Released February 14, 2017
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Author (Publisher: Viking)
I’m thrilled to welcome debut novelist, researcher, and friend, Georgia Hunter, to the blog today! We Were the Lucky Ones has been getting fantastic advance buzz from Publisher’s Weekly, Audible, Penguin Random House, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour Magazine and I loved it as well!
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My Thoughts about We Were the Lucky Ones
World War II “annihilated over 90% of Poland’s Jews and […] all but about 300 of the 30,000 Jews from Radom,” Georgia Hunter’s ancestors’ home. Yet, her entire family survived. We Were the Lucky Ones is based on the story of how they did it.
The Kurc family’s experience during World War II, beginning in Poland and stretching to Siberia, Italy, and Brazil is nothing short of a harrowing odyssey, the outcome of which defies statistics, explanation, and imagination. Despite the many horrific details of their experience, this is a story of hope, inspiration, and true grit.
I’ve historically had a tendency to get bogged down in World War II books, but I never felt that way while reading We Were the Lucky Ones. Hunter did a masterful job at keeping the story moving along, making it feel like a “quick read” in a page-turning sense, even though it’s not a short or light book. Rather than the war itself, the story is more about what life was like during the war for a Polish Jewish family and Hunter’s caring attention to detail made the backdrop come alive. We Were the Lucky Ones would be a fantastic choice for anyone who enjoyed The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.
PS – I always love Author’s Notes section in historical fiction…and this one is not to be missed!
Q&A with Georgia Hunter
We Were the Lucky Ones is based on your family’s real-life experience during WWII and you used their real names in the book. What made you decide to make the book fiction?
When I began writing We Were the Lucky Ones, I didn’t have a sense of what the finished product would look like – my goal was simply to convey the story in a way that did my family justice, and that felt less like a history lesson, and more like a novel: visceral and immersive. I wanted readers to understand, through the eyes of the Kurcs, what it meant to be Jewish and on the run during the Second World War.
I thought hard about penning the book as non-fiction, as each of my storylines is based on facts uncovered in oral histories or through outside research. (I did change a couple of names, but only for the sake of clarity.) I realized in early drafts, however, that I’d stuck so closely to what I’d been told in my interviews that my characters came across as a touch too perfect (most of my relatives were depicted to me – rightfully so – as heroes). The Kurcs were courageous, resilient, and ingenious, yes. But they were also human. They were falling in love (even making babies!), and they must have also been confused and angry and at times racked with fear.
And so, I decided in the end to write the book as fiction, in the present tense, allowing myself the creative license to dive deep into my characters’ psyches, imagining to the best of my ability what was running through the Kurcs’ hearts and minds. It’s my hope that in doing so, I was able to bring the story even closer to the truth.
Tell us a little bit about your research and writing. How long did you spend researching the Kurc family story and how long did you spend doing the actual writing?
I began researching my book nine years ago when I set off with a digital voice recorder and an empty notebook to interview a relative in Paris. From there I flew to Rio de Janeiro and across the States, meeting with cousins and friends – anyone with a story to share. My family’s narrative took shape, at first, in the form of a timeline, which I peppered with historical details and color-coded by relative to help keep track of who was where/when.
Where there were gaps in my timeline, I looked to outside resources – to archives, museums, ministries, and magistrates around the world, in hopes of tracking down relevant information.
I began actually writing my book in bits and pieces, and probably sooner than I should have! I’d come home from an interview so excited about a story I’d been told that I’d write it down and save it. By the time I put some serious thought into how the book should unfold, I had dozens of one-off scenes already crafted. Each would make it into the book eventually, but my most productive writing came when I sat down in 2011 to plot an outline and chapter summaries.
Your research involved extensive global travel. What was the most impactful destination you visited?
Great question! Of all of the places I visited in South America and in Europe, I’d have to say my trip to Radom, the city in central Poland where my grandfather was raised, was the most moving.
My husband and I explored Radom with a guide, a young man named Jakub whom I’d contacted through the city’s Culture Center. Jakub showed us the old Jewish cemetery, which I was shocked to learn was still being restored, as the tombstones had been repurposed by the Nazis for a military airport runway. We visited the apartment building where my family lived, and I got chills running my fingers along a rusted mezuzah still adhered to the cement arched entranceway (only one of two remaining mezuzahs in the entire city, Jakub said).
I left Radom understanding why my great-grandparents had felt at home raising a family there – the city was quaint, livable; I appreciated its understated, small-town vibe. But I couldn’t help but also feel the presence of the 30,000 Jews who had once inhabited the city (a community that was reduced to fewer than 300 by war’s end), who had enjoyed it for what it was before their worlds were shattered.
Reading some of the more gruesome details hit me more than usual knowing they actually happened to a friend’s family. What was it like to learn some of the more horrific things your family went through?
