Between The Covers - Ronald H. Balson
Ronald H. Balson talks with Ann Bocock about his latest book "Karolina's Twins"
Hi, I'm Ann Bocock
and welcome to 'Between the Covers '.
Ronald H. Balson is a Chicago trial attorney.
He's also an educator and an author.
His first novel 'Once We Were Brothers
began as a self-published work.
Well, it took readers by storm.
And this book, that had a hard time
finding a publisher in the beginning,
became a 'New York Times 'best-selling book.
Ronald Balson now has a third book.
inspired by true events,
it's the story of a Holocaust survivor
and her mission to fulfill a promise
made decades before.
It's a story of love and survival and resilience,
and I'm pleased to welcome the author of 'Karolina's Twins ',
Ronald H. Balson.
Thank you Ann, it's-- it's nice to be here.
I am so happy you're here.
As I said, you've written three books.
'Once We Were Brothers, 'followed by 'Saving Sophie '.
And-- and now the new book 'Karolina's Twins.
All three of them, if I could say,
have one thing in common that they do stay with you
after you have closed that last page.
You-- you can't get rid of the story in your head.
And if there is a common thing,
I'm going to say it's the human spirit.
Oh, that's nice.
That's nice to hear.
I-- I do think as a writer that I aspire to my books
having a finish like a-- like a fine wine.
I do want them to stay with you afterwards.
I want you to become engaged with my characters
such that when you close the book, shut the book,
you can say, "I'm sorry that the book is finished.
I enjoyed spending time with the characters and--
and now I'm finished
spending time with the characters
and I-- I wish I had more time with them," so...
As I'm reading the book and I--
I-- I have to-- to go on what you just said,
because there were times when I said,
"Okay, I wanna digest-- digest this for a minute.
I wanna close this chapter
and think about what I just read"
and then I couldn't, because I had to keep going.
This book is dedicated to the memory of a woman
who inspired this story.
Do you want to tell me a little bit about her
and how you found her and how she found you?
I-- I would.
Um, I was--
I was out and about on my--
On my 'Once We Were Brothers 'book tour
and I was speaking to groups
like-- like I did in South Florida.
And many times at these groups,
people would come up to me afterwards,
because 'Once We Were Brothers 'was the story of the Holocaust
and they would tell me
that they had family from the Holocaust
or they themselves were survivors.
And they would share with me some of their story,
even though they might not tell their own family,
because, you know, there's a-- there's a disconnect sometimes
between-- these people can't talk to their families
about what really happened to them.
And they would share stories with me,
which is very humbling.
But one-- one woman's story-- she called me--
She lives in Lincolnwood, Illinois.
She called me and she said,
"I read your book and I wanna tell you
I thought I was reading about my own family.
You got it just right."
Well, for an author
you can't get any better praise than that.
So I said, "I'd like to meet you.
Can I take you to lunch?"
And she said, "Sure."
And we went to lunch.
We shared an afternoon over salads and ice teas,
and she told me her story, which just blew me away.
It was an unbelievable story
and then when she got to the part
with these two little babies, these two twins, I said,
"I'd love to write that story.
Do I have your permission to do that?"
And she said, "I did."
Then I said, "But you know what?
I write fiction.
I don't write biographies.
I'm not gonna write your biography,
but it's gonna be based generally upon your life
and what happened to you.
But there'll be court scenes and there'll be romances
and there'll be all those things that go along
with a fictional novel.
But basically it's about your life."
And she gave me permission to do that
and so that became 'Karolina's Twins '.
Did she live long enough to see the book?
When we had our meeting and she told me about her life,
she seemed strong and healthy to me at that time.
She was a beautiful woman.
Very-- very powerful, very determined,
just a magnificent woman.
And I said to her, "You know,
right now I'm in the middle of writing 'Saving Sophie
and I can't write two books at the same time.
But when I'm finished with 'Saving Sophie ',
I'd like to come back to you,
and you and I will work on this together.
And she said, "That'd be fine."
So when I did finish 'Saving Sophie
and I went to go back with her, her daughter told me that she--
her health had failed
and she just wasn't able to help me very much
and-- and indeed,
just a few months after that, she passed.
I want to look for a moment
at how this particular book is crafted.
There are two parallel storylines.
You have a contemporary legal drama
and then you have this survivor story from World War II
and they are pretty much told at the same time.
The Holocaust story is told in the first person,
incrementally, by Lena Woodward, who is-- is the woman
based on-- on the woman you just talked about,
in her words.
Now, I have interviewed survivors over the years.
There is nothing to me as impactful and as important
as that first person telling of their story
and I'm so glad that you let her tell the story.
And here we are today where we are at the point
where there will not be first-person tales anymore.
Oh, few more years, that's all.
