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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, Barbara Sommer Feigin shares how her family’s escape from Nazi Germany inspired her to write My American Dream: A Journey from Fascism to Freedom.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Barbara Sommer Feigin about her life and career, why she wanted to write about her family’s escape from Nazi Germany in her new book, My American Dream: A Journey from Fascism to Freedom, and her creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m a refugee who escaped from Nazi Germany in July of 1940, at the onset of World War II, with my Jewish father and Lutheran mother on a terrifying seventeen-day train trip from Berlin to Yokohama, Japan, and then across the Pacific to Seattle.
I grew up in a tiny town in southwest Washington State, yearning to become an “authentic” American girl. I graduated from Whitman College before completing a graduate program in business administration run by the Harvard Business School and Radcliffe Graduate School. I went on to find success in a completely male-dominated business—advertising—shattering glass ceilings when career building opportunities for women were virtually non-existent.
During my thirty-year career as a senior executive at Grey Advertising (now Grey Global Group) and my years as a corporate director, I was more often than not the only woman in the room. My husband, Jim, and I built a strong, loving family of three sons, including identical twins.
Our world came crashing down when Jim had two very serious strokes when he was quite young. For the next twenty-five years, I was his caregiver-in-chief. I currently live in New York City.
When did you first want to write a book?
When I was in my 70’s, my sister called me one day to tell me she had found a journal my father had kept, chronicling our family’s escape from Nazi Germany. I’d known, of course, that we’d escaped, but I knew nothing about the escape itself—none of the horrifying details. My parents never spoke of it, they never mentioned the journal, and I remembered nothing. There had been a gaping hole in my family’s history, and my father’s journal has helped to fill it.
Reading this journal was emotionally overwhelming for me. I learned so much about my parents that I’d never known. This was the impetus for me to write my own story. I wanted my children, their children, and generations to come never to be as ignorant of what had come before them as I had been.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I knew after reading my father’s journal that I needed to write my own story, but never having done any creative writing before, I had no idea how to start. I got some advice from a cousin of my husband, acclaimed author, Susan Reiger. She suggested I get a coach, and within several months, I started working with Keith Meatto, a teacher of creative writing. Keith and I worked together, doing three-hour transcribed interviews once a week for three months along with homework assignments, in what Keith termed the “generative phase” of my project.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to the release?
About two years or so.
What made you want to write My American Dream?
My priority in writing my story was to ensure my children, their children, and generations to come know what came before them. Beyond that, I hoped to inspire others to dream big, work hard, and never quit.
What were your biggest challenges in writing My American Dream?
Getting started! I was also challenged by determining the structure of the story, since it includes the full text of my father’s journal in his own words and the three intertwined narratives of my own life: a German-speaking refugee girl in a small town, yearning to become an authentic American; a trailblazing executive in a male-dominated business—advertising; and a loving wife and mom who was caregiver-in-chief for her husband after he’d had two serious strokes.
What was your research process for My American Dream?
I did many interviews/conversations with people from every phase of my life: my sister and others in my family, high school and college classmates, colleagues from my business life, and friends. I also visited and toured the town where I’d grown up, touring the house where my family had lived and the grade school and high school I’d attended.
How did you plan the structure of My American Dream?
This was the most challenging issue for me. I got excellent help from two developmental editors, Candace Walsh and Gayle Kretchmer.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did My American Dream need?
Yes, I got excellent help with structure and flow from both Candace and Gayle. Also, Gayle has an almost musical sensibility as it relates to rhythm and word “melody.” She raised my consciousness greatly about how to think of these aspects of my writing. My manuscript required only modest editing once the structure was determined.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
First comes the idea. Think long and hard about what your idea is, and then get help from the most talented, experienced, enthusiastic professionals possible who can help you make the dream of your book a reality.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Not at the moment!
Are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
A resounding YES . . . and YES!!
My website: www.barbarafeigin.com
Amazon: My American Dream: A Journey from Fascism to Freedom: Feigin, Barbara Sommer: 9798988626114:
B&N: My American Dream: A Journey from Fascism to Freedom: Feigin, Barbara Sommer: 9788988626114: barnesandnoble.com/book
Bookshop.org (supports independent booksellers): My American Dream: A Journey from Fascism to Freedom a book by Barbara Sommer Feigin: bookshop.org
Thriftbooks: My American Dream: A Journey from Fascism to Freedom a book by Barbara Sommer Feigin: thriftbooks.com
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