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On Thursday, April 16th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Belva Plain, author of LEGACY OF SILENCE.
Belva Plain: Well, I am very well, thank you, and happy to be with you.
Belva Plain: It's one of those things that are unforgettable, like Napoleon advancing on Moscow, or like our own Revolution. That's what drew me to it. I think it will be remembered always as one of the tremendous events in history that can never be forgotten.
Belva Plain: I have been writing since I was in high school. That sounds funny, but I have. And I sold my first short story when I was 25. I've been writing ever since, but it took me a long time to get to a novel, that is true.
Belva Plain: The book just appeared in the stores this week, and of course, I would be delighted if someone was to make a movie out of it, but if not, I would be happy if just enough people read it and enjoy it.
Belva Plain: First, let me thank you for the very, very lovely things that you've just said. Nothing could make a writer happier than to be appreciated. In answer to the second part of your question, I never write about any place that I haven't seen. I think it doesn't ring true, I think readers can tell the difference between something that is valid and something that is made up. I live in New Jersey.
Belva Plain: It's a hard question to answer, because I am very curious and I like to read almost everything from everywhere. Right now, I am reading that lovely book ANGELA'S ASHES about a man's childhood and early youth in Ireland. Last year, I read an old book, DEATH COMES TO THE ARCHBISHOP, a novel about your part of the country in New Mexico, where I visited last year and loved, and want to see again.
Belva Plain: Thank you for loving all my books. The most challenging was CRESCENT CITY, because it took place before the War Between the States and during that war, and of course, I wasn't present during that time so I had to do a good deal of research, and I learned a lot, which was fun.
Belva Plain: You know, getting a title for a book is just like getting a family to agree on naming a new baby. I had to rack my brains for this title, and then I had to get approval, because you never know whether somebody else has a similar title. And it takes a lot of thinking to come up with something that people will remember, and that isn't too close to another person's title. Of course, I did want something with the word "legacy" in it, because, as you will read, it is about a legacy.
Belva Plain: For this book, I didn't have to do so much research, because it's relatively recent, and one has read so much about it and known people who endured those days and times. So really, I can say, the book almost wrote itself.
Belva Plain: Again, I have someone to thank. No, I do not ever write about anyone who can be recognized, because I don't think that's right to do, but inevitably, a writer has to draw on experiences with many people so that a character in a book might have some traits that the writer has seen, observed, but the way the writer combines them, nobody would recognize him- or herself.
Belva Plain: Well, that's really a hard one.... Let me see.... Well, I think maybe Paul from EVERGREEN. I found him to be very romantic. A little bit tragic, which is always exciting.
Belva Plain: I did not envision the success that I have been fortunate to have, and for which I am very grateful. I wrote because I love to write, and probably would write if I was never published. You ask where I am in my life. I am hoping that I will be able to continue as I am now, because it is a wonderful thing to be able to get up in the morning looking forward to one's work.
Belva Plain: Oh, two questions there. Well, I like historical fiction to read and to write, because how can we know where or what we are now, if we don't know where we came from? But, I will say that in fact, most of my recent books have been very contemporary. I have written about problems on Wall Street, I have written about adoption, about child molestation, and wife abuse, all very contemporary problems.
Belva Plain: No, I really do believe that everything in the book is historically accurate, beginning, for instance, with the committees of volunteers who assisted people arriving in this country without any funds, without any friends, frightened, lonely. I have known people on both sides, both the volunteers who helped and the people who needed help, and these are scenes that I shall never forget, so there was no difficulty for me in writing such scenes or many others.
Belva Plain: Oh, I'm not quite sure about what age growing up, so I'll start at the beginning.... I was lucky to have parents who read a good deal, and one of the things I most remember is being taken to bookstores on my birthday, and always getting a few books as presents. So, I have continued doing that with my children and grandchildren. I remember the graphics that my mother first chose for me. The usual ALICE IN WONDERLAND and TREASURE ISLAND, but that's what got me started on reading good books. Not that I didn't also read the funny papers. I did.... But it's good to let a child find out about the best things that have been written and form a taste for them. So, with that start, I went on to things suitable for older people. Reading the famous books we all know like MOBY-DICK, THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP, and so on.... And to this day, I still go back and read things that I read when I was a child or a young person, and I reread them, because now they are different books since I am a different person. However, that's not to say I don't read the newest things that come out. I do, and it's one of the joys of my life.
Belva Plain: This is a book with a surprise ending. You should of course, never look at the ending first, but certainly not with this one, and for that reason, I don't want to tell you that much. But I can say this, that it begins with a young girl's travel to America as the war is breaking out in Europe in 1939. She brings a great problem with her. Now, I hope you'll read it, and I hope you'll like it!
