Wednesday, September 30, 2015

7 Questions With Rita Gabis, Author of A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet

Rita Gabis is the author of two books of poetry, co-author of a book on the craft of writing, and currently at work on "A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet" — a memoir due out from Bloomsbury US in the fall of 2015. Her awards include residencies at Yaddo and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as grants from the Connecticut State Arts foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Her publication list includes Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, Poetry, and most recently Salamander and the anthology "Lit from Inside: Forty Years of Poetry from Alice James Books." She lives in New York City where she teaches Creative Writing at Hunter College.  Her latest book is A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet: My Grandfather's SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth, in which she investigates her grandfather’s hidden past during the Holocaust.

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I became "hooked" on history at a very young age.  I was always a voracious reader and some of my favorite books as a young girl were biographies of historical figures.  Harriet Tubman, Abigail Adams, and George Washington Carver are just a handful of many I read eagerly.  I loved the feeling of being given access to a different life, time, and place and vividly recall sitting on the carpeted floor of the library near the history and biography shelves with a huge stack of books beside me.

2.      What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
The role of history in my personal life is immense.  I am the child of first and second generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, Jewish on my father's side, Catholic on my mother's.  As a teen, I discovered the writing of James Baldwin and his quote "know whence you came and there is no limit to where you can go" became a favorite.  To me both then and now, the quote means, know the personal history of those who brought you into this world, and know as much as you can of the world they and those who came before them were born into. Without that, self-knowledge is hard to come by. In addition, my mother was a great traveler and in preparation for each journey she schooled herself deeply in the history of places as varied as Egypt, China, and Turkey. Today, she is no longer able to travel, but the places she explored and their distinct histories are among her most valued treasures.  Through her I learned that history is a door to a deeper experience of the life we live in the moment.  

3.      How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
In my professional life as both a writer and a teacher of writing, history is vital.  I have just finished writing a family memoir after five years of sifting through historical documents in several different languages and conducting interviews with elderly people about their experiences before, during, and after WWII.  Beyond that, when I teach creative writing I my students read many different kinds of writers.  If the writers I assign are not contemporary, I always ask my students to learn about the time period in which the writer lived and wrote.  That historical context is not always necessary to fall in love with a poem or a novel or a short story, but sometimes it can give the reader/aspiring writer wonderful insight into both the author and the work of art.  It also helps the writer understand how she or he is influenced by their own time.

4.      Why is studying/knowing history important?
Studying history is essential!  First of all, it makes your world larger and when your world view is deeper and richer, your ideas and your sense of self and possibility become deeper and richer as well.  History forces us to ask what kind of people we want to be in the world in our own time.  When we read about lives lived before us or events that took place before our time we become more aware of the fact that people impact the world(s)--both large and small--they live in.  What do we want our impact to be?  How do we want the world to change?  What part of history do we wish we could have taken part in?  What historical period or event do we hope never happens again?  Often these questions help to shape the choices we make about what we want to study in college or make our life's work about.  The history of a crucial vaccine might make you want to become a medical researcher/scientist.  A knowledge of the history of slavery might compel you to become a civil rights lawyer!

5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
My "favorite" period in history…well "favorite" is perhaps the wrong word.  My latest book is about the Holocaust, the German occupation of Eastern Europe during WWII, and local collaboration in the massacres of both Jews and non-combatant Poles during that same war.  As I said earlier, for five years I immersed myself in this horrific time period.  In order to write my book, I had to learn everything I could about the terrible atrocities that occurred in a particular region of Lithuania, an Eastern European country roughly the size of New Jersey.  In addition, I had to learn about the broader history of the country to understand the lasting impact of earlier wars and occupations.  Much of what I researched was heartbreaking, I also learned about acts of great courage and compassion.  We live in a world where genocide continues everyday, so I feel that the work I did for my book which is about the past, helps me to understand the present.

6.       Tell us about your book A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet: My Grandfather's SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth?
As I mentioned earlier, I come from a blended family.  My Lithuanian Catholic mother emigrated from Lithuania to the United States with her father and her siblings several years after the war.  My Jewish father's parents came to the United States from Eastern Europe via London around 1910 after a wave of pogroms or mass killings of Jews in the Ukraine and Belorussia in particular convinced them that it was too dangerous to stay in Eastern Europe.  I had always been told that my Lithuanian Catholic grandfather fought against the Russians who invaded Lithuania before the Germans and who arrested thousands (including my Lithuanian grandmother) and sent them to prison or labor camps in what was known as the Siberian gulag.  But after my Jewish father died, I found myself wanting to learn more about his history and the history of the Lithuanian side of my family.  I began doing research and eventually asked my mother what exactly her father did during the war.  This is how I learned that he worked under the Gestapo as a Chief of Security police.  The security police in Lithuania were responsible for finding Communists, runaway Jews, and anyone involved in sabotaging the German occupation force and the German war effort.  Many members of the security police were part of shooting squads active particularly at the beginning of the war.  These squads murdered 95% of the Jewish population of Lithuania by shooting them at sites all over the country where pits had been dug and then covered up with dirt and lime when the killing was done.  

