“Their lives just burn bright, somehow” – An Interview with Peter Szabo

Peter Szabo, author of Finding Maria (Chickadee Prince Books, 2017), is a poet and writer.

Interviewed by his wife, Norah McVeigh.

 Norah: Finding Maria is a memoir about your friendship with your grandmother, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant, near the end of her life. Why did you choose to share the story of your family with the public, and what do you think makes it universal? What are you hoping they will learn from your experience and from this story?

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-9-31-25-pmPeter: I guess I didn’t really start out writing a book or thinking it was going to be for the public. I think I started writing as a way of capturing, as part of an exploration, a search on my part, and then later a way of coping with some of the difficult things that happened to Maria.  But I believe there is something universal in the sense that the Hungarian Holocaust is a shocking story that is not as well-known as some of the other stories in Holocaust history, and so I thought it was important to surface that. And I think there’s something universal in connecting with and elder generation, of passing knowledge, of seeking knowledge around that. And also, I think every family has a story.  You may not realize it, and it may seem simple. I hope this will encourage people to find and explore their own stories.

What did you learn from your grandmother that surprised you the most?

 When she told me that there were sixty friends and family lost in the Holocaust. I think to that point maybe had been some intimations, but it really came out of the blue.

Why do you think you had never heard about these things before your friendship with Maria?

 I don’t know why. There’s two kinds of Holocaust survivors, the kind that tell that story, and the many who shut themselves off from it. They emigrated, and the first husband, the love of her life, passed away, so I think she, and my father, they left a lot behind in Hungary, my father in particular, and they wanted to make new lives here, and didn’t want to really look to the past.

You were surprised to learn that your father had been raised Catholic back in Hungary. Why did your father return to Judaism? After all, he seemed to be rather happy as a Catholic boy!

I think my father returned to Judaism because of my mother. He met my mother, and she came from a Jewish family. Certainly acculturated, her father was very observant, but also had acculturated to America. My father, himself, said he was moving away from Catholicism, and marrying my mom was the final step in that.

I think he loved the Jewish way of questioning.  He loved the power of the individual in Judaism to ask questions, to seek answers, and to make interpretations. On the other hand, he did find the pomp and circumstance and the smells of the Catholic service comforting, particularly after his father died. One way to look at it was that he joined the choir at our temple, and that was one way of living out those emotive aspects of religion that he did feel Catholicism fulfilled for him.

 

This kind of close grandmother/grandson friendship is unfortunately not the norm. What do you think made both you and Maria open to this?

For my part, there was a curiosity that was propelling part of it, and for her part, she had a grandson nearby.  I’m not a grandfather yet, but I can imagine there was an appeal to that.  And it built in specialness and intensity as our conversations got deeper.

  Does your story have a message about the way we treat the elderly in society, and within families?

Yes.  Look, it’s easy just because of the flow of life, and the way our society is, but we ignore the elderly. The hardest thing to do is to look at that person in your family and imagine them as a young person, and growing up, and facing the same life stages that you face, because they have. They’re just old now. It’s so important to reach out and try to forge a connection and learn about that person’s life and how they wrestled with some of the choices and difficulties, and joys, in their own lives. It really helps us shape and inform our own identity. It can help us with guideposts for the choices we make in our own lives.  So we do, for the most part, leave this tremendous life resource untapped.

After you finished writing this story, were there any questions you wish you could ask her about her life, and about her feelings?

I would have been interested to know more about why she decided to leave Hungary. She talked about being on a blacklist and wanting freedom, but I would have liked a little more nuance around that. When she was here she had an abusive second husband, and the question in my mind is why didn’t she leave him, for good?  And also, she had a wonderful store in downtown Budapest, and I always had this fantasy of why she couldn’t set up her own store here. And I know there were a lot of barriers to that, language and money being two large ones, but I’d want to understand more about that. And I would want to understand more about how they survived the Holocaust, and what happened to those family members who were killed. She said sixty friends and family, and if you assume thirty were family members, what happened? And how did she learn of it? How did she feel about it? How did she come to terms with it?

