Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The In Character Interview with Ella Burakowski

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Ella Burakowski

When writing creative non-fiction, how does a writer approach character? The characters of the narrative are real people, and yet readers still need to connect — simply the fact that the characters are real is not enough. It's a delicate balance, curating a life in non-fiction, and one of which non-fiction writers have to be constantly conscious.

Today we're excited to speak with Ella Burakowski, author of Hidden Gold: A True Story of the Holocaust (Second Story Press) about the process of working with characters who were real people, as part of our In Character interview.

In Ella's case, she had even more impetus to be true to and respectful of her characters, as Hidden Gold is a family story, and one of the main characters is in fact Ella's mother, Shoshana.

Ella talks to us about connecting with her late mother through Hidden Gold, tuning one's ear for natural-sounding dialogue and the characters she has loved as a reader.

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

Ella Burakowski:

The main characters at the start of Hidden Gold are the Gold family, including Hanna the mother, Leib the father and their three children, Shoshana, Esther and David.

Hidden Gold is the true story of a family’s struggle to survive during the Holocaust. Hanna and her children are separated from Leib, and are on the run from the Nazis. They end up in hiding for over two years in a tiny secret compartment of a barn.

Hanna is smart, brave and bold. She keeps a level head at all times to ensure her family’s safety and keep them together. She is stoic, and rarely shows emotion. Even though she is separated from her husband Leib, she never gives up hope that they will all be reunited as a family.

Blue-eyed Shoshana, the eldest of the three siblings, born in 1919, spoke German perfectly, with no hint of a Yiddish accent. Leib and Hanna asked her on various occasions to come out of hiding and possibly save them from death. Her Slavic look and perfect dialect made her the ideal decoy to pretend she was not a Jew. Shoshana did what she had to, even though she was nervous and scared. She put her fears aside for the good of her family over and over again, but not without it taking a physical toll on her mind and body.

Esther, born in 1921, the forever optimist, was always able to find the positive no matter how dire the situation. She had a gift to be able to raise her family’s spirits when they were ready to give up hope. Esther was not squeamish and was therefore the one who could deal with delousing her mother, brother and sister on a regular basis, while in the barn.

The book begins with David’s birth in 1930. David is a brave, mischievous child, always getting into trouble. When the Nazis invade Pinczow, the Gold’s hometown in 1942, David and his family become separated from Leib, his father. David is forced to grow up quickly and take over the role as the man in the family. Even though he was a young child, he took his job of protecting his mother and two sisters very seriously. He never cried or complained, not even when he was stabbed or beaten.

OB:

Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?

EB:

I do believe that the characters take on a life of their own. Writing Hidden Gold was odd for me, especially writing Shoshana’s part.

Shoshana was my mother and she died when I was 14 years old. I never had a chance to really know her, and I certainly had no idea about what she experienced through the Holocaust. As I wrote, I often felt that someone was guiding my hand. The story came alive as the characters interacted and came to life on the pages. It was as though I was their instrument, but they were in control, not me as the author.

OB:

How do you choose names for your characters?

EB:

The names of the main characters are their real names, however for privacy purposes I changed the names of all the people the Gold family encountered throughout their journey.

It was important for me to keep the names authentic for the time period, and the geographical location of Jews, Poles and Germans in Nazi occupied Poland. However, I also wanted them to be meaningful. For example, when Hanna and her children were on the run they ended up in the town of Dzialoszyce. Word was out that the Germans were about to invade the town as they were systematically moving through Poland, rounding up Jews, killing them or transporting them to concentration camps for extermination. Hanna instructed her children to pack up, as they would leave in the morning to escape into the forest.

However, the night before she was about to leave, Hanna’s mother appeared in a dream and told Hanna not to run, because someone was coming to save them. That person, was a Jewish woman I named Nessa. In Hebrew the word “ness” means miracle. Even though Nessa’s purpose for being there was sinister, at that moment she was their miracle.

OB:

What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?

EB:

Writing realistic dialogue requires one to listen very intently to others. Spend time somewhere where you can overhear conversations, perhaps a coffee shop. Listen to people talking, but really listen, not so much to what they say, but to how they are saying it. Do they use contractions such as “they’re going” or do they say, “they are going?”

Dialogue has to be natural. Read what you’ve written aloud. Do you get tongue-tied or does your conversation flow smoothly?

To make my dialogue authentic for the time and place I added Yiddish, Polish and German. By adding these foreign words the scene automatically becomes more authentic and puts my reader into that time period and place. However, it has to be done so the reader doesn’t stumble. In order for the reader to understand, I would have the explanation disguised within the scene setting or the actual conversation.

I used the words Dzień dobry quite often. From the following example you can see that I used the time of day and the answer from the person who was being addressed, to help the reader quickly understand that Dzień dobry means good morning.

Example:
At daybreak they woke to see a Polish farmer making his way toward them.
He was older, dressed in working overalls, and carrying no tools.
He called out, “Dzień dobry.”
“Good morning,” they replied.

OB:

Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?

EB:

I aspire to be like my main characters, especially Shoshana who was my mother.

Writing Hidden Gold gave me an opportunity to walk in her shoes through the darkest time in her life. I felt her strength, her courage and her fear. I have often wondered how I would have reacted in her circumstance. Would I have had the conviction and selflessness that she had? Would I have put my family’s life above my own? I would like to think that I would, but who really knows? Would I have had the courage, clarity and strength Shoshana did?

For now I am very proud to be her daughter, I can only hope that somehow she knows that.

OB:

Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?

EB:

There have been more than a few memorable characters that I’ve encountered as a reader.

One of the most interesting characters is Owen Meany, in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen is very small and has a weird, irritating voice. His physical attributes and damaged, unnatural voice make people take notice of him. Owen is very principled, a strong believer in God, and he acts on his beliefs. He is probably the best developed, and one of the most unusual characters, I’ve ever come across in reading a piece of fiction.

Another character that stayed in my heart is Prabaker from the book Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. Early on in the book he was Lin’s (the main character) best friend and guide through India. He knew his way around the slums of Bombay. Prabaker had a natural funny demeanor and an enchanting warm heart. I couldn’t wait to get to the parts with this character. It was a joy to have known Prabaker.

One of my favorite female characters is Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Strong and edgy, she breaks all stereotypes of the way women are usually portrayed. No matter what life throws at her, she goes to great lengths to even the score. She is interestingly principled in a freakish sort of way.

OB:

What are you working on now?

EB:

I continue to write my advice column in The Canadian Jewish News as well as my blog.

As for book two, that is still rattling around in my brain, but very close to a final concept. I can tell you that it will be fiction, and I will still use ideas and events from my life to make it credible. It will revolve around a young girl who immigrates to Canada and faces emotional challenges as she attempts to fit in.

The topic is timely with the plight of refugees today. My sister and I lived the life of immigrant children after the Holocaust and I hope to tackle this controversial topic by focusing on the hopes and dreams of one little girl and the lengths she’ll go to, to fit into her new life.

Ella Burakowski has been writing a column in The Canadian Jewish News for the past 20 years. Now the Operations Manager at The CJN, Ella has been working full time at the paper, learning the newspaper business from the ground up. Born in Israel to two Holocaust survivors, Ella was compelled to write her family's story when her Uncle David described her family's experience during World War II.

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