An Interview with Bryna Kranzler: Author & Freelance Writer
Sylvia: Hi Bryna, it is such a pleasure to interview you. Please give our readers a brief introduction of yourself and a little about your book.
Bryna: Sure Sylvia. I studied Playwriting at Barnard College (one of those very ‘practical’ majors), but received the Helen Price Memorial Prize for Dramatic Composition for a very short play I wrote as a class assignment. My first one-act play, “Do Hermaphrodites Reproduce Only in the Spring?” was a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Competition. It was scheduled for production twice: The first time, the theater owner died and the season was shut down. The second time the director committed suicide. For the benefit the arts community, I decided to get out of play writing. I also had to get a ‘real’ (read ‘paying’ job). In order to keep writing, I worked in public relations and marketing-related capacities in the health-care, high tech and consumer products industries. Somewhere within that time, I also earned my MBA from Yale University and had two boys, the first of whom I was pregnant with during business school. I wonder if that was why I always felt so nauseated during Tax class.
The Accidental Anarchist is the true story of Jacob Marateck, an Orthodox Jew who was sentenced to death 3 times in the early 1900s in Russia – and lived to tell about it. He also happened to have been my grandfather. The book is based on the diaries that he began keeping in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War. (That was when he decided that he needed to get involved with overthrowing Czar Nicholas II – which resulted in his 3rd death sentence, but from which he was reprieved through the intervention of a young girl). Although his sentence was commuted to 10 years of hard labor in Siberia followed by permanent exile, he escaped from Siberia and traveled 3000 miles – without food, money or legal papers – to find the young girl who had saved his life. Her name was Bryna, and it was for her that I was named. The Accidental Anarchist is my first published book. It recently won The USA “Best Books of 2011” Award for a Historical Biography, and was a finalist in ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year competition in the Biography category.
Sylvia: Deja Vu… It was rather eerie that each owner died right before your play went to production. Very smart not to pursue that career any further! So, what inspired you to write your first book?
Bryna: In a word: Guilt.
The Accidental Anarchist has been in the works for 105 years. My grandfather began keeping a diary in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. He wrote 300 pages (in between needing to drop his fountain pen and pick up a rifle, and throwing the pen and notebook into his rucksack and running from the Japanese!) during the war, but got distracted by being sentenced to death and Siberia. After he escaped from Siberia, it was clear that it wasn’t safe for him to be in Europe or Asia as he was wanted on both continents, so he fled to the U.S., where for many years he entertained people with his stories from the war, and tales of what it was like to live as a Jew at a time when anti-Semitism was the official government policy. Those facts aren’t amusing in themselves, but he had the remarkable ability to find wry humor even amidst poverty, starvation and the horrors of war. That sense of humor and optimism were what helped him to survive. Hearing his stories, people constantly urged him to write them down, and although he had always wanted to publish them, he never had the time. Until the depression. Then he sat down to write, and didn’t stop for 20 years. One evening in 1950 he felt he was done. By then he had filled 28 notebooks with stories of growing up in the Russian-occupied territories, being a Jew in the Russian army, and being sent to, and escaping from, Siberia. He asked my mother, who grew up hearing his stories, if she wanted to help him translate them into English (because he wrote in Yiddish). She was thrilled; they were going to begin the following afternoon. But he died that very night.
A few years later, my mother was dating my father, who became the first Orthodox writer in Hollywood. Hearing he was a writer, my grandmother whispered to my mother, “Show him Poppa’s diaries.” My father was fluent in Yiddish, too, having grown up in Germany, and he, too, was enthralled by the remarkable tone of the stories. After they married, my parents spent many years translating the diaries. It was a challenge to maintain my grandfather’s unique tone because Yiddish doesn’t translate very easily; it loses its flavor. But in 1976, they published stories from the first 12 of the 28 notebooks. My father had always intended to publish the remaining stories, but he, too, passed away before he was done. Then a few years ago, my mother, already in her 80s, made it clear that she wanted to see her father’s story told “in [her] lifetime.” I was then in an unending loop of editing a novel I had written, and thought it would be good to take a break from it. But I didn’t want to simply tell stories, or publish Part 2 to a Part 1 that had been published 35 years earlier. For people to appreciate the material, they needed to know what kind of person my grandfather was, what experiences informed his life. So I rewrote the first book to retain those character-forming experiences, and focused the narrative on the death sentences, since that was what had always interested people.
I didn’t let my mother read the book while I was working on it, but I was very gratified, when she read the completed draft, that she said it sounded exactly like her father. She hadn’t noticed what I had omitted, or even recognized my writing instead of her father’s as I took care to write in his voice. That was what made the diaries so remarkable (in addition to being an eyewitness account of a pivotal time in history).
