Behind The Words With Shirley Russak Wachtel


Welcome, Shirley, we’re excited to have you on Reader’s Entertainment. Shirley is the author of the upcoming release A CASTLE IN BROOKLYN

Let’s begin with here you’re from, where you live, family, fur-babies –a bit about you.

Thanks so much for having me.  Well, I have lived in East Brunswick, New Jersey for the past 35 years, and spent some time in Staten Island when my kids were little.  But I consider myself a Brooklyn girl, through and through.  I was raised there and received my undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College and a master’s in English literature from the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.  My Doctor of Letters degree, though, came many years later at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.  Family remains the core of my life and is often the focus of my writing.  I have a loving and supportive husband, Arthur, who is a guidance counselor in a middle school, but also worked as a coach for many years.  My three sons, Howie, Brad, and Charlie are a source of pride, and I could not love them more.  My two granddaughters, Zoey and Emmy, are the joy of my life.  For me, family is everything.

How long have you been writing and it is your full time job? If not, what is your ‘real world’ job? How long have you been writing?

I have been writing since I was eight years old, when I penned The Mystery of the Three Red Gowns, along with a friend.  I have written many manuscripts, somewhat improved on the first one!  I am thrilled that A Castle in Brooklyn is my first novel published by a major publisher, Little A (an Amazon imprint).  In addition to writing freelance articles and reporting for some community newspapers, as well as working as an editor of a paper in Brooklyn, I have been a professor of English at Middlesex College in Edison, New Jersey for the past 35 years.  What began as Plan B, teaching while I waited to  become a fulltime writer, has become a fulfilling profession. I love to see the transformation in students as they open their minds to literature and education.  I like being a part of that process.

What does your typical writing day look like? 

I am currently on sabbatical, so I have more time to devote to my writing.  I try to write in the morning, right after breakfast.  I generally take my cup of coffee outside on the deck with a notepad and black pen, if the weather is pleasant; on colder days, I write sitting indoors at the bay window.  I prefer writing by hand, as I think that allows a more fluid connection between my mind and the words on the page.  I try to write about three pages each day.  When I have completed a chapter, I revise and edit.  Then I sit down at the computer in my office and type the chapter before revising and editing again.  Sometimes, I have writer’s block, but I work my way through it; other times, the words seem to come non-stop.  I have a writing pad on my night table just in case I have any ideas when my head hits the pillow, which often happens.

Tell us about your latest release? 

A Castle in Brooklyn is the story of Jacob who manages to escape from a life-threatening situation during the Holocaust.  Jacob’s dream is to build a home, and when he finally arrives in Brooklyn, USA, it appears the dream is about to come true.  Together with his wife, Esther, a girl he meets in an English class for foreigners, and his good friend, Zalman, the boy whose life he saved in Poland, he does build the home and have the family he has always yearned for.  However, an unforeseen tragedy occurs which threatens his friendship with Zalman and even his marriage.  The home remains, though, as others, filled with their own dreams, inhabit it.  Ultimately, Jacob’s dream is fully realized, but in a different way than any expected.

What inspired the idea for this book?

Like so much of my writing, this book was inspired by my parents.  My parents were Holocaust survivors.  My mother was one of eight children.  She worked in a labor camp and was saved from starvation by a Christian guard who would sneak bread to her each day.  My father was in the Lodz Ghetto.  There, he was a runner for the black market before being sent to Auschwitz.  He saved many lives.   At war’s end, my mother and only two brothers survived; my father was the sole survivor in his family, his mother and four siblings lost to war.  Jacob encompasses the indomitable spirit of my family.  Despite tragedy and despair, he never gives up making his dream of home and family a reality.  Zalman and Esther share this spirit.

Which of the characters do you relate to the most and why?

I would probably most relate to Esther, not only because she is a female, but because she is an optimistic person, always reinventing herself from businesswoman to housewife to teacher.  I have worked in different capacities, but always with a goal in mind.

