An exclusive Authorlink interview¬†with Kay Gill, Author¬†of Mirel’s Daughter¬†(Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2006)
by Ellen Birkett Morris, August 2006
Every once in a while a writer encounters a story so compelling that he or she is driven to capture it on the page. Such was the case for freelance writer Kay Gill when she finally heard the full story of her mother’s turbulent past during the pogroms against the Jews following World War I in the Ukraine.
The result is Mirel’s Daughter (Fleur-de-Lis Press), a fictionalized account of her mother’s remarkable escape as a young girl from the Ukraine to America after the Russian Revolution. Gill tells the age old story of man’s inhumanity to man in a fresh, compelling way.
“I’d heard (parts of) the story from the time I was little. The story was measured against my age and ability to absorb what was going on,” said Gill.
Gill pursued her love of story through an interest in journalism, earning a Journalism/English degree from Indiana University. As a freelance writer she co-authored two books, The Brown Hotel and Louisville’s Magic Corner, and Kentucky Center for the Arts: Opening Night.
She would return to her mother’s story over time. Each time her mother revealed a bit¬†more about her childhood.
When her mother was in her early 70s, visiting for Thanksgiving, she shared the entire story, including the verbal and physical abuse that she endured at the hands of bandits.
While many of the details of everyday life had fallen away, her mother had vivid memories of “the bad stuff.”
Gill wanted to write the story in memoir form but her journalistic training, which called for a strict adherence to the facts, and her desire for immediacy led her to consider writing a fictionalized account of her mother’s experience.
This form allowed her to put events in historical context, fill in missing details and present the story in a dramatic way.
Gill began her journey as a fiction writer by¬†signing up for a series of creative writing¬†classes taught by Sena Jeter Naslund, now¬†famous for her groundbreaking novel Ahab’s Wife.
She immersed herself in research to discover the climate, plant and animal life and customs of a Ukrainian village in the years after World War I.
Gill educated herself on the conflict between the Bolsheviks, Ukrainian Nationalists, and die-hard Tsarists.
She did most of her research in Louisville, but also visited the Institute for Jewish Research, The New York Public Library, and Spertus College of Judaica, among other libraries.
She had to sort out accounts of that period in history, since they varied widely depending on whether they were offered by Jewish and non-Jewish historians.
She connected with her mother’s history when she was perusing a two volume history of the Ukraine that mentioned an unseasonable snow storm that stopped the advance of the Bolsheviks as they marched¬†toward the White Army. Her mother had mentioned the snow. The line separating the troops went straight through her mother’s village of Brusilov.
“When writing I had to put myself there. I’d ask myself, what would I feel? What would I see? I imagined being ordered to take my clothes off and roll in the snow. I would sit there writing and crying,” said Gill.
While at times gut-wrenching, Mirel’s Daughter is a story of triumph and a celebration of the haven and promised land that America was for many immigrants in the early Twentieth Century.
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. ¬†Ellen is a regular¬†contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.