Seasons by the Book (SBTB), our seasonal book club, has enjoyed a wonderful start with our first book, Lilac Girls; our discussion and giveaway on Instagram were just a few highlights. To conclude our spring book selection, Cate and I, are happy to share this bonus Q&A with author, Martha Hall Kelly (MHK). We are incredibly grateful to Random House (publisher) for making this possible and to Martha Hall Kelly for taking the time to answer our questions.
SBTB: If you could spend an entire day with Caroline Ferriday what would you do?
MHK: I would start with breakfast at her house and ask her all the burning questions I’ve been dying to know, then walk around New York City with her and see the site of the old French consulate and hear her stories of working there. Then dinner at a French restaurant and after that she’d be ready to rest.
SBTB: Is the lilac plant you purchased from Ferriday’s home still alive and thriving?
MHK: Sadly, I had to leave it behind when we moved from Connecticut to Atlanta. I’m back in Connecticut now and planting tons of lilacs on our new property and some of Caroline’s iris too.
SBTB: Do you think the political and social changes we see today helped this book feel relevant to modern readers? Do you think it would have had the same affect on readers if it was published 20 years ago, 40, or even right after the war?
MHK: Yes, the political and social change we see today 100% makes the book relevant today. So many things have barely changed—isolationism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment. It is sad and disappointing we can’t seem to progress in a meaningful way on these issues and are even moving backwards. I think this was the perfect time for Lilac Girls—as the greatest generation slips away, the memory of WWII is growing dimmer and we need reminders like this of our history. I think it was way too soon right after the war for a book like this, though. Caroline actually tried to get some of her friends’ memoirs published right after the war and they were soundly rejected—she kept the rejection letters in her archives. I think people just were tired of war and wanted to move on right after it ended.
SBTB: Did you have any rituals or writing quirks while writing, ‘Lilac Girls’.
MHK: I tried to start writing at 7:00 when I woke up, since I’d read Eudora Welty once said you should write before you brush your teeth in the morning. The earlier the better for me.
SBTB: Since flowers, especially lilacs play heavily in your book, what flower would you associate yourself with, and why?
MHK: A Lilac for sure. It’s the flower that started this incredible writing journey and there is no lovelier scent.
SBTB: What is your favorite season to write in, and why?
MHK: Fall, absolutely. At my house in Connecticut it is quiet but so beautiful, with all the leaves turning. From my office window my view of the Berkshires practically on fire with autumn color is so calming and inspires me every day.
SBTB: What has influenced you the most as a writer?
MHK: I love the writing books of Sol Stein. I have all of his books, in every format and reread them regularly.
SBTB: If you had the opportunity to live and write for one year, in one of the cities mentioned in this book, which one would you choose and why?
MHK: Paris for sure! As I write this I’m in Paris for a book fair and the release of my second book Lost Roses in France and have already written several scenes here in my hotel room. I have a view overlooking Jardin Luxembourg and it is a joy to wake up every day and look out over the chestnut trees.
SBTB: When you went on your pilgrimage in 2010, what was your favorite place to visit and see in person, and why?
MHK: Lublin Poland was an incredible place to see. After reading so much about the Polish “rabbits” who were arrested there after working in the underground, it felt dreamlike to walk around the very place they had lived and talked about in their memoirs.
SBTB: What is your favorite genre to read and why?
MHK: I read a lot of non-fiction about the period I’m writing about at the time so when I read outside of work I like to read something completely different, thrillers or David Sedaris or something super emotional. Love Steven Rowley. Still weepy after reading Lily and the Octopus.
SBTB: If you could invite three people living or dead to a tea party, who would you invite?
MHK: Margaret Atwood, Tatiana de Rosnay and Liane Moriarty to talk writing and life.
SBTB: How do you think writing has shaped you, and in particular this book and it’s prequel?
MHK: Becoming an author has made me much more confident.I used to be afraid to own the fact that I write, but now I love talking about it. Also, in the past it felt like something was missing from my life and now it feels complete. Both books have helped me feel more connected to the world and the challenges we face as a human race, since I have travelled to France, Germany, Poland, and Russia. I used to be quite a homebody and this has really widened my lens, thank goodness.
SBTB: What was your favorite book as a child?
MHK: Sarah Crewe. I still love that book.
SBTB: What was your first bookish memory?
MHK: My mother reading Charlotte’s Web to me and my siblings at the dinner table. That book has it all. Love E. B. White to this day.
SBTB: What books are currently on your nightstand?
MHK: Mostly Civil War books about Abolition and Civil War medicine for research on book three, about Caroline Ferriday’s incredible great grandmother Jane Eliza Woolsey.
SBTB: Other than ‘Lilac Girls’ and ‘Lost Roses’, about how many audio books do you have in your collection? What are some of your favorites and why?
Just counted. 59! I liked A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams a lot. Love her writing.
SBTB: As a writer of historical fiction, your attention to research, including traveling and interviews is noteworthy. What do you find most challenging as you move from research to writing, balancing facts and people with fiction, while maintaining authenticity?
MHK: The most challenging for me in this respect is doing enough research about an aspect of the period so I can feel comfortable walking around in that world and writing as if I’m there. The further I go back in time the harder that gets, since everything is so different. Civil War New York, for example was such a different place in every way, so before I write a scene I have to know types of carriages, landscape, clothes, etiquette. It’s a lot of fun time traveling though.
SBTB: What wine do you pair with Four Fat Fowl’s St. Stephen? What would be your signature pairings for each of your books?
MHK: Flowers Chardonnay is great with St. Stephen! (And with anything, actually.) For the book pairings, I asked my husband, who loves wine and he said: for Lilac Girls: A good Cabernet from Bordeaux. And Lost Roses: a Pommard from Burgundy.
SBTB: Since you enjoy the art of handwriting, could you tell us, what your favorite pen and notebook?
MHK: I love the uni-ball VISION finepoint and write on Office Depot “professional” legal pads.