Do Fictional Characters Make Demands? How Two Holocaust Survivors Entered My Book by Kay Kendall
Authors often assert that characters can take off on their own and run away with their stories. One writer said, “When Jim told me he was the killer, I had to change my plot.” But such remarks have made me dubious. Nothing like that happened when I wrote my first mystery, Desolation Row (2013). Yet, when I wrote the sequel, Rainy Day Women (July 2015), I experienced the phenomenon.
This realization hit me when someone asked why I—a Methodist—included two Holocaust survivors in my mystery set in 1969. My characters had simply demanded to be survivors because they had an important story to tell. After all, I grew up with versions of my characters Mr. and Mrs. Spektor in my head. As a child of the sixties, I cannot recall the first time I heard about the Holocaust. I have always known. Those horrors are as much a part of my upbringing as the Cold War and JFK’s assassination.
History fascinates me. I always want to know why things happened the way they did. What makes people behave irrationally? I recall clearly the moment I learned about Stalin’s blood purges in my Soviet history class. How were these atrocities allowed to happen? I quizzed my professor hard, and he smiled gently at my naiveté. Through years of studying Russian history and earning degrees in the subject, I learned to make sense of the plague that was Stalin.
However, try as I might—reading lots about the Holocaust and Jewish life back to Moses, plus watching documentaries and dramas—I still cannot understand the antisemitism that gave rise to Stalin’s contemporary, that other scourge called Hitler. I have gained some insight into how Hitler came to power, but the societal crush of the Holocaust remains beyond my comprehension. Yet today, despite discovery of the historical facts of the Holocaust, antisemitism again stalks the globe.
But back to my two characters, Mr. and Mrs. Spektor. They are the parents of Shona, the first murder victim in Rainy Day Women. I made them Jewish because European and American history tells us that many Jews were activists in progressive causes, and in my mystery Shona was a leader in the women’s liberation movement of 1969. Someone killed her. Her parents wonder if antisemitism had anything to do with it. Or, was it anti-feminism?
Historical mysteries provide a way for readers to refresh their knowledge of a time period, or learn about it in the first place. The 1960s gave rise to issues that are still relevant today, and in my books I seek not only to entertain but also to give gentle history lessons. I wrote my way through half of Rainy Day Women before, all of a sudden, the Spektors insisted they were Holocaust survivors. I paused only a moment and then agreed. I can only conclude that their demands sprang out of my subconscious.
All the history I studied combined with the outrage I feel over growing antisemitism. With the world becoming increasingly hateful, non-Jews like me also must speak up. Using my book as their conduit, Mr. and Mrs. Spektor step forward to remind us, “Never again.”
Kay Kendall is a long-time fan of historical novels and writes atmospheric mysteries that capture the spirit and turbulence of the sixties. She is also an award-winning international PR executive who lives in Texas with her Canadian husband, three house rabbits, and spaniel Wills. Terribly allergic to her bunnies, she loves them anyway! Her book titles show she’s a Bob Dylan buff too. RAINY DAY WOMEN is the second in her Austin Starr Mystery series. Desolation Row is the first.
0 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Kay Kendall – Do Fictional Characters Make Demands? How Two Holocaust Survivors Entered My Book”
Hi, Kay – Thanks for the interesting blog. It does make you wonder how characters pop into your head, and how they take over. And as you said, someone not even of your background or beliefs. It’s as though we are writing down the story based on some guide that is dictating it. I often look over what I’ve written and wonder, “Where in the world did that come from?”
Hello, Grace. I appreciate it when characters kind of take over. I think that’s when they come to life most, rather than lying limply on the page. I wasn’t shocked when the Spektors spoke up. It made complete sense to me.
There is no question that through our subconscious thoughts, the voices in our heads (or at least in author’s heads) guide storytelling — and often in the best ways.
What an intriguing post! It seems to me that making Mr. & Mrs. Spektor Holocaust survivors is a rational choice, as it adds to the possible solutions of the plot, it heightens their sense of loss and reader sympathy (because they’ve already lost so much), and also would color their feelings about the investigation into their daughter’s death. Nice choice.
I completely agree with you V. The characters being Holocaust survivors add a dimension of knowledge and emotion that wouldn’t be with characters who hadn’t lived experiences and therefore been changed or influenced by them.
vweisfeld, your thought process is just like mine. As well, I want to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, and this is my small bit to do that.