Martha Hall Kelly Follows Success of 'Lilac Girls' with 'Lost Roses'

Posted by Cybil on April 1, 2019
Martha Hall Kelly had never written fiction before she penned her 2016 bestselling debut, Lilac Girls, a historical novel inspired by the true story of New York socialite Caroline Ferriday’s fight to help the Nazi concentration camp survivors known as the "Ravensbrück Rabbits." But even before its publication, the New England native knew she had to continue writing about the characters she’d come to know and love and was hard at work on a second novel.

That book, Lost Roses, the first of two prequels to Lilac Girls, tells the story of Caroline’s mother, Eliza Ferriday, who fought to save a group of Russian aristocrats fleeing the brutality of the Bolsheviks during World War I. Like Lilac Girls, the novel focuses on three women from vastly differing worlds: Eliza; Sofya Streshnayvas, Eliza’s friend and a wealthy relative of tsar Nicholas II; and Varinka, a Russian peasant who cares for Sofya’s son. Their stories intersect amid the violent tumult of revolution and war, displacement, love, and loss. A young Caroline is also in the book, along with her father, Henry.

As with Lilac Girls, Lost Roses required meticulous research that took Kelly to Russia, Paris, and the Ferridays’ homes in New York and Connecticut. Kelly talked to Goodreads contributor Catherine Elsworth about the women at the heart of Lost Roses, history from a female perspective, and the second Civil War–set prequel she’s working on now.

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Goodreads: At what point did you know you wanted to write a book about Caroline’s mother, Eliza? Was it while you were still working on Lilac Girls?

Martha Hall Kelly: I had never written anything before Lilac Girls except advertising. I wrote commercials and print ads. But when I started writing the novel, I just loved it and knew I wanted to keep doing it somehow. I thought this would be a really good way to keep writing about this family, because I had already done so much research. And then I considered it a sign when I found an old newspaper clipping in a drawer at Caroline Ferriday’s house in Connecticut [the Bellamy-Ferriday house in Bethlehem where Kelly was originally inspired to write Lilac Girls and conducted so much research that "just going into that house now, I really feel her. It's incredible"]. I was at a photo shoot for Lilac Girls, sitting at Caroline's desk. I just happened to open one of her drawers, and there was a very old newspaper clipping in there—Caroline kept everything, which was really great for me as a researcher. It was a photo of Caroline holding a doll, she was maybe 16, and wearing a kokoshnik, the traditional Russian jeweled headdress.

The article was about her mother, Eliza Ferriday, and how she was helping women émigrés who had escaped Russia. She had turned her beautiful Manhattan apartment into a permanent bazaar to sell Russian handmade goods brought over from Paris. So I just thought, Wow, the mom was really instrumental in being such a great role model for Caroline, and I wanted to show that.

Also, after I finished Lilac Girls—and back then I had no idea if anyone would even read it—someone told me you should always just start writing your next book right away because otherwise you're going to just wait around being nervous. So that's what I did. I started writing it almost a year before Lilac Girls came out. And I think that was really good advice because it not only helped me write the next book, but it took my mind off waiting for my first book to come out.

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GR: So you started with Eliza. How did you develop the characters of Sofya and Varinka?

MHK: I knew I wanted a bridge to Russia, and I wanted to invent one of the émigrés that Eliza had worked with. During my research, I came across one woman, Countess Edith Sollohub, who I just could not stop reading about. She was so interesting, down to earth, and so lovely, and I thought, OK, I'm going to base Sofya on her. I just fell in love with her. And that's what seems to happen with my characters. If I love them, I feel like my readers will, too.

Also, I felt I had to go to the setting, just as I had with Lilac Girls, because when I went to Ravensbrück and to Germany and Poland, it made the story come alive. So when my husband and I went to Russia, it really helped me. Because of Sofya being a cousin to the tsar, I had to go to all the palaces, and that was really interesting. But I also had Varinka, who is a peasant, because I wanted to show both sides of the story, and so I did a lot of traveling to rural parts of Russia, which was interesting, too.

GR: Do you think your Eliza is like the real Eliza?

MHK: I don't know. It's hard. With novels, you just cannot be boring. I tried to stay with what I picked up from letters and pictures—just the funniest little odds and ends can give you a real clue to what someone is like.

I have to be a real detective when I'm writing, almost an archaeologist, finding these little hints and clues everywhere. So I do feel like I stayed very true to the facts with Eliza, but also gave her my own [sense] of what I hoped she was like. A bit of a bohemian streak and a lot of fun. I knew she loved to travel, I knew she was the driving force behind Caroline's career as an actress in theater, so she loved theater and had many friends in the theater. So from that I gave her personality.

GR: How do you manage the interplay of fact and fiction in your novels, building your story around actual events?

