HANSON — When COVID-19 regulations meant novelist Martha Hall Kelly couldn’t hold her scheduled book talk and signing at Camp Kiwanee’s Needles Lodge as scheduled on Thursday, Oct. 7, Zoom was there to help the show go on.
Sponsored by the Hanson Public Library, the author of the Lilac Girls series of books discussed her third book, “The Sunflower Sisters.”
“I’m here to admit that I am a big fan — I have an ‘author crush,’” said Library Foundation Director Diana McDevitt in her introduction to Kelly. “Not only does Martha write my favorite genre of historical fiction, but she also does so in a way that pulled me deep into the story, and once I’m finished reading, I can’t help but dig deeper into the characters.”
Originally from the South Shore area, Kelly began her career as an advertising copywriter.
McDevitt said Kelly uses multiple narrators for her audio books to “make the transition of characters so genuine.”
Kelly said she couldn’t say how much she had been looking forward to the talk and warmly thanked McDevitt for her introcduction.
“I have such fabulous memories of Hanson,” Kelly said, noting it felt like it was only yesterday that she was living in the town. Her home had been on Old Pine Drive.
“It’s definitely on my bucket list of places that I need to get back to,” she said.
Kelly now lives in Litchfield, Conn., and said she missed the South Shore accent. The mother of three had just retired from her job as an advertising copywriter. She had met her husband in Chicago when she was in graduate school at Northwestern University. He was also in the advertising business.
She started her half-hour talk by discussing the true story behind her first book, “Lilac Girls,” about
Her mother had died in 2000 and on Mother’s Day that year, Kelly’s husband encouraged her to go to Bethlehem, Conn., to a house she had always wanted to see — New York philanthropist Caroline Ferriday’s country home in “Lilac Girls.” Ferriday worked at the French Consulate during World War II and helped rescue 35 Polish women from the Ravensbruck concentration camp. The book gets its name from the lilac garden at Ferriday’s Bethlehem home, in which she cultivated specimen lilacs from around the world.
“He did not have to ask me twice,” she said.
Kelly saw a photo of the women on Ferriday’s desk during a tour of the home in which she was the only visitor. The docent explained how the women were used in laboratory experiments by the Nazis and were known as “the rabbits.”
“I just wondered how did that story get lost?” Kelly said. She had no intention of writing a novel, perhaps a pamphlet because there was no pamphlet about it at the house, she said.
“But I started going up there … because I was so curious about Caroline and they have archives where she researched Ferriday for years.
After stopping for her usual decaffeinated order at Starbucks one morning after dropping her son off at high school in Atlanta — where her husband had taken a job in the business office at The Weather Channel — the barista gave her caffeinated coffee instead.
When Kelly got home, she started writing.
A book editor friend of her husband’s had told her that her research would make a great book and that Kelly should start sending her chapters.
She had to hit the books to fill in some of the historical details, noting that she was a “horrible history student in school.”
“I always felt like the men in the class — the boys — loved history,” she said. “But I didn’t like it until I went to Notre Dame Academy and had a female teacher junior year who taught history. Then I really liked it.”
At night she read books about World War II and crafts and, during the day she wrote — for five years, after researching for four or five years.
Then she decided that she needed to go to Germany and Poland.
“I had Caroline’s voice, but I couldn’t really write from the point of view of … the Nazi doctor and from the point of view of one of the rabbits,” Hall said. “As soon as we went to Poland, the chapters started coming.”
After hitting it lucky with responses from four prospective agents, she worked with one that advised more research into why the Nazis did what they did, and an editor who promised that, even if she was not chosen for the job, would champion the book because she felt Ferriday’s story needed to be told.
“I was really lucky,” she said, adding that the book also became an immediate New York Times bestseller.
Her husband advised her to go back to Random House and tell them she wanted to do more books.
“Lost Roses,” about Ferriday’s mother and the Russian Revolution, and “Sunflower Sisters,” Caroline Ferriday’s great grandmother and the Woolsey family during the Civil War.
For each book, she immersed herself in research again and again.
“I had an embarrassment of riches for that book,” she said of “Sunflower Sisters.”
Sadly, “Sunflower Sisters” came out during the pandemic, so Kelly was unable to go on a traditional book tour. But virtual stops like Thursday’s were possible.
One person attending asked if it was difficult to research the conditions on plantations that informed the hard-to-read scenes of the treatment of slaves in the book.
“They’ve all been difficult in different ways,” Kelly said. “[‘Sunflower Sisters’] was personal. More personal than the other ones in different ways, because … writing about your own country is very different and it was so emotional.”
She didn’t want to shy away from the difficult parts of the stories.
“I know it’s hard to read those things … but I feel it’s important to show the good and the bad of those kind of settings.”
She said that, rather than writing sequentially, she “braids” characters’ experiences together to create a narrative.
She is currently working on two books. A followup of “The Lilac Girls,” set during the 1950s, and a thriller about a woman who writes poetry, but plagiarizes from a person she should not have plagerized and what happened to her.
The Hanson Public Library is posting the talk on it’s Facebook page or people to view and travel down memory lane along with some Hanson residents who knew Kelly when she lived in town.