Jennifer A. Nielsen Talks with Roger

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Photo: Jeff Nielsen.

Although Jennifer A. Nielsen has written historical fiction before (A Night Divided, set in postwar Berlin) readers will mostly know her for the palace intrigue of the Ascendance series (The False Prince, The Runaway King, The Shadow Throne). Resistance, set in the Jewish ghettos of World War II Poland, is something different indeed.

Roger Sutton: Did you find it intimidating to go from writing mostly fantasy adventure fiction to setting a novel during the Holocaust?

JAN: Oh, absolutely. I don't know if "intimidating" is exactly the right word, but I had a great deal of respect for the weight of what I was about to undertake and the necessity of getting the details right.

RS: How did you go about doing that?

JAN: It happens largely in the research, making sure I am getting not just the information that is easy, but also what is accurate. That's not always what we want to hear, but I couldn't gloss over things just for convenience. It was really about going to the first-person narratives as much as possible, and looking for multiple sources so that if I put something into the book, a reader can trust that, yeah, that's what happened.

RS: Is it hard to make up a person and put her into a real situation that had an enormously tragic dimension? How do you find room for your story within that history?

JAN: Chaya Lindner, the main character, is a composite of a number of real-life young couriers smuggling supplies and information to Jewish people in the ghettos during World War II. I didn't want to pull any of the actual girls into the story, because I would never presume to portray their thoughts and words, so Chaya had to be fictional, with some of their traits put together. But I wanted her to feel like she could have been any of the actual couriers, and I think she does. She's got her flaws and things she's trying to work through just like those girls did.

RS: One thing that really interests me about your book is that amidst all the intense physical action, Chaya is confronted with moral dilemmas left and right. Do I save this person or that person? Do I give the bread to this person or that person? Can I kill this person if it's in the service of saving a larger number of people? She's always dealing with these questions, and my question to you is did you know that it was going to be so morally complicated for her?

JAN: I started to figure it out very early. During my research I came across the concept that for the Jewish people during the Holocaust, every decision was a choiceless choice — there were no good choices. The more I absorbed that reality, the more I realized that there were never going to be obvious good answers to whatever Chaya asked. But I love the idea of her having to make such dangerous decisions, that whether she goes left or right could mean life or death, all the time. That was a fascinating thing to explore, because it was the reality.

RS: How do you stop such a story from becoming an adventure yarn? "Isn't this exciting? She's on these secret missions, and she's saving people." You don't want it to be too much fun, what she's doing.

JAN: No, this is not something to glamorize or to glorify. I wanted to convey respect for what those people actually did without glamorizing the Holocaust. The way that I approached things was to always keep in mind: "What would I really do in that situation?" Not "What would play well with students?" or "What would be the most exciting?" But if I were there, what would the next step have to be? I think that keeps the story grounded in reality. I'm not going to plot something just for thrills and excitement. It has to be because that's the logical next step for these characters to take.

RS: How did you decide where to end the book?

JAN: I could have continued on for another two hundred pages! But there is that initial setup early in the story — Chaya's companion, Esther, says they need to go to Warsaw because they have something to deliver. When that mission is fulfilled, the promise I've given the reader is fulfilled. "Come on this journey with me; let's see what Esther has to deliver!" But there's so much more to the story, of what happens next, that I wish I could have told.

RS: In the back of your book, you list some of the real-life couriers. Some lived, some died. Do you have an opinion about what would have happened to your heroine?

JAN: Yes, Chaya would have gone on to join the partisans, and absolutely she would have continued fighting. Chaya survived. But she never, after the war, would have spoken of it, glamorized or publicized herself. All of her respect would have gone to those who gave their lives during the war.

RS: She does seem as if she would be that kind of person.

JAN: She's very hard on herself, because there is a very high price for her being wrong. When she makes mistakes there are serious consequences, so she cannot afford to forgive herself easily. She has to learn from her mistakes and get better each time.

RS: I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but she reminds me of Katniss Everdeen.

JAN: I've heard that before, and I take it as a compliment! Even though they're in two very different kinds of books, they are both in fight-for-your-lives situations that neither wants to be in. And they both become very strong as a result.

RS: And both of them resist being thought of as a heroine.

JAN: I think that's real. When you look at actual war situations, most of the people who come home after fighting for their country and who are labeled heroes — they mostly don't glorify themselves. They don't glorify war. We do that. Those who have lived it understand that there is no glory or glamour in a warzone. You're just trying to keep yourself and those around you alive.

RS: It's difficult for historians — and difficult, I'm guessing, in a different way for novelists — to look at a time in history and say, "Okay, here are the important elements." Like you said, when you're living through something, it's all part of one big tapestry. It's only looking back from the perspective of seventy-five years that we construct stories from this mess of experience people were in.

JAN: Yes, but history recycles. Story recycles. Certainly we are living in difficult times now. To me, the idea of a great historical novel for young adults is empowering, because I would hope that someone could read Resistance and say, "Look at what these young people accomplished. Look at how courageous they were. Maybe I can be more courageous, too, and work to change this world."

RS: Did you mean for any kind of contemporary resonance with your title?

JAN: No, the book's title was chosen before it was a hashtag, but there are always parallels with the current day. I think this book belongs to World War II, but if people say, "I see how this relates to our present day," then I hope they feel more empowered to go out and work for what they believe in.

RS: And of course every work of historical fiction is an amalgamation of the author's time and the time that she's portraying, don't you think?

JAN: Oh, certainly. Every author is the lens through which the story is told. But I try as much as possible, in my historical novels, to not make myself too much a part of the story. I'm very aware that I am talking about real people who were in real-life circumstances. Ultimately I want a young reader to be able to read it and say, "I have a better understanding of what really happened," not "Here's a better understanding of what Jennifer Nielsen believed happened."

RS: But do you see parts of yourself in Chaya?

JAN: Sure. She came from me, and her character is one reason I was drawn to create this story. I would like to think that if I were in such a situation I would be the kind of person to say, "I will not go to my knees for the Nazis. I'm getting to my feet, and I'm going to do everything I can to stop them." But none of us knows how we would actually react. I just want to believe that maybe there's a little bit of Chaya in me.

RS: How do you think writing this book has changed you as a writer?

JAN: It has added a lot of depth to who I am. I have a much greater respect for the authors who take on really big, difficult projects, and move forward with them anyway. I'm more humbled to be where I am, because I understand that I am writing about something that is so much bigger than myself, and I am this small player. I'm so grateful to have been given the chance to have written this book. I hope readers are going to respond well to it.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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