I recently read the compelling and unique novel Margot by Jillian Cantor. The premise is interesting enough to give you goosebumps. What if Anne Frank’s sister survived the Holocaust and was living under a new identity in America? What if she had finally accepted her new life when it’s turned upside down by the release of a book and movie called The Dairy of Anne Frank? How do you reconcile this? How do you come to terms with the horror that you survived every single day of your life? Cantor beautifully captures everyday “Margie Franklin” aka Margot Frank as the reminder of the real girl that we all know. The girl who has come to symbolize all that was lost in the Holocaust. Cantor walks a very fine line in writing Margot and could have dipped into a dangerous world of woe and sappiness. Instead she beautifully captures a story, an event in history, that we mustn’t forget and hopefully will never be repeated.
I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Cantor a few weeks ago and I was able to ask her questions about the book, her writing influences and why she chose Margot. Check out her answers below.
Jennifer Smeth: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview Jillian.
Jillian Cantor: Thanks for having me!
Obviously Margot Frank was the inspiration for Margot. But what made you decide to write about Margot and not Anne?
So much has been written about Anne – fiction, non-fiction, plays, movies. . . Anne’s diary has been published (many editions) all over the world, read by almost every teenager. In real life, Margot Frank kept a diary in the annex, like Anne, but hers was never recovered after the war, and today very little is known about her. I thought about the fact that Anne and Margot were sisters, both in the annex, both keeping diaries, both murdered in Bergen-Belsen. All these years later Anne is an icon of the Holocaust, while Margot is virtually unknown. Also, Margot was the older sister. I, too, grew up the older sister in a family of two girls.
What type of research did you do for Margot?
I read and re-read (countless times) the different editions of Anne’s diary. I also watched the 1959 movie (which plays a role in the book). In addition I did general research about the Holocaust, concentrations camps, survivors, as well as the world of Philadelphia in the 1950s, where the novel takes place.
How did writing Margot (and in some regards Anne’s story) affect you?
When I first read Anne’s diary as a teenager, it terrified me. I was roughly the same age as Anne, Jewish, and also wanted to be a writer. This was the first time I realized how my life could’ve been so much different had I been born in a different time and different place. When I reread the diary as an adult, however, I realized that really, I was much more similar to Margot, the quieter, older sister. It made me think (again) what my life might’ve been like in a different time and different place, and also about my relationship with my own sister.
In fourth grade. I had a teacher who assigned us to write a short story every week for the entire year. I was hooked!
Do you remember the first book you fell in love with and why it affected you?
I have always been a reader. As a child I was reading ALL the time, so I’m not sure I can remember the first book I fell in love with. I’ve always loved the transformative power of reading, the way a story can immediately take you to another world. I can remember reading Gone With the Wind on a beach vacation with my family. I was probably 11 or 12 at the time. Everyone else was swimming in the ocean, playing on the beach, and I could not get out of my chair until I finished the book. That’s probably the first adult book that I read that I can remember so completely getting caught up in another world.
Who are some of your writing influences and favorite authors?
I read a lot, but some of my enduring favorites are Anna Quindlen, Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, Wally Lamb. . . I am always drawn to a story with strong writing and well-developed characters.
What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
This was from a professor in grad school, and it was something along the lines of “butt in chair.” As in, the only way to get the writing done is to sit down and physically, actually do it. It sounds simple, but sometimes it’s not. I’m a mom, and just as my writing career began a few years ago, I had a baby and a toddler at home with me. There were a million other things I could think to do when my kids were napping, other than writing. But I made myself sit in that chair at my desk every day and just write. . . something. I wrote my first few books during nap times. I wrote Margot during the three hours each weekday that my youngest was at preschool.
What book are you dying to read? What upcoming author is on your radar screen?
I can’t wait to read Jojo Moyes’ latest, The Girl You Left Behind (I loved Me Before You!). An upcoming book that I’m really excited about is Bodies of Water by T. Greenwood. I got to read an early copy a few months ago, and I’ve been thinking about the book and the characters ever since. It’s an amazing and beautifully written love story – I can’t wait for everyone else to get to read it too!
Where do you write?
I recently moved, and I have an amazing office in my new house that I painted a really soothing color that I love. I’m still in the process of setting it up, but I’ve finally hung some whiteboards (where I’ve begun mapping my next book) next to my desk. I like to sit at my desk and stare at all my notes on the whiteboards. It makes me feel productive.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I like to write first thing in the morning, just after I’ve taken my kids to school. I tend to get more (good) writing done early in the day. That, and strong coffee. Usually a few cups.
Which do you prefer to write YA or adult novels? Or does writing for both audiences fill two separate ‘needs’ in your life?
I don’t really prefer one over the other. I just love to write, and I don’t see them as filling separate needs, only that my main character and the voice are different, depending on the age. It all fills the same need – loving to write and the desire to tell stories.
If Margot were made into a movie who would you like to play your characters?
My best friend (since kindergarten!) is an actress, and basically our whole lives, we’ve always talked about her playing one of the characters in my books when it’s made into a movie. So, that hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve already cast her in my mind for the role of Ilsa in Margot. She would be perfect!
The ups and downs of family relationships, especially between sisters, is at the heart of Margot. Was it easy or difficult to write about this?
I like exploring family relationships in my writing, especially sister relationships, so this is what I’m naturally drawn to, and for that reason I would say it wasn’t hard to write about. I’m really interested in family dynamics – and this finds its way into all my stories. What was difficult about writing about the sisters in Margot, is that Margot and Anne Frank were real people, and though this is fiction, I wanted to make sure that the portrait I created was sensitively done and stayed true what I learned about them, historically.
If you were not a writer, what would your dream job be?
Being a writer is my dream job! But if I had to pick something else, maybe a vet. I love animals (I have four cats). I’m not a big fan of blood though, so I don’t know how that would’ve worked out for me.
Jenny Milchman, the author of Cover of Snow, has a section of her blog devoted to “Made It Moments,” where she asks authors how did you know you had made it? So Jillian what was your “made it moment?” Have you had more than one?
I’m not sure that I’ve had a “made it moment” yet. Maybe when I sold my first novel in 2008, but it literally only lasted for a moment. Then I realized I had to worry about things like sales numbers and publicity, and still writing the next book (and selling that one too). I’ve had lots of great, exciting things happen along the way, but I’m always still always worrying about the next thing or the next step, and feeling like I need to continue to work hard on building my career.
One “made it moment” that I had recently was seeing an amazing review of MARGOT in O Magazine! People I’ve known for years (and who have known me as a writer for years) were suddenly seeing the review and texting and emailing me that I’ve “made it,” as a writer. It was very exciting; I bought a bunch of copies of the magazine, celebrated with a glass of wine, but then I woke up the next morning and got back to work on my next book.
What do you hope your readers take with them after reading Margot?
Well, first and foremost I hope they enjoy the book as a novel, but secondly that they think about the fact that there were two sisters living in the annex, that Margot was there (and deserves to be remembered too) and that she also kept a diary.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
I have a young adult novel coming out in 2014 from Bloomsbury called SEARCHING FOR SKY about a teenage girl who spent nearly her entire life on a deserted island – until she’s rescued and brought back to California only to learn her island life wasn’t the paradise she thought it was.
I’m working on a new adult novel, another historical book, but I can’t say much more about it other than that yet!
And because Jillian is so wonderful we are giving away a copy of Margot to one lucky reader! Just tell me why you want to read the book. Easy enough! One entry per person. US residents only. Deadline: Friday, September 27 by Midnight EST.