Sylvia: Amazing that with so much time lapse before you were inspired to write the book (105 years) and to be able to interpret your grandfather’s life as he would have done it! I commend you Bryna! He would be very proud of you! Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Bryna: The book has a number of messages for the astute reader. One is that history repeats itself. We hear that a lot, but in this case you can see how the political, economic and social conditions that preceded the Russian Revolutions were the same as those in the countries that underwent revolution during the Arab Spring. Another is that hate is not a survival skill. As anti-Semitism was the law of the land, and it was perfectly routine to openly state one’s hatred of Jews and a concomitant desire to kill them, my grandfather was surrounded by enemies. And yes he never treated anyone with less than respect and honor, even after certain people had demonstrated that they were not worthy of such treatment. And yet he survived when many other people didn’t. While certain people may have wanted, and even attempted, to kill him at certain points, his humanity toward them often made them change their minds.
But the strongest message in the book comes from Jacob Marateck’s father’s 3 departing words to his son as he left for war: “Be a Jew.” Naturally, that can be taken literally, as in Maintain your identity. But I think the more important message is broader; it means: Be a mensch (translation: Be a good human being), because that is a prerequisite to being a good Jew, a good Christian, a good Muslim – a good any religion; you must be a good human being, first.
Sylvia: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Bryna: It’s not as easy as you might think this would be for me to say this, because I’ve had my share of disappointment, and even as well-received as this book has been, it is taking much longer than I could have expected to get my grandfather’s story the attention it deserves, but my advice is: Don’t Give Up. You don’t lose until you stop trying.
Sylvia: What marketing techniques have you used to sell your books and which ones have been most successful?
Bryna: I have done everything I could think of: encouraging independent bookstores to carry the book, getting involved in Social Media, and entering contests, even hiring a publicist. Ultimately, what works best for his book, because it could be perceived as very ‘niche-y’ (i.e., biography of a man whose name isn’t known; military history of the early 1900s; and what it was like to live as an Orthodox Jew, which is foreign to most people’s experiences, at a time when anti-Semitism was the law of the land), has been my going around and speaking about it, sharing the story behind the story, letting people hear about my grandfather’s remarkable experiences and the attitude that helped him to survive.
Sylvia: Why should we buy your book?
Bryna: The book has something for everyone: There’s Action (war), History (a time when the political powers in Europe were upended), Humor (a dark humor – the only kind that would have been appropriate under the circumstances), and a Love Story (my grandfather and the young girl who saved his life). It also provides perspective, and makes you realize how easy our lives are today; for example, being disappointed, depressed, or having existential crises are luxuries when you consider that even 100 years ago people spent all of their physical and mental energy just trying to survive from one day to the next.
Sylvia: Is there a special place that you prefer when you write?
Bryna: I have a home office, which at times is the worst place for me to work. That’s because when I reach a difficult part of my work, I tend to hear the laundry calling to me or dinner begging to be prepared. For a few years, I went to Starbucks or Panera every day because that was where I didn’t get distracted by those types of. I work in my office now because I need to use the printer a lot, but often I work on the dinette table, because although I do most of my work on the computer, I’m still a very visual and kinesthetic person and need to reach for things in different stacks that are laid out all around me. But every so often, I need to use the time I’d otherwise spend writing, organizing papers into files and throwing a lot of stuff away so I can see the surface of the table or my desk, again.
Sylvia: What is your POWER WORD? Why this word?
Bryna: My power word is Family. I completed this project to honor my grandfather, whom I never knew, and my mother, who spent 60 years carrying a torch for his dream. Family also refers to my children, who now know part of their history, and at least some of the people who preceded them and whose qualities they share. I also wanted my children to see that it was possible to tackle an enormous project, even working for several years without traditional gratification, and accomplish it.
Sylvia: I love your word. Family is so important… to be able to leave a historical legacy for your children and their future children and so on! Why do you think your grandfather began keeping a diary during the war?
Bryna: I’ve thought about that for a long time, and I think there are several reasons. One that he states in his diaries is that he had intended his notebook to go to his parents in the event that he was killed during the war, and writing about his personal feelings was a way of keeping them close to him, and giving them something of him if he didn’t make it home. But he was also documenting “the many ways in which the Czar had let down his own people,” which was what led him to the conclusion that he needed to get involved in overthrowing Czar Nicholas II (the last of the Romanov dynasty) in order to bring about a more just social order. So the incidents he documented could either be his way of thinking to himself about what he would do to set the world on a better path, or maybe he wanted to have these records for his defense (that was before he learned the hard way that a convicted man was not allowed to defend himself in the Russian legal system at the time).
Sylvia: What is your motto or philosophy of life?
Bryna: Leave everyone you meet a little better off than they were before you knew them.
Sylvia: Very nice motto! Bryna, I enjoyed our time together. Thank you! Now, where can my readers buy your book?
Bryna: My pleasure as well. My contact is as follows: