Hi, Rachel, it's so nice to speak to you. Your debut novel Florence Adler swims forever has gotten a lot of attention. Would you please introduce the characters?
Yeah, there are seven characters in the book. So five of them are members of the Adler family. The Adler's are Florence, who you know you you meet very early in the story. And she I don't think is giving much away to say she drowns early in the book training to some English Channel. She has a sister Fanny, who's in the hospital on bedrest, who has lost a baby the previous summer. And so the family makes the decision not to tell her that her sister has died. The secret is really kind of spearheaded by Florence's mother, Esther. Florence has a father Joseph as well. So they're they're both characters in the book. Fanny is married to a man named named Isaac, who you'll meet as well. And they have a little girl named Gussy, who the book actually opens from, from her point of view. There are two people in the book who are not members of the family. There's Stewart who is a lifeguard with the Atlantic City Beach patrol. And then there is Anna has recently come over from Germany and is staying with the family. The family has sponsored her visa.
So we should say that this takes place in Atlantic City in 1935 was it?
Ok, that's the beginning of the the Nazi regime.
So one of my favorite genres of books and movies is the family gathering for a holiday, a wedding or a funeral. And long held resentments reappear and secrets are revealed. But your book is sort of the opposite of that. First, the secret is created that Florence has died. And instead of all being together, that the family is kind of dispersed. Fanny's on her hospital bed. Gussy's living with her grandparents instead of her parents. Isaac is mostly just missing. And Anna is displaced from her Hungarian home. So can you talk about starting the book with the secret?
Yeah. So this story is actually based on a true story that occurred in my family, I had a great great aunt who was training to swim the English channel, and she drowned. She also lived in Atlantic City, the family lived in Atlantic City, and she drowned when she was 19 years old. And my grandmother was a little girl on the beach when when that happened, you know, it was her aunt. And so it became one of her earliest memories, and of course, one of the most horrific memories. And so the book, I always was interested in taking this kind of kernel of the true story that had occurred in my family, and fictionalizing. It I was very fascinated by the story. I was fascinated by the way we'd kind of carried it forward all these years later. And we still retold it with some frequency. And when I thought about how to take this, this real event and fictionalize it, one of the things I knew was that I had to start the book very early on with Florence's death. And that that seems like a big undertaking, you know, but the story was always really about what happened after she died, you know, it was about this family coming together to kind of create and live out the secret in order to protect this, this other surviving sibling. So I knew very early on that I had to begin the book with with this kind of dramatic event. And then I really spent a lot of time thinking about, you know, the characters I needed to make the book work, but also the ways that when people grieved, they don't always do it in the way we would think. We kind of think that we're all going to come together and we're going to be there to support each other, and won't that be wonderful, but, but the reality is, you know, we're all individuals and even when we're grieving a person that we all loved, we we don't always do it in exactly the same way. And so that was important to me as I was building out this family and thinking about how they would spend the course of their summer I very much assumed that they would go in in their own directions with their grief.
That was definitely something I noticed that not only had they made this conscious decision to separate themselves from the community because they're keeping the death the secret but they were separate from each other too that even as the core of the family never came together for a good cry.
Yeah, and you know, they they have challenges right because you need to Have you got a secret like that you're probably not going to find that seven people are all on the same page, right? That there that they didn't. In this case, the secret was really spearheaded by Esther. And she's the strong matriarch, she has definite opinions about what is right and wrong for children. And, and she also has some power in the family. And so you know, there are people who, like Gussie, who are not going to be able to do anything other than then kind of get in line. But that's going to have you know, ramifications.
So Gussy is seven when this takes place?
Yeah. So it's obviously hard for a child that age to understand and to keep any kind of secret. She's the one who's based on your grandmother, right?
Yes, yes. I thought long and hard about my grandmother and what that experience must have been like for her when I was writing Gussie.,
did you have the chance to talk to her about her memories?
Yeah, I had talked to my grandmother a number of times over the years about this event. She didn't, you know, many of the times that I talked to her, she didn't know that I was going to end up writing a novel about it, of course. But you know, it was always a sensitive topic to bring up because it was, you know, such a horrific, you know, part of her childhood. But, but she did tell the story. And she told it with increasing frequency as she got older, maybe because she wanted to make sure it was going to kind of live on and in some capacity. But I knew a few things about what it had been like for her on the beach that day. And I mentioned that in my author's note at the end of the book, but my grandmother always remembered the red bathing cap that Florence had worn on the beach that day, and that I include in the novel, and she also always remembered the sound of her grandmother's wails on on the beach. And I always think about that.
