I had the privilege to converse with author Joan Dempsey whose first novel This Is How It Begins was published October 3, 2017.
By sharing the story of Holocaust survivors whose gay grandchild loses his teaching position over his sexual orientation, Dempsey addresses relevant issues: How can conflicting belief systems learn to live together? What does it mean to be protected under the law?
In the novel, we meet Professor Ludka, an artist who hid Jews in Poland under the Nazis, and her Jewish spouse Isaac. Their son Lolok rose to be the first Jewish State Attorney General, a man who championed gay marriage rights. Their grandson Tommy one of thirteen teachers fired on the same day. The only thing the teachers have in common is their sexual orientation. A local popular Christian pastor and radio show host have plotted to make public education a 'Christian friendly' place. But their careful plans go awry as escalating violence against Tommy reaches his grandparents.
Nancy: When I read your blog post about your personal encounter with bigotry I was very moved and sad. Then I thought about how you had to research radical Christian groups for Pastor Royce and Warren Meck, et. al. And your portrayal was generous.
Joan: Thank you. Warren Meck was the most challenging character to write, but I ended up feeling really good about him. So far I am hearing from readers, especially Christian readers, that I did a good job with the balance. That was certainly my goal.
Nancy: He seemed to have a core value that allows self-judgment and to see the evil in violence used for 'righteous ends.'
Joan: Yes, exactly right. Meck has all the right intentions, and I wanted to really get inside and understand him. It was mostly hard because, like any character, I had to find what made him tick.
Nancy: So there is an objectivity in writing when you are delving into a character?
Joan: Yes, definitely an objectivity. I feel it is critically important to understand the characters on their own terms and keep myself completely out of it.
My closest readers told me at some point that he would have a wife and children. And they were exactly right! Once he had a wife and kids, he came fully alive. Before that, he was eluding me. I think he was just waiting for his family to show up!:-)
Sometimes I need to find something we have in common in order for me to understand more deeply, But that's as far as our similarities go. It's simply a way to enter into the character more deeply.
Nancy: So characters are to be discovered, as opposed to being invented?
Joan: I would say characters are equally discovered and invented. It is a rare character that shows up fully formed. I have had several characters who have done that and it's always a gift. Others are harder work and take longer to figure out. For Warren Meck in particular, what he and I have in common is our love of lobbying and legislation.
Nancy: There are a lot of legal discussions going on, which isn't often encountered in fiction that is not 'crime' oriented.
Joan: This novel started out as a political novel starring Lolek, the state senator. I knew I wanted to write about politics of the Massachusetts Statehouse. I was a lobbyist there for many years, and loved that job. So this novel gave me a chance to relive some of that work and those exciting times.
Nancy: That is something I enjoyed about the novel, there are so many 'sides' that are all part of the story: the Polish/Jewish/Nazi experience; Ludka and the stolen painting of Chopin; the legal battle with Tommy and Lolek--it was very rich, but I did not feel it slowed anywhere.
Joan: I absolutely adore looking at all sides of issues. I am a shades of gray kind of thinker. And as a lobbyist, it's really important to understand where everyone is coming from. I was known for being able to bring disparate groups of people together and find common ground, even when it seemed impossible. I loved doing that!
I'm so glad to hear you feel like it did not slow down. With all that legislative detail, it was definitely a concern. Lots of paring back of prose!
Nancy: We need more people like you, especially in religion and government!
Joan: Thank you. It does drive me crazy to see the dogmatic divisions. Politics is not about drawing a line in the sand but figuring out how you can come to some common understanding. I think we forget that at our peril.
Nancy: How long did you spend writing the first draft; how long to edit?
Joan: I revise as I write. So my "first" draft is really more like a 20th! I cannot pinpoint when I finished the first draft. The whole book took seven years to write.
Nancy: Wow, a labor of love for sure.
Joan: Most of that time I was working full-time and writing in the margins. The final year I focused almost completely on finishing the book. And the first year-and-a-half were largely research.
I sometimes wished that I wasn't so dogged on this book. Think of all the short stories I could have written and published in that time! But seriously, I love the form of a novel and loved spending so much time with these characters
Nancy: Did you have the plot outline before you started?
Joan: No plot outline. I knew that towards the end of the book I would find Ludka crawling through smoke with a canvas under her arm, But I have no idea why. The rest of the plot evolved as I wrote and rewrote.
Nancy: I wanted to mention that early on I noted Ludka had these spiked galoshes. She was so careful about hiding the Chopin. She kept secrets even from Isacc. But I noted those spiked galoshes and then there came the time she went outdoors on the ice without them. That told me something about her. It may be small, but I just wanted to mention it.
Joan: How wonderful that you noticed those galoshes! It's all the small things that add up to a whole novel, and it's a real treat for me to have readers noticing the little things.
