Elana K. Arnold’s The Blood Years—a searing historical novel set in 1939–1945 Romanian Czernowitz—is based on Arnold’s late grandmother’s experience living through the Holocaust. It follows Jewish 13-year-old Frederieke Teitler, who struggles to navigate shifting relationships with her mercurial older sister, depressed and physically weak mother, and fiercely kind maternal grandfather as war breaks out across Europe. Arnold spoke with PW about the importance of not sensationalizing the Holocaust, the difficulty she had separating her grandmother’s lived experiences from her characters’, and the ways in which her grandmother influenced her storytelling.
You explain in your author’s note that many of the events in The Blood Years were real parts of your grandmother’s life. How much of the characters’ personalities and arcs were influenced by their real-life counterparts?
So much. In fact, it was very difficult for me to write this novel. It took seven drafts, actually, because I was having such a hard time differentiating the grandmother I knew—who was protecting me as she told me her stories—from Frederieke. My grandmother was my mother, basically; she raised me in all the meaningful ways. I had an unstable home life, but a very stable grandparent. So I had a lifetime to hear the stories over and over. She was an incredible storyteller, and she was the kind of storyteller who didn’t feel the need to be perfect; she didn’t need to come off as the hero, which made her such a wonderful teacher as well. But yes, getting the voice of the character was such a difficult thing to do.
All the major events in the story actually happened, but because of the shape of the narrative, I had to move things around. And whenever I had to write events that didn’t actually happen to my grandmother, it was incredibly important to me not to sensationalize the Holocaust. I didn’t want to make up bad stuff because I get really, really upset when I read a book that just feels like Holocaust porn. Everything that happens in The Blood Years either happened to my family or is a fictionalized version of a testimonial. I spent hundreds of hours listening to testimonials and reading memoirs, and history books, and novels that came out of that era so that everything would be real. Even the dreams in the novel were real: they came from a collection of dreams that were written down by a student of Freud’s. She thought it would be interesting and important to write down the dreams that Jews were having in Germany in the early years.
Was it difficult to balance staying true to the real-life inspirations with, as you put it in your author’s note, your job as a writer to tell a good story?
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And honestly, probably the hardest thing I ever will do. It was an incredibly personal, painful story to work on. It was also difficult just getting the research right. It’s a hard time and place to read about. The Romanian government did their very best to eliminate and hide and ignore their culpability, and there are very few survivors from that time. I found a survivor from Romania who’s still alive, who was just a few years younger than my grandmother, and I hired her to be a reader for me. She helped me fix lots of mistakes. Her name is Ruth Glasberg Gold, and she wrote a book called Ruth’s Journey: A Survivor’s Memoir, which I read, and which was very important in my research.
So yeah, it was an incredibly difficult and honestly, such a rewarding job. And I really could not have done it without my editor, Jordan Brown.
How did you approach the different layers of storytelling to interweave big global issues surrounding imminent war and antisemitism with more interpersonal challenges, such as Mama’s longing for her husband, Frederieke experiencing her first period, and the sisters’ complex relationship?
I think, more than anything, that I’m a character-driven writer. I started with the characters and the events that I knew actually happened to my grandmother. One thing that didn’t change was the general shape of the story. And as far as the series of events, I never swapped out one climax for another, for example. I never considered not having Fredrieke be her sister’s keeper or not having tuberculosis. So, the things that I knew were true, the tentpole events of my grandmother’s life, were non-negotiable. But then, I had so many holes in my knowledge about Romania, about the Holocaust, about Judaism. I’m Jewish, but I’m a humanistic non-religious Jew; my grandparents came here after the war, without faith and with a lot of fear that the Holocaust would come again. My father was born in Germany, so I’m the first generation born here, and my grandparents really wanted us to hide. They were very pleased when I was born with my grandfather’s blue eyes, which is one of the things that kept him alive in Poland during the war.
I started with the story of my grandmother and her family. And then I just did so much research. And when I would come across something, I would say, “Okay, I could slot this in here.” So, I had the skeleton of my grandmother’s story. And then I guess you could say that the organs and the tendons and the connective tissue were the other things that I came across in my research—both historical facts about who was in charge when and also smaller stories. It felt like I was painting; I was adding layer after layer of color until I couldn’t necessarily tell which one was laid down first.
You also mention in your foreword that your grandmother encouraged you to use her experiences to write a book. How much of those were you able to include in The Blood Years? What do you hope her reaction would be if she read it?
I know she would be deeply proud of me because she was always deeply proud of all of us. Everything I had of her went into this book. So, I took everything I knew, everything that I was able to glean from my siblings; from the notes I’d taken while she was alive; from the stories from Miriam, her caretaker in her final years; from her friends.
But there’s still so much that happened to her after she made it out of Romania. And what happens next is at least another novel’s worth of material. The life she lived after she came here was also deeply beautiful and complicated. My grandmother was someone who never wasted anything. I remember she would eat the same leftovers over and over and over again; she would cut the mold off of cheese rinds. And so I think she’d be very pleased that I found a way to make use of the terrible things that happened to her. I could spend the rest of my life writing about my grandmother.
The Blood Years by Elana K. Arnold. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $19.99 Oct. 10 ISBN 978-0-06-299085-3