Q&A With Kim Van Alkemade
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Q&A With Kim Van Alkemade
Kim Van Alkemade is the New York Times Bestselling author of historical fiction. Kim’s novels are Orphan #8, Bachelor Girl & her recent release that came out on July 13th titled Counting Lost Stars which I recently finished. I have the honor of doing this Q&A with her!
Q: Kim for those who haven’t read Counting Lost Stars, would you like to tell them what the book is about and the history behind the story?
A: Overall, the novel is about an unmarried college student in New York City, Rita Klein, who has recently given up her baby for adoption when she meets a young Dutch Holocaust survivor searching for his lost mother. In helping him search for answers, they encounter the story of the novel’s other protagonist, Cornelia Vogel, who works with punch-card computers in the Netherlands during the German occupation. When Cornelia realizes that the computers are being used to generate information that targets Jewish people, she is determined to do whatever she can to save her Jewish lover. The two stories come together in New York City in the summer of 1960.
In this novel, I wanted to bring together stories inspired by my parents, who really did meet in the Empire State Building in 1960. My Jewish mother was raised in New Jersey, while my father, who was a decade older than her, emigrated from the Netherlands after the war. His family shared a house with Jewish neighbors, who were deported and killed in the Holocaust.
Q: How do you choose a topic for your historical fiction books and what is the research process like?
A: My fiction always starts with a specific factual inspiration. For Counting Lost Stars, that was Edwin Black’s book IBM and the Holocaust. It was fascinating to me to learn how punch card computers played a crucial role in something as evil and incomprehensible as genocide. I’ve been interested in the effects of computer technology since I wrote my dissertation on how word processing was impacting the teaching of writing in college. I’m influenced by Heidegger’s premise that the essential nature of technology is to “order for use” meaning everything becomes a resource to be organized and used efficiently. Yes, computers can be used for wonderful things, but as I have Cornelia realize in the novel, efficiency is not neutral.
I was also inspired by Ann Fessler’s book, The Girls Who Went Away, which is a collection of first-person accounts by women who gave up children for adoption during the “Baby Scoop” era in the United States. One of my mom’s friends from high school had the experience of going to an unwed mother’s home where she gave birth and then came home to pretend nothing had happened. I was interested in the way such a devastating secret would impact a young woman.
Q: How long does it typically take for you to write a book?
A: I always wish I could write fast, but the truth is I don’t typically write 1,000 words a day or anything like that. While I’m researching, I do a lot of reading and thinking. When I write, I do try to spend every morning with the draft, but sometimes that results more in moving words around than writing new ones. Overall, if I can write a book within two years, I’m happy with that.
Q: Who were your biggest supporters of your writing dream growing up?
A: I had a teacher in elementary school that let me write poems during math lessons. I’m still pretty math challenged! But I appreciated it at the time. My parents were supportive of whatever I wanted to do and whoever I wanted to be. But for me, writing fiction came later in life. I was an academic, writing a dissertation and curriculum and articles, and then I wrote creative nonfiction essays, before I attempted a novel. My goal was to write a novel before I turned 50, and I just managed to achieve that with my first novel, Orphan #8.
Q: Does Hollywood have any interests or rights to your work? The entertainment industry needs original content again.
A: I’d happily take a phone call, but no, not yet. I think my second novel, Bachelor Girl, about the unknown actress who surprisingly inherited a fortune from the millionaire owner of the New York Yankees baseball team in 1939, would make a fantastic series.
Q: What lessons do you hope readers take away from reading your books?
A: Early readers of Counting Lost Stars have connected with Rita’s feelings of helplessness and grief over giving up her baby to a manipulative adoption agency. Others have been drawn into Cornelia’s story of sacrifice. Most are surprised to learn about the early computer technology that enabled Hitler’s Final Solution to be so monstrously efficient. If the novel has a theme, it’s that bravery requires inner strength but also the support of others.
Q: Can you reveal the topic of your next book or is it too early to talk about it right now?
A: I can give you a hint! I’m writing a novel set mostly on Monhegan Island in Maine about a woman artist in the 1950s who sacrifices the love of her life to pursue her artistic ambition.