Interview with Deby Eisenberg, author of 'Pictures of the Past'

As the leader of an established Chicago area Book Club, Deby Eisenberg challenged herself to write a novel that her avid readers could not put down and would love to discuss. With a Masters Degree from the University of Chicago, she is a former English teacher and journalist. Inspired by so many wonderful books and formidable authors, and drawing on her love of literary research, art, architecture, Jewish history, and travel in the United States and Europe, she tried to envision a multi-generational love story that would inform as well as entertain, that would broaden the mind and open the heart. Deby and her husband Michael, an obstetrician-gynecologist, live in Riverwoods, Illinois. They have three grown children and two grandchildren.

Her latest book is the historical fiction novel, Pictures of the Past.

You can visit her website at www.debyeisenberg.com.

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About Pictures of the Past

First-time novelist Deby Eisenberg hits the ground running with PICTURES OF THE PAST, an epic family and historical saga, sweeping through Chicago, Paris and Berlin, reliving events from pre-World War II Europe, but beginning in contemporary times. An Impressionist painting, hanging for decades in the Art Institute of Chicago and donated by the charismatic philanthropist Taylor Woodmere, is challenged by an elderly woman as a Nazi theft.

Mary Lignor of Book Pleasures says, “This novel is one of the most intriguing and beautiful books that I have ever read. The ending of this book will touch your heart… The writing is first class.”

Taylor’s story takes the reader to 1937. Sent to Paris on family business, he reluctantly leaves his girlfriend, Emily, a spoiled debutante from Newport, Rhode Island. But once in Europe, he immediately falls in love – first with an Henri Lebasque painting, and then with the enchanting Sarah Berger of Berlin. After Taylor returns home, the Berger family becomes trapped in the Nazi web, and any attempts for the new lovers to be reunited are thwarted.

Interwoven with this narrative is the story of Rachel Gold, a beautiful and bright Chicago girl caught up in the times of the late 1960’s. Pregnant and abandoned by her boyfriend Court Woodmere, Taylor’s son, she moves to New York to live with her aunt, a Holocaust survivor. Years later, as the controversy surrounding the provenance of the painting becomes public, Rachel’s grown son is disturbed by his inexplicable familiarity with the work of art. And it is only Taylor Woodmere who can unravel the complicated puzzle of their lives.

As a Book Club leader for the past sixteen years, Eisenberg came to understand the kinds of stories that grabbed her group and she challenged herself to write a novel that her avid readers could not put down and would love to discuss.

The result was PICTURES OF THE PAST.

Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life, Deby. Can you tell us how long you’ve been writing and how your journey led to writing your latest book, Pictures of the Past.

I do want to thank you so much for your interest in my novel. Because you know the business so well, you are right in identifying the process as a journey. I think as with most authors, early on in school, I had positive reinforcement for my writing, from winning essay contests to being named editor of the newspaper. When I was only 16 years old, I was even working for the local paper. My college degree led me to teaching high school English, and I received my Masters’ Degree from the University of Chicago. But at this point, most of my part-time writing was journalistic, covering board meetings in the community, or writing articles for my charitable organizations. About 16 years ago, I became a book club leader, so that I would still feel personally fulfilled and connected to my original career path, and it has been a wonderful, validating experience. Because of that, I challenged myself to write a novel that my avid readers could not put down and would love to discuss. Although I had never identified myself as a fiction writer, once I found my genre in historical fiction, with its necessary research component, I just couldn’t wait to write each day.

Q: Could you tell us the story behind your cover?

I am so glad to hear that you love it, because I know the importance of having a title that will capture the reader. My working title had been “Seeking Provenance,” because the book has to do with the provenance of a painting, and its implications on the provenance of a man. It happened that I fell in love with that word “provenance.” But I was always cautious that people might, when quickly perusing titles, confuse it with “providence.” I knew the perfect title would come to me, and eventually it did in the last months of revisions – Pictures of the Past is relevant to so many aspects of the book – Oh, as a book club leader I would have so much fun delineating many of them –the Impressionist painting that is the focus of the story, the photograph of Taylor and Sarah at the 1937 Paris Exposition (because the heart of the story is a love story spanning decades), the photos taken on the doomed voyage of the St. Louis, the pictures of the Holocaust, the “picture of the times” inherent in each era in any period piece – picture Rachel in the 1960’s hippie scene. The impact of pictures from the beginning at the Art Institute of Chicago to the end . . . seeing a photo in a newspaper . . . well, I can say no more or it would be revealing.

