As part of the Great Group Reads Selection Committee for the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA), the best part of “the job” is finding fantastic books, then getting to recommend them to everyone I know (once the list is out, of course).
One of the books on our Hot-Off-The-Press List is MARGOT by Jillian Cantor, and it’s my honor and pleasure to share this interview with you.
Jillian Cantor has a BA in English from Penn State University and an MFA from The University of Arizona. She is the author of award-winning novels for teens and adults including, THE SEPTEMBER SISTERS, THE LIFE OF GLASS, and THE TRANSFORMATION OF THINGS. Her latest novel for adults, MARGOT, a re-imagining of Anne Frank’s sister in post-war America, is fresh-off-the-press, published by Riverhead Books. It’s already receiving rave reviews. Her next book for teens, SEARCHING FOR SKY, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2014. Jillian was born and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia (which, coincidentally, is where MARGOT is set), and currently lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons.
Here is the review I wrote for Jillian’s latest novel, which has received rave reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly & Kirkus, as well as numerous other publications, a modest smattering of which can be found following the interview.
By Jillian Cantor
If you have read The Diary of Anne Frank, seen any of the movie/TV/stage versions, or heard of World War II and anything related to it – this book is a must-read.
Set in 1959, Margot is a stirring, thought-provoking novel with the premise: What if Anne Frank’s sister, Margot, didn’t die at Bergen-Belsen? What if, in fact, she found her way to Philadelphia, changed her name to Margie Franklin, and became a legal secretary?
What if she had gone from one kind of hiding to another?
A frequent refrain throughout the book is “hiding who you are… so much easier than hiding where you are.” This notion was first voiced by Peter, the young man who lived in “The Annex” with Margot, Anne, and five others. According to the famous diary, Peter and Anne were an item; according to Margot, she was the one he favored. And it was mutual.
Fourteen years after surviving the Holocaust, Margot still fantasizes about finding Peter. It had been his idea to move to Philadelphia, “The City of Brotherly Love” – surely no harm could come to them there. Yet, even as part of Margot yearns to build a future with Peter, another part knows he is most likely dead. And another part of her is in love with Joshua Rosenstein, the Jewish lawyer for whom she works.
Margot is a rich, complex character full of contradictions: a non-practicing Jew who still lights the Sabbath candles and refuses to eat ham; a sister who feels both resentment towards, and guilt over, Anne; a survivor struggling to build a new life, yet unable to escape her past.
Towards the end of the novel, one of Margot’s few friends suggests an outcome that – finally – offers a way out of her immense survivor’s guilt: “Ilsa has given me a story I may be able to cling to.”
Jillian Cantor has given us a story “to cling to” as well. Haunting, powerful, heartbreaking yet hopeful, Margot is an excellent companion with The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as a stand-alone of great depth and power. It will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
These words, from Jillian’s own blog, are an excellent explanation as to why she chose to write MARGOT in the first place:
“The new book I’ve been working on takes place against the backdrop of an enormous historical tragedy, yet the story I am choosing to tell is a deeply singular and personal story of one woman’s loss. I’m finding the best part of writing it is in the details of this one particular woman and the people closest to her who she has lost and loved.
And I keep thinking about this one professor telling my class about how his dog died on 9/11, how it’s the smallest of tragedies that are worth writing about.”
Now, please sit back and enjoy the interview! If you’d like more information afterwards, check out jilliancantor.com.
Q: In the author’s note at the end of Margot, you wrote, “In creating Margot/Margie, I wanted to give back what was stolen… her voice, her life, her happy ending.” How happy do you envision that ending to be? Do you believe anyone who has survived the Holocaust can ever truly be healed?
A: Well, without giving away the ending of the book, I do envision that my character, Margie Franklin, has found a certain peace with her situation and her life in America by the end of the novel. I think that different people react to tragedy and horrors in different ways, so I don’t know that I can truly answer that second question. I think over the course of the book Margie finds ways to deal with the atrocities of her past, but I don’t think she’ll ever forget them and move past them completely. Part of what I was interested in exploring in the novel is the way tragedy can resonate and affect a person, even so many years after the fact.
Q: How accurate are Margot’s memories? Is the reader meant to believe her point of view? Question it? What’s the truth and what’s reality?
A: I’m fascinated by the idea of memory, the accuracy of it, the way, in time, memories start to fade and you can’t remember what really happened and what’s a story you tell yourself about what happened. I think in some ways memories are always fictions. I also think point of view and accuracy is an interesting question. You can ask two people at the same event to tell you what happened, and their stories are often different. What’s truth and what’s reality? I think we all have our own truths. Margie believes her memories are accurate, but then with time and distance and opposing accounts, she honestly doesn’t know what is true and what is not. I think the reader is along with her for the ride, questioning alongside her.
Q: Do you see Margot as courageous or cowardly?
A: I see my character Margot/Margie as courageous, which is the opposite of how she sees herself for most of the book. The things she did to survive, to make it to America, to start over, all take enormous amounts of courage. I’m not sure I could’ve done the same in that situation, though I would’ve wanted to.
Q: What was the biggest hurdle you faced in writing Margot?