Nancy: I thought, so many of these characters had protective secrets. Oskar [whom Ludka had hidden from the Nazis], his son Stanley [who tries to steal the painting of Chopin]. Pastor Royce knowing his followers are using violence. Isacc's needing to pose as a Christian under the Nazis.
Joan: It's funny, because I didn't set out to write about secrets, But that's the magic of fiction. Several readers have mentioned "all the betrayals" and I have found myself thinking, "really?" Ha ha ha! But there you have it. That's what's wonderful about the book getting out into the world.
And of course I do know about all of the secrets and all of the betrayals, but I wasn't so much focused on those. Except of course for Oskar's.
Nancy: Of course under Nazi Germany there was a need for secrets, hiding the Jews, the Chopin, adopting alternate identities. And Pastor Royce and his group had to hide their real motives for firing the teachers.
Joan: Yes, absolutely. You may remember in the opening scene, I wrote that "Ludka was keenly aware of how she appeared to others, not because she was vain or insecure, but because she was long accustomed to the consequences of casting particular impressions."
Nancy: Yes. She and Isacc have a form of PTSD, learned behavior.
Joan: I'm delighted you see all of these connections.
Nancy: I just finished reading The World Spit in Two by Bill Goldstein about 1922 and the birth of Modern Literature, with T. S. Eliot, Woolf, and Forster. And of course, Forster could not be honest about his orientation. Even thirty years ago, twenty years ago, there was pressure to assume a false identity. And so it is wonderful that Tommy is who he is, so healthy.
Joan: There you are! I know. We really have come an awfully long way! And yet... In fact, several agents who really liked the book passed on it because they felt that after gay marriage passed, the dangers would not seem as real. The backlash, against people of color, other religions, sexual orientation. People hate change. And here we are ... they didn't anticipate the backlash!
Nancy: So, seven years ago you would not have anticipated how relevant your novel would be--
Joan: No, I didn't realize quite how prescient I would be. But I did know that bias and prejudice still clearly exist, and likely will never go away. It's so important to be vigilant about this kind of thing.
The Anti-Defamation League has something called the Pyramid of Hate. I will find a link for you. I thought about this a lot while I was writing.
Interestingly, the title of this novel for most the entire seven years I was writing it was Prelude!
But then a literary agent who is a friend told me that was a terrible title and I went back to the drawing board. It didn't take long at all before I came up with This is Tow it Begins. I mean, it's right there in the book, staring out at me!
Nancy: When I was reading the ebook of your novel I was also reading David Samuel Levinson's Tell Me How This Ends Well, in which the near future world is Anti-Semitic. I laughed about how I was reading This is How It Begins and Tell me How This Ends Well at the same time! And both involve gay couples and hate crimes.
Joan: Oh wow! That's fascinating. I just checked it out on Amazon and can tell by the "cartoon" cover that it is a dark comedy. Interesting.
Nancy: What are some of your favorite books? Or, what books made you fall in love with fiction?
Joan: Oh boy! The big question! I fell in love with fiction as a kid. My favorite gifts to get for any event was a stack of books. One of my all time favorites was Harriet the Spy. Like so many other kids of my generation, I was Harriet! I have the notebook and the toolbelt and the desire to spy just like she did. And of course that book is all about learning about other people by spying on them. Which is what fiction writers do.
Nancy: Another thing I have thought about was the role of art in the novel. It brings Ludka back to her home in Poland, and there her illusions about Oskar, the "myth of a man forged from long memory," is broken.
Joan: Yes, her art brings her 'fame' late in life. It brings her home. And most of all it shatters "the myth of a man forged from long memory" as fake.
I was so happy that she came back to her art and began to draw again. I really wanted her to do that, and was so glad when she did. I'd love to see what happens after the end of the book with her drawing! I am not an artist, but I think I might have been one in another lifetime, because pieces of art come to mind fully formed and I just write them down. I love that. Like Alexander Roslin's most famous painting, Prelude 1939. I've had readers Googling it and feeling frustrated that they can't find it! Maybe I should commission someone to paint that painting.
Nancy: And that is where the first title came from--Prelude?
Joan: The first title came both from that painting, and the idea of that bigotry can be a prelude to war. You will see a hint of that on Page 2 in the first full paragraph
Nancy: I like that, bigotry as a prelude to war. And how the students reacted to that painting, what they saw in it, foreshadowed...
Joan: Exactly. The students could see what Roslin intended them to see when he painted it.
*****You can find Joan Dempsey at
"Beautifully written ... an ambitious and moving debut novel." —LILY KING, author of the award-winning national bestseller, "Euphoria"
“In a time when religious liberty is on trial, [this] is an extraordinarily pertinent novel dripping in suspense and powerful scenes of political discourse … a must-read ....” — FOREWORD (starred review)
“… Dempsey’s fine first novel [is] notable for the evenhanded way it addresses hot-button issues. The result is a timely and memorable story.” —BOOKLIST
“A gripping and sensitive portrait of ordinary people wrestling with ideological passions.” —KIRKUS