Lilac Girls Live On
It’s one thing to write a first novel and to have it published. It is quite another to have it become an instant bestseller. But that is what happened to Martha Hall Kelly and Lilac Girls, a historical novel based on the true story of Polish women imprisoned at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp during World War II and how Caroline Ferriday, an American philanthropist and former actress rescued them. And it all began with an article in Victoria Magazine.
“I read an article on Caroline Ferriday in the May 1999 issue of the magazine,” explains Kelly, “and I carried it around with me for months, not knowing it would lead to my writing a novel about her. Not only did she save this group of women from Hitler but she also had a fascinating career and had lived in Connecticut where she and her mother had created these amazing gardens. I finally drove from Fairfield, where I was living at the time, to Bethlehem to visit Bellamy-Ferriday House.”
It was Caroline’s father who had purchased this property in 1912 and it was Caroline and her mother who designed the glorious gardens that attract countless visitors during the spring and summer months. While many know Caroline’s backstory and her interest in politics that led her to securing help for the survivors of Hitler’s concentration camp, it was Kelly’s novel that brought about a renewed interest in this remarkable woman.
After touring the house and gardens, seeing Caroline’s bedroom and desk as well as those magnificent gardens, Kelly knew she had to learn everything she could about Ferriday. She traveled to Warsaw and Berlin and recreated the original route to Ravensbrook that those remarkable women had traveled. It then was just a matter of settling in to write it all down. It took Kelly five years to complete Lilac Girls, but it was worth the wait. While it may be categorized as fiction, these were real women and what they experienced captures the reader’s imagination. The book is impossible to forget.
And that is why Kelly has just recently finished the first draft of a prequel to Lilac Girls, entitled The Last Roses, which will be published in spring 2019 and, following that, a prequel to the prequel.
“I had done so much research for Lilac Girls and I didn’t want to lose these characters,” says Kelly. “Readers seemed to love Eliza, Caroline’s mother, so I decided that she would be the main character this time. I write about how it all began, when Eliza and her husband went to Connecticut and bought The Hay, the original name of the house. Eliza Ferriday was very involved in World War I and helped rescue White Russian women from St Petersburg who had lost everything. And during my research I discovered that Caroline’s aunt was a nurse on the battlefield of the Civil War. So, these amazing women from one family and different generations were all involved in major wars.”
Having been through the process once, has it been easier for Kelly to write the prequel?
“Before I wrote Lilac Girls I had read every book about how to write a novel,” Kelly says. “But I didn’t write an outline, I just started writing. That book spans about 10 years and I had to throw a lot of things out. I’m walking a fine line between telling a story based on fact and building a world of fiction around it.
“My rule of thumb was if something is true, I tried to use it. It starts with the germ of an idea or a fact and it grows. I try to imagine what a conversation would be like between two characters. If I find it difficult to write the dialogue, I take that as a sign it’s not a good scene. If I feel it’s not interesting enough, I think the reader will feel the same way. So out it goes.”
Kelly has had an amazing amount of press for Lilac Girls. The paperback edition has been on the bestseller list since its publication last spring. Her characters have so resonated with readers she has traveled the country, given countless talks and book signings and is a consummate storyteller.
Kelly and her family moved from Atlanta to Litchfield about a year ago and she is thrilled to be part of New England again. She has given several talks at Bellamy-Ferriday and has conducted tours of the gardens.
“When I first toured the gardens and discovered there was no book about Caroline I decided I would write about her. On that day I left her house with a lilac plant in my trunk, barely more than a stick, purchased from the small group of plants at the house. Eliza had started the tradition of offering cuttings to anyone who wanted to propagate their plants. That lilac is a full-grown shrub now—it took that long to write the story—but I’m glad I did.”
Kelly will be guest speaker at the Women’s Forum of Litchfield on Thursday, May 3rd, at 2:30PM at the Litchfield Community Center.