When I write, character comes first. This time though, two people came into my head and demanded to be in the same novel. I wasn’t sure why: one was Lauren Miller, a woman in her late 20s from New York, a reporter who hasn’t exactly made it to the top of the journalistic heap; she works for the Jewish News, or, as she reverently calls it, Jew New. The other is FBI Special Agent Charlie Blair from Wyoming. Somehow, these two individuals had to be connected, and not just by meeting and falling in love.
Right around then, I was musing about politics — as I do on occasion. Early in my career, I had done some political speech writing, mostly for Brooklyn and Bronx guys who wanted to sound like JFK. Years later, after I’d become a novelist, I ran into an old pol who asked me what I was doing. I said I was writing fiction. “Hey Sue,” he enthused, “no kidding. You went legit!” I guess so, but I never lost my interest in politics and how government works.
And what doesn’t work: I was too young to be tuned in to what was happening during the McCarthy Era. My only memories are seeing Senator McCarthy standing before a bank of microphones and yapping about something; I thought, Who wants to hear this creep? He’s mean and acting weird. (Later I would learn that that particular kind of weirdness is called “drunk,” which indeed was a condition the honorable gentleman from Wisconsin knew well.) Besides that, I remember my wonderful, savvy Grandma Rosie saying “We don’t like him.” Somehow, I understood “We” were Jews and that somehow this guy was a threat to us and to America.
We? Where did my assimilated family, with our Easter egg dying and family Christmas parties, fit in to America? Well, I did have a more traditional grandmother. Grandma Eva was the chicken soup-making type, though not good chicken soup… imagine salt water with a slight poultry flavor. But in my house, our only religious rule was no slacks on Yom Kippur.
As I got older, the “where do we fit in” question grew into a larger “we.” I grew up in Brooklyn with kids from Irish and Italian and African-American families. What did all of us have to do with the Dick and Jane USA we read about? We all loved this country. We fought for it. As far as my own family went during World War II, my father worked with the Corps of Engineers on US harbor defenses. His brother was a bomber pilot who flew missions over Germany. Grandma Eva’s grandson Teddy was a medic killed in the Battle of the Bulge while trying to save another soldier’s life.
The question arose again when I was an adult. I took my 80-year-old uncle into my backyard to show him my cutting garden and he said, in a mock Yiddish accent, “Oy, a farm.” Later, it got me thinking about how did we, how did all of us coming to America with nothing, get from there to here? All of us: whether your ancestors came on the Mayflower or your parents arrived on a 727. I wanted to understand the process.
I was also thinking about domestic terrorism, like the bombing in Oklahoma City. Being from New York, I naturally celebrate diversity, but I was wondering what do all of us as Americans have in common?
Lauren Miller of the Jewish News wants to understand the thinking of the radical right, the anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic types who don’t believe people like her belong in this country. FBI agent Charlie Blair isn’t interested in understanding as much as in seeing if any federal laws are being broken. He goes undercover, joining the very group in Wyoming that Lauren is investigating. But I wasn’t only interested in their present; I wanted to see where they came from. I felt that in the process of becoming Americans, we’ve lost so much of our history. Most of us don’t have a clue as to the texture of our grandparents or great-grandparents lives.
I knew I could write an intelligence adventure story. I’d done that with Shining Through. But I needed history to give this story meaning. Although they didn’t know it, my New York reporter and my Wyoming FBI agent came from the same root: they are the great-grandchildren of Herschel Blaustein and Dora Schottland, two immigrants who met on a boat on the way to America. What happened after that…well, that’s the novel.