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Writers on Wednesday: “Life is in the telling,” Italian treats, ‘borrowing’ the title from a Bronte poem, how fate steps in, and so much more in SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY by Ariella Cohen

By Leslie Lindsay 

What an amazingly insightful and inspiring read; SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY (releasing June 28, 2016) literally took *my* breath away and I’m so excited to share it with you. sweet breath of memory(1)

Ariella Cohen is absolutely at the top of her game with this tender and gorgeously written tale about the enduring nature of love, the importance of friendship, and the eternal longing for peace. It’s a rare find to come across a book which encapsulates so many aspects of a good read–but this one did. Cohen weaves a narrative that takes readers on quite a journey; from the small fictional town of Amberley, MA to the Lodz Ghetto, London, and Jerusalem, it’s about finding one’s place in the world, but about coming to terms with what you’ve been dealt.

The characters are brimming with depth, compassion, warmth, resiliency, and smarts. In fact, there are so many dogeared pages in my copy with some insightful quip a character said, something about the meaning of life, or mustering through, and so much more. In fact, here’s one now:

“If you give up and throw in the towel, it impacts others. We all send out ripples—of kindness, need, and love. We don’t always appreciate who they impact or how far they travel; that’s part of the mystery of life. We can’t see the whole picture, but it’s there regardless.”

Today I’m pleased as punch to welcome Ariella to the blog to chat with us about her new book, SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY.

Leslie Lindsay: Ariella, I’m so happy to have you pop by. I know it’s sort of bad form to ask writer’s what inspired their story, but I’m going to ask it anyway. What was niggling you enough to sit down and write SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY?

Ariella Cohen: Great question, Leslie, and thanks so much for inviting me to drop in. What drove me to write SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY was the desire to examine how war shreds women’s lives. I wanted to shine a light on those who mother, marry and mourn the warriors, and the civilians who find themselves caught in the crossfire. But just as soldiers thrive in a community of brothers-in-arms, on the home front, there’s an incredible sense of sisters-in-arms that needs to be celebrated. Of course, women nowadays so often go to war themselves – an awe-inspiring thing I didn’t tackle as the novel covers a seventy-year period when that wasn’t really the case.

L.L.: There are some writers who swear they can’t start writing till they have a title…or until a character ‘speaks’ to them…or until they know the ending. Where do you lie on this continuum, and what got your writing juices flowing for this particular title?

Ariella Cohen: I’d wanted to write about the Lodz Ghetto for some time. Readers may know a bit about Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto but not the others that Germany established during WWII. Lodz was a slave labor camp and a huge money maker for the Reich. The character Miriam is imprisoned in the Ghetto and, although we only meet her indirectly, her story lies at the core of the novel. Since you mentioned the title, I should acknowledge that it was taken from an Anne Brontë poem; my editor and I have convinced ourselves that Anne wouldn’t mind my ‘borrowing’ such a great phrase! It captures that essence of memory that is as fleeting and life-sustaining as a breath.

L.L.: Okay, so I have to confess. I’m reading SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY and I fell asleep. (I know, I know!!) In my defense it had been a long day, a long week actually. But, my dream was a strange mash-up of a Jewish wedding (in which I was a little Catholic girl from Missouri in attendance), a snow storm, and some guest at the wedding trying to tell me how to say ‘please’ in Yiddish…I wasn’t able to say it properly and the woman kept giggling at me. I think this dream was a result of the merging of both Catholicism (Fr. Sullivan) and Judaism (Miriam’s story, WWII, Lodz Ghetto), and your own background filtering through. Can you speak to that, please?

Ariella Cohen: Well, not the dream bit – I don’t know Yiddish! But as to Father Sullivan, Ireland 2014 168.JPGhe was super easy to write. Some family members are Catholic and I have visited Ireland often, so I know a lot of priests. Issues of faith weave their way through the book but I didn’t want it to be about religion, if you take my meaning. Since the protagonist, Cate, is estranged from the Church, she connects with Father Sullivan much as Miriam did half a century before – as a friend. His role is to draw Cate out of the box she’s built for herself – the four walls being: widow, failed writer, friendless loner and reluctant caregiver. Inspired by the advice offered on the plaque outside his office – Life is fragile, Handle with prayer – Father Sullivan counsels, prods and encourages her to rebuild her life.

L.L.: The book is inspirational, sure but it’s not exactly religious. There are some other genre-bending elements here with flavors from women’s fiction, mystery, historical fiction, and well…there’s a great breadth of storytelling here and it’s all done so well. What’s your overall message, and what do you hope readers take from SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY?

Ariella Cohen: The overall message is that we are interconnected. Acts of kindness, and of cruelty, ripple through time in ways we can’t foresee or control. I explore this on many levels, one being through the Jewish concept of tikkun ha-olam – repair of the broken world. Each of the novel’s characters is in some way broken, but not until strangers move to town – Miriam and Cate, fifty years apart – is the extent of that brokenness laid bare. Miriam comes to Amberley to right an historic wrong. Although her efforts fail, her struggle impacts other women whose lives have been altered by war. When widow Cate finds her way to Amberley, she completes the circle by both picking up Miriam’s fallen standard and ‘rewriting’ the last chapter of her life – something Cate must accept she can never do for her husband.

We suffer loss alone, but we heal in a community, Ariella Cohen says toward the end of her compelling debut novel.  This talented new author explores issues ranging from misleading first impressions to the Holocaust through four women who, as so often happens, becomes unlikely friends.” – Meg Waite Clayton, NYT bestselling author of The Wednesday Sisters and The Race for Paris

L.L.The main protagonist is Cate Saunders. Still reeling from the death of her soldier husband, down on her luck and near penniless, she relocates to the tree-lined streets of Amberley MA. She works as a care assistant at a local hospital, which I can relate to as I used to be an R.N….and then I totally related to her drive to write. I absolutely loved reading about her struggles and triumphs with her craft. Any autobiographical inspiration there?