Of course, many of them have committed their stories
to tapes and short video segments,
you know, that--
But you're right.
In a few more years,
there won't be any more survivors.
That's it, you know.
People-- people who were old enough
to understand what was going on and describe their circumstances
are now late 80s and 90s.
Knowing that, does that influence you as a writer
in how powerful to tell the story?
How important it is to tell the story?
I don't know what that does, except that the whole--
The whole circumstance makes it powerful
and I think I'd be doing a disservice
or maybe I just wouldn't be doing my job
if I wrote a story about a survivor
and her saga throughout the Holocaust
and didn't make it as graphic and as detailed as I could.
You know, I just-- like it lends itself to it.
ANN: In part of the story, you have a legal situation
between Lena and her grown-son Arthur,
and it has to do with an incompetency hearing.
In your life as an attorney,
have you been through that before?
Well, I've been involved in competency hearings, sure.
How dreadful to have to-- how difficult to--
To have to take your own character--
Well, they're not always contested, though
and I mean there are a lot of times
that people can't take care of themselves anymore, and--
ANN: True, true.
This was not one of those cases.
This was contested.
He claims he was incompetent and-- and I don't know--
I think the readers would disagree with that.
But many times, you know,
people need to have a guardian appointed for them.
ANN: In the book, Arthur's an interesting character.
I found him very unlikeable,
but then, when I finished reading the book
knowing so much more about him, it did make me sad.
RONALD: Yeah, I think so.
I don't know that he ever becomes very likeable,
but maybe more understandable.
I guess that-- that's a better way of putting it.
And without giving too much away,
you have this wonderful husband and wife team.
Now we saw them in the first book
and then you brought them to life again in 'Saving Sophie ',
the second book,
and here they are again.
But I like how their lives have progressed,
because she's pregnant now.
Yeah, that's right.
She's pregnant now and-- and you know, they're--
They're even in the fourth one, Ann, you know.
ANN: Okay, good, I was hoping.
I didn't have these characters in mind when I started writing.
When I wrote 'Once We Were Brothers ',
what I had in mind was a story about the two boys
taken into a home in a Polish family.
One taken in as-- as almost an orphan,
and the other one, a Jewish boy,
and they are raised together like they were brothers
and their bond was very strong.
And then the war comes
and they go in different directions
and they become enemies
and they confront each other 60 years later.
Um, that's the story that I had in mind
when I started to write 'Once We Were Brothers '.
But I thought that the best way to tell that story
was to have Ben Solomon, the protagonist,
tell his story like in the first person
to-- to Catherine Lockhart.
But I didn't know it would be a--
I didn't know that the lawyer would be a woman.
I didn't know it would be Catherine.
I didn't know there would be a Liam.
They just developed as I wrote the story.
And I didn't know there'd be relationship
between the two of them
and that developed as-- and then when I finished the story,
I got to know them so well, um,
I didn't want to leave them behind.
You know, I wanted to put them in the next novel--
ANN: Well, it makes it more comfortable,
certainly, for-- for you writing, I think,
because you do know them so well.
I do know them well, yes.
And people say, "Isn't it very lonely to write?
You mean you sit in a room, all by yourself,
for hours on end.
You shut the door, no one talks to you.
Isn't that very lonely?"
And I don't think it is, because I'm with my characters
and I'm certainly with Catherine and Liam
and there they are and they're talking to me
and they're very real.
So maybe I'm a lone nuts that way, but they're--
But they're real.
She is a wonderful, strong female character,
and then Lena, who-- who the-- the Holocaust story is about
is also this very wonderful strong female.
That was interesting.
People say I write strong women.
Um, I don't know.
Maybe I come from a family of strong women,
but I think my female characters tend to be strong.
ANN: They are different eras,
different-- certainly different experiences.
But the fact that you have one, in the present-day time,
who is newly pregnant,
and the other one who is looking for these--
these twins-- very interesting dynamic.
Again, I-- I-- they're two strong women,
they're from different eras,
but I think because-- because of that
they have a lot in common
and I think they do relate to each other.
ANN: And I think it made Catherine so much more compelling,
Because she-- it was like she had a lot more invested
in this particular case.
It-- it made--
it made the situation more complicated,
especially with regard to her-- her legal travails,
because she's trying a case
and she's in the end term of her pregnancy, but...
Yeah, I think so, because the book is--
Is generally about these two little babies
and to be pregnant
and to see what happens to these two little babies
has to be very difficult for a mother,
a would-- you know...
ANN: I gather you know something about little babies.
You had a few?
RONALD: Eight. Eight, okay.
Oh my God!
Well, we had a combined marriage,
so I didn't have all eight.
We had a yours, mine, whatever, and-- and they--
However you come about it, eight is a lot of kids.
Yeah, we-- we raised eight kids
and so yeah, I know a lot about babies.
