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A Stolen by Night Q&A 

By Deborah Kalb

Editor’s Note: Author and book blogger Deborah Kalb interviewed Pie & Chai editor Steve Watkins recently about his newest historical novel, Stolen by Night, published by Scholastic in November 2023, a story about teenagers in the Resistance in occupied Paris during World War II. You can read the interview on Deborah’s popular blog site, which features dozens of posts with contemporary authors discussing their new publications: Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb. You can also read Steve’s interview with Deborah about Stolen by Night here:

What inspired you to write Stolen by Night, and how did you create your character Nicolette?

One of the inspirations was our two youngest daughters’ involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. They were out marching and sitting in and protesting shortly after it was discovered that police had murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis—less than a mile from where one of their older sisters was living at the time. And they kept it up for months as they and others across the country sought to change the national consciousness about police violence and racial inequality in America. Our daughters, then teenagers, were willing to put themselves in harm’s way—with hundreds of other young people in our town—in their principled and passionate stand for racial and social justice. They twice just missed being tear-gassed by local police in military-style riot gear. Many of their fellow protesters weren’t as fortunate. A couple of their friends were arrested. A number were doxed and harassed—two of them on national TV, on The Tucker Carlson Show, after which they had to go into hiding due to anonymous threats until the false criminal charges against them were dismissed. (The woman who brought the false charges, and was sympathetically interviewed on Tucker Carlson, went on to be elected to the Virginia State Senate.) 

At the time, I was reading Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter, about the 230 women in the French Resistance who were captured during World War II and sent to death camps. Only 49 of them survived. All were broken in one way or another. All who lived credited friendships with their fellow prisoners for sustaining them through the horrors of the women’s camps at Ravensbrück and Birkenau. The men in the Resistance who were captured—those who weren’t tortured and killed outright—were sent to Natzweiler-Struthof, the only German SS-run concentration camp on what is now French soil. This is where Nicolette in Stolen by Night is sent by mistake and where she is both an abused prisoner and, in some small but lifesaving ways, an insulated observer. There, the friendships she forms and the fragile but enduring solidarity with the other prisoners sustain her. Like Nicolette, many of the Resistance figures, men and women, especially in occupied Paris, were young, often just teenagers. Their sacrifices went far beyond those of most of the young people involved in the BLM actions, but it struck me as I read more about the Resistance, and as I brought water and other supplies for my daughters and their friends at lengthy BLM protests, that teenagers in both movements were motivated by a similar spirit, one I wanted to explore, and honor, in Stolen by Night

How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

I started out by reading Ronald Rosbottom’s important historical account When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944, and Nikolaus Wachsmann’s definitive study KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. In addition to two histories of the French Resistance by Caroline Moorehead—A Train in Winter and Village of Secrets—I read a number of memoirs by concentration camp survivors, most importantly Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After, Boris Pahor’s Necropolis, and Jacques Lusseyran’s And There Was Light. I read excerpts from Nuremberg trial transcripts and the original liberation report on KL-Natzweiler-Struthof, which I also transcribed, and about which I wrote a long article for Pie & Chai Magazine. That, of course, was just the beginning of my research, as I also spent considerable time reading any number of other online posts, magazine articles, reports, and other accounts of Paris in the 1940s, the Resistance, clothes, modes of transportation, food, architecture, the Paris Catacombs, the history of bicycle racing, the fate of Jews in occupied France…. 

What surprised me the most, I suppose, but really shouldn’t have, was how docile, cooperative, even collaborationist most French people were under German occupation. Also the degree to which antisemitism ran among the French, and how when the order came to round up Jews living in Paris to be sent to the death camps, the German occupiers didn’t have to lift a finger. The French, who had their own system of internment camps for “undesirables,” were happy to do it themselves. Though these historical truths run counter to deeply held myths about the French Resistance, I was nonetheless determined in writing Stolen by Night not to romanticize in any way the very real, and terrible, sacrifices of those who actually did put their lives on the line for the cause of liberation. 

