I kept a journal on my 2004 research trip to Vilnius, Lithuania, while I was writing Until Our Last Breath. Recently, San Diego Jewish World began an eight-part serialization of that journal, revised and edited for publication. “In Search of the Partisans of Vilna” will run weekly on Wednesdays through mid-July. In it, I write about specific experiences that made the Holocaust more real to me, the emotional impact of my journey, and the insights I gained that enriched the book.
My author page at San Diego Jewish World will have links to all eight parts of the journal. It’s at the halfway point now, with entry 4 published this week.
When his good friend Gertrude Stein finished reading an early draft of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, she handed it to him, saying “Begin again, Ernest. And this time, concentrate.”
Susan Vreeland shared this story during her speech for the San Diego Book Awards earlier this month, and I’ve been mulling it over since then. I suspect that what Stein was reacting to was a falling away from the truth in her friend’s novel.
“Truth in fiction?” you might be asking. Consider this beautiful passage from Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. “When I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”
I must admit, I find Hemingway difficult to enjoy. I don’t use his writing as a model because that would be untrue to my own voice, but I love his acknowledgment of the need to be true when I write. Facts are part of this, of course. It’s important not to write anything contrary to what we know the truth to be, but facts don’t convey much in and of themselves. It’s the meaning constructed from them that matters. That is the core of the writer’s craft, whether in fiction or narrative non-fiction, of which Until Our Last Breath is an example.
Where does truth come from? Author Henry James offered excellent advice to new writers when he said, “try to be a person upon whom nothing is lost.” In writing about Jews trapped in the ghetto in Vilna or engaging in acts of sabotage as partisans, I didn’t get all my facts from books. I don’t think the book would have been published if I had. I gathered from my own experience and occasionally from literature (in particular the Bible) the images and sensations that I hope make the book come alive for readers. Going out without a winter coat on the first warm day in spring, the feel and sound of snow crunching underfoot, the rustle of bodies in a crowded room, the softness of another person’s lips, the sweet ache of first love. I am my source for these, for they are things I know.
It takes far more concentration, I’ve found, to write “true sentences” with these kinds of facts than with the ones from books. Susan Vreeland offered as a blessing for writers this verse from Psalm 19: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight.” One doesn’t need to believe in God, or anyone outside the self as the judge of one’s work, to know what this means. As a writer, I have to be real before my books can be.
I had the great privilege of listening to Susan Vreeland speak at the San Diego Book Awards on May 16, 2009. Since that evening was rather full of distractions (Until Our Last Breath and The Four Seasons both won in their categories and The Four Seasons won the Theodor Geisel Award for book of the year), it’s taken until now to come down out of the clouds and give a serious thought to what Susan had to say.
How wonderful it was to hear a career teacher and novelist bring those two professions together into a powerful statement about teachable moments, and the imperative for serious writers to offer such moments in our work. It’s not enough for non-fiction writers to convey facts. We have to convey meaning, or better yet, allow readers to find it for themselves. It’s not enough for fiction writers to create characters and plunk them down into a place and time. If there’s no wisdom to be gained by what happens to them, why bother?
“Writers are “practitioners developing …the compassion born of imagining the lives of others, fictional or real,” she said. It is both our charge and our honor to encourage the imagination to come alive, for it is with the ability to imagine the lives of others that we move in the direction of real humanity. “Where there is no imagination, there is no human connection.[…] Where there is no connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, lovingkindness, human understanding, peace–they all shrivel.”
Shriveled hearts, we all know, are capable of great harm. But as Susan pointed out, “each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another is a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race.” Forget about writing books that are no more than shallow diversions, she says. Go for “themes that matter–issues of faith, morality, mortality, humanity, artful living, literature that explores the ways that Love can make a difference in this world.”
I’m thinking now about UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and how well Susan’s words reflect what I was trying to accomplish as I wrote it.
I would not have been interested in becoming its author at all if the themes she spoke of were not so readily apparent in the story of the Vilna Ghetto. Amazingly, not a single ghetto resident died of hunger or in an epidemic, despite the horrific conditions. Why? Because the community vowed it would not happen. Mortality statistics in the ghetto for those who were not victims of organized murder were actually lower than in the rest of Vilna in the same period, and only slightly higher than the city’s annual mortality rate in the years before the occupation. The Jews were in it together, and everyone’s health and safety mattered. They weren’t going to help the Nazis do the job.