MHK: I love having real events to work with. It just gives you something to hang their clothes on. Basically, I just dive into the period first and once I feel like I can walk around in that world and live and breathe and see things, only then do I feel like I can start writing about it.

I like to go with the truth first, that's my rule. Because I think the truth is so much more interesting than anything that I can make up, and you feel it on the page if it's real like that. But if I do run up against something that isn't right for my story and I have to invent something or embroider it, I feel like I can do that because I've stuck so closely to the story in other ways.

GR: Lilac Girls and Lost Roses share the same structure of three alternating female narrators. Why did you choose that?

MHK: I loved The Help, and when I first started writing, since I'd never really studied writing in college, I thought that I could write it like The Help, and that's how I started in first person. I wish I had a fancier answer, but it's basically that. I really liked the way The Help wove a braid together of these three very interesting women, and I thought, Well, if Kathryn Stockett can do it, I can, too.

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GR: Do you write them sequentially, or do you take one character at a time?

MHK: I write them in a braid, definitely. Because that way I'm surprised all the time by how one chapter can influence another, and it's fun as you're writing to discover things like that.

GR: Did you ever consider having one of the perspectives be a male character?

MHK: No. I didn't even think about it. I was never a huge history fan in school. I felt like it was taught from such a male perspective. I really didn't enjoy it. And then I had one female teacher in high school, and she changed history for me. She taught it from more of a female point of view, and I just thought, Wow.

After that, I really sought out history from a woman's point of view, and back in the '70s and '80s it really almost didn't exist. If you look at the books that had been written on Ravensbrück, most of them are written by men. And so I was just much more interested in the woman's point of view because I think it's so much more interesting as a woman to know what it was like for them, what they cared about. So I have male characters in all my books, but [the story is] not told from their point of view.

GR: As in Lilac Girls, there’s great suffering and trauma in Lost Roses. Do you need to emotionally decompress after writing these stories?

MHK: Not really. When I was writing about the horrors of Nazi Germany in Lilac Girls, I would pick my son up from school and he would say to me sometimes, "Have you been writing a Herta [the Nazi doctor] chapter?" which [didn’t make me] mother of the year. But I wasn't aware of that. I was so mesmerized by the story and so involved in it.

I really felt responsible for these women's stories, and the same is true with Lost Roses. I felt responsible that I was their conduit, and I needed to make their stories come alive in order for people to care about them. I felt like they had been forgotten, and so that was my mission. I never felt like, "Ugh, this is too much."

GR: Lilac Girls was the first fiction you wrote. You spent a decade researching the book, and it sounds like it was almost a surprise to you when you began the novel. What was that experience like?

MHK: Looking back on it, it was incredible. I went up to the Bellamy-Ferriday House because I wanted to see the lilacs in the garden, as my mother had just died and she loved lilacs. Then on a whim I went on a tour of the house. At the very end, the docent said, "Here's Caroline's desk and this is where she wrote with her old manual typewriter," and I said, "What is that photograph?" because I was drawn to this black and white photograph of 35 or so ladies. And she said, "Oh, that was the Rabbits" and she explained the whole story to me. And I just thought, How does that get lost? How did a story like that not get remembered? Especially when we really need women to look up to in this country.

So I started researching it and kept going until we had to move to Atlanta for my husband’s job. And one day I dropped my son off at school and went to the Starbucks drive-through and ordered my usual decaf cappuccino, but by mistake the barista gave me a caffeinated one. I went home and started writing, and it all just started coming out. That's why, when I say I wrote it like The Help, I had no idea what my options were. I just thought, "OK, I better grab this while I can, and I'm going to do it in first person," and that's how it started.

GR: What was your reaction to the impact and success of Lilac Girls?

MHK: I'm still not quite sure it has all happened. It's very strange. I remember the book came out on a Tuesday, and they sent me one copy and I thought, Is anyone going to read this? I got a phone call while I was at my UPS store, and it was my publisher. All I could hear was women screaming and champagne corks popping and people saying, "You made the New York Times bestseller list!" And it was hard for that to sink in, standing in a strip mall outside a UPS store.

Ever since, it's been this crazy ride of people reaching out and this incredible love from readers and from everybody. It's been amazing.

GR: What’s your average writing day like?

MHK: I try and get up early because I really feel like all the good things happen, writing-wise, pretty early. I sit and just write, mostly longhand, and then I put it into a Word document. By 3 p.m. I’m usually more into the research because the actual writing is pretty intense. If I ever do get (I hate to even say the word, but...) blocked, I feel that I probably shouldn't be writing. And ways that I can get around that are by diving into my research for inspiration—right now that’s Civil War books.

