“She’d learned that the past was a blurry mosaic of right and wrong. You had to recognize your part in each…and remember. If you tried to forget, to run from the fears, the regrets and transgressions, they’d eventually hunt you down and consume your life….” ~ from THE BAKERS DAUGHTER
They say history repeats itself. More often, though, history seems mirrored in present events. Details and scenery have changed, but we, as humans, still grapple with the same convictions, the same truths.
In Sarah McCoy’s novel, THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER, the past and the present come together in El Paso, Texas in the lives of Reba Adams, a journalist, and Elsie Schmidt, a woman who came of age in Germany during World War II. When Reba sets out to write a simple story about Elsie and her German bakery, she realizes that this story will not come easy. She returns to the bakery again and again. The histories of both women unfold and reveal that, no matter the time or place, nothing in life is black and white. In every decision we make, we risk consequences, and sometimes we face tragedies. Reba and Elsie find courage, compassion, and love.
THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER is an international bestseller and is currently in the semifinals for the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Historical Fiction. If you’ve read the book and love it like I did, you can help vote THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER into the finals by clicking here.
I’m honored to host Sarah McCoy today, where she talks her novel, how she discovered the story, and the effect that writers have on readers (and vice versa). Leave your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER. The winner will be chosen on Tuesday, November 20th.
And now, welcome Sarah McCoy!
CC: In your story, memories of the holocaust and current issues facing US Border Protection come together at the counter of a small German bakery in El Paso, Texas. The two stories – of Reba and Riki, of Elsie and Josef – blend so well. What inspired your idea for the novel?
SM: I spent a portion of my childhood in Germany where my dad, a career military officer, was stationed. My husband also grew up in Germany, speaks fluent German, and worked at a restaurant that shows up in the novel–the Von Stueben– during his college holiday. So we both have ties to the German culture. Fast forward a decade, we moved to El Paso. The local magazine asked me to write a feature article on the German community. The Luftwaffe has trained fliers in the United States since 1958. In 1992, they consolidated their troops at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, just up the road from El Paso. For the feature, I shadowed a local baker and his team at Marina’s German Bakery. Michael, the owner, graciously allowed me to interview him, his staff and customers, poke around the kitchen and come home smelling of gingerbread and cardamon. It fed my creativity, one could argue.
Not long after that article ran, I went to an El Paso farmer’s market and met an 80-year-old German woman selling her own homemade bread. I was completely smitten by her, and all that I imagined she might have experienced in her life. While picking out my brötchen, I asked how she came to be in El Paso. “I married an American soldier after the war,” she told me. Voila! Elsie, my 1945 protagonist, was born. My memories of living and traveling in Germany served as my imaginative landscape and fueled my hunger to research the country and its people during those last awful months of the World War. Teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso during that time, many of my students wrote about their fear and anxiety regarding the deportation of family and friends. I imagined many in Germany (Aryan, Jewish, etc.) felt similarly. Thus the stories wove themselves together. I didn’t start off thinking, “Oh, yes, of course, I’ll pair Germany and El Paso.”
In my books, I lean toward taking two seemingly unrelated settings, time periods and people, and weaving a grand tapestry that connects them. The only separation is time and space, like the ends of a table runner. In my reading, I find those kinds of stories the most fascinating. I try to write what I would be beating down the bookstore door to read.
CC: Several characters in The Baker’s Daughter face moral decisions, to follow the rules or follow the heart, and we read of the consequences in doing both. I was especially struck by the harsh reality of the women in the Lebensborn Program (I had never heard of such a program!), as told through the letters from Elsie’s sister, Hazel: following the rules did not guarantee anyone immunity from the pains of the war. How did you go about researching subjects like this for the novel?
