Every once in a while a novel comes along that stirs your heart. Melissa Hunter’s debut novel What She Lost is that kind of story. Based on the real-life story of her grandmother, the novel follows the efforts of a young woman to survive the Holocaust during WWII. Melissa is a Cincinnati, Ohio, girl who studied creative writing and journalism at UC, where she received a BA in English literature and a minor in Judaic Studies. She has been a blogger and contributed articles to a number of local and national publications. Her debut novel has been very well-received and honored. It is my pleasure to introduce her to you as May’s author of the month.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Melissa! So glad you could join me this month. Let’s start with your background. You studied journalism and creative writing as well as Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati. What is the best writing advice or learning to come out of your undergrad experience there?
Melissa W. Hunter: As an English major with a focus on creative writing, one of the greatest lessons I learned was to take constructive feedback. I was part of several writing groups where we exchanged works and critiqued each other’s pieces. This was something I was always nervous about because whenever you share a piece of writing, you are sharing something of yourself. It’s personal. So, to get constructive criticism was something I used to take personally. But learning to use that feedback has helped me not only grow in my writing efforts, but also collaborate better with editors, publishers, etc. As a Judaic Studies minor, I took a number of courses not only in Judaism, but religious studies as well. I was always inspired by the similarities and core values shared by most religions rather than the differences we so often hear about. Of course, the Holocaust was always a subject of interest for me because of my own family’s history, so the opportunity to study at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. was monumental in helping me gain more knowledge of the subject and prepare for my first novel.
JEI: On your website, you describe yourself as a writer and a blogger. How has blogging contributed to your personal and professional growth as a writer?
MWH: Because I blog about my personal life, I believe this has influenced my writing to be more honest and “from the heart.” So much of my inspiration comes from everyday experiences and the emotions and feelings we all face in life. As I mature as an individual, I hope my writing matures as well. I used to enjoy writing stories that were made up (I still do . . . one day I’d love to try my hand at a fantasy or science fiction novel) but I feel more connected as a writer when I can express in words the emotions that I carry inside me. It is a cathartic process and hopefully will appeal to readers because they can relate in some small way. Professionally, blogging helps me attract new readers and, in a way, holds me accountable. If I haven’t blogged in a long time, I feel responsible to provide content to my readers, which lights a fire under my feet.
JEI: What She Lost is your debut novel. Will you share with us why you wrote this moving fictional account of your grandmother’s story?
MWH: Absolutely. I loved writing from a very early age. Growing up, I was also very close to my grandmother. I always knew she was a Holocaust survivor, but it wasn’t until I was older and she shared her experiences with me that I truly came to understand what she had lived through. I knew her story was going to be the subject of my first novel. It became my life’s mission in a sense; I needed to record it before I could write anything else. I worked on the novel for a long time. I started when I was in my twenties, but couldn’t truly find the right “voice” for the narrative until I was in my forties and was a mother myself. This gave me a new sense of purpose. Now I wanted to record our family’s history if for no other reason than for my own children to have an account of what our family had lived through. After I completed the manuscript, I debated whether or not to self-publish. I was extremely fortunate to find my publisher, Cynren Press. They are a boutique publisher of memoir, autobiography, and historical fiction, and when they acquired What She Lost, they treated the manuscript with love and care. Working with them and bringing the book to print was a true collaboration, and I am so proud of the result. I also love that my publisher released the book as not only an Adult but a Young Adult title. Because of this, the novel is being read in a number of schools, and I’ve had the incredible opportunity to speak to students personally. My grandmother passed away in 2020, but in some small way, I feel this novel keeps her and her story alive.
JEI: Your book has received a number of awards and recognition. Which of them has meant the most to you?
MWH: I have been blessed to receive recognition for What She Lost. It won the Readers’ Favorite Silver Medal Award in the YA coming-of-age category and was even the subject of a documentary series entitled From Generation to Generation. But perhaps my most meaningful collaboration has been with the Cincinnati Holocaust and Humanity Center. They have been extremely supportive of my novel, and I’ve partnered with them in a number of ways. I recorded a tour of their exhibit that highlights the events in my novel, and this tour is now available to teachers and educators. It comes with a lesson plan, associated activities, and excerpts from the novel as well. I also volunteer my time at the museum to help lead in-person tours. Being able to work with the public in this way is truly rewarding to me!
