This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. My guest today is the acclaimed author, writing teacher and online entrepreneur whose debut novel, This Is How It Begins, is the best novel I’ve ever read in my entire life—
Stop it! That’s private.
… Joan Dempsey, welcome to Fresh Air.
[Groan.] Now I’ll never meet her.
Oh, come on. Terry Gross isn’t reading your TNB Self-Interview.
Unless she’s actually considering an interview with me.
Ha ha ha ha ha!
Are you about done?
Here’s a more ordinary question: did you always want to be a writer?
No, but I wish I had. Then I could have started earlier. I’m an ENFP personality type, which means in part that I love variety, and adore dreaming about what’s possible (as you can probably tell). I’ve wanted to be a psychologist, social worker, graphic designer, lawyer, lobbyist (which I succeeded in doing for a time), animal advocate (ditto) and professional baseball player (I tried out for the Silver Bullets in 1994). Now, as a fiction writer, I can happily be all of those things, and more.
Like an 85-year old Polish Catholic art historian who as a girl rescued Jews during WWII in Warsaw?
Exactly. Although Ludka Zeilonka wasn’t someone I chose. She was supposed to be my intended main character’s mother, a minor role, but she marched in and took over the novel. I battled with her for a time, but not for long—she was incredibly determined, and now I’m grateful.
This Is How It Begins is a Holocaust novel, then?
Nope. It takes place in 2009 in Massachusetts. The Holocaust hums just under the surface, though, since both Ludka and her husband Izaac are survivors (he’s one of the Jews Ludka rescued). And when a stranger comes to town threatening to expose a secret Ludka’s been keeping for 70 years, she’s forced to revisit the past she’s spent a lifetime trying to forget.
But you must have researched the Holocaust?
Oh yes, extensively. For nearly two years. And then some.
Wasn’t that depressing?
Everyone asks me that, and I feel odd admitting that it never once depressed me, only deeply interested me. Maybe in part because my focus was on learning about those, like Ludka, who dared to resist the Nazis, which buoys my faith in people. Thanks to a significant research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation (go buy her novels), I got to spend a month doing research in Warsaw, and ten days at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C.. I spent full days doing nothing but watching video interviews from the Shoah Foundation of Polish women who survived the war. I was fascinated to discover that the only time those being interviewed became emotional is when they spoke about kindness; the horrors they recounted matter-of-factly. But recalling the kindnesses made them cry.
I’ve read your novel (ad nauseam, I might add), and I agree with what everyone’s saying about how timely it is. Did you plan that?
Eight years ago when I started the novel, I certainly couldn’t have planned for Trump’s bullying behavior, but it’s astonishing just how prescient the novel has turned out to be. At the heart of the book is the culture war about religious liberty versus gay rights, and about how hatred begins (thus the title). And of course Trump has been supportive of “religious liberty” legislation, which when implemented would allow those who hold sincere religious beliefs that homosexuality is a sin to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community.
Your agent must be thrilled!
Interestingly, agents who read and enjoyed the book during the fourteen months I was querying said they weren’t sure they could sell it now that gay marriage was the law of the land. What I should have said in response was this: “backlash!” So I don’t have an agent.
Speaking of the culture war, did an elderly priest really bless your home?
With a cross held up to our house as if he was warding off a vampire. I suppose my (female) partner and I did seem like vampires to him, since we were an anomaly in our New Hampshire neighborhood, which turned out to be a deliberately settled conservative religious community. The Southern Poverty Law Center called it one of the top dozen hate groups in the country, in large part because of their homophobia. It provided good fodder for the novel.
That does make for a good interview topic, doesn’t it? On public radio, maybe.
Now you sound like me. And why not? Anything is possible!
Winner of the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, New England native JOAN DEMPSEY received an MFA and teaching certificate in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Dempsey was the recipient of a significant research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation for her work on This Is How It Begins. Her writing has been published in The Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Obsidian: Literature of the African Diaspora, and Plenitude Magazine, and aired on National Public Radio. She lives in Maine with her partner and their family of animals.