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Early in 2016, I wrote an informal review of The Family With Two Front Doors by Anna Ciddor, a novel based on the childhood of the author's grandmother, who appears as the ten year old heroine of this book. It's set in the 1920s, but it certainly appealed to my mother, who was growing up in Poland in the 1930s, and she is currently re-reading the book, which she says takes her right back to her own childhood. She did quite a lot of things little Nomi does, although her family wasn't a rabbi's family, and the small-town flavour was very similar.
But I've read all of Anna Ciddor's fiction, so when she kindly agreed to be interviewed for The Zgreat Raven, I couldn't resist adding questions about her other work.
Anna, welcome to The Great Raven!
What was your first book? The first one I read was your history of toilets in Allen and Unwin's True Stories series, but I think you were writing education books before that. Anything before the education books
My first book was a picture book called ‘Take Me Back’ which was published in 1988. It was inspired by Australia’s bicentenary celebrations (for the arrival of white settlers). I realised these celebrations would be meaningless to children unless they could see how life in Australia had changed over those 200 years so I created a book that gave a snapshot of home life for each generation from 1788 to 1988.
The Viking Magic books were delightful, set in a small Scandinavian community with two children who had been exchanged at birth. Would you like to tell us a bit about it and how you got the idea for it?
When I did some research about Vikings for a little non-fiction reader, I discovered there was a lot more to these horned-helmet wearers than dragonships and raiders (and I found out that they didn’t really wear horned helmets at all!) Viking lives were dominated by a belief in magic. They thought there were little folk who lived underground and had to be appeased with gifts of food. They feared neighbours might be witches who could cast spells on them. And then, I discovered that if a Viking family didn’t want a newborn baby, they were allowed to dispose of it by leaving it for the wolves! Well, that was it. The idea for the series was born! I came up with the idea of a midwife secretly swapping an unwanted girl-baby for a boy born at the same time. This then set up the wonderful storyline of two children, Oddo and Thora, growing up in families where they didn’t fit in.
It was great fun writing Runestone, Wolfspell and Stormriders, because every time I got stuck, I researched more about Vikings, and discovered some other wonderful truth I could use in the stories.
You wrote a book in the Quentaris series, Prisoner of Quentaris, in which your leprechauns formed a small copy of heroic Irish society instead of the cliched cutesy leprechauns of most fiction - what gave you that idea?
When I was approached to contribute to the Quentaris series, I was immersed in research for Night of the Fifth Moon, a novel set in Ireland during the fifth century – in the time of druids, kings and battles. I decided to write a variation on an old Irish folktale from that period. In Prisoner of Quentaris, the king of the leprechauns is captured by humans and the little leprechauns have to work out how to free him. I asked students in schools I visited to give me ideas how they might achieve this, and I actually used some of their suggestions in the novel.
There is a gentle humour in all your fiction, even in The Family With Two Front Doors, which is based on the true story of your grandmother's childhood - is this deliberate on your part or is it just you?
A bit of both. I am always alert for humour in any setting or situation I am writing about. As a reader, I appreciate humour and the way it brightens a book, so I always want to include it in my writing.
You mentioned at the Jewish Writers' Festival that this novel took you five years to research and write. Can you tell us a bit about what was involved? Mostly, my research involves reading lots of books and following up anything I can't find by going online. I suspect your process was a lot more complex!
The book was inspired by interviews with my grandmother from twenty-five years ago. However, when I sat down to write it in 2011, I discovered some crucial holes in my information, and sadly, Nana Nomi was no longer around to answer my questions. That was what set me off on my five-year quest. Like you, I researched as much as I could in books and on-line, but these were not enough. I wanted to bring back to life the intimate everyday details of a lost lifestyle from 1920s Poland and also the characters of the eleven members of Nana’s family.
I pored over the half dozen family photos that had come down to me, trying to guess personalities from solemn sepia images taken so long ago. I reread over and over again the little anecdotes my Nana had told me – each time noticing some nuance or particular I had overlooked before. I interviewed other elderly people who had lived in Poland at that time, and I asked rabbis for details of Jewish rituals and customs. Finally, I travelled across the world to Poland. I hunted in museums, I searched old archives for family documents, but most importantly of all, I found the apartment block where my Nana’s family lived. I opened the big wrought iron gate and ventured into the courtyard. I walked the street outside, following the footpath they must have trodden, and bought a banana in the market where they shopped. By the time I had finished all my research and written the book, I felt I really had known that long-ago family.
And by the time I'd read the book, I felt that I, too, had known that family!
Thanks for answering, Anna!
If you'd like to get hold of this book or any of the others here are some places where you can get them:
Or there's Booktopia, where I've put in a link to the ebook versions:
Book Depository has some and for others suggests AbeBooks, as they're out of print.