Sometimes I’m asked how long it takes to write a book. I usually reply that there’s no good estimate. When that doesn’t satisfy, I joke that it’s like a pregnancy, no less than eight months, no more than nine. I don’t mention “Lilli Chernofsky", the novel that took me 26 years to complete.
In 1990 a convention of Old China Hands, Jewish refugees from Hitler who had survived the Shanghai ghetto, was held in a hotel in Anaheim, California. I lived nearby, so out of curiosity I attended one of the public events. It was a raucous, joyously emotional gathering, lots of tears and laughter and reminiscences. The personal stories were overwhelming. I was hooked. Over the following months I met and interviewed twelve survivors and taped their stories of escape from Europe and the life-altering drama of existence in the Shanghai ghetto. Among the people I interviewed was a man in his late seventies who was living in a condo in Leisure World in Orange County; he had been a classical violinist in Europe and ended up leading a jazz band in Shanghai. Another one was an insurance executive I interviewed in his office in Los Angeles; he had spent his youth in Shanghai and was curious as to why anyone would want to know anything about it. Another was a woman in her sixties who agreed to meet me at a café in the Northridge Mall; she told me about a childhood in Shanghai that still caused her nightmares. Another was an elderly woman and her daughter who met me for lunch in Marina del Rey and after a slow, awkward beginning, told me about their escape from Hitler and what their lives had been like in Shanghai. There were more interviews. Even a letter from a man in Australia. I soon had a drawer full of interview tapes.
I knew several things about the book before I started: it would be a novel; it would hew close to the information I had gleaned from survivors; it would be about how people survive calamitous events and whether they survive honorably or by betraying others; it would be an adult novel that could also be read by teenage readers, for at the novel’s heart would be the young Lilli Chernofsky and her stunning metamorphosis from sheltered seventeen-year-old to complex heroine.
By 1997 the novel (then titled “Escape to Shanghai”) was finished. I gave it to my agent. She didn’t want to represent a book about Jews or the Holocaust or World War II. I changed agents. Several tried to find a publisher for the book, but with no success.
I contacted Spielberg’s Shoah Project and asked if they would like to add the taped interviews to their collection. They said they only used interviews for the Shoah Project that they themselves conducted.
Being a fiction writer means being philosophical about the fate of one's work. Although attachment might not diminish, reality must be served. So I put the books and tapes in the drawer and began writing a book about Texas.
In 2006 "The Texicans" was published by Soho Press. After that there were a few false starts on other books, but always in the back of my mind was the unpublished novel about the Shanghai Jews. It nagged at me that I had made a promise to the survivors I interviewed that I would write a book based on their experiences and when the going got rocky I had given up. So I pulled the manuscript out of the drawer. and began to revise.
I don't know what changed. My fortunes, possibly. The zeitgeist, maybe. But in 2016 I sold "Lilli Chernofsky" to Brick Mantel Books. It was published in January of 2018 and will be featured on the Jewish Book Council's list of recommended books.
So writers everywhere: Open the drawer, dust off the bedraggled manuscript, look at it with a gimlet eye, make revisions -- slash-and-burn revisions, if necessary -- and then humbly, proudly and determinedly take it to market.