May Sarton, the poet and novelist who is the inspiration behind Story Circle Network’s annual Sarton Award, was also an inspiration for author Barbara Stark-Nemon’s book, Even in Darkness, the winner of the 2015 Sarton Award for historical fiction. The book tells the real life story of Holocaust survivor Klare Kohler.
Winning the award, Barbara said, “…truly made me feel I’d brought Klare’s legacy to the world. Even in Darkness is the story of my heart, a love letter to a woman who truly inspired me. She (Kohler) did in her own life, and for me, what May Sarton wishes for us all in her 1971 poem, ‘Invocation to Kali.'”
Barbara then went on to quote the portions of Sarton’s poem, written in 1971, which were meaningful to her:
Gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness
Nothing comes to birth
As without light
Barbara was born and raised in and around Detroit, Michigan, during the era that saw the city change from a gutsy, vibrant auto town to a gutted city surrounded by affluent suburbs.
“My family members were well educated immigrants from Germany who escaped the Holocaust, and were very focused on education and the freedoms of American government and society,” she says. As fulfillment of these family goals, Barbara graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and art history, and then went on to earn a master’s degree in speech-language pathology.
“I had a very satisfying career working in schools teaching English and doing speechlanguage therapy with deaf and learning disabled kids. And I see my current career writing novels as an extension of my life-long interest in communication and story-telling.”
Barbara says she was greatly influenced in deciding to become a writer by her grandfather, who was both an attorney and a master storyteller. “He literally trained my brother and sisters and me to notice the great stories around us. He then wanted us to tell these stories to him…and to tell them well. He loved it when we did.”
A second influence for her writing, Barbara says, was the work she did with children with communication problems. “To find ways to get stories to them, and to assist them in bringing their narratives to others, cemented my understanding of how important our stories are to everyone.”
She also credits her writing group as being influential in her writing effort. But it was Klare Kohler herself who had the greatest impact on Barbara’s decision of what, or in this case who, to write a book about. “I met Klare when I was four or five, and loved her immediately. I was fascinated by her early on, and grew to deeply love and respect her and the priest who became so important to her. Her life demonstrated the victory of love and devotion over loss and suffering. I wanted to tell her story and honor the complexity of the choices she and the priest had to make to create meaning out of horror.”
But once Barbara decided she wanted to tell Klare Khler’s story, it would be many years before the book was finally finished, including 15 years of research that included voice, video and written interviews of many of the real people who were part of the story told in Even in Darkness. She traveled to Germany, Belgium, England, Israel and the Czech Republic for her research and translated more than 100 letters from German to English. “I read a great many books about World War II in Europe,” she says, “and researched at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York City, Holocaust Centers in Jerusalem, Detroit, and Washington D.C., and many libraries and archives in the United States and in Germany.”
Her best writing, Barbara reports, happens in the early morning, although she writes at all times of the day and night. Her best writing days, meanwhile, take place in a house overlooking Lake Michigan. “I’m lucky to be able to go there, and also work in my study in Ann Arbor.”
The most useful piece of writing advice given her, she says, is to trust her own story. She advises other writers to work on their stories until they find the form of the story they want to tell. “Don’t settle for almost right. Write the story you can fight for and ask someone else to believe in. Rewrite it and get it edited. Put yourself through the refiner’s fire.”
This advice has certainly worked for Barbara. In addition to the Sarton Award, Even in Darkness is also a finalist in the International Book Awards and received a Gold IPPY in European Fiction from the Independent Publishers Association.