Yeah, those are definitely touching moments. You could see how a kid or anyone would remember those, those stark details.
So one thing I loved about your book is all the details about Atlantic City. And one of them was the incubator babies, which Anna took Gussy to see in an exhibit on the boardwalk. How did you learn about those early incubators?
I mean, the funny thing about those they were called they call it the infantorium. There was one in Atlantic City and there was one at Coney Island. And they as soon as you start doing research on Atlantic City, and you know, historical research on Atlantic City, they come up pretty quickly, like they, they were very well known. And you know, were one of those sideshows that that got a lot of attention and attraction. They even make an appearance at the beginning of the Boardwalk Empire credits when the credits are rolling, you see an image of the infantorium. It's a fascinating history, you know, you've got this guy, Dr. Couney, who comes over from Europe. And, you know, I think probably his druthers would have been to sell these incubators to hospitals, you know, he had exhibited them in Europe; knew that they worked, but there needed to be this complete paradigm shift, you know, in American hospitals, among American medical providers, to even believed that it was the right thing to do to try to prolong the life of a premature baby. Because at the time, there was the school of thought that thought, Well, if the baby came early, there must have been something kind of intrinsically wrong with the baby. And so he had these incubators, he had this idea, he starts this side show on the boardwalk charges, 25 cents, you know, for people to come in and see these babies. And what, of course, happens over the course of I don't know, a decade a decade and a half is that his babies are doing much better than the babies that were born in the hospitals or born at home and and just kept it home. And so we begin to see hospitals notice and say, Maybe we should buy these and eventually it becomes, you know, obsolete to have the sideshow.
Yeah, I'd read that book The Strange Case of Dr. Couney and thought it was just fascinating. So it really caught my ear or my eye when they came in your book.
Another detail was the failed agricultural colony where Isaac's father lived. Did your family have any connection to those Jewish farmers?
We didn't to my knowledge, but when I was researching Judaism in southern New Jersey, you know, in this time period, those farming communities seemed like such an important part of the ecosphere, that I was fascinated by them. And I wanted to include them in the book, particularly when I started to think about Isaac and his background. And, you know, I spent a lot of time thinking about immigration when I was writing the book and and specifically how people's experiences you know, changed depending on whether they're first generation immigrants, second generation immigrants, and so on. And so for Isaac and and Fanny, you know, they've had kind of two different experiences growing up in households with immigrant parents. And so the farming communities allowed me to give kind of a window into what Isaac's experience might have been like.
One of the most touching moments for me in your book, is when Fanny's father visits her, finally visits her in the hospital. And he expresses to her that he wishes they had had a funeral for Fanny's son, who had been born premature the year before and had died soon after. Can you talk about that scene? Yeah.
Well, I mean, Joseph was a beloved character for me, you know, I, this is her father, I loved writing him. And one of the things that I thought a lot about as I was writing the book was the fact that you've got two generations that are both grappling at the same time with the loss of a child. However, they're kind of unable to recognize it, right like Fanny's unable to recognize it, because she doesn't know that her sister has died. And Esther and Joseph are unable to recognize it, because they, they kind of refused to acknowledge the loss that Fanny had suffered. And so this idea that and but we as readers, I think, do acknowledge it, you know, we do see the similarities in what Fanny is going through, and what Esther and Joseph are going through. And so it was really lovely, and definitely intentional to have a moment in the book where where they do have, you know, there's some sort of realization, there's some sort of putting together of the pieces.
Yeah, I should mention that in Jewish tradition, you wouldn't normally have a funeral unless the child survived for a month. And her child had lived three weeks.
So, that was just sort of a heartbreaking
It was a technicality. But yeah, makes Yes. Heartbreaking. Exactly.
I know you've been asked a lot about the big secret in the book and debated about whether Esther should have kept Florence's death from Fannie. Do you think there's any such thing as a good secret?