7.      What prompted you to undertake project and how did it change you?
Researching and writing "A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet: My Grandfather and the SS, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth" changed my life in many ways.  It forced me to confront a multifaceted, horrific reality about a family member I had known and loved.  It challenged me to do my research carefully, to not jump to easy conclusions, to travel to the country where my mother and her father were born many times and learn as much as I could about the country's history both during my grandfather's early life and many decades before.  I had to ask myself what being "half-Jewish" and "half-Lithuanian" meant to me.  I had to write about my grandfather's actions during the war as his granddaughter but also as a researcher.  I had to let as much of the "truth" as I could discover be more important than the bonds of family and the silences within my family.  I set out with a simple question:  did my grandfather hurt anyone during the war?  I interviewed people who told me of the most difficult events in their lives.  I had to honor the trust they placed in me and at the same time, continue to check their stories against other stories, documents, the work of many other historians.  Memory is a wild card.  But memory is also who we were, what we lived through, who we have become.  I was determined that the war stories people were courageous enough to tell me would not be lost and that my grandfather's actions be presented within the framework of his history--his childhood, his young adulthood, who he hoped to be, who he became.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

7 Questions With Dean Karayanis, Creator and Host of The History Author Show

Dean Karayanis  Dean earned an Animal Science degree from Rutgers University and also wrote for Rutgers’ newspaper which indulged his love of history and other subjects as well. After years in veterinary medicine, Dean dedicated himself to writing full time. His resume includes a stint working for President Bill Clinton’s White House political adviser, writing and appearing in comedy opens on Rush Limbaugh the Television Show, web production, and authoring Regional Greek Cooking with his wife — the daughter of a history teacher in Canada. He lives in New Jersey where he continues to work on novels of historical fiction.

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I guess I have always been what they call an "old soul." I knew that my mother had suffered through the Blitz as a little girl in London, so I felt drawn to the period of World War Two at an early age. After all, had Hitler hit the mark, I would not have been born. Plus, our area of Bergen County, New Jersey, is quite rich with Revolutionary War history, and I felt as if George Washington was around any given corner, as the signs pointed to his Retreat Route all along my daily routes.

I attended Lincoln School in Bergenfield, New Jersey, for Kindergarten through sixth grade. I remember looking at the Great Emancipator's craggy, resolute but sad face and wanting to learn more about him. Our school song, incidentally, was written to John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever, and I still hear the words in my head all the years later, even when playing it myself back in my marching band days at Cresskill High School and at Rutgers University. 

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
As I grew older, I saw history as a great road map to life, almost like a secret store of knowledge that only I possessed. The people who came before us lived lives. They made mistakes and failed. They worked hard and had great triumphs. Why stumble around in the dark and suffer the same pitfalls when we could learn, say, from Theodore Roosevelt or Winston Churchill what not to do? At different times in life, I've looked to different historical figures for inspiration, to take the best parts of them and try to improve the worst parts of myself.

For example, William McKinley, our 25th president (1897-1901). After the assassin Leon Czolgosz shot him, the crowd at Buffalo's Temple of Music began to beat Czolgosz and call for his lynching. McKinley had taken bullets to the chest and stomach, so he had to be in great pain as blood spread across his shirt. But he used what little breath he had to command his guards, "Go easy on him boys," and then to say, "Don't let them hurt him." His next thoughts were of his wife, Ida, telling his secretary, "Be careful how you tell her."

I am often humbled by that moment in McKinley's life, and how he faced death in his final hours, saying, "It's God's will, not ours. God's will be done," and how that moment inspired the shocked and heartbroken nation. He had been, after all, the most popular president since Lincoln. I know that if I was in McKinley's shoes -- shot twice after surviving four years serving for the Union in the Civil War -- I'd be very different. Who wouldn't be? Most people would be mad at their guards (the Secret Service only took over protection of the president after this incident), mad at the assassin, and mad at God.

But McKinley had a modest, quite temperament. Even when shot and bleeding, he thought only of others. Examples like that inspire me to be a better person.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
Well, I'm hosting The History Author Show, and I've done other history-related writings, including for my day jobs. In the news business, I'm always there with this or that reference to the past -- or correction when some politician gets a fact or a quote wrong. Once, when I worked for a pet TV show, I did a segment called Breed of the Week, which I would always start off with a short package on the history of each dog or cat. My degree, by the way, is in Animal Science, showing that you can use and benefit from history in any field.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
I can expand on my answer above, I guess, and the metaphor. I recently interviewed Rinker Buck, author of The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Literally nobody alive could tell him how to make that trip. Nobody could tell him if he'd get over some rough patches of mountains, or how often to shoe the mules, or how many spare brake pads to pack. So he had to relearn all those things along the way -- with the help of his brother Nick, who is fortunately a mechanic. 