What do you miss most about her?

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-9-30-51-pmWhat I miss most about her is her laughter. She just had this great laugh that lit you up. And the other thing I miss is her life force. This generation is passing. The generation that experienced these great struggles and survived them. Many of them, you meet these people and their lives just burn bright somehow. I miss being around that.

 

 

 

Finding Maria by Peter Szabo will be published by Chickadee Prince Books on May 1, 2017 in trade paperback.

AVAILABLE FOR PAPERBACK PRE-ORDER NOW ON AMAZON, BARNES & NOBLE OR AT ANY BOOKSTORE IN AMERICA
AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER ON KINDLE SOON

 

“I’m not sure how deep the tolerance goes….” – An Interview with Donna Levin

Donna Levin returns to fiction with her new novel, There’s More Than One Way Home (Chickadee Prince Books, 2017).

ISBN: 978-0991327461, $15.99

photo-1It has been a while since your last book. What have you been up to in the meantime, and why did you return to novel-writing now?

I’ve been teaching fiction, freelance editing, and ghostwriting — and I even worked at a literary agency for a couple of years. I never stopped writing my own fiction, though. I tried telling this story a few times, but I tried telling it too soon. Finally I got enough distance, and it has been liberating to write it once and for all.

 

Anna, the protagonist of your novel, has a son on the autism spectrum, as you do. How has your life influenced this book?

I do have a son who is on the spectrum (his diagnosis is Asperger’s Syndrome, as is Jack’s, the boy in the novel) and it was something I wanted to write about. Here’s where fiction is a practical tool. I can attribute to Anna many negative feelings, feelings I’m ashamed of, such as her frustration and even disappointment, but stand back and say, “Who, me? I’m not frustrated! That’s my character!”

I hate to use the V word (as in “validate”) but I hope that some women will identify with Anna and see that other mothers have a tough time adjusting to the pronouncement of an expert that their child is different and faces an uncertain future.

 

The book is part-mystery, part-social novel, and part good-old-fashioned sexy women’s fiction. How did you decide on this kind of mix?

The book did grow in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Having had some experience levin-photo2in local politics I was eager to show some of its absurdities. (It’s even more absurd than I described.) There’s also a level at which the book parallels Anna Karenina: a woman married to an older man who then meets the man who seems to be her soul mate, to put it in modern terms. There are a few plot points that highlight this, for example, the AIDS ride, which is an institution here in San Francisco, is the counterpart to the steeplechase that Count Vronsky participates in.

As for sexy women’s fiction… thank you.

 

In the novel there’s a lot of prejudice and fear surrounding Jack’s disability.

In 2004, when the novel is set, the so-far-inexplicable epidemic of kids being diagnosed had only recently hit the news. Now there’s so much more awareness of what being on the spectrum means — although I’m not sure how deep the tolerance goes yet.

When a pre-school teacher told me that my son might be autistic, I was devastated (which I’m not supposed to say), but I was equally disbelieving. Autistic kids don’t speak and they spend their days banging their heads against the wall and making animal sounds, right?

When another doctor told me that my son probably had Asperger’s Syndrome, I’d never heard of it. I don’t remember who told me or where I read that autism is a spectrum disorder.

As far as the prejudice goes, here’s something that really did happen to a friend of mine, and recently, when her son was in second grade: He was having some behavior problems and the school, a private school, wanted to expel him, which was their right, but it was early April and the parents desperately wanted him to finish the school year rather than disrupt his life further — I mean, the behavior was the result of a neurological problem. They offered to pay for a one-on-one aide in the classroom for the remaining weeks, but the school said no, because “We don’t want to get a reputation as a special needs school.” That was heartless. The school didn’t pretend he was preventing other kids from learning — they just cared about their own reputation.

 

There’s been a proliferation of neuro-diverse characters in literature and onscreen in recent years.

