WHAT SHE LOST
For thirteen-year-old Sarah Waldman, life in the small Polish town of Olkusz is idyllic, grounded in her loving, close-knit family and the traditions of their Jewish faith. But in 1939, as the Nazis come to power, a storm is gathering—a relentless, unforgiving storm
that will sweep Sarah and her family into years of misery in the ghetto and concentration camps,
tearing them apart.
Will Sarah’s strong will and determination be enough for her to survive when everything she loves is taken from her? Is it possible to resurrect a life—and find love—from the ruins? Or will Sarah be forever haunted
by the memories of what she lost?
Part memoir, part fiction, What She Lost is the reimagined true-life story of the author’s grandmother growing into a woman amid the anguish of the Holocaust. It is a tale of resilience, of rebuilding a life, and of rediscovering love.
"How can a character be more real than when based on a real person? Even real women can be told as one-planed and stereotypical, but fortunately for us, we get to experience Sarah's life through someone who saw the humanity and the growing girl beneath the overarching horrors of the Holocaust. Hunter's retelling of her grandmother's story isn't just about growing up or the Holocaust, but understanding the incredible capacities of humankind - for compassion, strength, and survival as well as cruelty, cowardice, and complacency, as seen through the eyes of an incredible woman." - Break the Bechdel with Strong Female Characters Syndicate Selection
Watch the Interview
"One afternoon nearly 20 years ago, I sat down with my grandmother and a video camera and recorded her story. Here are some clips of the interview on which I based my novel."
Stay tuned for more uploads
In advance of the release of my novel, What She Lost, I was honored to be interviewed by my publisher, Cynren Press (https://www.cynren.com/). The complete interview is included here:
An Interview with Melissa W. Hunter
Q: What is the first book that made you cry?
A: I honestly don’t remember the first book that made me cry, but I remember the first book that changed my life. As a child, I always loved to read. My favorite books were A Boxcar Children, Little Women, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and All of a Kind Family. When I was in fifth grade, we had a day at school devoted to reading. We were able to come to school in pajamas and spent our time reading in sleeping bags on the floor. One of the books I brought to read was A Wrinkle in Time. I read the book in one sitting, finishing it before the school day was over. It was one of the most magical books I had ever read and was so different from the other stories I usually enjoyed. That book made me believe it was possible to visit other worlds, if only through words. After that, I devoured fantasy and science fiction books. They are still my favorite genre to read.
Q: What literary pilgrimages have you been on?
A: When I was a teen, I was in love with Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. Her descriptions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paris and New Orleans were so vivid that I was transported by her words. At the time, it was my greatest wish to visit those locations myself, and I was fortunate enough to do so years later! When in New Orleans, I visited the outside of Anne Rice’s beautiful home. I also traveled to Dayton for a book signing by Ms. Rice. It was my first book signing, and I remember how excited I was!
Q: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
A: Most of the time, I’m energized when I write, particularly when I get in the “zone.” There is a certain rush to seeing your thoughts appear as words on the screen and feeling your hands fly over the keyboard. However, when I hit a wall and can barely write more than a paragraph in one day, it can be exhausting and defeating. I have to remind myself to take a break and do something else, then revisit my work for a fresh start. It is a constant tug-of-war.
Q: Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
A: Actually, I think it can help in that a big ego, or a lot of self-confidence, is often needed when faced with rejection. And as a writer, you face a lot of rejection! It’s important not to quit when you hear the word no. Also, there is something to be said for having a big ego when self-promoting. This has been a hard part of the equation for me, because it feels like bragging, but you need to have confidence that what you are putting out in the world is worthwhile and something worth sharing.
Q: Have you ever gotten “reader’s” block?
A: Yes! In fact, I often have reader’s block when I’m deep into a writing project. If I read a book that is too similar to the theme of my own project, I tend to spend more time comparing than enjoying what I’m reading. While I love to write historical fiction, I prefer to read science fiction and fantasy, since it is different from my genre of writing and offers me an escape.