That’s the kind of thing I wanted to write about. The themes of community and commitment were found not just there, but everywhere in the story I was privileged to tell, and I think that’s what brought UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH recognition not just from the San Diego Book Awards, but recently from the Christopher’s as well. The Christopher Medal goes to books and other media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” If the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto and the partisan camps in the Rudnicki Forest did not affirm those values, I could not have written a book that did.
There’s more from Vreeland’s speech I want to write about. Look for another post to my diary in a few days. For now, if you want to read her speech in its entirety, here’s the link.
Last Saturday evening, UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH won best biography, and THE FOUR SEASONS won best historical fiction at the 2009 San Diego Book Awards. But there’s more! THE FOUR SEASONS won the Theodor S. Geisel Award for book of the year! To be recognized for my writing with three awards at this event, and earlier this year at the Christopher Awards in New York, is so far beyond anything I’ve experienced as a writer that I’m still pinching myself.
I’m sitting in the departure lounge at JFK thinking how glad I am I came to New York to receive in person my Christopher medallion for UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH (that’s the award, pictured to the right).
I spent part of the morning of the awards ceremony with Sarah Landis, my Hyperion/VOICE editor, admiring the amazing view of the Empire State Building from Hyperion Books’ new digs in Lower Manhattan. It’s nice to see the publisher’s enthusiasm for THE FOUR SEASONS remains high, and that sales are holding steady.
Later I went uptown to see my agent, Meg Ruley. The Jane Rotrosen Agency’s digs are the opposite of the sleek, ultramodern Hyperion offices. Jane remodeled a multi-story townhome she bought many years ago (smart lady!) into a home for the agency, and a home it truly is. They’ve kept the cozy look, with a comfortable parlor filled with clients’ books, a backyard garden, and a creaky staircase with flowered wallpaper. The only thing that says not to expect a corseted matron to sweep in from an Edith Wharton or Henry James novel and ring the maid for tea is the posters of agency best-sellers covering the walls and stairwell. In every little cranny and back room of the house-turned-business, some of the nicest people in New York (including Meg herself) are hard at work helping their clients succeed. I am truly fortunate to be among them.
Meg and I went from there to the Whitney Museum to see the current exhibition featuring works by Jenny Holzer. Holzer is best known for scrolling neon marquees featuring her own aphorisms and quotations from others. The focus of this show was the occupation of Iraq, using statements from civilian and military officials, US soldiers, and Iraqis to portray the toll of war on human life and character. Since one is forced to read at the relentless pace of the marquees – slower than normal reading speed but too fast to absorb nuanced meanings – the overall effect is of being caught up in a wash of language that is both confrontational and elusive. It left me speechless, an amusing irony not just since Holzer’s foundation is words, but because as a writer I am not usually at a loss for them.
I walked back to my hotel through Central Park in springtime. The petting zoo was full of kids in winter coats they have not yet shed, but which now flop open with no more than a t-shirt underneath. For New Yorkers I imagine that’s as much a sign of spring as flowering trees and daffodils.
The Christopher Awards ceremony that evening touched me deeply. In the beautiful McGraw-Hill auditorium, I watched clips of the winning films and television specials with my companion for the evening, author Susanne Dunlap (LISZT’S KISS, EMILIE’S VOICE, THE MUSICIAN’S DAUGHTER). Michael Bart and his wife, Bonnie, were there as well, since we jointly received the award for UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH–Michael for his years of research and me for my writing. Congratulations to you again, Michael, and to Bonnie as well.
Afterwards, Susanne and I partied with Oscar the Grouch, who said he didn’t see why he had to leave his comfortable garbage can just because the Sesame Street Group received the lifetime achievement award that night. Muppeteer Carroll Spinney, who had Oscar on his arm, confided to me when his little green friend wasn’t listening that he doesn’t think Oscar is really all that grouchy, since he knows how much Carroll loves him.
Susanne and I stayed until the clean-up crew ripped out the tablecloth under our empty wine glasses (well, not exactly, but they looked like they might). By then the pianist was accompanying Carroll, who was singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” and “The Rainbow Connection” with Mousketeer-era people like me -all of us Sesame Streeters through our children and grandchildren.
