One of the delights of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction is learning about places, times, and events that I know nothing about. That was true for the story behind The Third Daughter, Talia Carner’s wonderful new novel—released just this past Tuesday. And tragic as that story is for her heroine, the novel is absolutely compelling. So when you finish reading her answers, rush—don’t dawdle—to secure your copy. (Just to clarify, I could not interview Talia for the podcast because of too many other commitments, so we agreed to this Q&A instead.)
The Third Daughter is your fifth novel, and it’s quite distinct from the four that came before, which themselves cover a wide range of time periods, places, and subjects. How do you select topics for your novels?
Stories find me. I don’t seek them out. Each time I am far along through a novel and think that maybe it’s my last one, the next one presents itself. Each takes hold of my head and heart and compels me to sit down to what turns out to be three to six years’ work. I’ve long realized that the seeds of every story had sprouted in my psyche years earlier, where they fermented…. All it takes is a passing comment, a line in a newspaper, or a visual cue, and the idea blooms, takes hold on me and doesn’t let go until I crawl under the skin of a new protagonist and tell her story.
And while indeed my novels seem to be painted on large canvases that cover a wide range of time periods and countries, the common denominator is that each deals with a universal social issue, mostly unique to women. In each of my novels I rise and fall with the protagonist’s spirit as she struggles—and prevails against—the forces that shape her life, be they psychological, political, social, geographical, legal, economic, or religious.
What has fascinated others—and I hadn’t noticed until it was pointed out to me—is that each subject has been one rarely, if ever, explored before in fiction. It was an interesting revelation to me, and I learned something about myself: While I strictly avoid personal disagreements on any topic, I have more courage than I had thought I possessed when it comes to writing. I’ve taken on the US legal system, the Chinese government, God, the Russian mafia—and now, the huge scourge of our society in the form of sex trafficking.
You’ve written that a short story by Sholem Aleichem first made you aware of Zwi Migdal, the legal trafficking organization that forms the center of The Third Daughter. What caught your attention when you read his tale, and how did you go about turning the idea into a book?
I’ve mentioned above that the seeds of a novel begin to bloom years or even decades before I write it. Since childhood I had a strong sense of right and wrong, and when I encountered social injustice it evoked strong emotions in me.… I first became aware of the magnitude of global and historical sexual exploitation at the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing. A tiny, aging Filipina with an operatic voice cried to the heavens about her enslavement by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII, as one of thousands of girls and women captured in the Pacific Rim. Then a teenager, she had been imprisoned in a “comfort station” to serve the soldiers’ sexual needs.
The plight of kidnapped women forced into sexual slavery touched me deeply, and in my head it was narrated by the Filipina’s haunting voice. In subsequent years I read about sex trafficking and attended presentations by UN-affiliated NGOs in New York City, where I live.
A snippet of the history of girl victims lured from beleaguered Eastern European Jewish communities to South America had come to my attention through Hebrew literature, and I even tried to inquire about it on a visit to Buenos Aires in 2007. I got no traction, and let it go. However, my interest was reawakened in 2015 when I stumbled upon the short story by Sholem Aleichem, “The Man from Buenos Aires” (now in my own translation on my website). In the story, the author reports about his encounter on the train with a shady, sleek character who brags about his entrepreneurial success but never reveals the nature of his business. I suspected what the venture that brought this fellow his riches might be: sex trafficking. I Googled the subject, and that is when I first encountered the name Zwi Migdal. I was appalled to find out that it had been a legal trafficking union and that it had operated with impunity for seventy years. It was shocking to realize how much information about it was hiding in plain sight. Most appalling to me was that the estimated 150,000 to 220,000 Jewish women who had been exploited by members of this organization had been forgotten, lost in the goo of history.
Tell us about Batya, your heroine. What kind of person is she when the book opens, and how do things go so terribly wrong for her?
Since Sholem Aleichem’s short story about the man from Buenos Aires appeared in the same “Railroad Stories” collection as those of Tevye the Dairyman, it was a natural creative process to continue the stories Tevye didn’t tell. In the collection, he first said to the author that he had seven daughters, then six, and ended up telling the stories of five. I pictured a daughter whose story wasn’t told. Batya has an inner strength that, at fourteen, she’s yet unaware of. She’s sensitive and has a clear sense of what’s expected of her, yet has no vision of a future different from her mother’s life. Growing up in a warm home where her parents, in spite of the hardships and strife they suffered, showed caring and were protective, she had liked to play and laugh. What shapes Batya, though, when we meet her, is the disappointment that her two older sisters caused their parents, when each rejected the tradition of letting her father select her match, and instead fell in love with a man of her own choosing. The two sisters’ actions threw the devoted Batya into a specific orbit: she must make up for their betrayals by being even more obedient to her parents.
Their emotional well-being is severely challenged when the family is exiled during a pogrom, losing their footing along with their meager belongings. Batya finds herself in a position to be the one who helps them secure food and shelter by working in a tavern. And then a greater chance to bring them happiness presents itself, if Batya accepts the marriage proposal of a wealthy stranger.
