GRAND CENTRAL is the first fiction I’ve ever written on assignment and fallen deeply in love with. The idea for the anthology—which features novellas all set in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal on the same postwar day in September, 1945—was proposed by Kristina McMorris, a bestselling WW2-era author whom I’d met first on Facebook and Twitter (thank you, social media!) and then in person at the Tucson Book Festival in 2012. She and a third WW2-era author, Sarah McCoy, and I instantly became friends, and we had such a great time at the Festival Skyping with book clubs who wanted to talk to several WW2 authors simultaneously that Kristina, bless her, came up with the idea of GRAND CENTRAL for an encore.
Initially I was reluctant. As much as I admired Kristina’s idea, I hadn’t returned to WW2 in my writing since I’d finished THOSE WHO SAVE US, and since I immerse myself so thoroughly in my research, and since I’d spent ten years in the Holocaust era for THOSE WHO SAVE US, I felt I was kind of….done. I didn’t want to reheat my leftovers, I grandly announced to my fiancé, Jim Reed, and my writer friends, and my agent—but really, in a deeper part of me, I think I was a little scared. The research for THOSE WHO SAVE US had been so grim and required so much emotional stamina that now, in a different and sunny place in my life, I wasn’t sure I wanted to return there. I spent several more mornings at the breakfast table listing many reasons I didn’t want to write the novella, and Jim listened, and one morning he said, “I agree with your agent. I think you should do it.”
“Oh,” I said.
And then: “Well, actually, I do have an idea….”
In the late 1990s, I worked for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, interviewing Holocaust survivors and recording their testimonies for posterity—a privilege and blessing so great it’s ineffable. Every testimony I heard has stayed with me; I remember all the survivors who gave me their histories and carry them with me, and each is extraordinary in its own way. Yet there was one story that had always struck a particular chord with me because of its peculiarity, and it was this: a man who had been a chef in his native Czechoslovakia, who had survived Treblinka and Auschwitz and had finally emigrated to St. Paul, MN, had been fired from his busboy job in the Twin Cities—because his tattoo upset the diners in the restaurant.
I remember during the interview thinking how cruel it was that this gentleman should have made it all the way to a supposedly safe place only to confront distaste, denial, and perhaps outright anti-Semitism that he thought he’d left behind.
This situation was the genesis for my novella, “The Lucky One,” in GRAND CENTRAL. I set out to pay homage to my survivor by writing about the barbed irony of his situation—and then, suddenly, the story grew and deepened. One morning, I said to Jim, “If you were a Holocaust survivor in Grand Central Terminal and found yourself standing near the tracks, why would you be there?” It took only a few seconds for Jim to respond, “To jump?”
Yes. My character, Peter Rashkin, was at Grand Central to take his own life. Why? What personal circumstances had led him to do this? It couldn’t be merely getting fired from his job. What had happened to him back there—in the Old Country?
From there, the novella grew on its own, blossoming, blessedly—and often with great sorrow that made me cry at my desk—into the story of a young man whom the world denigrated and who himself believes he’s a loser, but who, in his Ferdinand-the-bull way of wanting only to be left in peace to smell the flowers (or, in Peter’s case, cook), may really be the strongest of us all.
Thanks to Kristina McMorris and the encouragement of people who love me, I fell deeply in love with “The Lucky One” and my character, Peter Rashkin. I hope you love them, too.