The people in my family definitely do? Because we still I don't think, you know, I joke that I wrote this book to like, prove to my mother that the secret keeping was wasn't a good idea. But I don't think I convinced you know, any, any of the women in my family. You know, when I was growing up, everyone in my family believed that Esther had made the right decision in keeping this death a secret from her daughter. There was no debate about that. And, and in fact, when I would bring it up and kind of say, hey, this seems strange, or, you know, what if I always kind of sympathized with with Fannie? And I would say, Well, what if she'd wanted to know, you know, what if what if this was really, you know, would have would have been better kind of played out a different way?
They would look at me like, I was crazy, you know, like, no, of course, you know, my grandmother, really, until the very end. I mean, she lived to be 94. And I had conversations with her in the last year of her life. And she was adamant that that Esther had made the right decision. So certainly, within my family, this decision was not noodled over much, except by me, right? Like, I was interested in it. But everyone, everyone kind of universally thought it, it was the smart thing to do. As I was writing the book, I definitely thought about it a lot. And I think if anything, I became less sure of myself, the more I wrote, you know, I thought, initially when I started writing, and I thought, Oh, I'm gonna, I'm going to kind of prove once and for all that these secrets are, are useless. And of course, I wrote the book and I'm in Esther's point of view, you know, and I, I'm feeling what it might be like to be a mother, you know, who's lost a child, and it doesn't take me long to think, oh, gosh, yeah, you you do whatever you could for that other child, if you thought that it was going to make a difference. So I think I finished the book more confused than I, I started it. But, you know, I think my mother and I could debate this all day, you know, what, whether there are some secrets that just must, must be kept.
and certainly in promoting this book, you know, I've heard from people all over the country and even the world who say, you know, this, this is like the time that my family kept ..., you know, fill in the blank secret. I think, you know, overall, we're all better off when we veer toward transparency. But I certainly can think of times when, when a secret has been a useful tool
I've thought about that a lot too. And I've got mixed feelings on that. too
You know, I hear from readers often it's like, you know, I'll do talks, you know, and there will be a zoom full of people, you know, or whatever. And it's always like, it's 50/50. It's, you know, some people grew up in families where there were lots of secrets. And you know, there were lots of things people didn't talk about. And they read the book, and they say, Oh, I totally identified this. This is exactly, you know, this is what it was like, with with my family. And then I meet people who say, No, I grew up in a house where everyone was really open. And we talked about everything. And you know, there, there was nothing that was off limits. And I think it's so very much depends on on the type of family you grew up in, as to how you read this book.
Yep. didn't really occur to me when I was deciding on interviewing you or any author, that I would kind of argue about the title of the book. I guess I'm pretty visual. And so the idea of her swimming forever just seems kind of pointless. I mean, I know she loves swimming. So instead, what I thought is that, you know, when you drop something in a pond, the ripples go out and then they bump into other stones and things in the pond and the ripples rebound and goes back and forth. So in my head, I renamed your book.
Florence Adler's ripples rebound forever.
That's a more literal translation. Okay. Yes. I see what you're saying. Yeah. Yeah, the title was one that came to me. About halfway through writing the book, I for a while it was saved on my computer is like Atlantic City novel, but when it when it got a title is about halfway through, it was around the time I was writing the scene with Stuart and Anna and Gussie. You know, they were indoctrinating Gussie. Or, you know, initiating her into the secret society, they're trying to convince Gussie not to tell you know, anyone about Florence's death. And, and, you know, there had been this notebook that Florence had had carried when she was training to swim the channel where she had written on the front, you know, Florence Adler swims the English Channel. And, and so, you know, it comes something that inspires Stuart, as he's thinking about what their little society will be named. But then, you know, as I, as I kept writing the book, it worked for me, you know, because, of course, the whole time that Fanny is in this hospital and doesn't know her sister has died, she thinks that her sister is swimming, right. Like she, she thinks her sister's continuing to train. She thinks her sister's going after her big dream, you know, all this is happening while she remains in the hospital bed. So she thinks, right?
And then, of course, there's the bigger metaphor of the fact that, you know, Florence will continue to be in, in everyone's memory, you know, long after she's long after she's gone. So when I, you know, I came up with the title, and then finished the book and went to go, you know, first step, of course, is to sign with your agent, my agent loves the title. And I thought, my agent might say, you know, oh, it's gotta it's got to go before I sell it, or, you know, and he said, No, no, it's staying, and, and my editor, when my editor bought it at Simon and Schuster, she said the same, she's like, No, we love it, it's staying. And as you know, sometimes the title will change very late in the game, you know, sales or marketing or someone will say, it's just not working for this reason, and but all along the way that the title stuck, so it's been, it's been fun. I don't know that I'll ever have that kind of luck, again, where it's so easy, you know?
