Susan Ross is the author of a new novel for middle grade readers, Searching for Lottie. It’s a mystery based on her family’s past, but the main character is a contemporary 12-year-old girl, working on a family research project for school. Charlie’s curiosity and excitement come through for the reader, while at the same time shining a new light on the Holocaust. I was interested to find out how Susan Ross managed to weave such a satisfying novel from such a difficult history.
GC: I know your current novel for young people, Kiki and Jacques, has been selected as a kids’ companion book to Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid, for WestportREADS 2019. Both books deal with people displaced by historical events beyond their control. Searching for Lottie has a similar theme. Is this a topic that you feel drawn to?
SR: Searching for Lottie and Kiki and Jacques: A Refugee Story both involve refugee families and touch upon important and timely issues for kids. Kiki and Jacques was inspired by the arrival of large numbers of Somali refugees to my childhood hometown in Maine. I related in a visceral way to the challenges facing children starting life in a new and different place. When I met and interviewed Somali teenagers while writing the book, I was inspired and uplifted by their determination and optimism. Searching for Lottie is a story I’ve always wanted to explore. My middle name, Lotte (the German spelling of Lottie) was given in memory of a lovely young cousin who was lost in the Holocaust. I grew up looking at her photograph and wondering what her life might have been. In researching the book, I was struck by the notion that although the historical events have receded further and further into the past, family stories are nevertheless more accessible than ever to kids — made closer by the astonishing resources on the internet and also because kids have the ability to ask questions and ponder issues that were honestly just too painful for our generation to pursue.
GC: How much of your novel reflects the facts of your family’s story, and how much did you have to change the narrative appeal to young readers?
SR: Nearly every event in Searching for Lottie was inspired by our family’s history and stories. Early in the book, Charlie’s mom warns that Lottie’s fate will be sad and suggests that Charlie pick a different relative to research for her school project. Charlie immediately replies that she is twelve and old enough to know the truth. My son looked at my mother’s life as part of a similar assignment in middle school. I could see how much it meant to him to learn more about our family’s history. I did the research for Searching for Lottie along with my characters to see if I could find out what had become of the “real” Lottie and ultimately discovered her tragic fate. Because this is a work of children’s fiction, however, I was glad to be able to give Lottie’s story a more hopeful ending. There are also plenty of engaging kid-focused subplots in this book — Charlie has a crush on a fellow member of the orchestra and messes up her audition in grand fashion. Portraying a 12-year-old who is coming to grips with a legacy of loss and resilience was the greatest challenge in writing Searching for Lottie — and also its greatest reward.
GC: Setting your novel in an almost contemporary (2010) setting means that Charlie has a very different background from Lottie, the person she’s trying to find. Which aspects of their lives did you choose to enable a sense of connection between them?
SR: Charlie relates closely to Lottie through their mutual love of music. Charlie hopes to make her grandmother proud and live up to Lottie’s legacy by making First Chair in the school orchestra, but through the course of the book she discovers that her true passion is teaching music, rather than performing. Charlie also realizes that she looks a great deal like Lottie. On my website, there’s a photo of the “real” Lottie, and as a child, I was struck by how much we looked alike. I similarly wondered whether I needed to somehow fulfill the life that Lottie had tragically lost. In the book, Charlie ultimately learns that the best way to honor Lottie’s memory is by following her own true path.
GC: Although some of the characters are based on real people, the book is a work of fiction. How did you decide on the plot itself, with the twists and turns that make it such a page-turner?
SR: To be honest, the story nearly wrote itself since almost every plot twist was inspired in some fashion by our family history. I am not one of those writers who outline! I find it much more interesting to discover where a plot will lead. I decided to reveal the answer to the final part of the mystery in the epilogue, which takes readers back to Lottie’s historical period. That means that although Charlie never actually solves one final element of the mystery — the reader is able to discover what happened.
GC: How do you feel about the book now that it’s finished? Will your next book deal with a similar theme, or have you said all you need to on the topic?
SR: I am beyond delighted to see this book out in the world. I hope I’ve both written a book that kids can easily relate to and also in some fashion succeeded in bringing Lottie’s legacy to life. My next book is a middle grade mystery about a boy in the 1920’s from a lobster fishing family in Maine whose dream is to fly. Like all my books, though, it’s also about a child finding his true path and facing the challenges of growing up.
Susan has posted photographs and background materials on her website. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, and she will be appearing to talk about her books at a Westport Library event taking place at the Westport Women’s Club on Saturday, May 4th from 3-4pm. More information here.