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17 February
The Back Page Viewpoints

With Historical Fiction, Lead With Fact, but Consider the Drama

By Leon H. Gildin, author of The Polski Affair and The Family Affair

I practiced law in New York City for more than 40 years. One of my clients was Abraham Shulman, an erudite author and newspaper man who wrote in both Yiddish and English for The Forward. His writings dealt with philosophy, history, and social issues, and one day he appeared at my office with his latest work entitled The History of Hotel Polski, published by the Holocaust Press and distributed by Schocken Books.

This all happened so many years ago I am embarrassed to say I don’t recall if we ever spoke of the book at the time he presented it or at any time thereafter. I do recall, however, reading it carefully and being astonished by its contents.

There are few subjects that have been so extensively written about as the Holocaust. Nevertheless, Shulman gave me a research work that dealt with a little-known event that took place in Warsaw after the destruction of the ghetto in 1943. The book consisted of an Introduction that related the author’s research into the happening, the analysis of others with whom he had spoken and the historic background of the time in which the event took place. But the final sentence of the Introduction is the one that stuck with me for years to come: “The greater the details of evidence the more confusion the conclusion seems to be.” How is this possible?

The book included interviews of survivors who had been at the Hotel Polski. Their descriptions of what took place and how people reacted were quite unbelievable. You may be sure it was a book whose contents stayed with me but, at that time of my life, making a living was foremost, and the book was relegated to a shelf in my library.

In addition to the practice of law, I also dabbled in the theatre and the idea of a play based on Shulman’s research became an idea worth pursuing. I never got beyond the second scene of the first act. There were so many characters that not even a not-for-profit theater company would consider such a play. So the book went back on the shelf and the play notes went into a drawer.

Years went by. I retired to Arizona and took all unfinished business with me. I had a non-fiction book published; it did quite well, but Polski continued to haunt me. Finally, with time on my hands, I took out Shulman’s book, started to read it with a yellow marker, took out my old notes on the play, and decided that a novel was the way to go. It was now that Shulman’s book truly became relevant.

From it, I was able to extract the facts and through that process, the imagery of these survivors was very powerful to me. I felt as if I knew them when all along, perhaps subconsciously, I was creating fictitious characters. It was then my obligation to combine fact with fiction. The result was The Polski Affair, winner of the 2010 International Book Awards for historical fiction. The characters are drawn from snippets of things said or described by survivors in Shulman’s book.  The characters, as I created them, are living through events described in the novel—in some instances fictitious and in others based on fact.

So when it comes to combining fact with fiction, it is important to remember that fact should be predominant. It must guide the fiction. As an example, one of the stories in The Polski Affair is about a couple on a train with others and they all believe they are going to their freedom. But then the train did not appear to be going in the direction they assumed it should be travelling. They go from excitement to despair. The fictional highs and lows of the people as described in the book are based on the factual train ride.

During my book signings, I was always confronted by two questions: how come you wrote a book from a woman’s point of view and what happened after the book ended?

The first question implied “How could a man put himself in place of a woman so as to describe her reactions, her emotions, etc.?” I responded by saying I had to deal with the characters from a dramatic point of view. Is the drama not greater for a woman to be held prisoner by a man with whom a relationship develops? Once that becomes the basis of the story, the reactions and the emotions become easy to write. So, regardless of whether you’re writing about a female- or male-central character, allow the drama to do the work for you—and your character’s genuine emotions will come through.

The second question led me to write the sequel: The Family Affair. Published in November 2011, The Family Affair takes the secretive past of the central character and shows how it affects her relationships with other family members—and the family unit as a whole—for years to come. The resulting conclusion, which I’m not going to spoil here, but will just say when it comes to family secrets, sometimes there are things better left unsaid.

About Leon H. Gilden

Leon H. Gildin is an award-winning author, producer and retired entertainment attorney. While practicing law in New York for more than 40 years, Mr. Gildin served as general counsel to actors, writers and composers, produced on and off-Broadway, and collaborated with authors and musicians in the development of scripts and musical material for the stage. Leon is the 2010 International Book Awards winner in the Historical Fiction category for his novel, The Polski Affair. The award-winning story continues in The Family Affair, scheduled for release in November 2011. Leon is not quite retired, always in creative pursuit of his next compelling writing project. He resides in Paradise Valley, Arizona, with his wife, Gloria.

Visit the author’s website.

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