So thinking of that, do you have another project in the works that you'd like to talk about?
I do have another project in the works. I'm working on another novel. And, you know, I'm in the, the very deep depths right now of it, but it is, it's another historical fiction piece. It's going further back in time, you're going to go to Richmond, Virginia, which is where I live in 1811. In December of 1811, there was a very horrible theater fire that took place the night after Christmas. And it you know, there was only one theater in town, and it was packed, you know, for for this big show, and a prop caught on fire. And, and by the end of the night, 72 people were dead.
And this, you know, in 1811, it was really one of the largest scale tragedies our country had ever faced. I mean, you know, we were a relatively young country, and, of course, Virginia was was at the center of that country in that era. And so it had huge reverberations, most of the people who died were women, and that became a big, big piece of kind of trying to figure figure it out. And so that's Yeah, so what I'm doing is following a group of people in the aftermath of this fire, and so very much I'm able to explore some of the things that I loved about Florence. You know, I'm looking at grief, I'm looking at grief as in terms of how it affects an entire community as opposed to just a family. It's another aftermath story, right? We start with our tragedy upfront, but yeah, I'm having a lot of fun with it.
I look forward to reading that when it comes out.
So well, you said that you did a lot of research for Florence. Was there anything in your research that really surprised you?
Great question. You know, well, one thing that just surprised me, as I as I dug into Atlantic City's history, you know, so much of my research, of course, when you write a novel, you research everything, right. So I researched women who had swum the English Channel and Channel swimming in general, and the history of swimming in America. And, you know, when were women learning to swim, because that was one of the things I wanted to get to the bottom of was, you know, why was it that I had this great, great aunt who had been training to some English channel in the 20s? You know, it just seemed so out there, right? And so I started reading about Trudy Ederle. And, you know, all of these, these women that were really trailblazing, you know, in the early years of the 20th century, when it came to swimming, but then, you know, as I started to dig into Atlantic City, and figuring out, you know, what the family's life would have looked like, my, my grandmother had always told me that Atlantic City was a Jewish town. And I didn't really know what that meant, when I started researching the book, you know, what did she what qualified is a Jewish town and, and for her, that meant that when she was growing up, everyone she knew was Jewish, you know, but But what did that mean, as you looked kind of around the city a little more widely. And, and what I discovered, as I started to look at the population and population of other cities at the time, was that Atlantic City really did have a higher concentration of Jews for being a city of its size. So you know, you got to take New York and Philadelphia off the table. But if you look at mid sized cities, it did have a higher concentration of Jews than most other places. And I started to wonder why, you know, as you learn more about Atlantic City, which is it's got a fascinating history, and you know, it started as a resort town. It was always a place to go on vacation, a place for Philadelphians to go, you know, initially just for the day, they could get on the train and go. But as, as I started to understand more about how how Atlantic City developed, I realized that it kind of emerged out of the sand at exactly the time when you've got a wave of Jewish immigrants coming to the United States, and looking for a place where they can settle and where they can have businesses and build families. And so then this is like the 1860s 1870s timeframe. So I think it was just a wonderful kind of Kismat, that, that created this environment that my grandmother found to be, you know, such a delightful place to grow up in.
That's fascinating. I didn't realize that. But I don't know if it's because of it, or in spite of it, there was still a lot of anti semitism, and that you showed,
so Atlantic City was welcoming to Jewish guests, as opposed to some resort towns where, you know, you just couldn't get a room anywhere. But there were definitely hotels that did accept Jewish guests and hotels that did not. There were a lot of Kosher hotels, smaller hotels, that were run by Jewish families accepted Jewish guests. And then there were bigger hotels to like the breakers as an example of a large hotel that that was friendly towards towards Jews. And so you know, as I did the research on these, these hotels, and the hotels are such an integral part of Atlantic City lore, you know, these these hotels, it was like a people were in a frenzy to build, like the biggest and the best, and, you know, a new one would come online every couple of years. And it would have, you know, some new amenity that the others didn't, didn't have.
