Unfortunately, the themes of THE CRATE are relevant today: of hatred and intolerance and racism. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens in a society when hate is allowed to fester. About what can happen if we aren’t vigilant in combating it. How violence is like a pebble thrown into a pond that sends out ripples for generations. It is a story of legacy, of families coping with loss, of inheriting grief and pain “like unwanted family heirlooms.” In the book the “crate” is both literal and metaphorical. Yes, there was an actual crate — and metaphorically, we lifted its lid and all these terrible memories emerged.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Levison.
Deborah Levison’s debut book, THE CRATE: A Story of War, a Murder, and Justice, is a true crime story with echoes of the Holocaust and is the winner of seven literary awards.
New York Times bestselling authors Lee Child called it “impressive and important” and James Rollins said it was a “gut punch with such harrowing moments that you have to stop and take a breath… treat yourself to this journey and be transformed.”
Reviewers have called THE CRATE “gorgeous and poetic,” “heart-wrenching,” and “a brilliant story,” while The Jerusalem Post wrote: “exquisite.”
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
When I was little, I spent countless rainy days roaming the dusty stacks of my local village library. Up there, in the northern woods of Canada, my best “friends” were Anne Shirley and Nancy Drew, Miss Osborne, the Pevensie children, Heidi and Sooner and Ramona. All their magical adventures swept me away; I liked nothing more than making up new characters and scenes and putting on plays based on my favorite books. At school, my teachers complained about my “overactive imagination.”
One dark night at summer camp, we kids were sitting around a fire listening to a counselor reading The Monkey’s Paw. The words sent shivers down my spine. I decided I wanted to be a storyteller, a writer of stories that could make people shiver or laugh or cry. I wanted a book of my own on the library shelf.
I’ve written professionally since university, as a journalist, publicist, and freelance writer. Even though I’ve wanted to be an author for as long as I can remember, THE CRATE is not a book I could have anticipated. In my little bubble in Connecticut, where I live an ordinary little life, I never thought I’d be writing true crime. Especially not true crime that involved my family.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
I’ll share one of my favorite moments: shortly after THE CRATE launched, I attended a writers’ conference in New York City. I’d just finished an author panel when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and looked up, up, up at a very distinguished man who proceeded to reach into his bag and pull out a copy of my book. He said, “I started reading last night and I’m loving it so far.” He was Lee Child. I think my jaw dangled around my waist for the remainder of the conference.
Meeting some of the superstars of the literary world has been the greatest thrill: George R. R. Martin, Harlan Coben, Karen Slaughter, Lisa Unger, James Rollins, Linwood Barclay. Being part of the writing community, and learning from the masters, is definitely the most interesting part of the process.
I loved all the “firsts” — the first time I saw my book displayed in a bookstore (and promptly burst into tears, which actually resulted in my first sale); the first professional review; the first book signing; the first time I spotted someone reading my book “in the wild.” These fun parts definitely eclipsed the challenges.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My biggest mistake was more pathetic than funny.
Back in my twenties, I itched to write my first novel. When on maternity leave with my newborn, I figured I’d write while my daughter napped. Well, she was a really good napper, so I wrote a 120,000-word manuscript and shipped it off to the slush piles of the Big Five. I received a letter from an editor in return. She said my “narrative and flair for dialogue” were “extraordinarily strong.” She said she was “taking the liberty of showing it around the office.” She said, “I do hope you haven’t been snatched up by another publisher.” (Trust me, that’s exactly what she said… I memorized it.) Then she listed the edits required and said she’d be happy to take a second look after I made the changes.
What did I do? Nothing. Did I edit accordingly, and resubmit? Nope. In true self-sabotaging style, I let that manuscript sit on a shelf collecting dust. How stupid could I have been? To be fair, I did have two more babies, and did move from Canada to the States, and did get a bit sidetracked with a new career and a new life.
Still — epic fail.
Years later I realized my dream of becoming an author. But who knows where I could have gone with that first novel?
I learned a lesson: Never squander an opportunity. I’m not only talking about major missed opportunities like the one I blew off way back when. Every small opportunity has a potential upside. Don’t say no. I’ve done interviews for radio stations in the boondocks. I’ve done full-on author presentations for five people in a library. Don’t be a diva! You never know who’s listening, who they know, and where things will lead.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Every author’s journey to being published is different. Some are lit with rainbows. Some aren’t so pretty. Mine felt brutal.
