Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching and of course, reading.
Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog. I love talking about research and historical fiction.
You’re welcome! Thank you for joining us today. What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
Usually, I get fascinated by a time period or an event and then develop characters around that. But The Passover Guest was exactly the opposite. Because it was an adaptation, I already knew what the basic plot was going to be. Then, with the help of my wonderful editor, Neal Porter, we decided on the place and time period. And after that, I started researching as hard as I could.
What kinds of sources do you use?
I love primary sources. The more, the better. For The Passover Guest, these included as many things as I could find from the 1930’s such as maps, postcards, guidebooks, newspaper articles and countless photographs. I also relied on oral histories from people who were alive at the time. I researched what days the cherry blossoms were in peak bloom and when that coincided with the first night of Passover during the Great Depression to figure out exactly when to set the book. I examined which buildings were in existence in the 1930’s in D.C. to determine what the main character would see. And I spent a lot of time walking over the actual ground covered in the book, visiting the monuments and buildings and walking in the footsteps of my main character. I even took a walking trip through DC with my editor and another with the book’s illustrator.
What is your favorite thing about research?
Librarians are professional researchers, which means I actually have a degree in doing research effectively. I absolutely love research. I love digging and finding unusual facts. I love going through old folders no one has touched in a long time. I love making obscure connections. I love it all. I usually do research for other people, so it’s amazingly fun to do research for my own work.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
That it can’t go on forever. If you are writing historical fiction, you have to let go.
Obviously, you need to stay true to the time period, but you also have to sometimes let the teeny tiny details go so that the story will work.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
You can’t do everything you want to because you have to follow what actually happened historically. For example, I really wanted a female rabbi in The Passover Guest. The first American female rabbi was Sally Preisand, who was ordained in 1972. It wasn’t realistic to have a woman rabbi in a book set in the 1930’s, as much as I wanted to.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense, but stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
There are a few places where we took a bit of artistic license in The Passover Guest. The book is set on April 10, 1933, and there is wine on the seder table because of a crucial plot point. However, Prohibition was in effect until December 5, 1933. I decided that this was okay because even during Prohibition, alcohol for religious purposes was allowed.
The other place in the book that had a little artistic license is the Hooverville in the opening pages. There was in fact a desegrated shantytown in Washington D.C. in the early 1930’s called the Bonus Army. However, their location was in Anacostia Flats. We moved them to the National Mall to make the visual setting of the book work better.