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Q&A: Kathy Kacer on her new play, collaborating with her son, and writing about the Holocaust

kathySince the 1999 publication of her first novel for young readers, The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser (Second Story Press), Kathy Kacer has built a career on informing readers about the Holocaust in her children’s fiction and non-fiction, and a work of non-fiction for adults. She has received multiple awards and nominations, including a spot on the 2015 shortlist for the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award for her picture book The Magician of Auschwitz, illustrated by Gillian Newland (Second Story).

Kacer has also proved to be a talented playwright, with a successful adaptation of The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser under her belt. Her latest foray into the world of theatre is Therefore Choose Life, co-written with her son, actor Jake Epstein (of Degrassi: The Next Generation and Broadway’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical fame). The show runs April 18–May 10 at the Greenwin Theatre (Toronto Centre for the Arts).

Q&Q asked Kacer about her work, and the experience of writing with her kid.

poster-thereforeWhat is it about this particular story that you feel lends itself to a work for the theatre? It’s about a man who survives in Auschwitz thinking that his first wife perished there. He comes to Canada, marries, has a son, and 25 years later he receives a letter from his first wife, who actually survived.

When I first heard this story I thought about writing it as a novel. But I had an immediate visual image of the worlds of these characters colliding. I could almost hear them speaking. And so I quickly began to think about the story as a play.

How did you come to write the play with your son, and how was the experience? Jake [has] done a lot of television, film, and theatre. But he has also done a lot of writing; mainly one-act plays and personal stories. He has shared many of them with me and I love his writing style. We talked about the possibility of doing something together [but] nothing really stuck until this story came along.

It’s been a remarkable and wonderful experience writing this play with Jake. We have a similar style and work ethic that has made the process rich and compatible. We’ve had our share of different ideas, each of us fighting for what we believe is important. But we have always been able to work things out in the writing. And at the end of all of this we are still very close. I have always said that no matter what was to become of this play, the process of doing this with my son was the real reward; a dream come true!

How does the process of playwriting differ from that of writing books? The process of actually writing the play didn’t feel all that different from writing a book. There is, of course, the obvious difference that one must capture the story in dialogue as opposed to prose. But we still have to pay close attention to the development of characters, plot, and the journey that each character takes – not unlike a novel. What is most different for me is that once the play comes into the rehearsal space, you really have to give up sole ownership of it. It then becomes a shared vision between the playwrights, actors, and director. Each one brings their own idea of what the journey should look like and so it becomes a collective process. That was interesting and challenging at times. Fortunately, I love these actors and director and love what they have done with our story.

Will there be more scripts in your future? I’d love to write another play. Jake and I have been tossing some ideas around. We’re just trying to savour this moment for a while before diving into something new.

How does it feel to see your work brought to life on stage? The usual buzz words – overwhelmed, emotional, gratified – just aren’t enough to describe what this has been like. Jake is also in the play so it has been even more remarkable to see him embody the character that we created. I am pretty overwhelmed by it all as I lurk in the back row of the theatre. It also makes me feel quite vulnerable. Unlike a book, I can actually see and hear the audience response to the story. Fortunately the feedback so far has been really positive.

Your books and plays focus on stories about the Holocaust. What is it about this subject that compels you to write about it time after time? I never set out to be a writer of Holocaust stories. But each time I think it’s the last book about this history that I am going to write, another remarkable story comes my way. The history is very personal to me. I am the child of Holocaust survivors so I was raised with my parents’ survival stories. I feel a great responsibility to pass the stories on the next generation.

How do you make history feel relevant to modern children? I am amazed that young people want to read these books about this history and about the individuals who went through it. I am gratified that teachers and librarians continue to want these books in their libraries. And I am thrilled that publishers still want to publish these books. All of that tells me that the stories are still relevant.

What projects are you working on now? I have two books coming out this year. For the first time, I am working on a book that is not a Holocaust story. It is an aboriginal story that will be published by Second Story Press. I am writing it with a wonderful woman and educator whose name is Jenny Dupuis. This is Jenny’s grandmother’s story. As a young girl, Jenny’s grandmother was taken to a residential school in Ontario. It’s such an important story to tell.

The second project is equally exciting for me. I am part of the new Secrets series. It’s the female equivalent of the wonderful Seven series. For Secrets, we are seven authors writing about seven girl characters who are all linked together. The series, published by Orca Book Publishers, will be out in September, and mine is called Stones on a Grave. I am thrilled to be working with this team of remarkable authors (Marthe Jocelyn, Teresa Toten, Vicki Grant, Kelley Armstrong, Norah McClintock, and Eric Walters). It’s definitely a dream team!