Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Author Interview: Andrea Alban, author of Anya's War

Andrea Alban
The Fourth Musketeer is pleased to welcome debut novelist Andrea Alban, author of the just released middle grade novel Anya's War.  Andrea, who started her career in marketing and design, is the co-creator of picture books, inspirational books, guided journals, and greeting cards.  She lives in San Francisco with her family. 

Q:  Anya's War, your first published novel, is a real departure for you; the other books you've published, under the name Andrea Alban Gosline (which readers can explore at Andrea's author website) have been delightful picture books done with illustrator Lisa Bossi as well as a line of adorable journals, greeting cards, and other merchandise. Can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to write a novel for young people with a more serious topic and setting?

A:  It’s actually the other way around; the novel began in my head twenty five years ago, having grown up hearing the stories of my father’s childhood in Jewish Shanghai. I left college in my senior year to begin the actual writing, but work, marriage and motherhood sidetracked me. Twenty five years later, I went back to school to finish my creative writing degree, along with this novel. The other publishing ventures – children’s books, inspirational parenting, and merchandising happened somewhat serendipitously. Lisa Bossi and I were asked to write a book on motherhood after meeting with a publisher who saw one of our picture book manuscripts. That book, Celebrating Motherhood, led to numerous inspirational parenting books, and eventually circled back to children’s fiction. Writing a novel, this novel, was always my goal; I was fortunate that the children’s and parenting books had tremendous momentum, and success.

Q:  Anya's War is based on the history of your own father growing up as a Russian Jew in Shanghai; while I knew that Jews escaped the Nazis in Shanghai, I didn't realize that there was a significant Jewish presence there even earlier.  Will you be continuing Anya's story with a sequel describing what happens to her and her family during the war years?

A:  Yes, this book is the first in a planned trilogy that will span the years 1937 – 1949.

Q:  What made you decide to change the main character into a girl instead of using a boy (based on your father) as the protagonist?

A:  In my original draft, the protagonist was Georgi, Anya's little brother, based on my father Yan. As I continued to shape the story, the character of Anya ( based on my father’s older sister, Lily), had such a strong voice. I found Anya's world began to flow more vividly for me. So I decided to focus on Anya's escapades in this book. In the second book of the series, Georgi moves to the forefront, although Anya and the rest of the family remain pivotal to the plot.

Q:  I would love to know more about the historical research you did on Jews in Shanghai during this period?   Were there family members still alive that you were able to interview?   Did you travel there as part of your research?

A:  My research began with the oral histories I jotted down of my father, Aunt Lily, Babushka, and many of their friends who had remained a close-knit group of "Shanghai Jews."  Aunt Lily's best friend, Luba Tuck, shared stories and photos as well. (Luba is Giselle in the novel.) In 1993, I gained access as a scholar to the oral history archives at the Judah Magnes Museum. I also read every memoir published by Jewish authors who had lived in Shanghai during the  WWII years. Although I didn't journey to Shanghai during the writing of the book, I felt as if I had visited. I was fortunate to inherit the entire archive of family photos, correspondence and legal documents, including passports, quarantine statements, and grade school report cards! (My father received above average grades but one of his teachers noted that his comportment must improve! It's ironic but not surprising that I didn't hear that part of the education story when I was still attending school.) After both my Aunt Lily and Uncle Bernie passed away, a truckload of antique furniture, lamps, clothing, Babushka's oil paintings, and Lily's beloved piano traveled from NY to my home in San Francisco. I am surrounded by the memories and aesthetics of 1920s-40s Shanghai. I plan to visit the former French Quarter of Shanghai within the next few years. My hope is to locate my grandfather Isai's tombstone and place a pebble on its top. This Jewish ritual will signify that I have honored his memory with a visit to his grave. His ideals live on and  impress me - just as the pebble made an impression on my hands.

Q:  How did your father's unusual background, with its Chinese and Russian influences, impact your own childhood?

A:  My father's background impacted my childhood on many levels: aesthetically, linguistically, and in a culinary sense. I grew up with Chinese and Russian imagery in the family home including artwork, textiles, and furniture. We have a samovar for serving tea. We regularly ate Chinese food, and every year my Russian grandmother visited for six years, filling our home with the tastes of my ancestral land including borscht, pirogue and piroshki, My father was fluent in four languages which informed my development as a poet along with my love of classical music and opera. The Chinese and Russian cultures have a shared emphasis on family and education. So both these cultures – Chinese and old European – wove together in my home and resulted in a highly ethical child rearing system.

Q:  Andrea, you also blog about motherhood at Calm and Confident Moms.  Can you tell us a little bit about what sort of topics you cover on your blog?

A:  The purpose of my blog is to share my insights into peaceful parenting. It was born out of a wish: to find reassurance and ease when I am struggling, to learn how to accept my mistakes and move forward. This is what I most need as I strive to give my children, and myself, the gift of peace and a happy day. My blog entries explore how we as mothers can create little moments of peace and a welcoming world for our children, how to tackle a big project as we would dressing in the morning: one button at a time, how to manage the moment just as it is because that is our life purpose, and having the humility and grace to drop the need to be right. As our culture becomes increasingly dependent on electronic gadgets and busy with myriad activities, it is my intention to encourage parents to slow down, and encourage a play-centered curriculum which of course includes reading and storytelling.

Q:  Could you share with us a few of the books that are currently on your nightstand (i.e. ones you are in the process of reading?)  Do you read mostly children's, YA or adult titles?

A:  I usually have three books going at once: a novel, an inspirational book, and a nonfiction book, usually historical about whatever era I am currently fascinated by. I just finished Room by Emma Donahue, a brilliantly crafted book told by a believable five year old narrator. I'm on page 65 of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I missed this rich and quirky novel when it first published ten years ago. I am re-reading A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, finding new inspiration to let go of ego and its illusions on every page. Instead of a history book, I am reading Yoga Journal, specifically an article about mastering the fine art of balance. I enjoy reading most genres but gravitate towards literary adult fiction.

Q:  What authors, particularly of children's books, have been a real inspiration to you?

A:  I learned while studying for my Creative Writing degree to read like a writer. When I read, I love to deconstruct the prose and learn from the masters how to craft snappy dialog, compelling settings, believable and lovable characters. My favorite writers to read and be entertained by are Isabel Allende, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Karen Hesse. I get happily lost in the story worlds and dramatic action that these authors create.

Andrea, thanks so much for visiting me here on The Fourth Musketeer.  We'll look forward to reading the next volume of Anya's story!


Pragmatic Mom said...

I love your interviews. I always learn such interesting things; I didn't realize Andrea was also a mommy blogger. The Jewish story in Shanghai is also so interesting. Thanks for such great posts (as usual!).

Allison said...

Great interview! I recently read Anya's War, and enjoyed learning more about Andrea. I'm glad to know about her blog!