Today I'm happy to welcome the distinguished writer Esther Friesner. Ms. Friesner is the author of many, many novels -- including her newest release Threads and Flames, which is a historical fiction novel about a young immigrant girl coming to New York City at the turn of the century who finds work at the historically ill-fated Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (check out my full review here). Since much of Threads and Flames is historically accurate, I was happy for the chance to sit down with Ms. Friesner to learn a little bit more about her writing process.
From Raisa's point of view, her job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a dream job, at least in comparison to many others. Yet the company owners still treated their employees as something less than human. As many companies do today. What type of discussions or actions were you hoping to foster after readers discovered such injustices?
What I’m hoping for most is that readers will become more aware of such injustices, pay attention to them, and do what they can to stop them, even if it’s no more than standing up and saying, “I see what you’re doing there and it’s not right!” That sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? And it is, in theory. In practice, it’s another story. Our lives are busy, filled with our own problems. Everything from the big worries (Will I pass this course/get into a good college? Will I get a good job/keep a good job? Will I be able to make the rent/buy a house/meet the mortgage payments? Will I find love? Will I stay healthy? What about the people I love? Who’s going to take care of me when I’m old?) to the minor ones (Where are my car keys? Why won’t my jeans close? What’s that thing on my face? What’s that smell? What did the cat do this time?) chips away at us. We’re so preoccupied and worn out from our own concerns that it’s easy to pretend that social inequities don’t exist, or aren’t as bad as all that, or are so huge that there’s nothing that one person can do to change things so why even try?
I’d like to see more people realize that they should try. Even if all you do is speak up when you see something that’s wrong, it counts.
Someone once said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” I say we should at least put up a fight.
When Raisa first comes to New York - alone - not only can she barely read in her native language, she cannot read or write or even speak English. What were some of the main reasons you decided to saddle her with so many giant obstacles?
The decision wasn’t mine to make. It was typical of the situation many immigrants faced on their arrival in the United States. Like other girls of her time and society, Raisa wouldn’t have received much education in the old country, nor—given her economic situation--would she have had the time to spare for lessons. America gave her precious opportunities to change that.
I've read that Raisa's story is in part a connection to your own ancestors who also immigrated to America around the same period. How much of Raisa's story patterns that of your grandparents?
Not a lot, from what I can gather. Only my mother’s parents were fortunate enough to come to America. My father’s parents and the rest of his family were murdered during the Holocaust. My maternal grandfather was the first to come over, later sending for my grandmother. Their children were born here. Unfortunately, my grandfather died long before I was born and I never thought to ask my mother much about his immigrant experiences. I do know that he was not a garment-maker, like Raisa. He was a cigar-maker, and when he had saved enough money, he bought a candy and sundries store in Brooklyn which he later lost during the Depression. Even though he didn’t share Raisa’s experience, he did get to meet the great labor leader, Samuel Gompers. (That is yet another family story about which I wish I’d asked Mom for more details. Hint to anyone interested in history: Get your relatives to tell you the old family stories before it’s too late!)
Along those same lines, were there sections of the novel where you were not able to find many first-hand accounts and had to simply use your imagination?
I wish I could remember!
What books do you find yourself recommending over and over (and over) again?
Just about anything by Colette, especially her short stories.
Just about everything by Terry Pratchett.
The short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (An Edwardian trip up the Thames and it’s still funny!)
The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick (All of the volumes. A great, memorable, painless way to learn about world history.)
The novels of Jorge Amado, such as Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Gabriela, etc. (In translation, of course. He was a great Brazilian author and I can’t read Portuguese. Many men love women, but he also liked us. That’s important.)
And many more!
Many thanks to the lovely Ms. Esther for taking the time to stop by today. I for one was astounded at the many facts woven into Raisa's story after researching the topic a bit online myself . Threads and Flames is a very satisfying novel for anyone who loves historical fiction.