In Traitor, YA historical fiction writer Amanda McCrina illuminates a facet of World War II history that few U.S. readers are likely to be familiar with. The novel’s setting is Galicia, a region claimed by Poland and the Ukraine and occupied multiple times by German and Russian forces during the war. McCrina weaves together the stories of orphaned Tolya, first seen serving as a sharpshooter in the Soviet army, and Aleksey, leader of a Ukrainian paramilitary squad. McCrina spoke with PW about the ever-shifting meaning of her novel’s title, the hopeful spots she discovered during her research into a “super dark, super bleak” snippet of history, and how her role as a bookseller feeds into her work as a novelist.
The title Traitor sets up the expectation that a single traitor or even several traitors will eventually be identified in the course of the narrative. It quickly becomes clear that such a simple resolution isn’t forthcoming. Can you talk about the themes of loyalty and betrayal that spiral throughout the novel?
As a writer, I tend to be attracted to characters who have both internal and external conflict going on. And for me, the easiest way to do that is to write a character who represents two different sides or two conflicting identities. So Tolya, my main character, is representative of the whole conflict in the novel [because he is] both Polish and Ukrainian. He’s a microcosm of this conflict that runs throughout the novel. So his identity crisis is the same identity crisis [that runs] through the book.
There isn’t one single traitor in the novel. There [are] multiple people who could be considered traitors. There’s the whole question of what it means to be a traitor. Tolya goes through this conflict in himself, [wondering] whether he betrayed his parents by joining the Red Army.
So not only are there multiple different candidates for traitors, there are multiple conflicts about what you should be loyal to or what loyalty looks like or what it means. I wanted it to be an ambiguous title and hopefully that came across.
There are so many twists and turns in Tolya and Aleksey’s stories. How did you keep track of all of them during the writing and planning process?
It’s actually easier than you might think, because I wrote two separate novels and then spliced them together.
When I originally was drafting, [it was only from] Tolya’s point of view. It was only after several drafts that I started to realize, I may need to bring another narrator in here just to give further background information and to clarify a few things. So essentially, I wrote Tolya’s story and then I went back and wrote Aleksey’s story. I wrote one linear narrative, I wrote a separate linear narrative, and then I went back and kind of manipulated them. So, for me [keeping track of both storylines] wasn’t as difficult as it might be for the reader.
In addition to being a writer, you also currently work as a bookseller. Can you talk about how these two roles feed into each other?
I work at a very small independent bookstore called Bound [Booksellers], which is in Franklin, Tennessee. I really love being a bookseller because I’m able to kind of keep a finger on what the trends are, what readers want. I think that’s important to me: knowing what young people—especially in my community—want to read, what kind of things are they looking for? I’m not saying that I want to write just to current trends, obviously, but I think it is helpful to know what resonates with people. And I think being a bookseller has definitely helped me with that.
What do you want readers to walk away with from Traitor? Are there ways that you feel this historical novel resonates today?
One of the most basic things is [that] I want readers to walk away realizing there [are] still so many corners of World War II that haven’t been explored yet, even though there’s so much World War II fiction out there. I think there [are] still corners, especially on the Eastern Front or [in the] Pacific theater, [in] other areas of the world that haven’t been talked about as much—there’s still a lot to be explored.
More thematically, I hope [people] take empathy away from this reading experience. I hope they realize we don’t always know why people do what they do. We can’t assume that we understand where someone’s coming from. And I hope Traitor helps people [become] able to look at an issue from multiple sides, [to] see different perspectives.
I definitely think Traitor will resonate in this current climate we’re in, not just on the surface political level, but [because] there’s always a need for stories about people trying to do the right thing, even when their circumstances are horrendous. [As] I was researching Traitor, I realized even though this history is super dark, super bleak, super depressing, I kept coming across story after story of people who stood up to do the right thing, [who] defied expectations. [No] matter how dark and bleak our circumstances are, there are always people who are willing to stand up and do the right thing.
Traitor: A Novel of World War II by Amanda McCrina. FSG, $18.99 Aug. 25 ISBN 978-0-374-31352-4