Ronald Balson


Could you tell us a little bit about your background, and when you decided that you wanted to lead a literary life?

– I can’t say there was a date or a time or an event where I made a decision to lead a “literary life.” I just added writing books to my non-literary life. Through the years, writing has always been a central focus for me I was an editor of my high school and college newspapers. I’ve been a litigation attorney for over forty years, and, of course, in that capacity I’ve written countless briefs, memoranda, appeals, and arguments. When you get right down to it, it’s all really story-telling. I always thought that writing a novel was on my horizon, but I never got around to it, or I never got my mind wrapped around a story that impelled me to get around to it. Finally, opportunity knocked hard nine years ago when my practice took me to Poland on a telecommunications case. Traveling around that country, encountering the remnants and scars of World War II, I was inspired to write a book about a family in wartime Poland, which ultimately became Once We Were Brothers. Getting back to “leading a literary life,” I concede it’s been a shift. I still practice law and go about my routines, except now I get to travel all around the country (world, even) and talk to people who want to engage me in discussions about my books. I confess. It’s fun.

Is there a book that most influenced your life or inspired you to become a writer?

– As I said, I’ve always been drawn to writing, so I am constantly in awe of authors whose clever imagery and artful deployment of language far exceeds my own, writers like John Steinbeck and Truman Capote and Ernest Hemmingway. And Joan Didion, whose self-description sits on my printer and reads, “I am a writer. Imagining what people would say or do comes to me as naturally as breathing.” A statement to which I aspire in the humblest of ways. Relative to becoming an author of historical fiction, the captivating wartime novels of Leon Uris and Herman Wouk certainly inspired me. They are craftsmen, whose wonderful characters consumed their readers and thrust them into the World War II milieu. I aspire to their brilliance in the feeblest of ways. Scott Turow, a fellow member of the Illinois bar, is the master of legal dramas, and is a prime example of how to infuse a contemporary legal thriller with intelligent writing.

What was the inspiration for Saving Sophie?

– Saving Sophie has so many subplots; we’d have to say that the creative ideas sprung from different sources. A few years ago I was involved in a complex escrow closing where the funds to purchase the business were almost sent to the wrong bank. It occurred to me that a good mystery could be based on that misdirection. And I once spent six weeks trying a case in Honolulu (which is a far less exotic experience than you might think) and I became familiar with the Hawaiian legal environment. As to the central conflict, the Israeli/Palestinian struggle, my time in Israel and my involvement in several organizations motivated me to set Saving Sophie in the middle of that complex conundrum. It seemed to me to be a good opportunity to foment discussions about an impossible situation.

Your last book, Once We Were Brothers, dealt with a different aspect of the Jewish experience, the atrocities of wartime Poland. Can you talk about how you approached this subject matter of the Israeli conflict?

– The Jewish experience in wartime Poland was dehumanization, slavery and extermination. Those few that survived the camps were universally staunch Zionists. They wanted to go to Israel. Israel was their rebirth. I think it was a natural transition for me as well to go from submergence in Holocaust research and writing to stories of the Jewish experience in Israel, starting with the country’s formation to the present. When you mention the Israeli conflict – and we tend to think of it in present day terms: the claims of the Palestinians, the West Bank, the settlements, the Green Line, the peace process – we have to keep it in proper perspective. This present day struggle has been active since the days of the British Mandate, and I think it can be better understood from its historical perspective. That’s why I spent considerable time laying the groundwork in Saving Sophie.

Do you scrupulously adhere to historical fact in your novels, or do you take liberties if the story can benefit from the change? To what extent did you stick to the facts in writing Saving Sophie?

– Scrupulous as possible. I try to present my historical environment as authentically as I can within the confines of a fictional piece. Obviously, the al-Zahani family is entirely a product of my imagination, so they could not have been involved with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mussolini or any other figure. But the scenarios that played out around them are accurate. Thus the narrative about the Mufti Amin al-Husseini training and reviewing Bosnian troops for Hitler, for example, is factual. He wasn’t accompanied by grandfather Ibrahim, but he was a real figure and just as evil as I described him. The Hebron Massacre of 1929 is, regrettably, factual. The events which occurred during the British Mandate, the creation of the state of Israel, and the Arab/Israeli wars are all well documented. The descriptions of the geographic locales in which the characters play out their roles are based upon my personal observations and described as keenly as I am capable.

Can you take readers into the process of writing this novel? What challenges did you face in terms of plotting and structure, for example?

– I do not write from an outline and I don’t always know at the beginning what will happen at the end (although I have a pretty good idea). My principle goal is to create strong characters with believable identities. They become real for me, and I can and do communicate with them every day. When I toss them into a devilish situation, I hope they will respond in a way that is true to their character. It may not be the way you or I would respond, but if I’ve done my job, their personalities will emerge in the crisis. Liam’s courageous decision to place himself in the crossfires of the Hebron operation, even though he wasn’t an operative or a soldier and had no skin in the game, as they say, and against Catherine’s wishes, is the only way his character should respond. Making sense of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a challenge that is, to all intents and purposes, insurmountable. I did not try to do that. I just set my story in the midst of embattled passions and let my characters and my readers think what they will.

Do you have a favorite scene from Saving Sophie—an incident or even dialogue that’s especially meaningful to you?

– I have many favorite scenes, some funny, some intense, some reflective. I especially like the scene between Kayla and Liam the night before the al-Zahani exchange. It’s a moment of honesty– their guards are down. Secrets are shared. Nothing is hidden. Both are full of doubts, yet neither is hesitant about the assignment. On the humor side, I like the short scene at the airport ice cream shop before the group leaves Honolulu. It’s a touch of humor, but bittersweet because it is a point of embarkation and impending danger. I like the scenes in the shop of Jamal Abu Hammad. I wrote those scenes before I shared a cup of tea in a similar antiquities shop in the Via Delarosa with an Arab shop owner who I posited was the real Abu Hammad. I searched to find such a man in the Muslim Quarter to prove to myself that my descriptions of Abu Hammad and his shop were authentic and his personality was believable. And they were. It was indeed a pleasant afternoon.

Is there any material that you wrote that never made it to the final draft? Can you tell us about it?

– Oh, yes. Definitely yes. My original manuscript had substantially more historical data – dozens of pages about the history of Israel and the West Bank, pages about Lawrence of Arabia and the Ottoman War, pages about the turmoil during the British occupation, pages about the prelude to the Six Day War and much more detail about the 1948 and 1967 wars. It was all left on the cutting room floor. In truth, it turned out to be too much detail and a distraction from the story. But I’m a historian at heart and I err on the side of inclusion.

Are you currently working on another book?

– I’m very proud of my third novel, currently named Karolina’s Twins. I’m back to the Holocaust. Karolina’s Twins is inspired by the true story of a beautiful, courageous woman who I met during the Once We Were Brothers book tour. She grew up in a small town in western Poland. As a young teen, she hid in her attic when the Nazis broke into her home and grabbed her family. She survived on her own in the ghetto of Nazi occupied Chrzanow, was sent to the Gross-Rosen slave labor camp, and ultimately escaped from the Auschwitz death march. In the novel, now seventy years later, she hires Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart to fulfill her promise to find two little girls lost during the war. Karolina’s Twins is in its final polishing stage and should be published in 2016.