It took me nearly three years to write THE CRATE. Then, with a completed manuscript in hand, I had to find an agent, a notoriously difficult task; sometimes they don’t answer for weeks or months, if at all. I wrote a killer query letter. The first agent I sent it to responded in fifteen minutes! I patted myself on the back. That agent and I spent the next six weeks emailing back and forth; she had all these great ideas for how to position and sell the book. Eventually, I asked, “Um… don’t we need to sign a contract?” and she replied, “Oh, no, I don’t have time to represent you.” Six weeks down the drain.
So out went the query letter again, to another agent, who responded in fifteen minutes. We signed a contract. She started pitching. The rejections rolled in. That was one of the worst experiences of my life. I had no platform, which was a major drawback. I didn’t have thousands of Twitter followers. Publishers said, “I love your writing BUT… we don’t publish Canadian crime… or the story is too grisly… or we won’t publish you in Canada because you don’t live here anymore…” and so on.
Months went by. At last, I received two offers — I went with a publishing house in New York City, dreaming of lunches at The Plaza with my acquiring editor. Well, not long after I signed with that house, my editor left to get married… leaving my manuscript “orphaned” with no one to champion it. Exactly a year after signing me, the publisher ended up dropping the book. My agent and I parted ways, which meant I had to start from the beginning. Again.
My third agent nailed an audio deal and then a separate print deal. He’s awesome.
So, aspiring writers… grow a thick skin. I can’t think of many other professions that are so fraught with rejection and hurdles. Acting, I suppose. And modeling. Maybe politics. The lesson here? You should only be a writer if you can’t not be a writer.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’ve just completed a novel, tentatively entitled A NEST OF SNAKES. My agent is about to shop it around. It’s a thriller-slash-courtroom drama about sexual abuse in a boarding school, based on horrifying, real-life cases around New England. Those poor boys… you’d be astounded to learn the reality of what happened to them. In fact, I toned down the truth considerably because I didn’t think people would believe it.
In my story, a middle-aged man comes forward to file a lawsuit against the elite private school he attended as a boy, where he suffered rampant, relentless assaults. It’s about his coming to terms with the past and his quest for justice. And there’s a satisfying vigilante element in there, too.
Some of the themes echo those in my first book, THE CRATE — the oppressive weight of memory, the question of who is culpable for past crimes, andevil from the past bubbling into the present. I guess I’m drawn to exploring those themes. I also want to call out social issues that need attention.
Can you share the most interesting story in your current book?
The premise in itself is pretty unbelievable, even though it’s nonfiction.
THE CRATE is the true story of a violent crime that rocked my family. In 2010, we discovered a wooden crate, nailed tightly shut and hidden underneath our cottage by a lake. Inside was… awful. The grisliest thing you could imagine.
The discovery left us reeling. The media descended on our property, my brother became a murder suspect, my husband and I were totally freaked out, and we had three young kids to shield and protect from the violence of the situation. But worse, my elderly parents were traumatized. The discovery dredged up their terrible memories of the Holocaust — of surviving ghettos, death marches, concentration camps.
Those first days after the discovery of the crate were filled with shock and horror and a huge sense of violation. But once police identified the victim, and once we learned the circumstances that led to the crate being found on our property, it hit me: everything we were feeling was nothing compared to what the victim’s family was going through.
I realized I could give the victim a voice. I wanted to preserve her memory… just as I wanted to preserve my parents’ stories from the Holocaust.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Unfortunately, the themes of THE CRATE are relevant today: of hatred and intolerance and racism. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens in a society when hate is allowed to fester. About what can happen if we aren’t vigilant in combating it. How violence is like a pebble thrown into a pond that sends out ripples for generations.
It is a story of legacy, of families coping with loss, of inheriting grief and pain “like unwanted family heirlooms.” In the book the “crate” is both literal and metaphorical. Yes, there was an actual crate — and metaphorically, we lifted its lid and all these terrible memories emerged.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
Product. Whether you are traditionally published or self-published, you have to start with a great product, that is, a well-written book that provides value to the reader. That’s true for nonfiction, whether it’s a business book, a self-help, a cookbook, a biography, whatever… it must have informative value. If it’s fiction, of course it needs entertainment value, but it also needs to be credible. Are you writing a police procedural, for instance? If so, make sure the investigative aspects check out.