But I read some some amazing stories about you know, one in particular, I remember about a Jewish actress who, you know, people would write away to these hotels to make their their room reservations. And so, but in her case, she had changed her name. And you know, which was common with actresses and actors. And so her name did not initially appear to be a Jewish name. And so they allowed usually, if they, if a Jew, Jewish person wrote to a hotel that wasn't accepting Jewish guests, they would send a little card back that basically said, You're not welcome here. We're not taking your reservation. But in her case, she had been allowed to make the reservation because they couldn't recognize the names. And but when she showed up, she looked Jewish, and that was enough for them to turn her away at the desk. And so she went to the papers, you know, she had she had some power I wish I could remember her name, but she had enough clout that she was able to make a big stink about it. And so reading stories like that, as I dug into to this, this history was really fascinating. And I couldn't see writing a story about a Jewish family in Atlantic City without incorporating some of the some of the challenges as well.
Was there any fun tidbit that you found in your research that did not make it into the book?
Well, for anyone who knows Atlantic City reasonably well, you'll have a couple questions as to why, you know, certain things didn't make it, for instance, Monopoly Monopoly, for all we love that game, it was not invented until the next year or so. So it didn't make it it in 1934. Monopoly was not a thing. I couldn't even do a passing reference to it. Another another thing that I would have loved to put in the book, but just was not capable of doing was the diving horses. I don't know if you know about the diving horses
No, I never heard of them!
Well, there's an old Disney movie if you really need to be indoctrinated. And there's an old Disney movie that was called wild hearts can't be broken about diving horses. So if you really need to do a deep dive start with that Wild Horses can't be Broken. Or maybe it was, no Wild Hearts can be Broken. That's what it was. But it's about diving horses. And so there were these divers, you know, at the Steel Pier, who would take these horses up these big inclines. And they'd run up them in the horse would gallop off into oblivion and dive into the ocean below with the rider still on its back. And I mean, it is quite a spectacle. You can find videos on YouTube. And you know, it's amazing to see, of course, incredibly cruel to the horses. And and there were many cases of the divers being injured, the horses being injured. In Wild Hearts can't be Broken, this movie, the rider goes blind, and it's based on a true story. You know, hitting the water was so much impact. So they took the horses away in Atlantic City, they said, Okay, no more riding, you know, no more diving horses, even though they were the most popular attraction. And so they I think they took them away in the 20s. And then for while they brought them back, because they were so beloved. And so they were around for another couple of decades until finally someone said, Okay, no, really, they're gone. But unfortunately, my book is set during the period in which they were gone. So So diving horses did not make it in the book.
So is there anything you'd like to address or answer that I haven't thought to ask?
I mean, great, great question. Nice to always pose that to an author. And I don't really have talking points, you know, I mean, I just I love talking about the book with people. But you know, I'm always just happy to answer whatever questions they may have.
All right. And then lastly, I guess, if someone were to use your book as a call to action for tikun olam for repairing the world, what would you like to see them do?
I mean, I think one of the takeaways in the book is, you know, it references immigration. And, you know, there's so much that I discovered, as I was researching the book, in terms of, you know, looking at what Jewish emigration from Germany looked like, during the 30s, you know, coming to the United States specifically. And I had kind of been under the, I mean, completely under the misperception that one of the things that had created so much hardship for Jews, you know, as they were trying to immigrate in these kind of pre war years, was the German government, you know, the Third Reich comes to power in 1933. And I just assumed that the Third Reich made it very difficult for Jewish families to get out. And they did have, you know, stipulations. And I mentioned some of them in the book, you know, as Anna's trying to get her parents out of out of Germany, you know, some of the you had to leave behind a certain percentage of your, your money and, and there were definitely barriers. But by and large, the biggest barrier, you know, for Jews getting out of Germany in the 1930s was the US State Department, and was anti semitism within the US State Department. And, you know, we regularly had quotas that we did not even meet, you know, there were many years where Jewish immigrants did not even fill the quotas. And so, you know, I think that there are some takeaways in if you read the book, and if you care about the characters and care about Anna and her family, there are some connections that that can be made to present day, you know, issues and the people who are fleeing climate change and all kinds of devastation in our world.
All right. Well, thank you so much for speaking to me. I've really enjoyed this and good luck on your next project!