With only about two dozen remaining guests, the room was quiet enough for a few last conversations, some of the best of the evening. I spent a little time with Father Dennis Cleary, the new director of The Christophers, which gave me the chance to tell him in person how thrilled I was that the themes I had tried to convey in UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH had been recognized by the awards committee. There’s a consistent message in all my novels as well as this book, that our decisions are what define us as people, and that principled choices enable us to become more than we might imagine possible.
I finished my stay in New York with a visit the following morning to the Frick Collection for what’s becoming a tradition for me and another author friend Stephanie Cowell (MARRYING MOZART and THE GREEN DRESS). We’ve been meeting at a different art museum each time I’m in New York, and we stroll around catching up with each other between stops to admire the paintings. Stephanie is a lifelong New Yorker, and she showed me a Rembrandt self-portrait, done in middle age, that has been a force in her life for many years – a heady blend of saint, sage, and bodhisattva, whose eyes hold her accountable for herself since her last visit.
As we left the museum, I was holding a rolled up poster of the Rembrandt, since I don’t think I’ll be at the Frick often enough for him to work that spiritual magic on me in person. After a quick stop at a deli, we took our lunch to Central Park and sat in the spring light talking about our books, both published and in progress, and about using our blessings well. The evening before, Father Cleary had ended by thanking the honorees for our creative expression, and offering a prayer that we all might continue to use our talents and skills to make future Christopher-worthy contributions as writers and filmmakers. I intend to do my best to live up to that challenge.
Time to board the plane for home. A very nice thought indeed.
Recently I was sorting through some old files and came across several items that might be of interest to those aware of Michael Bart’s claim that he is the author of UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. Shown here is the title page of the manuscript as sold to St. Martin’s Press in 2007 and the title page for the original 2004 book proposal. Both of these provide concrete evidence of my role as the book’s author. The meaning of “by” and “with” is clarified inside the proposal:
About the Author
Laurel Corona is a tenured professor of English and Humanities at San Diego City College. She has also taught at the University of California at Davis, San Diego State University, and the University of California at San Diego.
Additionally, Dr. Corona is the author of approximately twenty books for middle and high school students, published by Lucent Books, a division of Greenhaven Press. A partial list includes the following titles:
World Religions: Judaism
American Immigrants: The Jewish Americans
The Cold War: The War Within a War: Vietnam and the Cold War
The Way People Live: Life in Moscow
Building History: The World Trade Center
Modern Nations Series: Israel, Poland, Norway, South Africa, The Russian Federation, Ukraine, France, Kenya, Brazil, Ethiopia, Peru, Afghanistan
Dr. Corona was a Charter Fellow in the San Diego Area Writing Project in 1977, and has won awards for her writing, including winning the on-site writing contest at the Santa Barbara Writing Conference in 1996. She has been active as an editor and contributor to the San Diego City College literary journal, City Works, which attracts submissions nationwide.
Dr. Corona has also been a guest lecturer on subjects relating to Judaism at local synagogues and community groups as a result of her authorship of books on Israel, Judaism, and Jewish immigrants. She has traveled extensively to Eastern Europe, Israel and elsewhere in the course of her research on Judaism and the Jews. A formal resume is attached as an appendix to this proposal.
About the Contributor
Michael Bart is the son of Eliezer (Leizer) and Zenia Lewinson Bart. He has taken information and original documentation shared with him by his parents and spent eight years researching and interviewing Holocaust survivors throughout the world, and collecting additional documentation and photographs to help tell the story of Until Our Last Breath.
He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, where his parents had found sponsorship with American relatives. He has been a resident of San Diego for 37 years. He has a BS in Business Management and an MBA in Finance from San Diego State University. He has worked as a real estate investor and developer for 26 years. He is a current board member of the Second Generation of Holocaust Survivors Group in San Diego. He and his wife Bonnie live in Rancho Santa Fe, north of San Diego.
This is a truthful representation of the authorship of UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. Mr. Bart’s approval of both the proposal and manuscript title pages, as well as the author and contributor descriptions, is direct acknowledgment that throughout the process the word “author” (as that word is commonly used and understood in connection with books) applied to me alone, and that the book was “by Laurel Corona.”