And, the finished product must be professional. Especially if you are self-publishing — make sure the book looks polished inside and out. You may want to hire a developmental editor to help the story along. Hire a copy editor to make sure the copy is impeccable. You’ll probably want to shell out for the cover art, too.
Patience. This is so hard! I’ve learned that the process of getting published can be agonizingly slow, especially with a debut book. On average, traditional publishers can take from nine months to two years to put out a book. Ugh! That’s a long time when you are anxious to get going. Agents, publishers, editors have their own timelines that don’t necessarily align with yours, so patience, in publishing, sure is a virtue.
Perseverance. How bad do you want this? Dealing with rejection is no picnic, but it helps to realize right off the bat that not everything is going to go your way. Rejection is part and parcel of the publishing industry. So are setbacks that are entirely out of your control. Like a global pandemic, for instance. Keep your eyes on your goals and don’t get derailed by delays, impediments, rejections, and other hurdles. I can rhyme off a list of authors who wrote three, four, five… even ten… different manuscripts before they were finally published and became an “overnight” success.
Public speaking. It’s probably better that I didn’t realize beforehand that this requirement existed. My fear of public speaking bordered on terror. Little did I know how many live (and now virtual) author talks and presentations I’d give! To date, I’ve done over 120. I’ve spoken in front of groups of three to audiences of hundreds. The really cool thing is how much I’ve come to enjoy it — the opportunity to connect with readers has been fantastic.
Publicity. Someone told me, “writing the book is the fun part… marketing it is the hard work.” So true! Fortunately, there are myriad ways to market a book, starting with the four pillars: Internet (email, a sparkling author website, Amazon author page, Goodreads author page, YouTube videos, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, digital advertising, etcetera); Radio/Podcast (radio is still very viable, and there are endless podcasts to choose from); TV (local outlets, for sure; national television may be less realistic); Print coverage (newspaper, magazine, and blogs).
Other events and outlets provide great PR, too, such as your book launch; professional reviews; blurbs by other authors in your genre, especially if they are well known; awards; in-person events (conferences, panels, festivals, fairs); book clubs; and so on.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e., perseverance, discipline, play, craft study.) Can you share a story or example?
I believe that to be a great writer you have to be a great reader.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
There are so many authors in different genres who inspire me! From Ray Bradbury to Herman Wouk, Amy Tan to Naomi Ragen. I love historical fiction; one of my favorite authors is Pauline Gedge, a Canadian Egyptologist who writes about ancient Egypt from the days of the Pharaohs. Her writing is so well-researched, so evocative and vibrant. Tom Robbins — I love his irreverent humor. And there’s nothing like a good thriller… I especially like the dark crime fiction out of Sweden. (Thanks a lot, Lars Kepler, for keeping me up at night.)
I can’t say I “like” it, but I am compelled to read a lot of Holocaust material. Fiction, nonfiction. Elie Wiesel is a must. Helen Epstein, Julie Orringer, Kristin Hannah, Anthony Doerr, Heather Morris, Pam Jenoff, Georgia Hunter, and many others. There is so much written on the topic. In fact, THE CRATE is classified as true crime because of the perceived glut of Holocaust literature in the market. Personally, I think there’s never enough.
Even if their genre doesn’t particularly appeal to me, I buy books from author friends just to support them and then I’m pleasantly surprised! My shelves are sagging.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? (You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I hope people realize that the Holocaust is a lesson from history that must be remembered and taught as part of the school curriculum. Right now, only 16 states mandate Holocaust education in their school systems. That number clearly needs to increase.
I’m so distressed by surveys reporting that more than a fifth (22%) of Millennials “haven’t heard of, or aren’t sure if they’ve heard of, the Holocaust” and four out of ten Millennials “don’t know six million Jews were murdered” and a whopping two thirds (almost 70%!) “have never heard of Auschwitz.”
Beyond ignorance is outright denial: people who refer to the Holocaust “myth” or “Holo-hoax.” Just sickening.
Teaching the Holocaust is not a matter of perpetuating victimhood, but of preventing it. As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We’re losing survivors every day and soon there won’t be any left to give their first-hand testimony. We must preserve and tell their stories.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Visit me at www.DebbieLevison.com. Like me on Facebook @DeborahLevisonAuthor. Follow me on Twitter @DLevisonAuthor.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!