Now these characters are on television, too. Once you hit TV you’ve gone mainstream. Earlier this year the Sundance Channel rebroadcast a BBC series, The a Word, which in turn was a remake of an Israeli television show, Yellow Peppers. It recreated, for me, those early years, when you know something’s wrong but you keep praying that the next therapist will tell you that you’re just a nervous parent. In the show I saw a couple of the same experts who’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a parent at that horrible stage.

 

Chickadee Prince Books is reprinting your first novel, Extraordinary Means, at the same time that they’re publishing There’s More Than One Way Home. What’s Extraordinary Means about?

A young woman is in a coma after an accidental overdose, but she’s out of her body and able to move from place to place, following her parents and siblings as they fight over whether to terminate life support. In spite of how that sounds, it’s not grim. I venture to say that it’s often funny, or as one reader put it, a “coma-dy.” The young woman, Melissa, comes from a highly dysfunctional family. These aren’t people you’d want to be Facebook friends with, let alone have over for Thanksgiving, but I hope they’re interesting to read about.

 

Does it discourage you that fewer people are reading, let alone buying novels? Does the novel still have a future?

There is much more competition for people’s attention: I see people sitting in cafés watching their iPads when they would have been reading books just a few years ago. But before iPads, there was TV, and before TV there was radio and movies, and somehow novels go on. Maybe they’ll command a smaller percentage of the possible audience, but there are seven billion people on earth at last count.

There’s More Than One Way Home by Donna Levin (ISBN: 978-0991327461, $15.99) will be published by Chickadee Prince Books on May 1, 2017 in trade paperback.

It is  available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at any bookstore in America.

New Rave Review for In Love With Alice

Kristine Morris wrote about Alon Preiss’s new novel, In Love With Alice, in Foreword Reviews, and she had this to say:

“Alon Preiss’s In Love with Alice weaves a complex, magical web of love, betrayal, and secrets that spans years and continents. Graceful, passionate, and earthy, Preiss’s narrative skillfully conveys emotions and the means by which they are masked.… Secrets, and what we do to hide them, take center stage in this novel that is at once dreamlike and prosaic, poetic and practical…. Each of the novel’s themes, and each of the several relationships portrayed, is intense and poignant in its own right, and the frailties and foibles of Preiss’s characters are revealed in a manner that is at once guarded and intimate.”

Great news, but not unexpected! You can read the entire review here.

A Great New Review for THE INEVITABLE WITNESS

Kirkus Reviews has great things to say about Ed Rucker’s skilled new legal thriller, The Inevitable Witness:

“A Los Angeles lawyer defends a professional safecracker accused of murder in Rucker’s debut legal thriller…. Earl’s a shrewd, worthy protagonist, surrounded by exceptional characters, including reliable investigator Manny Munoz and second-chair district attorney Samantha Price. This novel certainly doesn’t skimp on twisty plot turns, but retains an understated, authentic approach to the law.”

Read the whole review here.

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Announcing Our Spring Books!

We’ve got five great (and acclaimed) new books for Spring, which we think you will enjoy.

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Mark Laporta returns with the YA SF book, Mirror at the Heart of Time, the spectacular third entry in his Ixdahan Daherek trilogy.

Acclaimed novelist Donna Levin is back with a new book, There’s More Than One Way Home, a touching and exciting story of a young boy on the autistic spectrum falsely accused of murder, and the impact the accusation has on San Francisco political society.

Peter Szabo brings us Finding Maria, a moving, gripping and funny new memoir about a woman remarkable life in Hungary before the war, her escape to America, and her late-in-life friendship with her grandson.

Renowned defense attorney Ed Rucker, one of the best lawyers in America, brings us his first legal thriller, The Inevitable Witness.

And Alon Preiss’s second “thirtover” novel hits the shelves, In Love With Alice, a poetic and haunting story set in the waning decades of the 20th century, about a young woman with a few secrets.

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