But if a scene, for me, isn't working after a little while, I just abandon it. Because it's not good if it's not getting me excited. And then by 7, my husband is home and I start smelling garlic or whatever is cooking and that's my sign to stop. We read at night, he's a big reader. Usually it’s more research or once in a while something fun.

GR: Who are some of your favorite authors?

MHK: I love historical fiction. I love Amy Tan. I love Christina Baker Kline’s work. I dove into E.B. White when I was writing Lilac Girls and have not come up for air. I'm from Massachusetts, and I feel like I was OK with the New England voice, but reading him really helped me in that way. All of these women, the Ferriday women or the Woolsey women, they're New England women. So that voice is really important. So I just love E.B. White. I don't know how he does it.

The very first book that I fell madly, passionately in love with was Good Times, Bad Times by James Kirkwood. He passed away young sadly, but I still go back and read that book. I also really love Jane Austen. I know it's kind of a cop-out because everyone does, but I just find myself going back to all of her books over and over. And all the Brontë sisters. I feel like women writing about women, you can't get any better than that. Another book I loved is Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley. I sobbed for a good hour after I read it. Anything with a lovely animal in it will get me.

GR: I loved the character of Eliza’s mother, Caroline Carson Woolsey Mitchell, in Lost Roses. Is she the focus of your second prequel?

MHK: So in my Civil War book we meet her as a young woman, but the book is told from the point of view of her sister, Georgeanna, who is one of the Woolsey women of New York. There were seven sisters and one brother. We see Carry, the youngest of the sisters, in New York, but really the story is from the point of view of Georgy, who became one of the first nurses on the Civil War battlefield.

GR: How much have you written?

MHK: The whole thing is outlined, and I'm about halfway through part one.

GR: Will the title also have a flower in it?

MHK: Yes. This one is going to be—it's a big moment revealing this—a sunflower. I think it will be called Sunflower Sisters, but I don't know yet.

I always like to write about sisters—I have two sisters. I don’t know why, but I just keep writing about them. That and mothers. They do say write what you know.

Martha Hall Kelly's novel Lost Roses will be available on April 9. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Jody (new)

Jody Hadlock Love this, can't wait to read Lost Roses!

message 2: by Vicki (new)

Vicki Fought I loved Lilac Girls and can’t wait to read Lost Roses. I really like the fact that Martha is writing from the female perspective and trying to highlight the overlooked contributions that females have made in history. Keep up the great work!

message 3: by Darlene (new)

Darlene Golbitz So privileged to have been able to read ARC! Amazing story!

message 4: by Nissa (new)

Nissa Just received my copy today in the mail!

message 5: by Jeanie (new)

Jeanie What a wonderful interview! Thanks so much! I enjoyed ‘Lilac Girls’ very much and did a presentation on it for my Book Club. I had copied the photos of the ‘rabbits’ to show the group and one of the ladies thought she may have been related to one of them since her family was from that area and the name was the same. I was so excited to know that a prequel was in the process and when at our local library this week there they were. I snagged a copy and am currently immersed in the book. It’s so fun to read of Caroline as a young girl. I’m really enjoying ‘Lost Roses’ and it’s becoming more interesting as I progress through the story. Another winner from Martha Hall Kelly! Again.......thank you!

message 6: by Carol (new)

Carol Dahlquist I loved Lilac Girls and it spurred me to go on and read more books about that time in history. I too had a hard time getting interested in reading historical books and I think the author hit the nail on the head that a woman's perspective makes all the difference. I am once again an avid reader, even giving up cable to immerse myself in the world of books once again. Cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of Lost Roses!

message 7: by Sydney (new)

Sydney Long Wow! I LOVED Lilac Girls and this makes me want to read it again as well as rush right out and read Lost Roses. I completely agree about having a hard time enjoying history when it was taught from the male perspective. I just couldn’t make the connection despite my effort to. Once I started reading historical fiction, I noticed so many of the authors were women and it changed everything. The things I’ve learned far surpassed anything I learned in school. Thank you for taking the time so answer these questions and sharing what goes into your work! I can’t wait to read more!

message 8: by Norma (new)

Norma Caballero So excited for this book! I truly enjoyed Lilac Girls, it is the type of book that has me hooked so definitely looking forward to reading Lost Roses. Historical fiction is my genre of choice!

message 9: by maureen (new)

maureen I loved Lilac Girls. I'm sure I will love Lost Roses as much.

message 10: by Rachel (new)

Rachel This is an amazing book, just like Lilac Girls. Thanks for this great interview.

message 11: by NuNu (new)

NuNu Have been waiting for this book to arrive. I loved Lilac Girls and Martha Hall Kelly's style.

message 12: by Martha (last edited Apr 13, 2019 02:26PM) (new)

