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The Book of Lost Names

A heartrending novel of survival, inspired by an astonishing true story from ...
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A Q&A with Kristin Harmel

Created: 05/21/21

Replies: 11

Posted May. 21, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 10/15/10

Posts: 3442

Ask the Author

During late May and early June, Kristen Harmel answered our book clubbers' questions. You can read her answers below.

This thread is closed for new posts.

Posted May. 24, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 03/11/15

Posts: 120

How did you come up with the Fibonacci sequence code?

KH: Well, now I’ll have to reveal myself as a nerd…. When I was in third grade, I was obsessed for a few months with the weird (obviously impossible) goal of being the first kid ever to solve the world’s unsolvable math problems. I had a book that featured math problems that had never been solved (designed, obviously, for kids like me!), and I would spend hours and hours poring over the numbers, my heart soaring with the dream of mathematic stardom (and this was long before Good Will Hunting!).

At night, I would run the Fibonacci sequence in my head as a mental exercise before I fell asleep. Thirty years later, after months of researching WW2 codes and trying to figure out what might work for THE BOOK OF LOST NAMES, it hit me in a flash: I could actually make all those hours of math gymnastics count! And the code at the heart of THE BOOK OF LOST NAMES, which is based on the Fibonacci sequence was born.

It had to be something simple enough for two amateurs in a church library to come up with, but something complicated enough that it would be difficult for someone to break if that person was not a professional codebreaker. (You can find a simple explanation of the Fibonacci sequence here:

Posted May. 25, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 03/25/13

Posts: 50

Did you interview forgers?

Dear Ms. Harmel:
I found the forgery descriptions in your book to be fascinating and falling under the category of little known facts. Did you actually interview "forgers" or did you have to research through more typical avenues (libraries, histories, Google even?). This part was my favorite part of the book.

KH: Thanks for the kind words! I’ve interviewed many survivors over the years (I’ve written six novels set during World War II), but for this book, no, I didn’t specifically interview forgers; I did a ton of reading and research, and I obtained real 1940s identity and travel documents, which helped me to gain a tangible understanding of how exactly the forgeries worked.

Posted May. 25, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 04/08/14

Posts: 69

A broader question -- How did your interest in the Holocaust come to be?

KH: Great question. Like many people, I was very moved as a young teen by Anne Frank’s diary; it was the book that showed me that words could change the world. Later, as a writer for People magazine, one of my favorite interviews was with a Holocaust survivor named Henri Landwirth, who was just an extraordinary man. One of the things he said during our interview – that in order to survive in concentration camps (from ages 13-18), he had to learn to turn his feelings off, and when the war was over, he never knew how to turn them back on again – stayed with me long after the interview; it was just such a profound statement on loss.

I was writing lighter books at that time, but my conversation with him lingered in my heart, and I knew I had to get back to that sort of writing (the first full-length short story I ever wrote and submitted anywhere was a story set in a concentration camp when I was 12). There are many other reasons why I find that time period so important and compelling to write about (and once I started, I truly couldn’t stop, because there are so many rich stories there that haven’t been told yet), but those two influences – Anne Frank and Henri Landwirth – kicked off this passion for me.

Posted May. 25, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 04/14/11

Posts: 109

Why choose the Holocaust?

Just curious...with so many WWII Holocaust books currently being published, why did you choose the same genre? What kind of research did you do in order to write this novel?

KH: I’ve actually been writing about WWII and the Holocaust long before it became the wildly popular genre it is today; I wrote my first WWII novel, The Sweetness of Forgetting, in 2009-10 (it was published in 2012). So it’s something I’ve been doing for quite a while (for twelve years now) and something I feel a deep passion for.

Each novel has led me to research topics for the next novel, too; there are so many things I come across in my research that would make a great future novel that it’s very hard to step away. It’s a genre that fascinates me and that has endless unique stories to tell, all of which have surprising resonance and relevance today (which is one reason why I think the genre tends to be so popular).

To answer the second half of your question: all of my novels are deeply, deeply researched. I lived in Paris for a while, have traveled extensively in France and throughout Europe, have interviewed experts, historians and survivors, have done a ton of research reading, and have obtained authentic documents and artifacts that aid in the storytelling. Each book is a little different, but deep research is at the heart of everything I do.

Posted May. 25, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 02/22/21

Posts: 109

What nonfiction books would you recommend to learn more?

In doing your research for this book, did you come across any nonfiction titles that you would recommend to learn more about the resistance movement, in general, and forgers, specifically? Thank you for this wonderful book!

KH: Yes, and in fact I love writing my Author’s Notes in my novels for exactly this reason; I want people who read the book to have an opportunity to learn more if they’re interested. The Author’s Note for The Book of Lost Names lists the books I used for research, all of which I would recommend to anyone who’d like to do further reading.

Gabi: Thank you! I finished reading the book as an audiobook while on a road trip and forgot to listen to the author's notes. Pulled out my hard copy and have made my list of sources to check out.

Posted May. 25, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 08/12/15

Posts: 188

If you were to write a sequel, what would happen to Eva and Remy?

KH: That’s a great question, but to be honest, I tend to think of my characters as having traveled a very complete arc over the course of the story (especially in this case, since the novel spans from 1942-2005). I don’t think I would write a sequel. But I might consider a prequel; I would be especially interested in knowing what happened to Remy before he met Eva; his backstory is, in my mind, fascinating. I’d also love to know where he goes when he leaves Aurignon for a time.