You're an attorney, you've been a litigator.
Now being a trial attorney means
you really know how to tell a story.
So do you-- you look at that, as I've got this,
when you start writing?
I've been a storyteller all my life, I think.
That's what you have to do when you're a trial lawyer.
You have to-- eve-- even though, it's a very dry subject matter
and even though, you might just be talking to a judge,
you have to-- you have to give him your version.
It has to be compelling, it has to be persuasive,
it has to have a beginning and an end,
and it has to be interesting,
and you have to keep someone's attention.
And I think that there's a-- there's a lot to that end.
So I've been telling legal stories for-- for 40 years
and now I have the opportunity to be a creative writer.
When you wrote the first book,
when you wrote 'Once We Were Brothers ',
you couldn't find a publisher.
Knowing the book, I find that so hard to believe.
How long -- what-- tell me about that journey.
RONALD: Well I have to tell you,
it was hard for me to believe as well.
No, I finished writing--
it took me about 3 years to write 'Once We Were Brothers,
took a lot of research and a lot of time.
And when I finished and I had my 400-page manuscript,
I realized there is a difference between writing a book
and having someone read your book,
getting your book to-- to publication.
And it's you just can't walk into Macmillan
and say, "Okay, here's my manuscript."
It-- it doesn't work like that.
And so you-- I sent it out.
I sent the query letters out, I sent summaries out,
I sent sample chapters out and I got rejections.
Dozens and dozens of rejections.
And you know, Ann, many of them come on postcards.
I mean that they're so impersonal.
Like-- and they're... Oh, that's heartbreaking.
...they're like preprinted.
And they might say,
"Well, this doesn't suit our needs at this time"
or "We're not accepting any new authors at this time"
or my favorite, "I liked it, but I didn't love it."
I decided I would publish it myself
and I-- I found a printing company
and we had it published
and my son figured out how to put it on-- online and--
so that you could download it off of Amazon,
and Barnes and Noble, and those sites.
And then it by word of mouth, it just took off.
That is fairy tale to me,
because that just doesn't happen. RONALD: I know.
And then the publisher came calling.
We-- we had, you know, we-- for many-- many months,
We-- we were selling 10 copies or 20 copies
and really nothing at all
and I figured that, "Okay, so much for my literary career."
But then all of a sudden, in-- in the fall of 2011,
we sold 1,000 copies and 4,000 copies
and 9,000 copies and it just kept selling.
And I have no reason why,
because I didn't do any marketing or promotion
or anything like that.
And I wouldn't know how to do it even now, so--
It was word of mouth, it really was.
Yeah, it was all word of mouth.
And a good deal of it came from South Florida.
Oh, right, okay.
I-- listen, I get a lot of credit
to the-- to the women of South Florida.
You know, women buy 80% of fiction.
Women read more than men, too.
They-- well, they certainly read more fiction, that's for sure.
And women have book clubs and women discuss books.
There's no question about it and--
Well, you know your audience.
Oh yeah-- listen--
If that's my audience, I love it.
Tell me about the research.
You can't read a chapter in your book
without knowing that you are a stickler for research.
There are villages in this book.
There are streets.
And even when you-- alright, Auschwitz here.
You've been to these places?
RONALD: I've been to these places.
Because I write historical fiction,
I want my setting--
The-- the story surrounding my characters,
my fictional characters, to be authentic and accurate.
I picked the town for-- of Zamosc for my first book,
for 'Once We Were Brothers ',
because there's a wealth of material on that town.
Even though, it's a small town, maybe 25,000 to 30,000 people.
There was a wealth of material on it.
So much material that I could be certain
as to what happened on a day-to-day basis
and who the principal characters were.
With-- with 'Saving Sophie ',
a good deal of that book took place in Hebron
in the West Bank.
And I went there, we were taken around
by who was essentially the mayor of Hebron
and the town's architect
and-- and we got a really good history lesson.
I met the people there.
And when I went to do my research
for 'Karolina's Twins ',
I-- I researched her town.
Her-- her town was Chrzanów, Poland
and there's, you know,
a lot of written material on that as well.
But we went there, my wife and I.
We went there.
I wanted to see where her house was,
I wanted to see where her school was.
Her parents had a provision store
in the town square.
I wanted to see it.
I wanted to walk where she walked.
I went to Auschwitz,
to the building that she was kept in,
to the bunk where she was forced to sleep,
just because if I'm going to describe these things,
I want to know that I-- I'm doing that accurately.
And I think all story-- you know, you go there
and you have the story in mind and your character in mind
and you get a vibration, you get a feeling, I think.
So I always-- and even now my--
my fourth book is on Northern Ireland.
We were there with historians looking at--
Looking at the places that that I was writing about.
I sense that when I-- when I read your books.
