Skip to main content

Interview: April 9, 2019

Martha Hall Kelly’s runaway bestseller, LILAC GIRLS, introduced real-life heroine Caroline Ferriday. LOST ROSES, set a generation earlier and also inspired by true events, features Caroline's mother, Eliza, and follows three equally indomitable women from St. Petersburg to Paris under the shadow of World War I. In this interview, conducted by reviewer Rebecca Munro, Kelly talks about her decision to write a prequel; the most interesting fact she learned about pre-WWII Russia; her references to the fashion and etiquette of 1914, which she sprinkles throughout the story; and her current project --- the final book in the trilogy, which will be based on Caroline's great-grandmother, Jane Eliza, and will take place during the Civil War. Your debut, LILAC GIRLS, was a runaway bestseller based on the lives of three women affected by Hitler's reign. One of them, Caroline Ferriday, was a real-life humanitarian who saved countless women from the terrors of Europe. LOST ROSES is a prequel to LILAC GIRLS, and one of the main characters is Caroline's mother, Eliza. When did you know you wanted to write a prequel?

Martha Hall Kelly: I discovered a newspaper clipping in Caroline Ferriday's desk drawer, probably undisturbed in there for years, that told the story of how Eliza Ferriday had turned her classic six apartment in Manhattan into a permanent bazaar to sell Russian handmade goods to benefit the White Russians who had been forced out of Russia with nothing. I loved that story and set off on another worldwide hunt for the true story.

BRC: Why did you choose to include Eliza as one of your main characters? What do you hope readers take away from learning more about Caroline's mother and Caroline's youth?

MHK: I loved Eliza when I was writing LILAC GIRLS. All the selfless charity work that Caroline did she learned from her mother, and I wanted to show how that is passed down. I also just love her as a character --- I get a lot of mail about her and how much readers love her, too. I hope readers take away from learning more about Eliza that it really does make a difference how we model for our children. Of course, Eliza learned from her own mother, who did incredibly selfless things as well during the Civil War.

BRC: Your other main characters, Sofya Streshnayva, a cousin of the Romanovs, and Varinka, a Russian fortune-teller's daughter, also share their points of view in LOST ROSES. Can you introduce them to us?

MHK: Sofya Streshnayva is Eliza's best friend and a cousin to the Tsar. Though she spends a lot of her time helping others, she leads an incredibly privileged life and, like many in her country at the time, does not take the threat of the Bolshevik revolution seriously. Varinka is a peasant girl who lives in the village where the Streshnayvas have a country estate. Varinka comes to live with them and brings terrible things into the family.

BRC: While in LILAC GIRLS you took readers to New York, France and Germany, in LOST ROSES you introduce an entirely new setting: Russia --- specifically St. Petersburg and the surrounding countryside. Can you give us a little background on the Russia we see here?

MHK: I went to Russia to research LOST ROSES, since traveling to Germany and Poland had been so helpful in making LILAC GIRLS come alive, and I was so glad I did. Since Sofya is an aristocrat, I needed to see as many of the Tsar's palaces as possible and tour the rural villages to get a feel for Varinka's home turf. It was an incredible trip. I also went to Paris again and discovered a part of Paris that had been a Russian emigre enclave and still has the vestiges of a thriving Russian community there, on Rue Daru.

BRC: We know that the characters of Caroline and her mother were based on real people, but what about Sofya and Varinka? And if they were not real, were they based on similar women?

MHK: I based Sofya on Edith Sollohub, a Russian Countess who lost everything after the Revolution. I love her voice in her memoir, THE RUSSIAN COUNTESS: Escaping Revolutionary Russia, and admired her strength in the face of poverty after having lived with so much privilege. Varinka is wholly from my imagination.

BRC: Both of your books place women --- and their strength, courage and fortitude --- at the forefront of some of history's most tumultuous times. What has drawn you to write such powerful and individual characters? What do you hope readers take away from women like Caroline and Eliza, and Sofya and Varinka?

MHK: I think I'm drawn to these women's stories because they are so inspiring and can show us how to deal with our own challenges. Readers responded so strongly to Kasia's arc in LILAC GIRLS, how she triumphed over the Nazis, and they told me her story gave them strength to overcome their own struggles with addiction and grief. I also heard from so many readers about Caroline and how she inspired them to go out and do random acts of charity. Those are my favorite emails to get.

BRC: Sofya is a wealthy aristocrat living in Russia during the uprisings of the Bolsheviks when Russia’s imperial dynasty begins to fall. She has a young son, and as she observes the peasants and poor laborers on the streets, she often reflects on her son's "luck" to be born to the right family at the right time, when he just as easily could be starving on the streets. This theme of luck and the fortune of birth is prevalent throughout the novel. Can you expand upon this a bit?

MHK: Luck has played a big part in my life, and I often wonder where I'd be if I'd just done things a tiny bit differently. To the Russian aristocracy, it was a happy accident of birth that landed them with so much privilege. Sofya was grateful for that, but so many of her peers were not. What randomness brought each of us today to where we are? It was sheer luck that I stumbled on the true story behind LILAC GIRLS and LOST ROSES, and I'm so grateful I went up to tour the Bellamy-Ferriday house that day.

BRC: In LILAC GIRLS, one of your characters was darkly flawed. Although you write again from three points of view in LOST ROSES, none of your characters are quite so easy to classify as villains, though they (especially Varinka) do make mistakes. Was this a conscious choice on your part?

MHK: Maybe you are talking about Taras, Varinka's guardian? It was not conscious to make him so darkly flawed, but he was just a bad guy. I tried softening him, but it didn't take. I think his time in prison was such a wound for him, that it left him twisted and filled with hate. I didn't want to shy away from showing what going to prison at such a young age did to him and can do to anyone.

