Carol Matas is an established children’s and young adult literature author, with 45 published books and counting. With a focus of writing historical fiction with Jewish themes, she has written 11 novels specifically dealing with the Holocaust and the best-seller Daniel’s Story per the request of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Her 2014 book Tucson Jo focuses on Josephine, the daughter of Tucson’s first Jewish mayor. The book was a finalist for the 2014 Jewish Book Awards. We spoke with Carol about her inspiration for the book, how she grapples with difficult themes for children, and more:
Shane: What brought you to choose Tucson as the setting of Tucson Jo?
Carol: Cowboys and Jews? What writer wouldn’t be interested!
My husband and I visited the Gene Autry museum in Los Angeles. There was an exhibit there about Jewish life in the American West. One of the photos was a striking one of Charles Strauss and his son, dressed as cowboys. The exhibit noted that Charles had been the first Jewish mayor of Tucson in 1882. (It actually took a lot of research later to nail down what the exact dates were when he was mayor!) I thought the idea of a Jewish cowboy was fascinating and fun and immediately wanted to find out more- and to write about it. Later I discovered through my research that Charles wasn’t really a cowboy at all! He was a dandy who had come from the East for his health, doctor’s orders. He and his son rented costumes and dressed up for pictures which they then sent to their friends back east in order to impress them!
S: What kinds of research went into your preparation for the novel?
C: The research for the book was extensive, sometimes frustrating, and always fascinating. I started with a visit to Tucson. My husband and I toured the Arizona Historical Society. I loved the exhibits, – of a corner store, for instance – and jotted down all the items for sale. We went to see a house built at that time and I used that as a template for Jo’s house. We found a map store and I came home with maps from the 1880’s that I could use as templates for the town. We ran into some thorny issues- like when exactly the election was held and we had an interesting time trying to delve into the history of trousers and whether or not women were legally allowed to wear them. Please look at the afterword in Tucson Jo and you can read in detail about how we finally resolved that- with lots of help from local librarians, clerks at city hall, and experts at the Historical Society. I think we might be the first to figure this out. Ditto the exact election date! Of course I also read histories of the time and found photos from the era too so that I could describe the town correctly. I read memoirs written at that time as well to get a sense of how people spoke, and used a book with words from that era to find the correct lingo. And, of course, I watched some westerns- just for fun as they aren’t really that well researched.
S: You often write about World War II and the Holocaust. Did you find it particularly challenging or beneficial looking at some of these anti-Semitic themes through the lens of the American Southwest?
C: That’s an interesting question. It’s always challenging to write about The Holocaust and/or anti-Semitism. I suppose what is so surprising to young people is how long anti-Semitism has been with us. They often have no idea that it dates back to the early days of the Church and that it was propagated by both Church and state as a way to scapegoat a particular religion and people. But I did find it compelling to write about the true story of how Strauss’s political rival tried to use it to defeat Strauss, even though there had been no real cases of anti-Semitism in Tucson up to that point. (It didn’t work!) Unfortunately anti-Semitism is ever present, and today we are seeing a frightening escalation in the United States and in Europe.
S: Incorporating more serious themes into your work for children seems to be an important part of what you do. Does this ever extend beyond the page? Do you ever engage in a dialogue with children, say, after a reading? If so, what comes of it? How do you children react after reading your stories?
C: My writing always has two main components and has had since I began. The first is a desire to tell a riveting story, something my reader will not be able to put down and something they will really enjoy. I remember the delight I felt while reading Frank Baum and the Oz books when I was young and in some ways I am always trying to emulate that feeling. Secondly I pursue a theme that I want to explore and that I hope young readers will think about. It is usually some kind of question. In the case of Tucson Jo I wanted to talk about the idea of freedom. Freedom is a basic American value. And yet, what does it mean? I found it interesting that the wild west, was in fact, not half as wild in terms of firearms in 1882 as it is now. Back then no one outside of the sheriff was allowed to carry a gun within the city so that citizens could be safe. Now the opposite is the case. So doesn’t someone’s “freedom” to carry a gun run up against someone else’s freedom to a safe and secure city? What about the freedom to wear pants for women? To me this echoes male decisions about women and their bodies – why are men allowed to be autonomous but women are not? Can women not be trusted to make decisions for themselves? If we look at the southern US today we see that the answer is still a resounding no. Good historical fiction is not really about the past. It is really about the present and in it I attempt to help young people think. In each session in a classroom, discussion is foremost. I ask questions and elicit answers. We talk. We discuss. Mostly I encourage students to think for themselves and to try to break away from fixed ideas. I also remind them that when trying to find out what is right and what is wrong thinking about “Do not do unto others as you would not want done to you” is always a good mantra.
