I’m delighted to welcome Jillian Cantor, author of, most recently, The Hours Count as well as Margot, and The Transformation Things, as well as several young adult novels including Searching for Sky and The September Sisters. I had the pleasure to meet Jillian when we spoke at a Jewish Book Council luncheon in Boca Raton, Florida. Here’s our interview:
Diana Bletter: The Hours Count deals with a fictionalized account of the neighbor of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans put to death for spying during the Cold War. In another of your novels, Margot, you invent a new life for Anne Frank’s sister, Margot. What draws you to these controversial stories?
Jillian Cantor: It’s not the controversy that draws me to the stories but just the normal, familial relationships at the heart of them. With Margot, I was drawn to the sister relationship between Anne and her older sister, Margot. I also am an older sister and I was interested in thinking about Anne and Margot as normal girls, normal sisters and exploring the sister relationship. With The Hours Count, I was drawn to the idea of Ethel as a mother. What first interested me in writing the book was reading the last letter Ethel ever wrote to her sons (aged 6 and 10 at the time) on the day she was executed. She implored them to always remember that she was innocent. I have two sons, about those ages at the time I first read the letter, and I was horrified by what happened to Ethel. I wanted to reimagine her as a mother.
Diana Bletter: Blending fiction with historical fact seems tricky. Can you tell us about your research? And how did you get started writing?
Jillian Cantor: The Hours Count spans the years 1947-1953 so before I really started writing I did a lot of research about those years, both what was going on with the Rosenbergs and what was going on in the world at the time. I made a huge timeline on the wall in my office, noting key dates with real events that I wanted to include in the book, and then I began to shape the fictional events in my main character’s, Millie’s, world around those.
The novel goes back and forth in time between the night of the execution in 1953 and the years leading up to it. I always knew I wanted to begin the novel with Millie driving towards Sing Sing that night. I wasn’t sure why she was going there and what she was doing when I first started to write. But I knew she was driving there, and that she was in trouble. I wrote that first scene of the book months before I wrote anything else or even finished researching. Then I put it aside and let it simmer in the back of my head for a while as I researched. And once I had my timeline constructed I began to figure out how the fiction fit in with the history.
Diana Bletter: You’ve also written a number of young adult books, including The September Sisters and Searching for Sky. How does writing for young adults differ from writing for adults?
Jillian Cantor: I don’t really see it as different, other than the ages of my main characters. No matter what kind of book I’m writing I’m most interested in the characters, their relationships and telling a good story.
Diana Bletter: Do you have any suggestions for new writers? Are there any writing exercises, tips or tools that are helpful for you? What is your routine?
Jillian Cantor: My routine is to write when my kids are at school during the week days. I’m very disciplined about that time. I don’t clean my house or do laundry or sometimes even clear the breakfast dishes from the table before I sit down there with my laptop and coffee. I treat writing like a job and put in time every weekday. I think the best suggestion I have is something a professor told me in grad school: very simply, butt in the chair. I make myself sit down and write, even if the writing isn’t always good. The first step is always getting some words on the page. If I’m working on a first draft I set goals for myself, usually about five pages each weekday, and once I hit that I let myself stop for the day. Sometimes I do it in two hours. Sometimes I come back to it after my kids go to bed and sit there until midnight just to get my pages in!
Diana Bletter: What are you working on now?
Jillian Cantor: I just finished a draft of my next historical novel and sent it off to my editor. It’s about a fictional stamp engraver in Austria in the late 1930s and a woman in LA in 1989 who finds a letter with one of his stamps and begins to unravel his long forgotten love story. It’ll be published by Riverhead, probably sometime in 2017.
Finally, this blog explores how to write your best chapter and also how to live your best chapter each day in the story of your life. How do you balance your writing with your family life? What are some of the things you do to take care of yourself each day?
Jillian Cantor: I really try to write only when my kids are at school or sleeping, and when they’re home I try to be present as Mom. It doesn’t always work out this way – for instance, I just left to tour for The Hours Count and wasn’t home for days at a time. But, most of the time, it does work, and I feel really lucky that I get to have a job I love and be really present for my kids.
As for taking care of myself, I try to exercise every week day. Since I treat writing like my day job, I give myself some time off in the middle of the day as a lunch break, but generally exercise instead (and then eat lunch at my computer when I’m back). I try to get at least 10,000 steps in every day – I find taking a long walk, hike, or run, always helps me solves problems I’m working out in a story too!
Thank you, Jillian!
Readers, if you have any questions for Jillian, ask away.