Martha Richey So excited to have the next novel by Martha Hall Kelly to read...and to learn another will follow!! Lilac Girls inspired me to go to a concentration camp recently on my visit to Berlin. I spent an entire day walking through buildings at Sachenhausen, one of which used to be the brothel, the Ravensburg Rabbits were brought to from time to time. A deeply moving experience. Can't wait to read Lost Roses and see what it inspires me to do and how much I learn. Thank you, Martha for picking up writing and doing it so very very well! Your depth of research shows!

message 13: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Anze I love Lilac Girls and my copy for Lost Roses should be coming in a couple of days. I can not wait.

message 14: by Janet Swindell (new)

Janet Swindell I loved the Lilac Girls didn’t want it to end. I am looking forward to Lost Roses.

message 15: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Lilac Girls sound great! But should I read the Prequel first since it is now out, or read them in order of being written? Thank you, Tracy

message 16: by Linda (new)

Linda Talanian Thank you for writing Lilac Girls. I am looking forward to immersing myself in you prequels. You honor the women you introduce us to.

message 17: by Martha (new)

Martha Harper I have just been introduced to GOODREADs and I am so excited. What I have just read makes me want to explore Martha Hall Kelly books, mainly because of the reference to THE HELP, which I found to be a wonderful book. I loved the movie, but the book even more. Having grown up in the South in the early 1950's, it brought many memories (both good and bad) to mind. I look forward to my new friends in the book world. Just yesterday I started Jeffrey Archer's HEADS YOU WIN, a change of pace from last read - THE PUNISHMENT SHE DESERVES by Elizabeth George, one of my favorite authors.

message 18: by Connie (new)

Connie I loved Lilac Gitls and now am reading Three Roses. I love it! The characters are real and the history of the period is fascinating Can’t wait for the next book
Connie Breslin

message 19: by Carole (new)

Carole LaRue What a great interview! I loved Lilac Girls and am about 30% through Lost Roses. Now I want to re-read Lilac Girls as it has been awhile since I read it and feel the need to tie the families together. Martha Kelly has done some mega research for these books. Looking forward to the next prequel, Long live the genre of Historical Fiction!

message 20: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Harrison I just finished Lost Roses. So good! It was wonderful to learn so much about Russia's history. Loved Lilacs too.

message 21: by Lori (new)

Lori Boyd I loved both your books. I am so excited about your newest one! I love to read about this period of our history.

message 22: by Sue (new)

Sue Seligman I absolutely loved Lilac Girls! I read quite a bit of Holocaust fiction and this was one of the best, difficult to read but very important! I never knew the story of the Ravensbruck Rabbits until I read the book. As soon as I knew Martha Hall Kelly was writing a new book it went on my list and I got it the day it came out. So far it’s amazing! Now I cannot wait for the next prequel set in the Civil am I going to wait two more years? I loved this interview especially when she spoke about being inspired by The Help, another one of my favorite books. Thank you for sharing this interview and thank you for writing such fantastic books!

Cindi_loves_to_read I'm just starting Lost Roses!! I've read Lilac Girls 3 times! I wanted to be sure I didn't miss anything. I'll be hosting the discussion for my book club. Would anyone be willing to share a few of the questions you used for Lilac Girls in your book club?

message 24: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Thanks so much for sharing this interview with me. I was so spellbound by Lilac Girls. I can not wait to read Lost Roses. Her incredible research certainly made the women in the Lilac Girls come alive.

message 25: by Kay (new)

Kay Lundgren I loved this interview, so revealing of the dedication you have for women of the past brought to life for those living now and young girls becoming readers of adult books. Women helping other women feel and know their importance in our world is a wonderful gift you are giving us, our daughters and granddaughters.

message 26: by Sherrie (new)

Sherrie Ashenbremer Can't wait to read Lost Roses

message 27: by Puiu (last edited Apr 28, 2019 08:44PM) (new)

Puiu Mirela I liked Liliac Girls! It was a wonderful reading, fulll of emotions, I enjoyed each leaf with pain and at the end I felt sad . But, I-am glad that I read this book because no one should forget this black periode and the disasters of the Second War.

Congrats Martha!
I hope that the new book will appear very soon in Romania too.

message 28: by Alie (new)

Alie Urbach Ik ben het boek aan het lezen in Nederland heet het boek
Russische Rozen
Het is erg mooi!

message 29: by Marcia (new)

Marcia Edwards Lilac Girls and Lost Roses are so wonderfully written, intertwining 3 very different women in each book. I read Lost Roses in 4 or 5 days, could not put the book down. Martha Hall Kelly is an amazing writer.

message 30: by Reina (new)

Reina B. I can’t seem to find Sunflower Sisters anywhere.

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