Hopeful Story of Escape and Survival Amongst the Woods of Eastern Europe in The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel – Author Q & A included!

The Forest of Vanishing Stars

My Review

An incredibly engaging and addictive read, I highly recommend The Forest of Vanishing Stars! Author of recent bestseller, The Book of Lost Names and many others, Kristin Harmel brings us the story of Yona, a girl taken from her home in Germany at two years old and raised by an old woman in the forest of Eastern Europe during World War ll. When the woman dies, Yona is left alone in the woods, with survival skills but little experience with human interaction and relationships. When Jewish refugees fled their homes to escape death in 1941, hiding from the Nazis in the unfamiliar forest in Poland, Yona, now living alone in the woods observes them and decides to help. She teaches them how to set up camp and find food, and chooses to stay once she finds herself in a relationship with one of the men, having feelings she has never had before. The refugees taught her to open her heart, but Yona finds herself betrayed, questioning her choices and she abandons the group. When she takes a chance and enters the town taken over by the Nazi regime, she encounters shadows from her past with traumatic consequences.

Kristin Harmel did extensive research for The Forest of Vanishing Stars and is a master at creating a pertinent story with a rich, historical backdrop. I enjoyed reading about Yona, her unconventional upbringing, her religious and spiritual knowledge and beliefs, her new found relationships based on instinct and her coming of age. This is a story of human strength, war, loss, survival, sacrifice, trust and love.

Author Q & A

Q: This is your 13th novel and I was wondering where you get your ideas for each and how do you know they are going to work?

A: That’s a good question; the ideas for each novel tend to come from something I stumbled across in the research for my previous novel. When my interest is piqued by a surprising fact, I let myself follow the trail a bit, and if the research turns up a fascinating story, I think I begin to fall in love. I think a story based on real life, with compelling, flawed characters, always tends to work on the page; the key is finding the right characters to set in motion, as well as finding the right way to tell the story.

Q: I loved this story so much and found myself crying many times (the sign of a great book for me).  When you are writing, do you feel those waves of emotions and then put words to them, or do you create the words to induce the emotions?

A: Thanks so much for the kind words. I absolutely feel the emotion as I’m writing; the characters really do take on a life of their own. They feel like real people to me during the time I’m writing them, and when I have to put them in difficult or tragic situations, it’s very hard for me.

Q: The Forest of Vanishing Stars felt very well researched, from the profuse loss the characters suffered, to the food they foraged in the forest…how did you educate yourself on these survivors, where they lived, what they ate etc?

A: I did a ton of reading (I list all the books I used in the Author’s Note), and I also had the chance to speak with several incredible sources, especially Aron Bielski (who survived in the forest himself during WW2 as part of the Bielski partisan group) and Vadim Sidorovich, PhD, a wildlife expert who specializes in the Naliboki Forest. It was a ton of research, but everything I did — especially talking to those two men — really helped bring the world alive for me.

Q: Yona vaguely reminded me of Kya in Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.  What inspired you to create Yona, a young girl kidnapped at 2yrs old and brought to live in the forest?

A: I loved the idea of someone having to learn to survive completely off the grid and knowing everything about the forest itself — but virtually nothing about her place in the world, or how to interact with other people. Because so much of this novel is about identity, and what makes us who we are, it felt essential to have a character at the center of it who was very much at the beginning of that journey.

Q: Jerusza was a mysterious character; how did you come up with her and why didn’t you tell us more?

A: Jerusza came to me almost whole once I realized the path I wanted Yona’s life to take; Jerusza becomes an essential part of Yona’s life, and of her quest for identity, by changing her fate. But the book isn’t about Jerusza; it’s about Yona. And the importance of Jerusza is the role she plays in shaping Yona’s life and future. Since the majority of the book takes place after Jerusza dies, there was no reason for her to be any more present on the page than she was.

Q: Yona’s romance with Alexander was different from her connection with Zus.  Did you always plan on her having two different relationships or did the connection with Zus emerge once they met?

A: Yes, I knew from the beginning that she needed to have a relationship that wasn’t right for her — just as almost all of us do when we’re young and we’re still figuring out who we are. I think that it’s very human, and very universal, to choose the wrong people to trust and love when we’re young, because we don’t know who we are yet, and we haven’t learned that we deserve more.

Q: Doing mitzvot (good deeds) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) are important parts of the Jewish religion; these qualities are inherent in Yona yet we don’t know her religion for most of the story.   Does this represent an important message about humanity?

A: I think that while we don’t know Yona’s religious heritage for most of the story, we do, in fact, know her religion. She’s Jewish. She was raised Jewish, albeit by a woman who exposes her to many religious traditions. She considers herself Jewish, though she isn’t steeped in all of the cultural touchpoints. I think the only real reason she questions her religion is because she feels she wasn’t actually born to a Jewish mother, though she was raised that way, and she carries guilt about where she came from. But to answer your question, I do, personally, believe that doing good deeds and bringing good to the world are at the heart of every major world religion, and that there is much more uniting us because of our identity as God-seeking human beings than there is separating us as members of specific religions.

Q: Aleksander’s and Zus’s groups both seemed to have the priority of survival, yet the young group that joined them later had revenge on their mind.   You did a wonderful job pointing out how this conflict of priorities could change the mood of the “camp” and also jeopardize safety.  Did you always have the Nazi truck they attacked filled with the supplies they needed or did you have a version where the truck was void of necessities and only had soldiers?