A: This is the first time I’ve ever written historical fiction or really had to research to write, so I think the biggest hurdle was trying to find the balance between truth and fiction. I wanted there to be some historical accuracy to the scenes I wrote about the annex, but I also wanted to fictionalize Margot and her story – this is definitely a novel! At a certain point, I’d revised the book so many times and read and re-read Anne’s diary so many times that the lines between truth and fiction began to blur in my head. I also had trouble with pacing the book in the earlier drafts because I was including too much historical information. So finding the balance between writing a good novel and including the historical pieces of it was my biggest challenge.
Q: If – as I hope! – students read your novel alongside Anne’s diary, what would you want them to take away from the comparison? What do you think would resonate most with today’s teens? And what aspect(s) of Margot herself do you think they could identify with?
A: I hope students will read the novel alongside Anne’s diary too! I think it would be interesting for them to think about point of view, as well as the accuracy of diaries in general. Also, to consider what Anne and Margot were like as real people, real teenage girls, real sisters. Any teenage girl who has a sister can, I think, relate to the complex feelings Margie has for her sister in the novel. The novel is also very much a love story and a coming of age story. Margie is in her thirties, but she is still coming of age in America, learning to accept the things that have happened to her, the things she has done, who she has become. She’s struggling with her identity, which is definitely something I think teens can relate to.
Q: If you could somehow meet Margie, what would you want to tell her?
A: I’d tell her to take her sweater off, especially in the summer – just like Shelby does!
Q: If you could go back in time and ask the real Margot one question, what would it be (besides asking where her diary is!)?
A: That’s tough to answer, on so many levels. If I really could go back in time, then I have to imagine that I would’ve been hiding in an annex too or sent to Auschwitz right alongside them. I think that’s what made this such an emotional story for me to write. I envisioned Margot and Anne as me and my sister, only fifty years earlier and in Europe. The difference is, my sister and I had the fortune of being born in a different time and a different place. It’s terrifying to imagine being back there, in that time, during the Holocaust. But if Margot had lived, and I had the opportunity to talk to her now, I’d like to ask her how she feels about The Diary of a Young Girl, and how the accounts of the annex in there differ, or not, from her own memories.
Q: Did your role of being an older sister have any impact on – or change in way because of – this book?
A: It definitely had an impact on this book. When I read the diary as a teenager, I really identified with Anne. I felt I was like her, Jewish, a dreamer, a budding writer, and if I’d lived where and when she did I could’ve been her. But when I re-read the diary as an adult, I really noticed Margot for the first time. I barely remembered her from my earlier reading. I’m the older of two sisters, like Margot, so it occurred to me that if I’d been there, at that time, I wouldn’t have been Anne at all. I would’ve been Margot. I think the sister relationship is a special one and a complicated one. When I read the diary as a teen, I thought of the story of the annex as Anne’s story, but coming back to the diary again as an adult, I realized it was Margot’s too. My younger sister and I are so different and we have such different memories of our (very same) childhood. So yes, all of this impacted my writing of the book!
Q: You wrote that your children make all your “stories worth telling, but most especially this one.” Care to elaborate?
A: That phrase we often hear about the Holocaust: never forget — I think, in a way, this is my small contribution to that, and to my children, too.
Q: You mentioned that you’re working on a new YA novel. Care to give any information about it to whet our appetites?
A: It’s called SEARCHING FOR SKY and will be published in summer 2014 by Bloomsbury. It’s the story of a teenage girl and boy who have spent nearly their entire lives on a deserted island, only to be “rescued” and brought back to California where they learn that the island they were raised on may not have been the paradise they thought.
Some of the Much-Deserved Praise for MARGOT:
People Magazine gives it 3.5/4 stars: “a convincing, engaging might-have-been.”
Also add: Selected as one of the Women’s National Book Association’s Great Group Reads!
“…Psychologically subtle, satisfyingly suspenseful, and sensitively written.” – Margaret George, New York Times bestselling author of Elizabeth I: A Novel
“…a compassionate imagining of what might have happened had Margot Frank survived…a tour of the emotional nether land so often occupied by those who have survived the unimaginable and an example of extreme sibling competition—and love.” — Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
“A moving, spellbinding book about sisters, memory, and love… Spectacular!” — Jen Lancaster, New York Times bestselling author of The Tao of Martha
“This beautifully told sister narrative is more than an intriguing what-if? It’s a meditation on the nature of survivor guilt and the legacy of invisible wounds. Margot takes on big questions in an intimate story, and carefully considers whether it is possible to survive–and thrive– after unspeakable horror. A moving, affecting novel.” — Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Crescent and Birds of Paradise
“Cantor brilliantly channels Anne Frank’s sister Margot…. A haunting meditation on who we really are versus who we wish we had been, regret, loss and how we love in the face of sorrow. Glowing as a rare jewel, Margot is about discovering the truths of our lives, no matter what the cost.” — Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow
“This is a haunting book—emotionally raw, beautifully written, and so close to the bone that it’s jarring to remember, when you come to the end, that Margot Frank isn’t really alive and well and waiting somewhere in Philadelphia to answer all your questions.” — Gwen Cooper, New York Times bestselling author of Homer’s Odyssey and Love Saves the Day
“The kind of story that will leave you breathless, both because of its ambitious subject matter and its deeply arresting storytelling. Cantor has created a stunning reimagining of Anne Frank’s sister….” — Ilie Ruby, author of The Salt God’s Daughter and The Language of Trees
“…The novel not only feels like a prayer for Margot and Anne, but for the many voiceless men and women whose memory deserves recognition.” –Erika Robuck, author of Call Me Zelda