Too often in books about the Holocaust and the concentration camps—especially in books for young readers—authors look for ways to elide hard truths and sidestep awful details. Writer Ruth Franklin talked about this a few years ago in The New Yorker. Many writers use dreams. Time travel. Multiverses. Ahistorical plots. But in exploring the character of Nicolette, I felt it was important to keep in mind this haunting line from Charlotte Delbo’s concentration camp memoir: “Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive…. I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.” Yet Delbo was still alive after surviving Auschwitz. Not just physically, but through her indomitable spirit, giving witness in her memoirs to the horrors she endured, and witnessed, and refused to let herself and others ever forget. This is the struggle for the fictional Nicolette as well: to survive, and to bear unwavering witness. And perhaps it’s why I was recently uninvited from giving a series of author talks about Stolen by Night at a school in Richmond, Virginia, that had already purchased copies of my book for all their advanced eighth-grade history students. Some of the teachers—possibly after complaints by some parents—said they found the story “too disturbing.” 

Another surprise that perhaps shouldn’t have been. But so be it.

In our previous Q&A, about your novel On Blood Road, you said you weren’t sure how the novel would end before you started writing it—was that also the case with Stolen by Night?

Strangely, no. Without giving too much away, I knew from the outset that Nicolette would survive Natzweiler, and that she would make her way to Strasbourg to find the anatomy lab of the notorious August Hirt at the Nazi-run Reich University. I knew that the Allies would be bombing the city in advance of the liberation forces, and that when Nicolette finds Hirt’s opulent home, it would already have been destroyed. And I knew that the bicycles that are central to the beginning of Nicolette’s story would play an important role in the end. 

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Reinforcement for what I hope and pray they already have: a deep and abiding sense of personal responsibility, and agency, to save the world from the dark forces that threaten us all.

What are you working on now?

I have two more books coming out this year. The Mine Wars: The Bloody Fight for Workers’ Rights in the West Virginia Coal Fields is a nonfiction account of the largest armed insurrection in America since the Civil War—a vitally important but mostly buried chapter of America’s labor history. That’s being published by Bloomsbury Press in May 2024. Then in November, Scholastic is publishing another historical novel of mine, Wolves at the Door, about the Wolfskinder, tens of thousands of children orphaned or abandoned at the end of World War II when the Red Army invaded the northern German state of East Prussia, which no longer exists. Many of these Wolfskinder, or wolf children, were forced to live feral existences in the forests of East Prussia and neighboring Lithuania, scavenging, begging, and stealing. The lucky ones assimilated into Lithuanian families—but others were killed outright or caught and sent deep into the Soviet Union to work camps, or to orphanages in Communist East Germany. Wolves at the Door explores this forgotten story through two young sisters, Asta and Pieta, and the children who band together with them in their struggle to survive. 

With my wife, Janet, I’m also editor of and regular contributor to Pie & Chai Magazine, for which I’ve researched and written dozens of articles and long-form personal essays over the past year and a half, including It Could Have Happened Here, The Beavers of Accokeek Creek, The Far Right Spammers of Falmouth Bottom, How to 1971-72 Underground High School Newspaper, and an India memoir, A Land of the Living

Anything else we should know?

Yes! I’m helping organize the Virginia chapter of a national organization of published writers, Authors Against Book Banning, and we’re here to help schools and libraries and teachers and students and librarians and administrators and whoever else is standing up to oppose this wave of book banning and mindless restrictions on reading that has been sweeping across America in recent years. Feel free to get in touch. You can email me at swatkins000@gmail.com. (That’s three zeroes, btw.) And thanks!

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Deborah Kalb is a freelance writer and editor. She spent two decades as a journalist in Washington, D.C., for news organizations including Gannett News Service, Congressional Quarterly, U.S. News & World Report, and The Hill, mostly covering Congress and politics. Her book blog, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, which she started in 2012, features hundreds of author interviews. She is the author of the novel Off to Join the Circus (Apprentice House, 2023), and three novels for kids, Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat (Schiffer, 2020), John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead (Schiffer, 2018), and George Washington and the Magic Hat (Schiffer, 2016)—and she’s the co-author, with her father, Marvin Kalb, of Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama (Brookings, 2011). Her author website is https://www.deborahkalb.com/.