Things go terribly wrong because the millions of Jews living and persecuted in the Pale of Settlement within the Russian Empire found mates for their children through word-of-mouth, loose connections, and distant introductions. The bride and groom often met for the first time under the chuppah, the wedding canopy. In Batya’s case, the parents had a chance to meet the potential “groom” in person and be extremely impressed. Unfortunately, Batya’s unsophisticated, trusting father, like most Jews at the time, falls victim to a trafficker’s sleek double-talk. Even Batya’s no-nonsense mother is seduced by the stranger’s gifts and promises. In Batya’s love for her parents, she lets their excitement push aside the natural trepidations any fourteen-year-old would ordinarily feel.
Yitzik Moskowitz is only one representative of Zwi Migdal, but since he is the one who draws Batya into the trafficking scheme, what can you tell us about him? How does he live with himself?
Yitzik Moskowitz views himself as a successful entrepreneur who spots a need in the market and is smart enough to know how to fill it. He is proud of his ability to find and sort the right “merchandise” and of the many skills that let him demonstrate his ability to do his job well. According to him, pimping is “a profession that demands the whole of you—your character, your perseverance, and your expertise in many areas, from finance to personal hygiene.” For him, running his operation means being “a skilled manager and a comforter of hysterical females.” He does not concern himself with why the females are “hysterical,” because he justifies his actions by the fact that, in the end, he’s taken the girls and women out of the starvation of Eastern Europe and its bloody anti-Semitism and given them a better life.
Interestingly, many “family men” like Moskowitz sent their sons to boarding schools in Europe, where the youngsters acquired a good secular education, made contacts with sons of elite families, cleansed themselves from their families’ foreign accents, and returned to live in South America as upstanding citizens working in noncontroversial businesses.
How did you track down Zwi Migdal’s history, as well as the broader story of legal prostitution in Argentina and its effect on sex trafficking from Eastern Europe between 1870 and 1939? And having done the research, how did you pare it down to keep it from taking over the book?
Once I knew the name of the organization, I found a tremendous amount of information available in translated documents, nonfiction books, and academic publications. Armed also with photos from that time and place, my imagination took a short leap to paint the pictures that brought the material to life: I could hear the sounds, smell the smells, feel the weather on my skin, and view entire scenes. Most importantly, once I sat in front of my computer, the emotions related to Batya’s difficult situation flowed directly into the keyboard, seemingly without first sifting through my brain.
Over the previous years, I had been to Buenos Aires three times, but I don’t know Spanish. I hired two freelance researchers in Argentina, and since the story had taken place in the late 1800s, I had them identify for me specific buildings in photos. For even finer texture, I presented both researchers—a man and a woman—with the same questions about clothes, food, and architecture and was able to extrapolate more nuanced details when crossing their answers. If Batya walked from point A to point B, I had my researchers verify the names of the streets 120 years earlier.
For historical accuracy, I consulted the director of Jewish archives in Buenos Aires, who, thankfully, knew English. She also read the final manuscript.
Once the protagonist, Batya, started dancing tango, what choice did I have but to learn it myself? I needed to write with authenticity about tango—and the complex passions associated with this form of dance. For almost a year I took private tango lessons and occasionally spent an evening at a milonga in a close embrace with total strangers (also my reason to quit tango once my research was done).
The challenge of paring down a mountain of information presented itself in every scene and every chapter. I stayed inside Batya’s head and reported only what she saw, experienced, or knew. I never stepped out from backstage to whisper to the reader in my authorial voice…. I thought I had done a good job of trimming the material until my editor, with her magic wand—or ruthless pen—chopped out more paragraphs and even a few scenes, resulting in a manuscript that—I had to admit—sparkled.
After considering suicide early on, of necessity Batya finds a way to cope with the terrible situation in which Zwi Migdal places her. What keeps her going?
Batya’s love for her family and her promise to take them out of the hell of Russia is her motivation to make the sacrifice and keep on living in her own private hell. Little by little, we also watch as her faith in God returns. Not fully—she’s forever perplexed about His plans and intentions—but she always assumes His presence. The realization of her hope can only be accomplished if He wishes it so, and as events turn and seemingly progress in her favor, she begins again to view His benevolence.
What will your next project be?
All I can say is that a road sign I glimpsed in France three years ago has brought me back there four times already to research a historical event. Like my previous novels, this event has not yet been explored in fiction. Now I must wait a year or two for a large window of time to open in my busy book tour, book groups’ chats, and interviews schedule to actually write this novel.
Talia, thank you so much for your rich and full answers to my questions. I wish you all success with The Third Daughter, your previous books, and that French novel to come!
Talia Carner, the former publisher of Savvy Woman magazine, was a lecturer at international women’s economic forums. An award-winning author of five novels and numerous stories, essays, and articles, she is also a committed supporter of global human rights. Carner has spearheaded groundbreaking projects centered on female plights and women’s activism.
Find out more about her at http://www.taliacarner.com, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Photograph of Talia Carner © Robbie Michaels. Reproduced with permission from William Morrow Books.