Journalist and author Monica Hesse’s first YA book, The Girl in the Blue Coat, a work of historical fiction set in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, won the 2017 Edgar Award for the best young adult mystery novel. Hesse returns to a lesser known moment in the same era—the end of the war, as Europe struggled to begin piecing itself back together—for They Went Left. We spoke with Hesse about what draws her to write about World War II, the true stories behind her fictional characters and how she finds light in the darkness of the past.
What do you love about writing historical fiction?
I can’t say this without sounding like a total dork, but you learn so much. So much of history is hidden or papered over. Uncovering it again feels like solving a mystery: You find a document, which leads to another document, which leads to an old map, which leads to yellowed census records in a language you barely speak. I like being able to unspool those mysteries for readers.
All three of your YA novels deal, in some way, with World War II. What is it about this moment in history that you find compelling?
Every day, in every corner of the world, this war revealed the absolute best and the absolute worst of humanity. On the same city block, in the same minute, you had people working to either save their neighbors or to have their neighbors murdered. And in between the best and worst, you had millions of regular people trying to figure out how they would react and who they would become. Do you try to get on the last boat to Sweden, even though it might mean you never see your family again? Do you agree to hide a Jewish friend, when you know refusing means her death, but hiding her could mean yours? Those are the stories I’m always interested in: When the world around you has gone mad, who do you become?
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of They Went Left.
Tell us a little bit about the mechanics of your writing process for They Went Left. Did you begin with a story and research as you drafted? Do all your research up front, then start writing? Since the book, like all your YA books, has the framework of a mystery, did you work from an outline? Did you know how the story would end when you began?
I always knew how the mystery would solve itself, because that’s how I tend to write all of my books: backwards. The first chapter I wrote in They Went Left ended up being the second-to-last chapter in the finished book. I have to meet my characters at their most raw and vulnerable and confused and angry, and then figure out what would have happened that could have caused them to end up that way.
They Went Left takes place during the aftermath of the war in Europe, a period often overlooked in both history and fiction. Was researching this book any more difficult or challenging than your two other works of historical fiction? As you researched, what surprised you about what you learned?
It was more difficult because, as you say, a lot of literature just stops in 1945. There aren’t as many books, especially in English, and record-keeping around this period of time was often really messy. One of my favorite research tools are oral histories—regular people talking about what happened to them in the war, and not only where they were during what battle, but what it felt like to run out of toothpaste, for example, or the song playing on the radio when they heard Germany had invaded their country. I found myself listening to a lot of really long oral histories through the United States Holocaust Museum, and it was astonishing to realize that for many of the speakers, the end of the war was really the beginning or middle of their story. The war had broken everything apart; now they had to figure out how to put it back together.
A lot of these stories involved people searching for their families. It’s so hard to imagine today, where you can use Instagram or Facebook to find anyone in a matter of minutes, what it would be like to try to find one person who could now be living anywhere on the continent. You probably wouldn’t even have had a reliable telephone. You probably wouldn’t even have had reliable mail!
I read a heartbreaking story of two Polish siblings who spent years looking for one another, until they each gave up, assuming the other had died. It was only after their deaths that a descendant, though an ancestry site, learned the brother and sister had, for decades, been living just a few miles from each other in Argentina.
The reader is immediately swept up in your main character Zofia’s journey—both her geographic journey and her emotional journey. You captured the way Zofia’s mind works after what she’s experienced masterfully. Tell us about the work you did and the choices you made as you crafted her character.
Zofia is the scraps of memory and experiences of a hundred different survivors. I read a testimony of a survivor who, while recovering in the hospital, kept wishing for someone to bring her lipstick so she could feel feminine again, and that became part of Zofia’s story. I read about a survivor dreaming of kissing boys day and night after liberation because she longed so much for human connection—and the reawakening of desire became part of Zofia’s story. Creating real characters is hard, often the hardest part of writing a novel. But in many ways, it felt like Zofia came to me fully formed, carrying all of these stories inside her.
“We can’t choose the hate the unfolds around us, but we can choose how we love. We can choose our family. We can choose our community. We can be almost broken by the horrors of life and we can still, impossibly, manage to find moments of beauty and grace.”
Embroidery plays an important role in Zofia’s life and in the narrative itself. Do you sew or do other needle arts or crafts?
I can’t do much more than replace a button, but my mother is really accomplished. When I was growing up, she made all of our Halloween costumes, and special pajamas on our birthdays, in fabrics we got to pick out. The whir of a sewing machine was regularly a part of my childhood, and it’s a sound full of love and security. When I picture the Lederman household, no matter what else is going on, someone is always using a sewing machine in the background.
Zofia and her brother Abek’s story is surrounded by the stories of many other compelling characters. Which secondary character was your favorite to write?
Partway through the book, Breine tells Zofia that she never got to marry her first fiancé, so she’s seizing the opportunity to marry her second fiancé—a kind, decent man she’s known for only a few weeks. She tells Zofia that we can “choose to love,” and now she’s choosing to love Chaim so that another chance at happiness doesn’t pass her by.
In a way, that’s the motto of the whole book. We can’t choose the hate the unfolds around us, but we can choose how we love. We can choose our family. We can choose our community. We can be almost broken by the horrors of life and we can still, impossibly, manage to find moments of beauty and grace. I loved writing Breine. I love her practical optimism, her reflexive kindness, everything about her.
They Went Left is an incredible depiction of the toll that trauma takes, as well as a story set in the aftermath of one of humanity’s darkest moments. As you were writing, how did you find a balance between darkness and light—in the story, and also in yourself?
I get asked a lot about how I find hope while writing stories like They Went Left. But the truth is, in real historical accounts, the hope is always there. It doesn’t look like you’d expect it to; sometimes it doesn’t even look like hope at first. But it’s there in prisoners giving each other their bread, or passing a message to the other side of camp. It’s there in someone managing to bury a stack of letters inside ghetto walls, counting on the belief that there will be an “after,” and that when after comes, someone will want to tell their story. The fact that we can even write novels set in this time is a hopeful act. Because it means the stories weren’t silenced. Very bad people tried for a very long time to silence those stories, and as long as we keep telling them, we’re committing acts of defiance and hope.
Author photo © Cassidy DuHon.