BRC: Meeting Caroline as a young girl, we see that she and her mother do not have the sort of close relationship we are accustomed to seeing in books about women. Can you talk a little about their relationship? How does it affect the Caroline we met in LILAC GIRLS?

MHK: Henry Ferriday's death was such a terrible tragedy for both Caroline and her mother. I tried to show how the death of a loved one can create a chasm between a mother and daughter. I hope I showed how that resolved itself in the end. They ended up being everything to one another.

BRC: I think it is fair to say that many readers were already well-informed about World War II and the horrors of the concentration camps before reading LILAC GIRLS. With LOST ROSES, however, I believe that readers will have much to learn about Russia, Austria and the fall of the Tsar. Why did you choose to include this less-discussed moment in history? What was the most interesting or surprising fact you learned about pre-WWII Russia?

MHK: When I found the newspaper clipping and decided to focus on Eliza's life for book two, I was excited to have a new war to learn about and explore. WWI was so interesting and critical to understanding the events of WWII. I think it's natural we focus on WWII, since we are still recovering from the horror of it. So many of our family members and friends actually fought in that war, and there are still living survivors. In fact, two of the Ravensbrück Rabbits are still with us. The most interesting thing I found out about pre-WWII Russia was the truth about the royal family, who was very much like any family. I loved all the little things, like how the Tsar's daughters were brought up strictly and made to sleep on army cots and that the Tsarina had a lilac room. The walls were covered in lilac paper, and she grew lilacs in her hothouses and had them hoisted by cranes into her living quarters and public rooms.

BRC: Although they are from very different worlds, Eliza and Sofya are the closest of confidants; they even write to one another every single day. Can you tell us more about their friendship? How do their intertwining stories propel the book forward?

MHK: I seem to have a friendship obsession, since book three focuses on a female friendship as well. But their friendship is central to the story since once Eliza loses touch with Sofya, who is back in Russia, she dedicates her life to finding her. I love the way their stories are braided together, showing how much they love each other. They say authors should have their characters want something, and those two desperately want to see each other again. That want thrusts the story forward, similar to the way Kasia wanted to find out what happened to her mother in LILAC GIRLS.

BRC: In LILAC GIRLS, Caroline often struggled with her fellow Americans' desire to ignore the war, and, occurring even earlier, LOST ROSES highlights a lot of these same frustrations through Eliza. Why do you think so many Americans were eager to turn a blind eye to what was happening in Europe at the time? What do you hope readers take away from their attitudes?

MHK: Being across the Atlantic during WWI, it was easy at first for America to turn a blind eye to the suffering in Europe and to be isolationist. The same was true in WWII, and today as well. Caroline and her family always fought against that sort of hands-off attitude, even back to the Civil War when the Woolsey women, staunch abolitionists, worked tirelessly to keep the Union together. I hope readers are as inspired by Caroline and her family as I am, and see that it is by reaching out to the less fortunate and practicing kindness and generosity that we show our greatness.

BRC: The more horrifying details of war and revolution aside, I really enjoyed your references to the fashion and etiquette of 1914, especially in Russia. How do you find the right balance between including these lighter details without detracting from your plot? Do you have a favorite fashion or behavioral tidbit you uncovered in your research?

MHK: I'm so glad you liked those little details. My grandmother was a wonderful seamstress, and I just love uncovering the hidden history of fashion. It's such an important part of culture for men and women, and in the old days it was so much more a sign of class and culture. These days, when everyone on an airplane looks like they're going to an exercise class, it's interesting to go back and look at how the slightest nuances, a different type of collar for men or a certain style of dress for women, said volumes about their social status. In the Civil War book I'm writing now, I'm finding that was more true in that era  than in any other era I've written about so far. The wrong style of bonnet could ruin a woman.

In terms of finding a balance, I like to write the book and then go back and fill in the details of fashion. I think those bits of particularity really help give a time and place to the scenes and make it less predictable. But I'm careful not to overdo it, and a lot ends up in the "use later" file. In LOST ROSES, I thought all the mourning clothes were really interesting. The strict rules --- like a two-year minimum for wearing all black and then a woman was allowed to wear colors like deep purple, while men were only required to wear an armband for a few days/weeks --- were fascinating. And how in Paris they decided to buck the conventional mourning rules and wear white pearls at one point.

BRC: Was one of your characters easier to write than the others, or did you have a soft spot for one over the others?

MHK: Luba, Sofya's little sister, was always a delight to come back to. Also, Peg Eliza’s maid was great fun. Sofya was hard at first, but once she had to face such incredible adversity, I grew to love her so much. I also loved writing Caroline as a child. It was great fun to imagine her as a young woman, discovering her beloved home she called The Hay.

BRC: I have read in previous interviews that you are planning a pre-prequel about Caroline's grandmother. What can you share about this story?

MHK: Yes! I'm writing it now, the last in the trilogy, based on Caroline Ferriday's great-grandmother, Jane Eliza, matriarch of the Woolsey family. Originally from Virginia, she and two of her daughters witnessed a slave auction in Charleston, and it changed her forever. She raised her family in Boston with her husband, had eight children and lost her husband in a terrible accident when the last child was not yet born. The story focuses on her daughter Georgeanna, who was a nurse during the Civil War, on hospital ships and at Gettysburg. The other two characters are an enslaved young woman and a plantation mistress.

My husband, who always has had a huge Civil War interest and is always happy to read my early pages, has been waiting at my office door for these. I must say I've never cried this much while writing. It was a horrific period in our history, but beautiful in many ways too. And when you dig into the hidden history, you realize we haven't come nearly as far as we thought.