Friday, 23 January 2015

I typically have a question in my head that propels the novel...

Interview with Alyson Richman
by Agnes A. Rose

Alyson Richman is the internationally bestselling author. She grew up in St. James and attended public school there until the sixth grade. She wrote a 20-page story when she was in second grade and promptly informed her parents that she had just completed her first novel. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and a former Thomas J. Watson Fellow. She currently lives with her family in Huntington Bay on Long Island (New York). Alyson is a writer best known for “The Lost Wife”. The Polish readers can also read “The Last Van Gogh” which was nominated as a Book Sense Notable Pick in 2006. Her novels have been published in more than fifteen languages and have received both national and international acclaim.

Agnes A. Rose: Alyson, thank you so much for accepting my invitation to this interview. When did you decide that you would become a novelist? Was it on the day you completed that 20-page story?

Alyson Richman: The idea to pursue being a novelist came to me just as I was about to graduate from college. I majored in Art History and I always loved telling the stories “behind the paintings.” I loved being able to research the time-period of the paintings and explore the historical setting. I thought to myself, “If I could do anything in the world, what would I want to do?” And the answer was to write stories from the viewpoint of an artist.

Agnes A. Rose: You are the author of historical fiction. Why did you choose this genre of literature? I think that it is very difficult because of doing detailed historical research.

Alyson Richman:  I chose this genre because I love to learn. The historical research part of writing any of my novels is always the best part for me! I love to travel to the country I’m writing about and interview people who might have stories that illuminate the time period. I love looking at the landscape, eating the food, and spending time in the libraries. I feel that this in-depth research makes my stories come alive more fully.  I want my readers to be able to visualize everything with great clarity. 

Agnes A. Rose: Your book “The Lost Wife” is an international bestselling novel. You describe a very emotional history of Josef Kohn and his first wife, Lenka. Is it the real story or fictional one?

Alyson Richman: The emotional story of Josef and Lenka is fictionalized, but I interviewed countless Holocaust survivors and also people who did not experience the concentration camps but suffered knowing that they lost their loved ones in them.  I tried to accurately portray “survivor’s guilt,” just as much as I did the suffering of those who were sent to terrible places like Terezin or Auschwitz.

Agnes A. Rose: How did you prepare for writing “The Lost Wife”? Did you read books about WWII and Holocaust? Or maybe you met people who survived the war and you listened to their stories? 

Alyson Richman: I traveled to Prague and was able to meet with survivors of Terezin and also an artist who worked in the Technical office with Leo Haas* and Bendrich Fritta** I was very fortunate to learn from this particular survivor how artists were able to use the art supplies for their own clandestine work and also get some of the material to the children in Terezin so they could do a little artwork each day. I also traveled to Washington D.C. to listen to numerous oral histories on file in the museum’s video archives. It was a very long process of harvesting as much historical information as I could, before I began writing the novel.

This is the Polish cover of "The Lost Wife"
Warsaw 2013
Translated by Anna Kłosiewicz
Agnes A. Rose: What kind of emotions accompanied you while writing “The Lost Wife”?

Alyson Richman: It was an extremely emotional experience writing this book. I had two children under the age of three at the time I began writing and it was hard not to put myself constantly in the position of “What would I do if I was a mother and we were being deported to the camps?” That said, writing this novel gave me a tremendous amount of gratitude. When you see how many people suffered and went without so much, you realize that we are incredibly fortunate to be living in today’s times.

Agnes A. Rose: I know that “The Lost Wife” is going to be adapted for a film. Could you tell us something more about this film production?  

Alyson Richman: I’m so excited the book is currently being adapted for film. Right now, we’re just waiting on the screenwriter to deliver the script!

Agnes A. Rose: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?

Alyson Richman: I typically have a question in my head that propels the novel. In the case of “The Lost Wife” the question was: “If you stripped everything away from an artist and put them in the most horrific circumstances possible, would they still finds the means to create? Could the artistic spirit be broken?” I don’t plot my stories, however. I begin with that question and let the story emerge with every chapter I write.

Agnes A. Rose: Do you have your own method for creating your characters, for example their names? What do you think makes them believable? 

Alyson Richman: I try and give my characters names that evoke the way I imagine them in my mind’s eye. Lenka is a strong, but still feminine and beautiful woman. Josef was a name that I thought evoked his sense of longing and haunting. I hope my characters are believable because I feel they speak through me. I literally hear their voices as I write their stories on the page.

Agnes A. Rose: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day? If so, what is it? 

Alyson Richman: Not at this point. I try and push through all my stories and not give up.

Agnes A. Rose: How important is the marketing for you? What do you do to promote your books? 

Alyson Richman: I try not to think about marketing of my books too closely because I want to concentrate on the craft of writing itself. I leave the promoting of my novels largely to my publisher, though I do always accept invitations to talk about my books whenever possible so I can connect with my readers. I also love to hear from my readers through Facebook or my website and I always write back to them to express my gratitude for their support of my writing. 

This is the Polish cover of  "The Last Van Gogh"
Publisher: BUKOWY LAS
Wroclaw 2012
Translated by Beata Hrycak
Agnes A. Rose: What is your favourite or least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you? 

Alyson Richman: I think the biggest surprise of being a published author is the pressure to sell books! I used to just think it was enough to be published if you were a good writer and storyteller. But the pressure of the commercial side of publishing was something that surprised me. Of course, it makes sense that a publishing house is a business and they have to make money. I just never thought about it before I had a book come out.

Agnes A. Rose: How do you begin a new novel? Do you do much advance planning?

Alyson Richman: Once I have the initial idea, I begin the research of the novel. It could be as long as six months to a year before I feel comfortable starting the writing part. I like to be well-trenched in the research and have a deep understanding of the time-period before I begin writing. So yes, a lot of planning goes into writing the book even before I write the first sentence!

Agnes A. Rose: What do you think is the most essential element of a good novel?

Alyson Richman: A good historical novel needs to be not only historically accurate but also emotionally authentic. It should also grip the reader’s imagination as much as their heart.  As with anything in life, you need to form an emotional connection.

Agnes A. Rose: So what next? Could you tell us a little about your work in progress?

Alyson Richman: Right now, I’m working on a novel about the French courtesan Marthe de Florian who was painted by the 19th century Italian painter Giovanni Boldini and whose apartment remained mysteriously locked for 70 years.

Agnes A. Rose: Alyson, thank you so much for this conversation. Is there anything you would like to tell your Polish readers?  

Alyson Richman: I would just like to say thank you for your wonderful and enthusiastic support of my writing!

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

* Leo Haas (1901-1983) was a Czech Jewish artist who, while imprisoned in the concentration camps of Nisko and Theresienstadt during World War II, painted portraits and produced a large volume of drawings documenting the daily life of the prisoners.
** Bendřich Fritta (1906-1944) was a Czech-Jewish artist and cartoonist. Before the war, Fritta worked as an illustrator and graphic designer in Prague under the pseudonym Fritz Taussig. In the 1930s, he devoted himself to political caricature and provided input for the satirical magazine Simplicus.


  1. I have become a big fan of Alyson Richman's work, and I enjoyed reading your interview, Agnes!

    1. Thank you very much for your comment! I am very glad that you liked the interview. This conversation is important for me, too. Warmest regards, Judith!


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