SM: Again, I hate to play the “inspiration” card, but I didn’t set out to write about the Lebensborn Program. I didn’t go “researching” it. It came to me as I was gathering my landscape: the German community in 1945 Garmisch. My storytelling always begins with characters–usually having a discussion in a scene– and I can’t get their voices out of my head. This was how Elsie, Jane, Reba and Riki developed. From there, I fill in the setting of their world. One of the things I love about writing historical-contemporary hybrid fiction is that because I live in modernity, I can see and speak of things ancient people couldn’t. I have the benefit of hindsight. I’m able to pluck certain bizarre facts from the history books and ask, “What is that? Tell me more.” And then Google around for weeks until I’ve found as much information as technology has to offer on that subject. It’s a remarkable age we live in! Archives and historical data across the globe can be found if you are willing to put in the Internet surfing hours.
So when I saw a snippet about the Lebensborn Program, I stopped. I knew it had to be a part of the book. That, too, is one of my ardent goals as a writer: not just to tell a whimsical story that entertains my readers, but to educate, inform, and take them on an archeological journey that exposes some aspect of our shared human past. It goes back to that table runner analogy. Yes, we might be at the end where the tapestry is bright and new, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t a product of the thread at the sun-worn other. One day, vivid patterns will be looking down the table at us.
CC: A few months ago, you traveled to Holland for an international book tour, and, recently, you returned from the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. How is touring and meeting readers overseas different from a book tour in the US?
SM: It isn’t that different at all. People are people no matter where you go. Yes, their names might be different but their smiles, embraces, and enthusiasm for my work is the same. I adore my Holland readers just as much as those in Nashville, New York, and San Francisco.
I feel incredibly blessed that the book has remained on the Dutch Bestsellers List since it launched in spring 2012. That blows my mind! Equally so, I was humbled to tears at an El Paso book event when a 91-year-old woman told me that THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER taught her more about the German people in WWII than she’d ever known–and she lived through the war years. Similarly, I met a Jewish woman of the same age in Holland who cried and kissed my cheeks. While I couldn’t understand the words she spoke, the emotion was so significant that I was left physically trembling. Again, I believe in the connection of our human spirits, past to present. I’ll cherish those moments for the rest of my life. It’s what fuels my writing: giving voice to the voiceless and forgotten or unknown stories.
CC: What are you reading these days?
SM: I’ve actually just returned from California, final leg of book tour for THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER. I have a contract deadline for my 3rd novel due to my publisher (Crown/RH) this summer. So I’m currently reading nonfiction books related to my 3rd book’s historical and contemporary settings. While on tour this summer and fall, I scheduled some vital research stops on both the East and West Coasts. Now home, I’m digging into those notes and the documents I obtained from the historians at each of those stops. It’s quite a bit of research reading, as you can imagine.
This being the case, I’m not reading any fiction. However, I have a stack of books from my fellow featured authors at the Booktopia Santa Cruz event: Tayari Jones’ SILVER SPARROW, Matthew Dick’s MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND, Ann Packer’s SWIM BACK TO ME, Tupelo Hassman’s GIRLCHILD, and so many more! I’ll no doubt pick up one of those when I have a break in my creative flow. Or an audiobook! I wasn’t much of an audiobook listener but being at Booktopia with narrators Simon Vance and Grover Gardner has turned me on to the idea. Their voices were just so… lovely. Simon’s narration of Hilary Mantel’s BRING UP THE BODIES is on my list. Oh dear, so many choices. I’m sure readers feel this same way!
CC: What advice can you offer writers on the rise?
SM: One of the best nuggets of wisdom I ever received came from my mom when I was seven-years-old and had been admitted to my school’s GT (Gifted & Talented) program. She told me, “You’re not ‘gifted’, honey, you’re just a high-achiever.”
As an adult I questioned why she said that. It sounds so harsh! She explained that she never wanted me to assume that opportunity and success was owed to me by virtue of talent. It’s like Albert Einstein said, “Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.” Such solid truth. I’m grateful my mom championed humility, drive, and perseverance rather than simply stroking my ego. I pass on that advice because it’s proactive. It puts the ball back in your court and encourages you to get ready to swing hard.
SARAH McCOY is also the author of the novel, THE TIME IT SNOWED IN PUERTO RICO. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. The daughter of an Army officer, her family was stationed in Germany during her childhood. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband and dog, Gilbert, in El Paso, Texas. For more about Sarah and her books, visit her website, follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to her Facebook page.
Remember: leave your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER. Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, November 20th.