JEI: What impact would you like your book to have on readers? The larger community?
MWH: Unfortunately, with the events that are unfolding in the world today, I see history repeating itself. Hearing stories of Ukrainian families being forced from their homes, and everyday civilians being killed in the country they call home, breaks my heart. And I know this isn’t the only place this has happened. Genocide is a stain on the human condition. I hope my book can illustrate to readers that events like these should never be repeated, that we as a society are more alike than different . . . we love our families, want what is best for our children, and pray for peace. Being able to use my novel as a tool to teach these lessons and reach the greater community is a privilege I don’t take for granted.
JEI: As a freelance writer with a family, what has been the most challenging aspect of the writing life? What has brought you the greatest joy?
MWH: Definitely the most challenging aspect of being a freelance writer when my children were younger was finding time. Being a stay-at-home mom and putting my commitments to my daughters first, I was often too exhausted to write, even when time did allow. For many years I felt like an imposter when I said I was a writer because I wasn’t producing any writing! As my daughters grew older, however, that changed. I was able to carve out more time for myself and felt my passion for writing return. Witnessing my daughters grow up also inspired me in ways I couldn’t imagine. I don’t look back on those early years with any regret. If anything, I’m so grateful I was able to be there for my children and participate in their lives when they needed me the most. With them becoming independent young women and forging their own paths, I know that is time I will never get back, and I cherish the memories we made.
Perhaps my greatest joy came when my novel was published and my daughters read it for themselves. My youngest texted me from school to tell me she had finished the book and was moved to tears. She told me she thought I was a great writer and she wished she had known her Bubbe (my grandmother who I based the book on) better. That meant the world to me! If I can be an example to my daughters that they should pursue their own dreams and never give up, I will feel my efforts haven’t been in vain.
JEI: You have a beautiful website. Did you create it yourself or work with a partner to bring it alive?
MWH: Thank you! That means a lot to me! I created it myself. I’ve been working on it for a number of years and am very pleased with how it turned out. I enjoy learning new things, so designing a website from scratch was both challenging and rewarding for me. It’s a skill I’m glad I now have, and I very much enjoy working on it.
JEI: Now that the world is edging back to normalcy from the COVID epidemic, what does 2022 look like for you in terms of in-person events?
MWH: I’m very excited to say I have a lot on my plate. In May, I am a featured speaker for the Yom HaShoah commemoration hosted by the Cincinnati Holocaust and Humanity Center and held at the Cincinnati JCC. I am also signing books at Mulberry Street Books in Lebanon, Ohio, and am speaking to 5th-grade students at Mason Middle School about being an author for their career day! I have several events in the works through local Barnes and Noble and was invited to speak to members of the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio in the fall. Finally, I plan to attend the in-person award ceremony for the Readers’ Favorites Awards in Miami!
JEI: That is an amazing schedule! What future projects are on your writing desk?
MWH: I am hard at work on the sequel to What She Lost, which follows my family’s journey from Europe to America in the 1950s, and shows the hardships they faced as immigrants while dealing with PTSD from the war. However, I like to work on more than one project at a time, so I also have a fun romance that takes place during the eight nights of Hanukkah scheduled for release around the holidays! And of course, I have a number of blog posts lined up, so stay tuned!
JEI: And for a little more personal color :)…what is your favorite meal to prepare for your family?
MWH: I have to laugh at this because anyone who knows me knows I don’t cook! I’m so lucky to have a husband who loves to cook and used to work in restaurants. He’s made it very easy for me! However, when I do prepare meals for my family, it is usually in the crockpot. Tacos and BBQ Chicken are some of my go-to recipes. For special occasions, I love to make brisket from the recipe passed down to me by my own mother.
JEI: If you could spend a day with one person — living or dead, real or fictional — who would you choose and why?
MWH: Family is the most important thing to me. I was so fortunate to be close to both my grandmothers and they were in my life until very recently. However, my grandfathers passed away when I was young, and I only have childhood memories of them. I would love to spend a day with both my grandfathers, just being together, learning from them and speaking to them as an adult, and getting to know them better. Just the very thought makes my heart smile!
For more about the author, check out her website: www.melissawhunter.com