Ariella Cohen: A bit. Much like Cate, my life path took a turn I hadn’t seen coming when family members fell ill and I stepped into the role of caregiver. I think many women find themselves in this position, and although caregiving is a privilege, it’s also an incredible challenge. An unexpected one. I always smile when people announce what they’ll be doing in five years because we have no idea what Fate has in store. Sometimes, like a twig in a stream, we can’t control where we’re going. All we manage to do is keep our head above water. No small feat! That I finally found my writer’s ‘voice’ at such a difficult time is surprising, or perhaps not. Caregiving strips one to the core. Being vulnerable and open like that – free of ego and the rubbish that attaches to it – is the first step to writing authentically. Or so I told myself when, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I set out to tell this story.

L.L.: I loved all of your characters, from Mary Lou (Lulu) the woman mechanic, to Gaby the slightly-psychic diner waitress, Sheila at the Italian grocer, Helen the nurse, and Miriam, whose story comes through in old journals. Was there a story within one of those characters you were more eager to write? One you felt a particular kinship?

Ariella Cohen: I love everyone in Amberley, but Miriam’s story and what it represents is the novel’s heart. The challenge was to portray her unique journey but not let it overpower the novel, as Holocaust narratives often do. So there was a bit of a tug-o-war in my mind as I weighed each character individually and in relation to the whole. No one has a monopoly on suffering and writers don’t want their characters to be competing on those terms.

italian-pastriesL.L.: My stomach rumbled as you wrote about the delicious treats Sheila whipped up in her Italian grocer. Oh, how I have a love affair with all things Italian! Can you share a favorite recipe inspired by the book?

Ariella Cohen: Oh, that would have to be Sheila’s almond crescents – sometimes called horns. Crescents are dead easy to make, provided you can secure almond paste – not marzipan. You can make almond paste but it’s nearly impossible to get it smooth enough so I buy my ingredients from a Brooklyn company that’s been in business since the 1920’s. And I don’t dip the finished cookies in chocolate; as my mother would say, ‘No need to gild the lily!’ Although many recipes call for flour, butter and a dusting of confectioner’s sugar, the Italian version is a simple trinity. Combine 1 10-ounce can almond paste with ¾ cup white sugar and 1 egg. Roll each ball of dough between your hands and then shape into a crescent and dot with sliced almonds. Bake about 15-18 minutes (less if you don’t want them brown) at 375 degrees F on parchment paper. THAT’S IT! These cookies keep for days, if one has self control. I never do.

L.L.: And shifting gears a bit, but I have to ask: what was the Lodz Ghetto research like? It’s such a horrific time in our history and I can only imagine, completely Bundesarchiv_Bild_101III-Schilf-002-30,_Polen,_Ghetto_Litzmannstadt,_Bewohnerhaunting to research and write about. Can you share a bit about your process?

Ariella Cohen: You’re right; because it is so horrific, the Holocaust is off-putting. As Cate would say, the topic is too difficult to get one’s head around so we tend to avoid reading or thinking about it. So what’s a writer to do? In telling Miriam’s story, I decided to focus on the role Jewish women played during the early days of the occupation of Poland since that dovetailed with other themes in the novel. The bit of history woven in is meant to enhance our understanding of Miriam, not weigh down the narrative. For every line of historical background that made the manuscript cut, one hundred were rejected. It was a balancing act of tough calls, but readers will learn more about Miriam in book II.

L.L.: What’s inspiring you nowadays? What’s captured your interest?

Ariella Cohen: So much! I’m a member of the UK’s Richard III Society and have been researching Fifteenth Century merchant guilds for years. I’m working on a series of historical novels that will explore the fascinating world of Yorkist London, introducing readers to the real ‘kingmaker’ of the time: the merchant class. There’s still a lot of research ahead before I sit down to write.

L.L.: Are you working on other books? Can you tell us a bit about what’s next for you?

Ariella Cohen: I’m writing the sequel to SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY and doing the final edit on a Young Adult novel partially set during Ireland’s Great Famine.

L.L.: Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask, but should have?

Ariella Cohen: All I would add is that I hope the novel starts a conversation about how the wives, mothers, daughters and girlfriends of soldiers should share their stories – with friends, family, and the men in their lives. While crafting the novel, I often thought of my mother as her work during WWII so informed the writing. The only woman in her war plan qualified to test radio crystals, she left school and stepped up when the Siren song drew men to war. Like so many sisters-in-arms, she stepped back in line when the men came home. And she buried her story. We women do that SO much – whether we are drafted as caregivers or tasked with holding the home front together. Putting aside the amazing women who go to war, historically our role has been behind the lines – raising children, running factories, growing crops, nursing the wounded. And sacrificing in silence. The stories beneath that silence need to be shared. As my characters remind us, “Life is in the telling.”

For more information, or to follow on social media, find Ariella at: 

AriellaCohenAuthor bio: Ariella is a graduate of Barnard College, the Hebrew University and the University of Michigan Law School. She makes her home in New England, although her dream self resides in County Mayo, Ireland. SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY is Ariella’s debut novel and she is hard at work on the sequel.   @ariella_cohen

[Special thanks to L. Martinez at Kensington Publishers. Author and cover image courtesy of A. Cohen. Lodz Ghetto image retrieved from Wikipedia on 6.09.16. Italian pastries image retrieved from, stone church with flowers taken in County Mayo and is from Leslie Lindsay’s personal archives] 

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