It’s not mysterious: R. D. Rosen is a great mystery writer. But in his newest book, Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors, he crosses genre lines to document the lives of three of the youngest Holocaust survivors in a riveting nonfiction account. But his experiences writing such different books weren’t as opposite as you might think. Here, Rosen writes about how all books are mysteries, regardless of which part of the bookstore you find them in.
When readers ask me how a mystery novelist came to write the true story of three girls who survived the Holocaust in hiding, my answer is that all successful narrative books, fictional or not, are mysteries. Unless you tell stories strategically, withholding important information until the dramatically optimal moment, how can you keep the reader turning pages? The essence of any good book is that it has prepared for the reader a series of perfectly-timed revelations. Failure to do so can deaden the most compelling tale.
In writing Such Good Girls, instead of writing about a detective, I was the detective—a real-life sleuth trying to get three remarkable women to tell me the truth about their nightmarish childhoods hiding from the Nazis. With fiction, there are no constraints on what you can invent, but here I was bound not only by reality, but also by my subjects’ selective repression and, at times, spotty memories. So not only did I have to be very strategic about how I told their stories—how they survived, and then how they survived their survival to become accomplished adults—but I had to use resources of patience, tact, and diplomacy that I didn’t know I possessed just to learn their stories.
The women’s ambivalence about talking after so many years, combined with my initial difficulty getting their stories straight (remember, they were my only sources), sometimes created frustration on both sides. Occasionally, I had to appeal to their sense of the greater good—that a book about their lives, and about the last generation of Holocaust survivors, would be a meaningful tribute to the mere 10 percent of European Jewish children whom the Nazis “missed.” No book had done quite what I was trying to do. The approach worked, but not always right away. Such Good Girls’ primary subject, Sophie Turner-Zaretsky, was so distraught after my interviews with her that at one point she avoided my calls and emails entirely, jeopardizing the project. I felt like a detective whose hard work had hit a dead end and come to nothing. Fortunately, she overcame the distress the project had unleashed (and which she shared with me only after the book was published). She not only embraced me and the book, but has gone on to make several appearances with me to discuss her childhood and the very process by which she came to terms with my writing about it.
I am still somewhat mystified by my subjects’ perseverance, and my own…by how I managed to turn a chance meeting with Sophie at a Passover Seder into a three-year book project fraught with complications, a life-changing experience for its author, and several priceless new friendships. But then most books are mysterious to me. Like those painted nesting dolls, they are full of secrets, one inside the other, beginning with “How did this book come to be? How did the author manage to pull it off?”
Finally, there’s the innermost mystery, the one that not even the author always knows the answer to: What’s the core reason the author wrote the book in the first place?
What drove him or her? In the case of Such Good Girls, I knew it from the beginning: The Nazis murdered dozens of relatives on my father’s side of the family, but they lived in Warsaw, Poland, I’d never met them or had a chance to mourn them, and for most of my adult life I felt a need to connect to the Holocaust that had always seemed so remote to this child of the postwar American suburbs.
And then I met Sophie.
R. D. Rosen has written or coauthored numerous books spanning different genres—from an Edgar Award-winning mystery novel to narrative nonfiction, including Psychobabble (a word he coined in 1975) and A Buffalo in the House. He has appeared as a humorist and satirist on PBS, HBO, and NPR’s All Things Considered.