Belva Plain: Well, let's just say God's been good to me. Well, he has, but you'll want to hear more than that. Based on what people tell me, that my characters are real enough for people to recognize them. I know I look for that quality when I read, I want to think of myself in that plot and ask, "How would I act if something of that sort happened to me? Does this character ring true?" So, probably, that's what people have liked.
Belva Plain: I repeat part of the success, of course, is the reality of the characters, and the empathy that you can have with them. But, no matter how well you round out your characters, you do not have a book unless there is a story. The greatest classics of all time are fundamentally good stories. You have to have a "whodunit," not as in a mystery story, necessarily, but as in a life story What happened to these people? How are they going to handle their problem? How is it going to end? Unless you have a page-turner, no matter how well you've drawn your characters, you have no story.
Belva Plain: I tell you frankly While I have said during this program that history is so important for us, the truth is that I cannot find any period more worth living in than the present, because, number one, we have come very far in our civilization, and number two, we still have very far to go. And I think this is a very challenging time in which to be young. And like all of us, I wish I were younger.
Belva Plain: Without revealing anything that might spoil the book for anyone who has not yet read it, and I assume that most people haven't yet read it as it only appeared in our favorite bookstore, Barnes & Noble, this week, I will say that Caroline is more to my liking.
Belva Plain: It's interesting to me that you would ask that question, because it happens that it's just what I am working on now. This book is a baby that was just born yesterday, and you can't really tell much about a baby's character at this stage.
Belva Plain: No, I didn't take any precautions. I told the story, I think, exactly as someone who experienced it might tell it. At least, that's what I tried to do, and I hope I have succeeded. I think I made my sentiments very clear, and if you read it through to the last page, and you remember my present answer, you'll see what I mean.
Belva Plain: BLESSINGS was a book about adoptions in America, so you must be thinking about another one, but that doesn't matter, I'll answer anyway. I think you meant TAPESTRY, and of course the facts are the same, but the characters entirely different, and there are so many aspects of what happened during the Holocaust, that I think there can be almost no end to the books that can be written about it. In this book, I really dealt with what happened to people who escaped it, but who were damaged by it, nevertheless, whereas the setting of TAPESTRY -- that is, the section dealing with the Holocaust -- took place in Europe.
Belva Plain: I don't have any plans to do it. I think it's a story complete in itself, but I never say never. Right now, I'm working on something that's entirely different, an American novel that takes place in a southern state.
Belva Plain: Well, I just think it's absolutely a miracle. I don't understand exactly how it works, but for that matter, when I turn on the ignition in my car, I don't completely understand how that works, either. But I have to say, I am enjoying this immensely.
Belva Plain: For me, and I can't answer for other authors, but for me the hardest part is getting the whole story mapped out. I always say it compares with taking a trip across the United States. You know your starting point, and you know where you want to end, but you have a great choice of routes, you could reach California from Maine taking 20 different roads. And so, when you have a story you want to tell, you know the beginning and you know the end, but you have to figure out how to make it interesting along the way, so the reader will want to get to the end. So I would say that the hardest thing for me to do is to have my outline finished. After that, with the outline, or what I call the map, the writing is very pleasurable and relatively easy.
Belva Plain: Of course, anyone who's been in Rome or Paris is fascinated, they're marvelous, but I have not ever written anything that is deeply involved with the life there, because I'm not Italian or French. But New Orleans is an American city, and I am an American, so even though I wasn't alive during the period of CRESCENT CITY, it is, in a sense, a part of my past. And I really had a wonderful time going down there from New Jersey, walking the streets, and putting myself back 100 years or more, walking those same streets in a hoop skirt and living through the painful days of that old war.
Belva Plain: Well, I think the only real change I can see in my work, and of course, it's very hard to judge one's own work, is that I have moved from writing historical novels to writing contemporary ones. I did not set out to do this. It just seems to have evolved naturally because the last 10 or 15 years have seen an accelerated rate of change in our lives, and there is so much to write about that I am, I am grateful to say, finding new ideas all the time. I think that is the chief change in my work.
Belva Plain: My final remark is that I am just so happy and fortunate to be able to talk to all these wonderful people who tell me nice things and make me want to get back to work tomorrow morning. And also, my thanks to Barnes & Noble, where my books are on display and where I, myself, am a longtime, steady, browser.
Posted June 6, 2001
I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Following a family's trials, pains and loves, just as you think things are settling down, Belva throws in new twists and turns. This is a must for Belva fans. I almost didn't want it to end.
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