In Conversation with Jillian Cantor and Georgia Hunter

The authors of The Lost Letter and We Were the Lucky Ones on the intricacies of writing historical fiction.

One of my absolute favorite genres to read is historical fiction. I loved being transported to a different time and place and I enjoy combining learning something new with falling in love with fictional characters. But I have often wondered if the rigidity of having to maintain historical accuracy impinges on an author’s creativity as they write. I asked two of my favorite historical fiction authors, Jillian Cantor and Georgia Hunter, to spill the details. Jillian Cantor is the author of Margot, The Hours Count and most recently, The Lost Letter, a sweeping tale of nlove and survival inspired by real resistance workers during World War II Austria, and the mysterious love letter that connects generations of Jewish families. Georgia Hunter is the author of We Were the Lucky Ones, a propulsive novel based on the true story of a family of Polish Jews (her family!) who are separated at the start of the Second World War, but are determined to survive—and to reunite. Read on for their thoughts on their craft and the historical fiction they love to read.

Read it Forward: How is writing historical fiction more limiting than writing modern-day fiction? How is it more freeing?

Georgia Hunter: I’ve only written historical fiction (and I must admit I’ve always been intimidated by the thought of crafting purely imaginative, modern-day fiction!), but from my experience with We Were the Lucky Ones, I’d say basing a story on history, despite the inordinate amount of research required, is quite freeing. For one thing, history itself can provide more dramatic narratives than even the most imaginative writer could ever dream up. And since the events actually happened, you don’t have to ask readers to suspend disbelief of your factual backdrop. In my case, laying the WWII/Holocaust framework gave me a solid structure on which to build my narrative, and also the freedom to focus on the more human and emotional aspects of my story, such as what my characters were thinking, feeling, and saying.

Jillian Cantor: I’ve written both. And I’d agree with Georgia, in that the real events in The Lost Letter (the Anschluss in Austria, Kristallnacht, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) helped me have the structure to build my story with fictional characters. I got to explore the way fictional people were impacted by these real events, which also allowed me to focus on the human and emotional aspects of the story, so that was very freeing. One way I find historical fiction a little more limiting is in always trying to stay true to the times and places where my characters live. Communication is sometimes the hardest for me to write (and most different) to write than in modern-day fiction. No cell phones (or sometimes any phones)! No email! So, I do sometimes feel like I’m maneuvering my characters around the constraints of their time.

Get recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.

RIF: What are some of your favorite eras to explore in your work? Why?

GH: As a third-generation Holocaust survivor, I’m especially drawn to the WWII era. Part of my fascination with it comes from the fact that I didn’t know I was a quarter Jewish, or that I came from a family of Holocaust survivors until I was fifteen. Discovering this piece of my not-so-distant ancestral past at such a late age sparked an intense curiosity and a thirst for answers that later drove me to dive into my research. I wrote We Were the Lucky Ones to honor my relatives, and also to ensure that my children (and their children, and so on) would understand and appreciate not only our shared ancestry but also the era itself—an era that for many, sadly, will soon feel like ancient history.

JC: I’m also drawn to WWII, and the aftermath, and what I was drawn to in The Lost Letter, in particular, was the resistance movement. I’m interested in how ordinary people reacted in such extraordinary times and also how these people risked their lives to do what they knew was right and to save others. I also think what happened in those years is always relevant and important to continue to read and write about. The Lost Letter also takes place in the 1980s which I found really fun on a historical fiction level because it’s technically historical but it’s the first “historical time” I wrote about where I was also alive during that time. It was fun to revisit what I remembered (answering machines, no caller ID!) but also to do research to learn more about things I didn’t remember or understand at the time, like the fall of The Berlin Wall, for instance, which I remember happening but didn’t really quite get all the political implications at the time.

RIF: Why do you think historical fiction appeals to readers?

GH: One of the reasons I think historical fiction is so popular is that it offers readers a deeper understanding of a time or event with which they might be only superficially familiar. I know for me, stepping into my ancestors’ shoes to experience the Holocaust through their eyes brought a whole new meaning to what I thought I knew about the era. It’s rewarding, I think, for readers to pick up a book that reads like fiction, but that illuminates a chapter in history in a way that resonates on a visceral, personal level.

JC: I agree—that it makes history feel personal and gives readers a visceral way to experience it. I also think it gives readers a chance to see people just like them living in and experiencing another time. That’s why it appeals to me as both a reader and a writer—I like seeing and thinking about how women like me (mothers, sisters, wives, daughters) were living in and being affected by different times.