S: Did you ever face any difficulties either with editors, agents, or publishers in getting more serious children’s literature made? Were there any major roadblocks along the way?
C: I think editors have been very open to serious work of fiction for young people – unless it is too serious! I published a book about a teen who is taken advantage of by a rabbi/teacher at her school. First I couldn’t find a publisher. Then once I found one – a small Winnipeg publisher- no libraries or Jewish schools would carry the book. I have now rewritten it and am trying to find a publisher but am running into the same problem.
Another issue I have encountered happens in Holocaust literature where a publisher will want you to call Germans Nazis instead of Germans or they will want a certain kind of response from the character that isn’t realistic, a more gentle response. But as my son says- you can’t make the Holocaust pretty. I never hold back or sanitize. I always try to be honest.
S: What was your path to becoming a published author? Did you have an agent?
C: I began without an agent. I sent my first book out 20 times before it was accepted and then it took another 4 years before my second book was accepted. By then I had written 3 more and since it was a series I was lucky to have them all come out at once. I don’t think I got an agent until my 7th book
S: Have you explored self-publishing?
C: I have not exactly self-published but my agent now publishes back titles that are out of print with “Starburst” publishing. Fictive Press who published Tucson Jo is an Indie publisher. The editor was, however, equally stringent as any editor in a large publishing house re the facts and accuracy of the book. And she, Morri Mostow, is a terrific editor. Tucson Jo was shortlisted for The National Jewish Book Award- and despite over 100 awards and honours for my other books this is the first time one of my books was nominated for that list. We were over the moon!
S: Was there anything you found in your research of Tucson that surprised you?
C: I was actually surprised that there was so little Anti- Semitism in Tucson. In fact there seemed to be little racism at all, it was a very mixed society and people seemed to get on well no mater what background they came from.
S: On your website you state that you’re often involved with politics. Do you think the recent election in the US will affect the book publishing industry? If so, in what way?
C: I fear that the recent election will put a chill on liberal progressive voices. It seems to me the right yells at the top of their lungs about freedom but freedom to them means doing it their way or no way. That is very much what I was trying to warn about in Tucson Jo and now it has happened. Mr. Ryan runs on a law and order and freedom platform. But all that means is that he gets to decide everything and he will profit from being elected, using his position as mayor to build up his business. Sound familiar? You might ask how I saw this coming? I always see it coming- dictatorship, authoritarianism, autocracy, plutocracy – these are always threats to a democracy. Because I am so steeped in The Holocaust I remember that Germany too was a democracy. Germany too believed its institutions would never allow for a dictatorship but look how quickly it happened. That is why Mr. Fiedler takes the position that the law must be followed, even in the case of trousers and even though he can see it might not be such a great law. But in Germany they simply changed the laws so they could round up political opponents and Jews. Will that start to happen now in the US? What will be the first protection to be swept away?
Something else that really fascinates me about this time period and the pull it has for Americans is the myth of the Wild West. This myth of the individual and the importance of freedom was actually very much a fictional meme developed by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and by the extremely successful penny dreadfuls of the era. As I have pointed out the west was actually not that wild- unless you were in Deadwood or The OK Corral in Tombstone – it was settled by prim easterners after all and immigrants.
The common good has usually taken a back seat to the individual in the American Psyche but I think that is mostly unhealthily and very often dangerous. I think it is no accident that Denmark is apparently the happiest place to live – they have the opposite philosophy and almost always place common good before the individual – which then results in individual happiness!
S: Any future stories in the works that will be set in the American southwest?
C: I was hoping that Tucson Jo would be such a big hit that we would be able to publish a sequel but so far it seems difficult through Indie publishing to get it out there and known in classrooms and libraries. However- should that happen I’m ready for the next one!
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