If there had been pioneers alive that Rinker Buck could have asked for advice, he'd have certainly taken it. As it was, he read all the trail journals and diaries he could. Imagine how much easier the trip would have been had he had first-hand advice, or how much harder it would have been if he'd skipped all the material written by people who'd gone over the trail in the mid-1800s.

Well, wherever we aim to go in life, there's someone who has traveled that trail before us. Read and learn from their lessons. Let them make mistakes and solve problems so we don't have to struggle quite so hard.

Supreme City by Donald L. Miller and Madison's Gift by David O. Stewart are also great examples of what you can learn in history.  I asked Don Miller if he had given our current New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, a copy of the Supreme City, because de Blasio is infamously, chronically late. You see, Mayor Jimmy Walker was also always late back in the Jazz Age, but he had such charm and good humor that everyone forgave him.

In Madison's Gift, David O. Stewart discusses how the 4th president honestly evaluated his weaknesses and sought out people like his wife Dolley or George Washington who had what he lacked. Those are great lessons for anyone.

Without history, we're driving to a place we've never been without reading the owners manual of the car or using any sort of road map or GPS. Sure, you can do it, but it's a lot harder.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I can sit looking at old pictures of New York City or reading archive news stories about it all day, specifically William McKinley's era. Here I can mention another book: New York City in the Gilded Age, by my friend Esther Crain of Ephemeral New York. That period is not too terribly far from ours, or so different. At least when I was growing up, it still seemed recent. Plus, you can still see so many of the legacies of those days today.

It's after the Civil War, but before the World Wars, so the Gilded Age sort of gets lost. Again, I guess it's part of my quest for secret or forgotten knowledge. People tend to look at the U.S. presidents between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt as a blur of bearded, mutton-chopped faces. But they are quite interesting, and there's a real tug-of-war between the executive and legislative branches during that time, as Congress tries to draw back some of the power it lost to Lincoln when he was fighting the rebellion.

6. What is the premise of the History Author Show?
Well, as we write on iTunes and elsewhere where people find us: "A special book, person or place has the power to transport us into the past, to times and moments long before we were born. You may reach the last page of a biography and mourn a person who died a century ago, or meet a fictional character so vivid, you become lifelong friends. The History Author Show vaults beyond the usual layman's questions, and offers a show by history lovers for history lovers. Enjoy fascinating guests who write history in their daily lives, including award-winning writers from publishers like Simon & Schuster. These are the people who build time machines with their words."

7. What can listeners expect to hear in your shows?
You're going to hear more from Pulitzer Prize-winning authors like Michael Hiltzik ("Big Science") and New York Times best-sellers like the other authors I've mentioned. But my correspondents and I are also going to cast a wide net for people who may never write their experiences in a book, but who are the keepers of history just the same. For example, you'll hear my interview with Dan Demiglio from Callahan’s Hot Dogs.

Dan's grandfather bought a simple hot dog stand in New Jersey after he returned from serving in World War Two (Dan always wears his dog tags), and it endured for over half a century at the same location, growing into a legend. Dan made a deathbed promise to his grandfather that he'd take over the business, which is all he'd ever dreamed of doing. Even when his family sold the original restaurant (where my parents had their first date), Dan was undeterred. He resurrected the business a few years ago, and it has exploded across northern New Jersey as people race to taste a bite of the past. I like to say Dan is writing history with ketchup and mustard, just as his grandfather did in 1950. 

You'll also hear us on location at places like the James A Garfield National Historic Site, or talking to people with famous ancestors like Jonathan Sandys, the great-grandson of Winston Churchill -- who has an upcoming book called God & Churchill: How the Great Leader's Sense of Divine Destiny Changed His Troubled World and Offers Hope for Ours.  Generally, you're just going to hear some real conversations with passionate people, excited to share the stories of people who passed this way on the trail before all of us.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

7 Questions With Charles Belfoure, author of House of Thieves

Charles Belfoure is a practicing architect from Maryland who’s written architectural histories and now writes novels. His first novel THE PARIS ARCHITECT about an architect who designs hiding places for Jews escaping the Germans in WWII occupied Paris made the New York Times Bestseller List. Architecture is the basis of all the plots in his historical fiction.


1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I had always been drawn to history starting in 1961 on the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. I was seven.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
History fascinates me, it’s basically the only thing I read along with biography.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
As an architect, the first stuff I wrote was architectural history and always included the broad historical context like what was going on in the world when a building was designed.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
What is happening at this very moment in the United States and the world is a continuation of history. To understand what’s going on now, you have to have an understanding of the past.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
America’s Gilded Age from the 1870s up to America’s entry into the First World War.

6. Tell us about your book House of Thieves?
To pay off his son’s gambling debts, a society architect in 1886 New York is forced to join a criminal gang and plan robberies of the buildings he’s designed. Or his son will be killed. It’s like the Age of Innocence meets the Gangs of New York.

7. What will the real history buff love about your story?
The history buff will enjoy the details of Gilded Age high society and New York’s underworld.