Q: Why did you believe your book should be published?

Again, as a Book Club leader, as a voracious reader myself, I know what draws people to literature. They want to learn about life in contemporary times and in the context of history, but they also want to fall in love with a good story and engaging characters. I tried to envision a novel that would broaden the mind and open the heart. Before I knew my exact plotline, I knew that my novel would need to touch on my favorite things and I hoped they would appeal to an audience like me: art and mansions, Chicago and Paris, Newport, grand hotels, great loves and great challenges, the Holocaust because the stories are so compelling, love and separation and longing . . . I knew some of the venues and concepts I would want to include, but it was not until I developed my characters that they told me how it would all come together.

Q: We all know that publishers can’t do all of the publicity and that some lies on the author. What has your publisher done so far to publicize the book and what have you done?

I must return to my book journey to answer this. I wrote the original draft with all of the plotlines over a four month period, and I began the process of finding an agent, attending writers’ conferences, etc. I had a great deal of New York agent interest, but nothing materialized until Victoria Skurnick of Levine, Greenberg said she wanted to take my book if I enhanced it (my intention, as well) and so I worked with esteemed editor Ann Patty, who just pointed to areas to flush out. In the end, however, Victoria did not want to take more fiction. The truth is that, although I was disappointed, over the couple year period as I worked on it daily, the manuscript developed from a good story into a real novel. At the same time that I was finding the submission process exhausting, the publishing world was changing. We developed Studio House Literary and produced a beautiful book and eBook through Amazon. First, I hired a Chicago publicist and I had some great coverage, with cover pictures on some newspapers. I have speaking engagements in the Midwest and Florida. I am now working with LA Publicist Charlie Barrett. I know from any publishing house today that, unless you start out a star, you are going to have to be your own best advocate. The internet has been an amazing source for publicity with the literary bloggers – and sites like Goodreads are phenomenal for reaching an audience.

Q: What book on the market can it compare to? How is it different? What makes your book special?

I am delighted that most readers are comparing my novel to Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, an author with whom I have met and corresponded. Both of our novels are historical fiction that takes place in contemporary times and in the WWII era. Both of them have an element of mystery, deal with loss in horrific times, both unite characters from divergent backgrounds, and both alternate time periods throughout the chapters. But Pictures of the Past is also a family saga spanning decades. There are layers of love stories to follow set against the climate of the various eras. It is a novel that ultimately illustrates how true love endures through years of separation.

Q: Open to a random page in your book. Can you tell us what is happening?

It is 1937 and we see handsome, charismatic, 22 year old Taylor Woodmere, who did not want to leave his Chicago home and his girlfriend, Emily, a spoiled debutante from Newport, Rhode Island, even to come now to the Paris Exposition for family business. But since he has been in Paris only hours, he has already fallen in love –with an Impressionist painting he wants to bring back to Emily. As we see him at this first dinner of the conference, he has just been introduced to the daughter of a business associate, to the enchanting Sarah Berger of Berlin, and now he falls in love again and forever. . .

Q: Do you plan subsequent books?

Absolutely. Working on the novel has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life and I can’t wait to be immersed in my next round of characters. I have already developed the concept and first chapter of my next book, but the demands of Pictures of the Past are time consuming.

Q: Thank you for your interview, Deby. Do you have any final words?

I so appreciate your interest in Pictures of the Past and in me. Those who would like more information can go to my website www.debyeisenberg.com. I love hearing from my readers. So many people took the book on vacations with them over the past holiday season and I loved hearing how they travelled with the characters to Mexico or Hawaii or Florida and how they could not put the book down. That was my original goal for my own book club.

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