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3 Questions for Kathryn Lasky, Author of The Extra

The Extra

I’m very excited to have Kathryn Lasky on my blog today! Kathryn Lasky is a prolific author, having written everything from fiction to nonfiction for people of all ages. She has won numerous awards and has even had a book turned into a movie (Legends of the Guardians based on the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series). So you can bet I was excited to receive an email asking if I’d like to take part in the blog tour for her newest book, The Extra.

Here’s the synopsis from the publisher:

One ordinary afternoon, fifteen-year-old Lilo and her family are suddenly picked up by Hitler’s police and imprisoned as part of the “Gypsy plague.” Just when it seems certain that they will be headed to a labor camp, Lilo is chosen by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to work as a film extra. Life on the film set is a bizarre alternate reality. The surroundings are glamorous, but Lilo and the other extras are barely fed, closely guarded, and kept in a locked barn when not on the movie set. And the beautiful, charming Riefenstahl is always present, answering the slightest provocation with malice, flaunting the power to assign prisoners to life or death. Lilo takes matters into her own hands, effecting an escape and running for her life.

In this chilling but ultimately uplifting novel, Kathryn Lasky imagines the lives of the Gypsies who worked as extras for the real Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, giving readers a story of survival unlike any other.

Intriguing, right? I’ll review the book soon on my blog, but until then, here are three questions I asked the author and her fascinating responses:

There have been many wonderful YA novels written recently that take place during the Holocaust, but what a unique angle for this story! What was it about this particular story that drew you in and made you feel you had to write it?

I think what really caught my attention was that this is a story that fell between the cracks of history. It has, or at least for me had, that incredible ‘Oh Wow’ factor. I had been working on my book Ashes (Viking) that was set in Berlin in 1932 as Hitler rose to power. It was told from the perspective of a thirteen year old girl who is not Jewish. Anyhow I found in the course of my research this story about Leni Riefenstahl. Now I knew about Leni as a documentary filmmaker. I had seen her film Triumph of The Will that is truly the most brilliant propaganda film ever. I also knew that as an actress she had played roles in Arnold Fancke’s ‘Mountain Films’. But I never knew that she had directed, starred and produced a dramatic film herself until in my research for Ashes when I discovered  this horrific story of how she went to the internment camps and selected extras from the Gypsy (Roma) prisoners. I based the main character Lilo on really two actual girls Rosa Winter and Anna Blach. Anna had been the stand-in for the horseback riding scenes. After I got over the ‘oh wow-ness’ of it all I think I was intrigued by Leni’s ability as an artist—and have no doubt about it, she was an extraordinarily talented filmmaker—and how her sense of aesthetics squares with her twisted view of humanity and her cruel treatment of people.

Many of your novels are historically inspired. How do you tackle research? Was there anything unique that you did for this particular project?

It seems to me that I have to re-invent the research wheel each time. But one of the first things I do, after I become vaguely familiar with the territory, is to make a chronology or timeline of the actual events that occurred during the time span of my novel or what I want to be the time span (it can change). Then I try to fit the narrative arc of the story around these time markers. I think of these markers like navigational buoys at sea—my husband and I do a lot of sailing. There was one thing unique to this book. I did watch several films of Leni’s including Tiefland the one in which the Roma extras were used and of course starred Leni. I really got a feel for her face, especially her eyes. But it was very difficult for me to watch those little Roma children when I knew that each night they had been locked up in a barn in the Tyrol of Austria and that many would die in the camps. You know the extras have come to be referred to as ‘film slaves’. But until 1949 very few people outside of film circles in Germany knew that this had occurred. The German magazine Revue uncovered the scandal in May. A hearing took place in November of that year with a few of the Roma extras in attendance as witnesses for the prosecution. The rest had had died in concentrations camps. Yes they were sent there after the filming had been interrupted including Anna Blach and Rosa Winter who were the sole surviving members of their families. Leni announced in court that she was determined to finish the film. At that time a lawyer for the prosecution asked “Do you really believe that there are people who will want to see a film when they know that some of your extras were gassed at Auschwitz?” She replied: “I didn’t have anyone gassed. That is outrageous.”

I have said that Leni was a very good filmmaker, however Tiefland although beautifully photographed is really a stupid movie. Leni couldn’t write. She couldn’t act. She couldn’t dance but she did have a very good eye.

I’m very intrigued by the names Lilo and Django. Is there a story behind how you chose the names?

There’s not really much of a story. I just read a lot of books about gypsies during the World War 2 and I saw the names that cropped up. There were a lot of Liliane’s and Lilianos and even more Eva’s and Henrietta’s. I thought that Liliane was very musical and that Lilo was a nice contraction yet still kept the music. Django was a pretty popular name amongst the Roma people. Perhaps it was because of the great guitarist Django Reinhardt. I’m not sure. I guess you could say that I had music on my mind when I picked the names.

Thank you, Kathryn, for taking the time to answer my questions. Readers, be sure to check it out–it comes out today!

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