Suzy Zail is a former litigation lawyer turned full-time writer. Her books include, The Tattooed Flower, which is the story of her father’s life as a child Holocaust survivor, The Wrong Boy and I Am Change. Her latest novel Inkflower is based on a true story and explores family secrets, healing and hope. Good Reading for Young Adults caught up with the author to discuss her new book.
ABOUT THE BOOK
But Lisa doesn’t want to hear it, because she has secrets too. No one at school knows she is Jewish or that her dad is sick. Not even her boyfriend.
But that’s all about to change. And so is she.
MEET SUZY ZAIL
Inkflower is based on a true story. What inspired you to share this story?
My Dad. Inkflower is the story of a girl who finds out her father has six months to live and a secret he hasn’t told her about his time in Auschwitz. That girl was me. And the story my father told me while he was dying – the story of a 13-year-old boy shaved, tattooed and torn from his mother at the gates of Auschwitz – was something I needed to share. My Dad taught me that we have to talk about the things that scare us before we can change them. What happened to him when he was a kid scared me. The fact that we haven’t learned from the mistakes of the past and are still hurting each other scares me. This is my third Holocaust story for teens and I think I keep returning to the theme because, like my Dad said, we have to continue the conversation, continue reading and learning about the past so one day we might understand how to treat each other.
Without giving too much away, can you talk about a particular scene or moment in the book that was especially challenging or rewarding to write?
One of the most rewarding scenes was writing about my Uncle Willie. When my father told us about his childhood, he mentioned an older brother Willie, who had looked after him in the camps, stolen food for him, carried him through the snow, made him smile when there was nothing to smile about, and given him hope. That was all I knew. When I sat down to write Inkflower my father was gone so I couldn’t ask him questions about Willie – what did he look like, what games did you play, was he gentle, well-spoken, serious or a goofball? There were no photos of Willie, no letters they’d written, nothing to go off except my imagination. I needed scenes and dialogue. Those were some of the most rewarding to write, watching my dad and his brother laugh, whisper, play and fight. I never met Willie because he died one day before liberation, but after two years spending time with him on the page, I felt like I knew him. I felt like we were friends.
Your novel looks at the impacts of WWII and the Holocaust. In what ways did your father’s story help inform how you navigated these topics?
My father told us his story over ten nights, more than 25 hours. He didn’t cry or get emotional. It was almost like he was on the outside looking in. Even though he let his walls down to tell us his story, I think he was still protecting himself, and us too. He talked about hunger not starvation, death instead of murder. He never cried.
I don’t shy away from making my readers feel deeply, but like my father, I’m careful to protect my teen readers. That means not too much graphic detail and moments of light amid the dark. My stories are never unrelentingly sad. Hope is a huge thing in YA literature and all my books are infused with it. The characters are strong and there are always brave, good people who perform small acts of kindness. My father wasn’t trying to teach us a lesson. He just told us one boy’s story. I try to do the same with all my novels. Give the reader one kid to care about. Not six million Jews, just one, with the same fears and longings and hope they have. Someone they can suffer beside but also triumph with.
How did you develop Lisa’s character and how she changes over the course of the novel?
I always write a chapter outline before I start writing a book. That way I can have Lisa struggle, anger, fail, learn, grow, have setbacks and grow again throughout the novel. I also write a character analysis before I start so I know her strengths and her flaws, what she most wants and what she fears. And, of course, with Inkflower being based on a true story, there was a lot of me in Lisa (or Lisa in me!) I knew I wanted her to be a secret-keeper, like her dad, someone who felt uncomfortable under the spotlight, someone who listened rather than spoke. I didn’t want her friends to know she was Jewish, and when her dad was diagnosed, I didn’t want her to share the news with her friends. That set-up allowed Lisa to grow alongside her father (who is forced to be vulnerable and accept help when his Motor Neurone Disease worsens). Having her be uncomfortable about her father’s disability, and their shared history, allowed me to teach Lisa, and the reader, important truths about love, hate, hope, acceptance and how to let people in.
Can you talk about the challenges and joys of writing from the perspective of a teenage protagonist?
The biggest challenge with Inkflower was probably trying to recall, and then sink into, the angst, fear and confusion a teen like Lisa would experience hearing her father is dying and has this awful secret he wants to share. The joy was living with the same abandon, curiosity and spontaneity as a teen, and allowing yourself to feel all the feels. When you’re embodying a teenager, there’s no hiding from your emotions, not if you want to write a real character. So being Lisa was a revelation. My father had died 18 years before I started writing, and I don’t think, in all that time, I’d ever really broken down and cried. My dad had raised me to build walls and let go of sadness, just like he had after the war. So that’s what I did after he died. I thought of him, free of his disease and at peace, and I smiled. Writing Inkflower I had to dig deeper. I remember sitting at my desk, the first day and asking How would it feel at fifteen to be losing your father? How would it feel? I started bawling. I didn’t let the walls come up, I just let myself feel. And I think that was the first time I really let myself grieve.
What messages or themes do you hope readers will take away from Inkflower?
All the things I learned in the last years of my Dad’s life. Here’s a few:
Friendship and kindness can be a hugely powerful thing.
Don’t accept other people’s opinions about who you are.
Being vulnerable and asking for help, takes guts.
Now is the time to start working on the person you want to be.
Sharing your fears, shrinks them.
Everyone has a story, even if they don’t have the words.
Being different is okay, being different should be celebrated.
If you could describe this book in three words, what would they be?
Truth, hope and survival (sorry, that’s four😊)
Find our more about Suzy Zail HERE.