RIF: What are four of your favorite historical fiction novels?

GH: Tough question! I’d say my fallback favorites are The Invisible Bridge by Julia Orringer, City of Thieves by David Benioff, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. These authors are masters at the art of bringing their characters to life and crafting captivating storylines in ways a reader will never forget, and their books were all major inspirations behind my own work. My most recent historical fiction read was actually Jillian’s new novel—and I knew from the moment I picked it up it would be a favorite as well. I devoured The Lost Letter in a matter of days, staying up far too late to finish it (telling in itself, as I was at the tail end of a pregnancy and a book tour at the time, and thus utterly spent!). I was bowled over by how skillfully Jillian managed to turn an obscure area of expertise (philately!) into an intriguing and very personal story of resistance.

JC: This is a tough question! I love historical novels that transport me and really make me feel like I’m in that time. So I’m going to say Georgia’s novel, We Were the Lucky Ones first. I got to read an early copy, and it is has stayed with me a year later—I’ve been telling everyone to read it because the writing is extraordinary and the story is emotional and beautiful and important. Pam Jenoff’s The Orphan’s Tale is the most recent historical novel that I’ve read and loved. She’s a master of historical detail, and her women main characters really come alive. Two other favorites that I read less recently but I continue to think about are Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things and Cynthia Swanson’s The Booksellertwo books I remember being completely swept away by and read in one sitting.

RIF: Tell us about your research process.

GH: My research for We Were the Lucky Ones began with a series of interviews. I flew to Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and across the States to visit with relatives and collect oral histories. Where there were holes in my family’s narrative, I reached out to museums, magistrates, and archives around the world—any organization that I hoped might be able to shed light on the Kurc family’s story. I was amazed at how many records I was able to find. The “bones” of We Were the Lucky Ones first took shape in the form of a timeline, which I color-coded by sibling and surrounded with historical context. As my manuscript came to life, I traveled through Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy, retracing my family’s footsteps, and trying my best to see the world around me as my ancestors might have, seventy-five years before.

JC: Georgia, this sounds amazing! My research process usually comes in stages. I’ll do an initial large research stage before I write a draft as I figure out the plot and the characters. Then I’ll do some smaller detail-oriented research as I’m drafting (but I do leave some blanks), and then I do another large research stage before and as I revise. My research for The Lost Letter was much closer to home than Georgia’s. I first started with the idea that I was going to write a book about a stamp engraver who used stamps to send secret messages, and I began at the Postal History Museum and library near my home in Tucson, where I spent a day talking to the librarians and pouring through books and articles they brought me about stamp collecting and engraving. I also visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. around that time and spent a while walking through their resistance exhibit. Both of these trips became the inspiration for Elena and Kristoff and the Fabers in the novel. I do a lot of internet research as well and read newspaper archives from the times I’m writing in, hunt down magazines from those eras, and watch movies and read books made about and written in those times. I also make a secret Pinterest board when I’m working, filled with images and links relevant to the time as I’m writing. It’s a really visual way for me to “see” the time and I refer back to it a lot as I write.

RIF: What do you want readers to take away from your books?

GH: The Holocaust is a difficult subject to digest, especially when presented with such vast numbers—how do you wrap your head around the idea of six million Jews, an entire population, annihilated? I hope that by telling my story through one family—my family—I might offer readers a deeply human and personal perspective on what it meant to be a young Polish Jew on the run in Nazi-occupied Europe. I hope, too, that my book—the culmination of years of research—might inspire a few readers to embark on their own ancestry searches, and perhaps learn something about their roots, maybe even about themselves.

JC: First and foremost, I hope they enjoy it as a good story. But also I hope they fall in love with the characters and the history the way I did when I was writing it, that they get a new understanding of the times and places where my characters lived. And that when they’re finished reading, maybe they’re even inspired to look up some of the real histories behind my stories.

JILLIAN CANTOR has a BA in English from Penn State University and an MFA from the University of Arizona. She is the author of award-winning novels for teens and adults, including, most recently, the critically acclaimed The Hours Count and Margot, which was a Library Reads pick. Born and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, Cantor currently lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons.

GEORGIA HUNTER was fifteen years old when she learned that she came from a family of Holocaust survivors. We Were the Lucky Ones was born of her quest to uncover her family’s staggering history. Hunter’s website,, offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the extensive research this project has entailed. She lives in Connecticut.

Jillian Cantor Author Photo: © Alan Cantor; Georgia Hunter Author Photo: © Andrea Carson

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

[email_signup id="4"]