An Interview with Ruth Rotkowitz

Ruth Rotkowitz was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1949 to Jewish Holocaust survivors who fled Vienna, Austria when Hitler came to power. This legacy has informed her research and her writing. Her debut novel, Escaping the Whale is currently available on Amazon.

Q: Can you sum up Escaping the Whale in 20 words or less?

A daughter of Holocaust survivors, haunted by her legacy of inherited trauma, struggles to suppress her problems, paying a price.

Q: What motivated you to write this book?

The image of a young woman leading a double life came to me. I envisioned someone dealing with a slew of emotional problems resulting from her family’s experiences in Europe during the war. She would be someone trying to lead a normal life and appear normal to others, while concealing the inner demons that torment her. I knew immediately that my protagonist would be the child of Holocaust survivors, and I saw this story as an opportunity to explore the issues facing this second generation.

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Q: Did you draw any part of the story from real life?

Some of it. My main character works in a large urban high school, and I taught in such a place years ago. She works with pregnant students, and I tutored pregnant students on home instruction as well. I am also the daughter of survivors, and I have heard and read the stories of many, many survivors. I believe I absorbed these stories, to some degree. My novel takes place in 1980, and I vividly remember the powerful effect the Iran hostage crisis had on me and my peers, which is dealt with in the book. I also am familiar with the torment of mental illness, through personal experience and contacts.

Q: What was the most challenging part about writing this book?

When Marcia, my protagonist, begins to really go off the deep end, when the defenses she has used all along fail her and she faces a true mental breakdown, I found it very difficult and emotional to write that section. When it was done, however, I felt that I had climbed Mount Everest, so to speak.

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Q: Who was your favorite character to develop?

Since this is a character-driven story, my favorite character to develop would be Marcia, the protagonist. To me, she is a fascinating mixture of so many different impulses. I wanted her to grow and change, to come to a crucial realization about herself. She became very real to me. 

Q: What kind of feedback are you receiving on the book?

I am so gratified by the feedback I have been receiving, particularly because it is coming from a varied readership. Other children of Holocaust survivors tell me that they relate completely, which I expected. What came as a surprise has been the overwhelmingly positive response from readers with no personal connection to the Holocaust. I have heard from children of immigrants from various countries who have been trying to adapt to American life while feeling the pull of their family’s expectations. I have heard from people who have lived through or inherited from parents all types of traumas. I have heard from men who say it is not just a woman’s story, and from non-Jews who say it is not just a Jewish story. I have been told by readers who recall the Iranian hostage crisis that the novel brought back that period for them, and I have been told by younger readers who were not born yet in 1980 that they were really interested in learning about this event, and who compare it to our current preoccupation with news about the coronavirus.

The reactions have been amazing, and heartwarming.

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Q: What inspires you to write?

I am inspired by people. People who struggle to overcome obstacles, people who face all types of challenges, people who may seem to be happy and confident who are really miserable and frightened, people who have difficulty being true to themselves  — all people have a story, and there is something to be learned from anyone’s story.

Q: What are you hoping readers will take away from Escaping the Whale?

I hope readers will gain empathy for those who suffer, whether the suffering is physical or emotional. I hope they will recognize the far-reaching consequences of the horrors of the Holocaust. I hope they will realize that there should be no stigma to mental illness and anyone struggling with psychic pain must seek help. It is impossible and dangerous to try to conceal emotional pain. I also hope readers notice that symbolism I have employed in the novel draws on myth and folklore. Hopefully, this can open a window into an intriguing area of study, which can teach us so much about ourselves.

Q: What is on your current reading list?

I can’t wait to read The Wicked Sister by Karen Dionne. Her last novel, The Marsh King’s Daughter, which was considered a psychological thriller, was brilliant.

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Q: What is your next writing project?

I am working on a prequel to Escaping the Whale. Questions from readers about my protagonist’s early life have given me the idea that it would be interesting to see where her problems originated.

I have also been working on a novel about an installation artist. I am fascinated by installation art and I find it a really courageous undertaking. This young lady will fall prey to a dangerous obsession, and will have to deal with what it says about her and how she can handle the fallout.

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Q: Can you provide your web address and links to your social media profiles for the audience?

My website is www.ruthswhale.com and my Amazon Author page is: https://www.amazon/com/author/ruthrotkowitz

I can also be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Q: Any closing remarks?

This page contains affiliate links. This means for any purchase made, I receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

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