Q: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
A: Not to give up! I began writing in middle school and knew early on that writing was my passion. For me, it is a cathartic experience. As I got older and decided to pursue writing as a career, I faced a lot of obstacles, from being able to make a living doing something I loved to dealing with rejection. I would definitely tell my younger self to tune out the nagging thoughts and self-doubt that come with rejection and, most importantly, not to lose the joy that writing gives me.
Q: What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
A: Everything! In fact, since What She Lost is based entirely on real people in my family, there would be no story without them. Their legacy is something I want to honor with my words. Sometimes, when I got swept up in the plot, I had to keep reminding myself that the experiences I was putting down on paper actually happened. For that reason, and for what they went through, I owe so much to the real people who are the inspiration for my characters.
Q: How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
A: So many! Since I started writing at a very young age, I have a drawer in my office filled with binders of half-finished stories that I printed from old floppy/hard disks. I even have many unfinished versions of What She Lost, which was originally entitled Scattered Embers. I love going back and reading some of my older projects from high school and college. Most of my unfinished manuscripts represent a passion from a certain period in my life. I have one manuscript devoted to a wealthy family living in London and Paris in the eighteenth century, and another that describes a postapocalyptic future where society is on the brink of war. Who knows, one day I might revisit these!
Q: What does literary success look like to you?
A: To me, literary success isn’t becoming a best-selling author or making millions. It is finding joy in the process of writing and completing a work and having a way to share that work with the world. I always intended to self-publish, so I feel even more blessed to have found a publisher who was willing to take a risk on me. Already, I feel I’ve accomplished a lifelong dream. And if I can move one reader the way other novels have moved me, I will have achieved something truly worthwhile. To me, that is the epitome of success.
Q: What sort of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
A: For What She Lost, I spent almost as much time researching as writing so I could remain true to actual events. I found that when I got stuck with my writing, I would end up spending hours researching everything from dates to locations to historical figures (some of whom are minor characters in my novel). I fell in love with researching, because when I would discover a piece of information I didn’t previously know, it was like uncovering a buried treasure. I based my story on an interview I had with my grandmother. During that interview, she told me the names of places I knew little to nothing about—Olkusz, Reichenbach, and the camps she was in. She even had photos in her possession that I thought only belonged to our family. When I was researching Olkusz, the town where she grew up, I discovered not only those same photos online but others as well. Those photos became inspiration for one of my chapters. Discoveries like these were true gems. Also, when I discovered that the satellite camp she had been in (Peterswaldau) was a subcamp of Gross Rosen, which neighbored the town of Reichenbach where she resettled—this was like successfully fitting pieces of a puzzle together.
My next idea for a novel is a detour from my family history. I plan to tell the story of a minor biblical character who was a nursemaid to Rebecca and witnessed the struggle between Rebecca and Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, firsthand. I hope to tell the story in a similar vein to The Red Tent. I’ve already begun researching and taking notes. I think research is at the heart of historical novels. Whereas in the past, when I wrote fantasy and could make things up, my enjoyment of research is drawing me to write more historical pieces.
Q: What did you edit out of this book?
A: I actually had three prologues when I set out to write What She Lost. My original opening was very personal. After attending a workshop and learning more about crafting a beginning chapter with a hook, I composed a second prologue. Later, I added on to that. In the course of working with my publisher, the additional material was edited back to the second version, and I think it reads so much better as a result. I also edited several earlier scenes to bring the reader to the action much faster.
Q: What was your hardest scene to write?
A: What She Lost was a hard book to write, but the scenes that involved Sarah’s mother—where she had to watch helplessly what was happening to her children—were the hardest. I began writing this novel when I was in my twenties. I had just married and didn’t have children. I definitely struggled to infuse the manuscript with the emotion I was hoping to capture. I’ve said this book was meant to be written now, twenty years later, because it took being a mom myself truly to understand what these characters experienced. I shed a lot of tears during the writing of this book, but hopefully I was able to portray depth of emotion as a result.