It was tough, as it meant trying to put myself in my relatives’ shoes, imagining what it must have been like to experience the things they did (talk about putting my own “problems” in perspective!). It was also hard because the stories I uncovered in my interviews (e.g., what it was like to lose a sister, or to run through the streets of Warsaw during an uprising, or to give birth to a child in the thick of a Siberian winter) were conveyed with stoicism, the gruesome details glossed over. Even in the first-hand Shoah interviews I had access to, I was amazed at the matter-of-fact manner in which the Kurcs relayed their wartime experiences. It took a great deal of research to capture these stories on paper in a way that felt accurate to what my relatives might have been thinking/feeling at the time.
What was the most mind-blowing thing you learned about your family during the course of your research?
One of the pieces of my family’s narrative that felt the fuzziest going into my research concerned my great-uncle Genek (my grandfather’s older brother). I knew through interviews with his children that Genek had been sent to Siberia, and had ended up fighting for the Allies in the Battle of Monte Casino…but that was it – I had no idea when or why he’d been sent to Siberia, when or why he’d been released, or how he eventually ended up in uniform on Italian soil.
Through the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, I discovered a nine-page, hand-written account of Genek’s, which answered all of these questions, and then some. I was also able, through the Ministry of Defense in the U.K., to track down Genek’s detailed military records, including Medals of Honor he’d never collected. It was a real joy to hand over these discoveries to Genek’s sons.
How has your family reacted to the book?
Thankfully, those who have read an early copy of the book have loved it! I can’t tell you how great that feels. Getting feedback from the family, hearing how much the book has taught them or moved them, has been the most uplifting and gratifying feeling in the world.
What’s the best book you read in 2016?
Hmm…it would have to be a toss up between Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun or Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things (which were released before 2016, but I read them last year and adored them both).
And, your top 3 all-time favorites? I know this is a ridiculously hard question to answer!
Yes, nearly impossible to answer! I will say, however, that the three books I recommend the most to friends are:
City of Thieves by David Benioff (a WWII survival account based on stories passed down by Benioff’s grandfather – the book unfolds like a film and was an early inspiration for my own novel)
Wonder by R. J. Palacio (a Y/A novel about a young 5th grade boy with a facial deformity, struggling to fit in)
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (insightful, funny, and provocative, for writers and non-writers alike)
What’s the best WWII book you’ve ever read (other than your own, of course)?
Another tough one! But if I had to pick, the one at the very top of my WWII list would be Julie Orringer’s historical novel, The Invisible Bridge. The book is nearly 800 pages long – and for that very reason it took me a while to pick it up – but when I did, I grew so consumed with the fates of Orringer’s characters, and so lost in her gorgeous prose, that I couldn’t put it down.
I see many similarities between Orringer’s protagonist, Andras (who is based on her grandfather), and Addy, my own grandfather, who were both young Jews living in Paris, separated from their families at the start of the Second World War.
Finally…are you doing any writing now and do you have plans for a second book?
Most of my recent writing has been devoted to interviews and essays in preparation for the launch of We Were the Lucky Ones (Viking is keeping me busy!), so I haven’t had much time to think about book #2. That said I’ve got a running list of ideas that I’ll flush out when the time comes. I’m inspired (as you may have gathered) by stories based on truth, and I love an underdog protagonist – someone faced with terrible odds, whom you can really cheer for, and whose story offers a big-picture understanding of a place or time with which you might be unfamiliar. I just saw the film Lion and left the theater teary-eyed and thinking WOW – now that’s exactly the kind of story I want to write about next.
About Georgia Hunter
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to write. I penned my first “novel” when I was four years old, and titled it Charlie Walks the Beast after my father’s recently published sci-fi novel, Softly Walks the Beast. When I was eleven, I pitched an article—an Opinion piece on how I’d spend my last day if the world were about to come to an end—to the local newspaper. Since that debut in the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, my personal essays and photos have been featured in places like the New York Times “Why We Travel,” in travelgirl magazine, and on Equitrekking.com. I’ve also taken on the role of freelance copywriter in the world of adventure travel, crafting marketing materials for outfitters such as Austin Adventures and The Explorer’s Passage.
In 2000, a family reunion opened my eyes to the astounding war stories of my grandfather and his family. Eight years later, armed with a digital voice recorder and a moleskin notebook, I set off to unearth and record my family’s story. I spent nearly a decade traversing the globe, interviewing family and digging up records from every possible source I could think of, eventually piecing together the bones of what would become my novel, We Were the Lucky Ones.
I kept a blog as my research unfolded, which you are welcome to peruse. I’ve also created a list of ancestry search tips, should you consider embarking on a journey to uncover your own roots.
Learn more about Hunter on her Author Website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Purchase We Were the Lucky Ones from Amazon (affiliate link)!