Maybe because I started off as a journalist, the 4 W’s – Who, Where, What, Why – also frame my fictions. So who are my characters? Where do they come from? What is their story? Why should anyone give up any of her precious time to read about these folks I made up?
In the case of my novel, Among the Survivors, I based my characters in part on people I’ve known or at least observed, and also on those persons like Scarlett O’Hara, Anna Karenina, or Cinderella, who live in my mind. Take Ron’l Gamble, a significant figure in my book. He is closely but not entirely modeled on, the very game, brain-damaged Dan’l Bracey, a man employed by a sheltered workshop next door to my office.
Dan’l collected and displayed Effanbee baby dolls; my character, Ron’l, collects and displays Barbies. Dan’l gave himself annual birthday parties at a pizza shop, but only a few of his invitees showed up. Considered by many to be a freak, he responded to rejections with persistent hope. Dan’l died alone, his body discovered when his downstairs neighbor noticed blood dripping from his ceiling.
Some writers would have used more of those details to construct their tale. But in my novel, the character based on Dan’l is fully alive and sexually active. He and Ron’l have the same spirit, and also, the same guileless practicality. Ron’l and Dan’l stand as proof that Will Rogers had it right when he said, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” Because I learned a lot from Dan’l, and he lives on in my memory, my heroine, Karla Most, learns a lot from Ron’l.
The where of my story reflects the fact that I was born and lived for my first 19 years in Manhattan, so for me the Big Apple embodies childhood. The Canal Street loft where Karla grew up, actually belongs to an artist friend. The Park Avenue apartment Karla later moves into, is laid out like my old school-friend’s apartment, in a building where another lived. But that is only the literal part of where my characters come from.
I believe my central character, Karla Most (the name of an elementary school classmate I admired), and Mutti, her mother, came into being because my own mother let me know early on that she had wanted to have me aborted, but after two abortions her doctor refused to perform a third.
Why did my mother want me to know this? I am still trying to figure that out. But as the child of a woman who did not want me, and the mother of a daughter I very much wanted, I have long been interested in the relationship between mothers and daughters.
How much of any woman comes inexorably from her mother? How much is unique to each of us? Can we make that determination for ourselves, or are we stuck with what we get? In any case, whom can we blame for who we are? Who should get credit for who we are?
The child of hyper-critical parents, I still have a hard time believing I am a good enough person. I worry that I have passed on this same insecurity to my children. And yet some part of me has always known I was hot stuff, and it is this part, that has stood me in good stead.
So Karla Most, my sometimes self-confident heroine, is determined to do her own thing. She quickly manages to amass all the elements of a happily ever after. But over the years, she has to learn that there is no such thing as an ever after of any kind, and she must determine what in reality makes her happy. Only then can she choose to be either a victim or a victor.
Why should anyone care about her? I like to think Karla’s story is interesting enough to hold people’s attention. And it will connect to actual lives so that, after a reader finishes the last page, she is left with a little something, or maybe someone, to take with her. If this happens, though I will disappear, Ron’l and Karla and maybe one or two of the other characters I invented out of not quite whole cloth, can lay claim to a bit of their own immortality.
About AMONG THE SURVIVORS
Though twenty-one-year-old Karla Most manages to bag Saxton Perry, a virtual prince thirty years her senior, she has no idea how to live happily ever after, with or without him. Karla cannot get past her anger at having been deceived by her single, now-dead mother, Mutti, who―supposedly a “Holocaust victim,” complete with tattooed numbers―was in fact a German Christian who got into the United States by falsifying her background. So what does that make her daughter? Before she can answer that question, Karla must track down the actual story of her own existence.
“Ann Z. Leventhal’s Among the Survivors is a rarity: a novel that fuses a modern Cinderella tale to an intriguing Holocaust mystery. The result is a unique hybrid, the likes of which I’ve never read before.” —Wally Lamb, author of She’s Come Undone and I’ll Take You There