Me: Did you always know that you would write a book someday?
S. B. Goncarova : Growing up I liked to create books, and I made some handmade books in the style of Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne and Roald Dahl, my favorite authors as a kid. And I even thought they were good at the time…ha! What did I know?
Later, in middle and high school, the five-paragraph essay was drilled into our skulls. And I was utterly hopeless at that. I remember thinking having a root canal without anesthesia would be more preferable than coughing out one of these five-paragraph essays, especially under ridiculous time pressure. Compare and contrast the roles of two Cold War leaders from different regions in the development of the Cold War. 12 minutes. Really? It takes me 12 minutes to tie my shoes, on a good day.
Somehow the success of our whole life depended upon these insipid five paragraph essays. I couldn’t understand it. Perhaps things would have gone differently for me if I were able to churn these out like the smarter kids did, but like I said I was hopeless when it came to essay writing. All it did was convince teenage me that I couldn’t write, and it took over twenty years for me to unlearn that.
Fast forward twenty years. I was living in San Francisco, and a neighbor whom I cared dearly for, Sonia, was telling me about her problems getting the English version of her holocaust memoir published. Would I look at the manuscript, she asked. Of course, I said. I’d take a look at the manuscript and see what I could do to help. The version she gave me looked like the translator had used Google Translate from the French, which itself was a translation from the original German. The English was so flowery it was practically incoherent. It would not fly as it was.
But just as troublesome was how much Sonia had left out. Huge swaths of the story were missing, like about how her mother spent the family’s entire savings on smuggling Sonia and her brother out of Germany to Belgium, only to be tossed out of the van 20 miles from the border and made to walk along the railroad tracks and throw themselves into the ditch and hide whenever the trains came. The little details like all they had in their pockets were two butter sandwiches. She never wrote about this. Or when she and her family finally made it to France in May 1940, seeking refuge from then Nazi-occupied Belgium, only to be literally turned right around as the road they were on was targeted by Messerschmitts. I realized that Sonia had not included these parts because they were too painful for her to relive. I got it. But the problem was that the narrative was too chopped up, too hard to follow, and did not, in my opinion, do her story justice.
So over the next weeks and months I started researching. I had informal interviews with her, but I was always sensitive to the fact that there was a good reason why these memories were suppressed in the back of her mind. The last thing I wanted was to go too far and end up retraumatizing her. I needed to just ask her enough questions so that I could piece together those bits of the story for her for her book.
It took over a year to finally fill in those missing pieces. I think at one point I realized I was taking about a month to complete each chapter, an excruciating pace. And it was a difficult road, for several reasons. For it not being my own story, for all of the research involved, for the disturbing content matter I had to sift through. But in order for me to write this convincingly, from her point of view, I had to imagine what it was like to be there. I had to relive it from her eyes. This was one of the hardest years of my life, but I came out of it knowing what made good writing. Authenticity. Writing from the heart.
Long story short. That book I thought would be the death of me; and it wasn’t until seven years later, when I was going through a pretty traumatic time in my own life, that I started writing again. Harnessing Light started out as a collection of handwritten letters to a friend. I had no idea it would make its way into a book. I had set out to just write from the heart. To make the most authentic piece of work I could. My hope was that it would speak directly to the hearts of others. The feedback that I’ve been given has been very inspiring and encouraging, and I am grateful and honored by all the beautiful reviews it has received so far. One of the poems, Stone in my Pocket, was even turned into a choir piece by Canadian new music composer Tim Brady. A total dream come true. I can’t wait to hear it live. Montreal poet and spoken-word artist Ian Ferrier and I are launching some of the poems in empty storefront windows during these last few months of Covid as part of a proof of concept for a touring show. But what I’d really like to do is turn some of the writing into songs.
Me: What inspired you to write this book?
S. B. Goncarova: The inspiration for this book came from a desire to share my story as a way to be a beacon for people struggling with similar issues: searching for a home after everything you know is taken away; figuring out how to find your place in this crazy world; how to come to peace with an abusive past to make room for love again.
Me: How did the cover of your book come to be? Is it exactly like you envisioned?
S. B. Goncarova: The photograph used for the front cover of the book I took on my morning commute when I lived in Hoi An, Vietnam. I used to bike up a road that traversed the fields of rice paddies outside of town. One morning, when I looked over and saw the sunlight looking like a patchwork quilt over the landscape, I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of the scene. It was only later that I realized that the photo exemplified some of the ideas talked about in Harnessing Light and would be perfect for the cover.
Me: Do you intend to keep writing?
S. B. Goncarova: I am, continuously! It’s an art form I can practice anywhere and everywhere, no matter where in the world I am. But I’m proud to announce that Harnessing Light will be turned into a feature-film. The lyrics for the songs performed in the film will come directly from writing from the book. I also have several other projects in development, including children’s book series coming out which makes my heart sing.
Me: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
S. B. Goncarova: When I am writing dialogue I almost always channel my inner New Yorker, no matter where the book or screenplay is set, or where the characters are from. I basically hear my grandparents’ voices, who were Italian but spent their formative years in Brooklyn during the 20’s and 30’s. You can imagine the snark.
Me: How many books have you written? Which is your favorite if more than one? If only 1 book then do you plan on writing more?
S. B. Goncarova: Sonia’s Song I co-authored the english version with Sonia Korn-Grimani. A Yearlong Summer was a monograph of paintings that I self-published. Harnessing Light came out at the end of 2019, beginning of 2020. I have two early-reader chapter books that I’m polishing up and will be sending out soon, and several screenplays out finding homes as we speak.
Me: Was there any interesting tidbits you edited out of this book?”
S. B. Goncarova: I edited quite a lot out of this book as I only wanted to the best of the best for my readers. In consequence, I think some readers might find that they are hunting for a narrative arc and feel like not all the pieces of the puzzle are quite there. Those missing bits I need to work back into the screenplay so that the movie so that it doesn’t take as much patience from the viewer.
S.B. Goncarova is a writer and visual artist based out of Montréal. She has been the grant recipient of the Puffin Foundation and Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her visual work can be found in the Archive of Digital Art, Danube University, Austria, PS1 MoMA Contemporary Art Center Digital Archive, The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Art Library, and Rutgers University Special Collections. This is her first published book of poetry.
Other works by S. B. Goncarova:
“Sonia’s Song” co-authored
“A Yearlong Summer”