I, for one, never tire of reading stories
of courage and extraordinary people
and certainly there were extraordinary people
in 'Karolina's Twins '.
There are heroes that voluntarily went to Auschwitz
in order to smuggle out information to the allies.
RONALD: There were, there were.
ANN: That's stunning.
RONALD: It-- it is, yeah.
That's something that I learned not only from-- from--
From the woman that-- that talked to me,
but also from my research.
I mean we know about Jan Karski, he's one
and he actually sat with Roosevelt,
told Roosevelt what was going on in Auschwitz.
And then there's this Witold Pilecki,
who was a-- appears in my book,
who's smuggled out information, documents, letters
and on an almost a weekly, monthly basis,
describing exactly what was going on in Auschwitz.
ANN: That-- that was-- So the world knew.
I mean maybe the average guy on the street didn't know,
but the world knew.
You have your character Lena
returning to Auschwitz after the war--
After the camps were liberated.
Why did she need to go back and--
and did your real life heroine go back as well?
And that was one of the things that really moved me
when I was talking to her.
She escaped from the Auschwitz death march.
From the women's Auschwitz death--
If you can imagine in the snow and everything
and marching these poor woman, she escaped.
And-- and after liberation, before she left Poland,
she said, "I have to go back to Auschwitz."
She and been kept in Auschwitz under the worst of conditions,
but she said, "I have to go back there.
I have to see it through liberated eyes."
I'll never forget that.
And of course, we put that in the book.
She was an incredible woman.
I'm-- I am sorry she didn't get to see this-- I am , too.
But the fact that she told you her story
is simply fantastic.
She was a remarkable woman.
She was very active as a survivor
in the survivor groups.
She lived in Skokie for a while, then she lived in Lincolnwood
and which is right next to Skokie outside Chicago.
And there is,
in the Illinois Holocaust Museum--
It's a quite a big museum.
There is a picture of her on the wall
and it's a picture taken in 1978.
because at that time
the neo-Nazis wanted to march through Skokie.
If you can imagine.
They wanted to do a Nazi march
through a town where the survivors lived.
And there were protests all over the place
and one of them was led by Fay Waldman who was--
To whom this book is dedicated.
And there was a picture of her like this
and I like to think of that as,
if you've seen the movie 'Dances with Wolves ',
you know the woman's name was "Stands With A Fist".
That's her, Stands With A Fist.
It has to be so satisfying for an author's--
Now I don't like to sell as many books as you're selling
and have-- but to be on so many book club lists
and have people talk about the book?
It-- it-- it's satisfying, for sure,
and really it's something that's hard for me
to get my arms around.
I-- I-- I never been a lawyer-- I've always been a lawyer,
I've never been a writer.
I wrote the book
because I had this urge to write something creative,
'Once We Were Brothers ',
and it just, you know, turned out to be bestseller,
and not here and in Italy and in Poland
and all around the world and I just, you know...
I still can't get my arms around that, that's...
You didn't start-- RONALD: But I like it.
ANN: Yeah, and-- and you didn't start writing-- when?
At what age?
Well, let's see.
Maybe early 60s.
I started writing. ANN: Did you wanted--- did you-- did you think,
"Oh, I should--" you know, for years and years,
"I should be writing.
I should be writing fiction," but you were too busy with--
With your law career?
I think I've had a urge to write creatively.
I mean imagine that when you write legal briefs,
you're so restricted into what you can do.
You got a single issue, you've got to research it,
you've got to support it,
you've got to argue it persuasively,
there's an economy of words.
You can't-- you can't have more than you're allowed.
And I've been doing that for 40 years.
But always, you know, I think you have this--
I wanna-- I wanna broaden out.
I wanna write creatively.
I wanna create characters
and maybe some of them would be weak
and some of them very vulnerable and some would be very strong
and some would be heroes and someone not.
And-- and then I can set them wherever I want in the world.
I can set them in Poland, I can set them in Israel,
I can set them in Hawaii and I don't have to s--
And I'm not limited by time.
I can set them now, I can set them 70 years ago.
If I'm a sci-fi writer,
I can set 'em 200 years in the future.
And-- that's so appealing to me.
ANN: How long did it take you from start to finish?
'Once We Were Brothers 'took me 3 years start to finish.
ANN: We are waiting for the fourth one.
I am anxious for that
and as I said, you know, it is so satisfying,
so validating that your books
are being discussed by book clubs
and to know this that they're not only read,
but there's rich, thoughtful discussion coming out of them.
I wanna thank you for this book,
I wanna thank you for the two that preceded it,
I'm looking for the fourth one.
It has been such a pleasure to meet you and talk with you.
Ronald H. Balson, thank you.
Thank you very much.
I'm Ann Bocock.
For more stories,
please join me on the next 'Between the Covers '.
Such a pleasure...