Alyson Richman's mother, a painter, taught her to look at the world with the eyes of an artist, so it seemed only natural to Richman to make painters the protagonists of two previous novels, "The Mask Carver's Son" and "The Last Van Gogh." But it was a challenge, she told Newsday, to find the right approach for depicting the experiences of an artist suffering through the Holocaust in her new novel, "The Lost Wife" (Berkeley, $15 paper), which was selected as the "Long Island Reads" book for 2012, with discussion groups and special events at more than 25 public libraries islandwide in April and May. Richman, who lives in Huntington, found her breakthrough inspiration in a most unlikely place.
Is it true that this novel began with a story you overheard at a hair salon?
I wanted to write a novel about artists who created during the Holocaust, but I didn't know how to frame the story, and my agent thought it would be very difficult to sell. I was frustrated with her reaction, and on a whim I went to get my hair cut at Cartel in Huntington. The stylist next to me was talking about a client who had attended a wedding rehearsal dinner where the grandfather of the groom at the end of the evening asked the grandmother of the bride to roll up her sleeve; when he saw her tattoo from Auschwitz, he said, "You were my wife." When I heard that story, I had lightning bolts in my head; I knew it would be the best way to open the book.
One of the things that makes a first chapter powerful is if you initiate all sorts of questions in your readers' heads. With this story, you immediately think, "What happened? What choices did they make that caused their separation? How did she survive? How did he survive? Who did they marry afterward?" All these questions create momentum for you.
Did you try to find out more about the real people?
No. I just used it as a springboard for the fictional story of Lenka and Josef. It's funny: journalist friends have said to me, "I would have had to know!" But I didn't want to know; I wanted to create something that was mine from the first sentence on.
Were you worried about tackling such dark material?
It's very difficult to get people to want to read about the Holocaust. But because Lenka was an artist and the scenes at Terezin and Auschwitz are written from her perspective, the language is, ironically, almost beautiful to describe something horrible. Instead of being gratuitously grotesque, it's done to make you feel that you're there, seeing and imagining everything. When I was giving a talk in Baltimore a few weeks ago, someone said to me, "You know every time I have read or seen anything about the Holocaust, the images have been in black and white. Your book put the color in the Holocaust for me."
Have readers asked you what happens after Josef and Lenka meet for the first time in 60 years?
When people want to know why I didn't add more, I say, "I never had any intention to go further than reconnecting them and making the circle complete. It's your job to imagine what happens afterward; I've given you all the tools." I do not like neat and tidy endings that sum up everything for you. In this journey, the first love ends with the last love, and I can't think of a more beautiful ending than that.