The only “official” source of information is the book itself. A footnote in the preface states that I “did all the writing for the text.” The back flap states that I am “the writer of this book.” Instead of using his website and appearances to promote himself–and himself alone–as “the author” of a book that he did not write, Mr. Bart should be saying how fortunate (and grateful) he is to have found someone with my background and skill who was willing to take on this difficult, multi-year project with no assurance of publication, or indeed any form of reward except what comes from a job well done.
It would be painful for any author to see the arduous process of writing so disrespected, and to stand by watching years of one’s work appropriated by someone else. Given the many books and shorter pieces I have published as an individual author, and in light of what I presume is the obvious value of experience and expertise in producing work of award-winning quality, it is astonishing to be treated so dismissively. I am not only professionally harmed but also deeply offended by Michael Bart’s abuse of the honorary title of “author”; by his refusal to acknowledge me as the writer of UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH; by his comments about my motives; and by his insinuations that I lacked the competence and/or the willingness to write, revise, and edit this book in an acceptable manner, and that my work required major intervention by him to bring it to a publishable level. He is aware of my concerns but has not acted in any positive way to address them.
People tell me they love my website, created by Gabriel Porras and Patricia Maas at Blue Jay Tech, but there’s always room for improvement! While they’re working hard behind the scenes on the technical requirements to improve access, add information, and make the site more fun to rummage around in, I am doing some updating of the text. For those of you who check in regularly, watch for a lot of changes over the next few weeks. For now, I’ll point you to the first substantial change, which is my rewritten Q&As on Until Our Last Breath. Go to the bookshelf button to locate the book, and click Q&As once you’re there. Or you can cut to the chase, and use this link.
Recently I was asked by Donald Harrison, editor of San Diego Jewish World, if I would like to write for the newspaper. Last week I contributed a guest column about writing Until Our Last Breath and just today my first attempt at reporting an event is in the paper. I’m looking forward to doing more of this, and I have enhanced respect for what journalists do to turn live, streaming reality into organized, polished prose. To outsiders, it may look easy, because nothing but the finished product ever sees the light of day, but as the Italians say, “Che pasticcio!” (what a mess!) exists inside my head and on my desk before it’s ready to push “send.”
Here’s an update: I now have my own author page at San Diego Jewish World
San Diego City College has issued a very nice press release about Until Our Last Breath and the Christopher Award. It’s been amazing to me how many people–faculty, staff and students–seem to be aware I have been honored in this way, and it’s been immensely gratifying to see how happy they are for me. It’s so wonderful to have the support of so many good people. Here it is:
SAN DIEGO CITY COLLEGE PROFESSOR LAUREL CORONA
WINS 2009 CHRISTOPHER AWARD
San Diego, CA (March 19, 2009)….San Diegans Laurel Corona and Michael Bart have won a 2009 Christopher Award for Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance (St. Martin’s Press 2008). Since 1949, the Christopher Awards have been given for books, films, and television productions that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.”
The award honors Corona for her writing ability to “craft words and images into a clear, cohesive vision.” Bart is being honored for his years of research into his parents’ involvement withthe Jewish resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Lithuania.
Corona is a professor of humanities at San Diego City College. She began her career as a published author in 1999 with a book on Kenya for Lucent Books. After writing 17 young adult titles for Lucent, she turned her attention to books for adults. Her most recent work is The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice (Hyperion/VOICE 2008).
Corona will travel to New York to receive her 2009 Christopher medallion on April 16 as part of the Diamond Gala celebrating the sixtieth year of the awards. One Book/One San Diego author Sonia Nazario was a recent winner for Enrique’s Journey.
Corona’s next book reading andbook signing for The Four Seasons will be on Tuesday,
About San Diego City College Founded in 1914, San Diego City College serves as the educational cornerstone of downtown San Diego. With more than 17,000 students, City College offers 240 Associate Degrees and Certificates and 1,500 day, evening and weekend classes, including programs in nursing and cosmetology. Home to KSDS Jazz 88.3 and the award-winning Knights, City College is part of the San Diego Community College District, comprised of City College, Mesa College, Miramar College, and Continuing Education. www.sdcity.edu
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