So if I were to use this book as a jumping off point for anything (which I don’t have any current plans to do), it would probably be to explore Remy’s journey in more detail, since this novel mostly follows Eva.

Posted May. 25, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert
Patricia Ann

Join Date: 05/24/21

Posts: 90

Did Germany and Argentina really have a diplomatic agreement that did not allow Germany to detain its citizens?

Did Germany and Argentina really have a diplomatic agreement that did not allow Germany to detain its citizens? I have never read about it before, so it was very interesting. If so, did Germany have similar agreements with any other countries?

KH: Yes, this was true early in the war… I’m not sure if Germany had similar agreements with other countries, but in the early years of the conflict, Germany was invested in keeping their relationship with Argentina on solid footing.

Posted May. 25, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 06/22/20

Posts: 31

The Ending

I have thought a lot about the ending of the book. You could have chosen so many different endings just by who in the book survived. What thought process did you use and/or when did you decide on the ending you used? (By the way, I loved the ending)

KH: Without giving too much away…. There was never any other ending for me. I knew how the final scene would unfold before I started writing the story. I think (in general) that even the so-called happy endings from World War II are bittersweet, because everyone involved in the war lost a great number of things along the way. Love and happiness are always laced with loss and tragedy in stories involving the Holocaust or the Resistance, because it’s nearly impossible for everyone to survive against such tremendous odds—and losses of such magnitude shape the rest of our lives.

Posted May. 26, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 10/16/10

Posts: 1067

How does The Book of Lost Names compare to your other novels?

I'm curious about how Book of Lost Names compares to your other novels, in your opinion. Which of your books (to-date) is your favorite, and why? Which did you find hardest to write, and which the easiest?

KH: Probably my first World War II novel – The Sweetness of Forgetting (2012) – was the hardest, because I was diving into researching the era for the first time and had to build an extensive background of knowledge, as well as develop the research skills I’d need to write books like this with accuracy. That one might also be my favorite, too, because it honors my own relationship with my grandmother (who had dementia, like the grandmother in my book), so there's a lot in it that’s personal for me. (Plus, there are recipes!) That said, I think I’m proudest of my most recent, The Forest of Vanishing Stars, because I think I grow and spread my wings as a writer with each subsequent book….and I think Forest represented a jump forward for me as a storyteller. Also, to answer the final bit of your question…. None of them were easy to write; they each take a year of intensive research, writing and editing…. I think it gets a tiny bit easier with each book, because I (hopefully) get better at my craft…. But each book challenges me in different ways.

Posted May. 26, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 10/16/10

Posts: 1067

RE: Got a question for the author? ...

Are there specific authors you look up to?

KH: Sure, I’ve always been inspired by Anne Frank, and I’ve long been awed by the way Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote and plotted. Today, there are so many incredible authors working that it’s hard to name only a handful, but I think historical fiction novelists including Stephanie Dray, Patti Callahan, Kate Quinn, Pam Jenoff, Marie Benedict, Lisa Barr, Fiona Davis, Kelly Rimmer, Kristin Hannah, Lisa Scottoline, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, and more continue to inspire me through their beautiful work, and make me want to be a stronger, better writer myself.

Posted May. 28, 2021 Go to Top | Go to bottom | link | alert

Join Date: 05/28/21

Posts: 1

How did you get such personal information?

Your book touched my family in a real way. My husband was a lucky survivor of the Drancy roundup. HIs father became aware of the raid and they left Paris just in time to avoid being taken. My husband never reads my book club books, but he picked his one up, scanned it and found it riveting. His statement -you really made it real with the neighbors stealing the apartment without guilt. How did you get such personal information?

KH: First of all, Rosalyn, thank you for sharing that story. And I'm so thankful that your husband survived. I've spent a lot of time (during the writing of several novels set in WW2 France) imagining the terror people like him must have felt in the madness of those days in 1942, and my heart breaks for him and his family. What an experience they must have had during the war. I'm especially honored to hear that he enjoyed THE BOOK OF LOST NAMES and that it felt real to him.

To answer your question, I would say that two major elements go in to making details like that feel so realistic:

Firstly, I read (and have read) everything I can get my hands on, including memoirs, about the things that unfolded in WW2 France. I think some of the details (such as the likelihood of selfish neighbors simply moving in without guilt) are influenced by that. Secondly, I think part of being a good novelist is becoming someone who studies, and thinks deeply about, human nature. Especially in books like mine, I think plot is driven by character, and so I think hard and often about the decisions every single character would make--and more importantly, WHY.

In the case of Madame Fontain, I think that first, she has eagerly bought into the societal push toward blaming Jews for everything--not least of all because putting someone else down makes her feel better about her situation and station in life. (I think that in life in general, this is a very common reason why racism, prejudice and stereotypes are perpetuated in today's world. When life isn't going the way you want, it can be tempting to buy into the lie that your blood, skin color, or religion makes you better than someone else--and feel angry at those "others" for having things you've now convinced yourself you deserve.) So she's already full of this self-righteous hatred by the time the Vel' d'Hiv roundup happens --and thus it's very easy to convince herself that she is entitled to the Traubes' apartment--and perhaps even to have played a role in their inclusion on the arrest list.

I think that when you can get inside the heads of people and understand why they think the way they do, it becomes easier to write realistic reactions to the things happening around them--and those reactions become the things that drive and shape the story. Thanks again for sharing your husband's story!


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