A: No, this was my version all along.

Q: You created a feeling of urgency and mystery which made this story even more of a page turner.  Did that come through naturally or did you have to go back and add in elements?

A: Thanks for the kind words. And no, I think that came through in the first draft. I outline pretty heavily, and I think the beats of the story, which were present in the outline, pretty naturally drive the urgency and pace.

Q: The Jews in Eastern Europe (all all over the world) suffered so deeply and there are so many moving stories of survival surrounding the Holocaust.  What inspired you to write about this? (I am so glad you did!)

A: This is my sixth World War II novel, and I keep returning again and again to this theme of people finding the strength within themselves in dark times. I also enjoy taking these fascinating, real-life historical occurrences and finding ways to frame engaging stories around them.

Q: What was the revision process like; was there something you originally had in the story that you regret taking out?

A: No, I’ve been working with the same editor — Abby Zidle — since 2010, and I trust her entirely. We work very well together; I do a first round of revisions myself before turning it in, and then when she gets the pages, she gives me back great notes. It’s not usually a matter of taking scenes out; I think I write pretty tightly from the beginning. It’s usually a matter of developing characters’ motivations a bit more, or adding in small scenes to further support the plot. It’s such a smooth, collaborative process with Abby that I honestly never have any regrets; she helps me get the book into the best possible shape.

Q: I love the cover and am wondering if you had seen others before this one was chosen?

A: Nope, I have a wonderful cover designer at Simon & Schuster, Chelsea McGuckin, who knocks it out of the park every single time. We made a few small tweaks that had more to do with the character than the cover itself (for instance, we made her hair darker and messier), but this was more or less exactly the cover I was shown on the first round. Chelsea is a genius.

Q: If The Forest of Vanishing Stars became a movie, who would you want to be in the cast?

A: I’m horrible at casting suggestions! I honestly don’t have any actors picked out. Maybe Brett Goldstein (who plays Roy Kent on Ted Lasso) as Zus? I could absolutely see him in that role (swoon!).

Q: Can you tell us about the facebook group you run with author friends?

A: Sure, it’s called Friends & Fiction, and it is founded and run by me, Mary Kay Andrews, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry, and Mary Alice Monroe, all of us New York Times bestselling authors. We started it back in April 2020, after we’d all had book tours canceled because of Covid-related closures, as a way to connect with readers and support independent booksellers. It has grown into a group of around 50,000 members (and growing!), who interact on our page all day, talking about the books they’re loving and the books they recommend — and we also do a Wednesday night show, which airs live on the page and our YouTube channel. (There’s a podcast, too!) We’re live Wednesdays at 7pm ET, and you can watch all of our back episodes on YouTube. We interview other authors, and our past guests have included Kristin Hannah, Delia Owens, Brit Bennett, Jodi Picoult, Lisa See, Chris Bohjalian, Lou Diamond Phillips, and more. If you love to read, it’s a great place to be; come join the fun!

Q: What books have you read recently that you recommend?

A: A ton! The three I’d recommend most highly in the coming months are all written by my Friends & Fiction co-hosts:

The Santa Suit by Mary Kay Andrews (Sept. 28, 2021)

Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan (Oct. 19, 2021)

Christmas in Peachtree Bluff by Kristy Woodson Harvey (Oct. 26, 2021)

Thanks!

Kristin Harmel

About Kristin Harmel

Kristin Harmel is the New York Times bestselling and #1 international bestselling author of THE BOOK OF LOST NAMES, THE WINEMAKER’S WIFE, and a dozen other novels that have been translated into numerous languages and sold all over the world.

A former reporter for PEOPLE magazine, Kristin has been writing professionally since the age of 16, when she began her career as a sportswriter, covering Major League Baseball and NHL hockey for a local magazine in Tampa Bay, Florida in the late 1990s. After stints covering health and lifestyle for American Baby, Men’s Health, and Woman’s Day, she became a reporter for PEOPLE and spent more than a decade working for the publication, covering everything from the Super Bowl to high-profile murders to celebrity interviews with the likes of Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, OutKast, Justin Timberlake, and Patrick Dempsey. Her favorite stories at PEOPLE, however, were the “Heroes Among Us” features—tales of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. One of those features—the story of Holocaust-survivor-turned-philanthropist Henri Landwirth (whom both Walter Cronkite and John Glenn told Kristin was the most amazing person they’d ever known)—partially inspired Kristin’s 2012 novel, The Sweetness of Forgetting, which was a bestseller all over the world.

In addition to a long magazine writing career (which also included articles published in Travel + Leisure, Glamour, Ladies’ Home Journal, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and more), Kristin was also a frequent contributor to the national television morning show The Daily Buzz—where her assignments included flying to London three times to interview the cast of the Harry Potter films. She has appeared on Good Morning America and numerous local television morning shows–and even stumbled into a role as an extra in the 2003 American Idol movie while awaiting an interview with Kelly Clarkson.

Kristin was born just outside Boston, Massachusetts and spent her childhood there, as well as in Columbus, Ohio, and St. Petersburg, Florida. After graduating with a degree in journalism (with a minor in Spanish) from the University of Florida, she spent time living in Paris and Los Angeles and now lives in Orlando, with her husband and young son. She travels frequently to France for book research (and—let’s be honest—for the pastries and wine) and writes a book a year for Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster.

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