became tenacious about authenticity. My willing husband accompanied me on several trips to New Jersey and Manhattan and happily dug into archives with me, camera ready, as my gloved hands turned the pages of century old journals.
The result is the story of Emma, who like my own grandmother, came to America from Poland and married a weaver. That is where the similarity ends. The historical details of Emma’s struggle in Beyond the Silk Mills are correct, but I invented Emma’s personal life. My grandmother didn’t share her past, although we lived together until I left home for college.