A renowned children’s and young adult author, Kathy Kacer brought her signature historical fiction to the stage this year with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. In Therefore Choose Life, Kathy joined forces with her son Jake Epstein to tell a moving story about a family haunted by the Holocaust and how things once thought lost may not be gone forever. Kathy took the time to join the Nominee Interview Series and talk about her writing process, the differences between writing for the page and the stage, and working with her son.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I honestly can’t remember my first experience; it goes back a long way!! But I do remember that my parents loved theatre and music. When I was very young, they used to take me to the opera. Those were the days when there was no such thing as surtitles. So I really didn’t understand anything. But even as a young child, I loved the music and loved the drama unfolding on the stage.
What writers have always inspired you?
So many! When I was younger, I read a lot of books by John Irving, Hermann Wouk, Leon Uris. I’m really drawn to sweeping historical dramas. More recently, I’ve been inspired by writers like Colm Toibin, Judy Orringer, and Anthony Doerr.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
Again, I honestly can’t remember the first thing I ever wrote. I kept a journal as a kid, so I suppose that was my first writing. My first published book was The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, based on a true story about my mother. Both my parents were survivors of the Holocaust. It has informed so much of my writing.
Most of your work is written for young adults and kids. How do you approach a piece differently when you’re writing for kids vs. adults?
You may be surprised to learn that there isn’t a huge difference between how I write for adults and how I write for kids. Naturally, I have to be sensitive to language, and to some extent content. But in both cases, I start with character – finding a character or characters that are compelling, multi-dimensional, conflicted – and then building a meaningful story around them.
You’re best known for historical fiction. How much research goes into each new story you write?
A lot! It’s really important to me that the historical context within which I develop a story is accurate. The story can depart on fictional lines, but the history has to be real. I probably do too much research and then I have to pick and choose the pieces that are relevant to the story I want to write.
How do you approach finding the right balance between fact and fiction?
I’m always thinking about that balance, especially since I’m writing about a real time in history and it’s too easy to distort that history. I’m not sure how I find that balance; after all these years of writing, I suppose it’s just a gut feeling that tells me I’ve gone far enough in the fiction, or I need to bring out more of the history. Since many of my stories are inspired by real people (i.e. the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust), I can still have many of those people read the drafts of my stories. If they can stand behind the story I’ve written, then I know the balance is right.
Your stories tend to focus on the Holocaust and the Jewish experience. In what ways do your faith and culture influence your work? Would you say that expanding the canon of Jewish stories is a motivating factor for you?
I’m certainly influenced by my culture – probably more than my faith. The experience of growing up as a child of Holocaust survivors was huge for me. And I write these stories mainly for young readers because it’s so important to pass this history on to the next generation. I always say that the history of the Holocaust is fast becoming ancient history as far as young people are concerned. And sadly, we have not learned as much as we should have from the past; too many people are still being persecuted around the world based on their colour, gender, religion, etc. I write these stories to pass all of those messages on.
How does the process of developing a story change when writing for the stage?
I think I still start with characters and build the story from there – not unlike how I write a book. The big difference of course is that the prose disappears (and I do love prose!). So the story has to work on the page based entirely on dialogue. That’s really the challenge for me.
Tell us about your nominated play Therefore Choose Life. Where did the idea for that play come from? Did you approach your son Jake with the idea to co-write or did he approach you?
Jake and I had been talking for some time about doing a project together. We had discussed and rejected a few ideas for one reason or another. Then I heard about the story of a man who had survived the Holocaust believing that he had lost his first wife in the camps. He came to North America, remarried, and some years later his first wife resurfaced. I approached Jake and he was also really interested in pursuing this story as a play. The original true story was the inspiration for us, and then we went from there. We had a rare three month period within which to write the first draft. We were both in Toronto at that time and between projects. So it was a perfect opportunity to write together.
Parent/child writing teams are relatively rare. How did your personal relationship affect the writing process and ultimately the story you were telling?
I think the fear was that there would be a hierarchy here that would dominate our writing process; i.e. I’m the mother, he’s the son; I’m in charge, etc. That was absolutely not the case. I think we were complete equals in the thinking, writing, and development of this story. And I think that came from a deep trust and respect for each other and what we brought to the project. It was an incredible experience writing this with Jake, something I will always cherish.
Did you go through a lot of drafts? How did the play change through the development process?
Oh my goodness, I can’t even count the number of drafts we went through!! And every part of the play changed in the years we were developing it! The characters became fuller and perhaps more complex; the nature of the relationships was deepened; the conflicts between all of the characters were expanded. I kept telling my husband that even though the story and outcome remained the same, every word changed in the years we spent re-writing!
What’s your writing process like? Do you plot and plan or just start at page 1 and work through?
I am a plotter and a planner. Even when I write books, I need to pretty much know the final chapter before I begin the first one. I write detailed drafts and then use them as blueprints to write my books. The blueprint changes as the story evolves, but I always go back to those plans to see where I wanted to go.
Did you write the characters with specific actors in mind? Was the plan always to have Jake play Sam? Did any of the actors do something in performance that changed the way you envisioned their character?
I don’t think we wrote with specific actors in mind, though once the play was finished we had a lot of fun talking about who might play the various parts. I think on some level I always knew and believed that Jake should play the part of Sam. But it was really up to him to decide whether or not he wanted to do that. We were thrilled with all of the other actors who brought this play to life. And yes, they each brought their own vision and life experience to their characters. Avery [Saltzman] brought an edge to Joseph that we probably hadn’t thought about; Sheila [McCarthy] brought a vulnerability to Evie that was different from what we had envisioned, and so on. I think that’s part of the beauty of watching a play develop from the ground up.
Are you very prescriptive in your stage directions or was the play re-imagined a bit in the rehearsal process?
I’d say both were true. We were prescriptive in our stage directions. And yes, most of that changed as the actors were up on their feet and moving around in the space.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
I think I’ve got too many favourite moments to pick just one. I loved listening to Avery, Sheila, and Lisa [Horner] exchange stories about life in the arts; I loved watching Rachel [Slaven] with her quiet direction lead the actors through the rehearsal process; I loved walking into the theatre on the first tech day and seeing the stage and all the set pieces in place; and of course I loved the first time I watched the play run from start to finish! I cried.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
I’m back to writing for young readers and I’m in the process of developing a new book based on a man, who at the age of 94, was finally brought to trial as a Nazi war criminal – probably one of the last Nazi war criminals who will ever come to trial. It’s a fascinating story and a bit of a beast as I figure out how to put it all together!
Jake and I have talked about the possibility of collaborating on another play. We’ve tossed some ideas around and have one idea that we’d like to talk more about. It has possibilities, but it’s too soon to talk more about it. We’d also love if Therefore Choose Life was picked up by another theatre somewhere. Who knows? Perhaps that will happen!
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
We’re so thrilled to be nominated for a MyTheatre Award. Huge thanks to all who are involved!!