Would you and your main character be friends?

I think I could be friends with not only Jacob, who reminds me of my father, a quiet man with big dreams, but also Esther and Zalman.  Essentially, they are all kind people who have close bonds with family, qualities I admire.

What part of the book was the hardest to write?

I think the most difficult part for me to write was the tragedy which occurs in the middle of the book and changes the course of all the characters’ lives.  However, novels take on a life of their own and I answered the call.

Did you model a character after someone you know?

As I said, Jacob has some of the characteristics of my father, and the other characters, while not modeled on any one particular person, possess traits of people I have known.  Florrie has the qualities of confidence mixed with warmth, just like some of my own best friends.

If you’re planning a sequel, can you share a tiny bit about your plans for it?

I am not planning a sequel, but I have many stories brewing in my head.  I usually write about family.

Could you share one detail from your current release with readers that they might not find in the book?

The scene at Wolfie’s near Brooklyn College is based on my memories of when I was a student at the school.  My friends and I would hang out there when classes were over.  The scene where the pit-bull is abused came from a true story, something that occurred near my home, and which appalled me.

Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write? 

There are many.  Charlotte Bronte for her heartfelt saga of a mistreated, shy young girl and how she ultimately triumphs.  Amy Tan for her exploration of family and the unbreakable bonds between mothers and daughters.  Gail Tsukiyama for her lyrical use of language and sensitivity.  Linda Cohen Loigman for her ability to evoke post-war events while staying true to the heart of each character.  Their books are the ones I never wanted to end. 

Any writing rituals?

As mentioned, I write by hand at first, and then transfer the work onto the computer.  When writing, I must be in a completely silent, well-ordered space.  However, if I am “in the groove,” distractions won’t stop me.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, which was published in 1925.  This novel of a young woman who rebels against her strict Orthodox upbringing has all the elements of great literature.  The main character is vibrant and empathetic.  We cry with her just as we share the joy in her triumphs.

Do you have a secret talent readers would be surprised by?

I understand Yiddish, which was my first language.  Is that a talent?

Your favorite go to drink or food when the world goes crazy! 

Even when the world isn’t going crazy, I would never turn down a scoop of coffee ice cream, especially not when it is topped with hot fudge and whipped cream.

And what is your writing Kryptonite?

If you mean by that question, what prevents me from writing, I would have to say that no matter how involved I am when writing, I will always put down my pen to speak with my children or grandchildren when they call.  As I said, family comes first.

What is the one question you never get ask at interviews, but wish you did? Ask and answer it. 

Have you ever given up on writing?  No.  I am driven to write, although I have felt despair, thinking that much of what I have written would be consigned to a desk drawer.  My son, who at age 32 won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, once told me that, no matter what, I should just keep writing.  That advice has helped me find success.

Thank you for such a great conversation, Shirley! 

Reader’s here’s a quick look at A CASTLE IN BROOKLYN:

Spanning decades, an unforgettable novel about reckoning with the past, the true nature of friendship, and the dream of finding home.

1944, Poland. Jacob Stein and Zalman Mendelson meet as boys under terrifying circumstances. They survive by miraculously escaping, but their shared past haunts and shapes their lives forever.

Years later, Zalman plows a future on a Minnesota farm. In Brooklyn, Jacob has a new life with his wife, Esther. When Zalman travels to New York City to reconnect, Jacob’s hopes for the future are becoming a reality. With Zalman’s help, they build a house for Jacob’s family and for Zalman, who decides to stay. Modest and light filled, inviting and warm with acceptance―for all of them, it’s a castle to call home.

Then an unforeseeable tragedy―and the grief, betrayals, and revelations in its wake―threatens to destroy what was once an unbreakable bond, and Esther finds herself at a crossroads. A Castle in Brooklyn is a moving and heartfelt immigration story about finding love and building a home and family while being haunted by a traumatic past.