Under A Red Sky by Haya Leah Molnar

Book Information
Farrar Straus Giroux
320 pages


Under a Red Sky


Q. Why do you use Haya as your name when in the book they called you Eva?
A. I chose to use my real Hebrew name as my author name in order to honor my parents and grandparents. In Romania, none of my friends used their Hebrew name, and my family hid my Jewish identity in order to protect me from anti-Semitism. In Israel, of course, everyone uses their Hebrew name! But even modern American Jews and most Jews living outside of Israel today only use their Hebrew name during ritual ceremonies at the synagogue. I believe this is one of the ways we grapple with identity, especially given the long history of exile and persecution Jews have endured. For me, rekindling the use of my Hebrew name is a spiritual choice. It also helps establish my individual identity as an author since my entire family is in the arts.

Q. How old where you when you left Romania?
A. I was ten and a half when we immigrated to Israel, and twelve and a half when I came to America.

Q. Did you speak Hebrew when you arrived in Israel?
A. No. I went to school there and had to learn Hebrew. Two years later, when we left for America, I was almost fluent in Hebrew, but I am now rusty for lack of practice.

Q. Did you speak any English when you came to America?
A. No. English is my third language. At the time when I came to New York, there was no “English as a Second Language” curriculum.

Q. How did you learn English?
A. I reread all the books that I had read and loved in Romanian, in English. Many had been originally written in English, such as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and I had read them in translation. I also watched a lot of afternoon television when I got home from school. I became a soap opera addict! But watching TV really did help me to learn English.

Q. You speak without any trace of accent, how do you account for that?
A. I have my father to thank for that. He was fluent in six languages, and he spoke all of them with almost no trace of an accent. Shortly after we arrived in New York, my father taped me reciting simple phrases and then coached me until I pronounced each and every word correctly. A few years later, he played back the tapes and I was horrified at the heavy foreign accent I had overcome! I wish I had that tape now, but it got lost in several moves.

Q. What was your inspiration for writing “Under a Red Sky”?
A. Initially it was my family. At first I was going to write a cookbook about eggs! Each egg recipe was going to have a related story about a different family member. As I wrote, each member of my family became alive for me once again, warts and all, and I soon realized that I was writing memoir, not a cookbook. I began to see with adult eyes the frightening life we led and the very real story of our life under Communism and subsequent escape emerged.

Q. How can you remember things that took place when you were so young?
A. I don’t know, but I do. Certain memories are imprinted in my mind and as I wrote many other memories resurfaced; the deeper I submerged myself into that time and place, the more I found. Ask yourself if you remember events that happened to you before you were ten, and I bet that you will come up with some vivid memories. However, there are also some blank spaces that I had to fill in. Memory, no matter what age you are, can be tricky. That’s why different people often recount a different version of the same event or story!

Q. How long did it take you to write “Under a Red Sky”?
A. The first half of the book took forever (five years!), because I was working long hours in advertising. The second half took only five months of intense writing.

Q. Was the writing cathartic?
A. Some of it was transformative. “Under a Red Sky” is a book about my family, and it was difficult to separate my emotions from the writing. However, writing is not therapy. It is my work. I love everything about it, including the research, the editing, the author readings, even the marketing! All of these elements are necessary to the ultimate success of a book.

Q. Why did you wait so long to write about your childhood in Romania?
A. There is no easy answer to that. I suppose, like many other immigrants, I wanted to put the past behind me. So much of it had been frightening and I was grateful for the chance to be an American and get on with my life as a free person. 

Q. What persuaded you to break your silence?
A. I don’t think I was persuaded. When I began to write, I wasn’t even aware that I was writing memoir! I was like a person who was recovering from amnesia. The memories emerged and I was compelled to put them to paper. 

Q. Do you think that “Under a Red Sky” is a particularly Jewish book?
A. Yes, and no. I think the subject matter will resonate with Jews the world over because at the center of the book are questions about Jewish identity. However, I believe that the book transcends religious affiliation since “Under a Red Sky” addresses issues of racial identity, prejudice, and human rights. These are universal themes. I think Americans will especially relate, because we are a nation of immigrants with our roots in many diverse cultures. In particular, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans — any ethnic group that has had to struggle with racism and confront prejudice, I hope will appreciate this book.

Q. Did you write “Under a Red Sky” for a YA audience?
A. I didn’t write for a specific audience. In fact, I wasn’t even sure that anyone would care enough to read the story of a little girl living under Communism. However, Leigh Feldman, my literary agent, loved the book and she felt that it was a natural for YA readers, and she was right. I am happy that young people are my primary audience because ultimately, that is how a book lives on and has lasting impact. However, I believe that ”Under a Red Sky” is a crossover book, meaning it can appeal to adults as well. I recently did an author reading at a retirement community, and the residents there loved it. They were all over seventy, and just as excited as a bunch of kids in high school! 

Q. Since much of the book is so personal, did you find it hard to edit?
A. I was lucky to work with Frances Foster, a wonderful editor, who has a lot of experience and amazing insight as to what belongs in a story, and what does not. She made it possible for me to make the story tighter and better, by gently asking the right questions, and by giving me lots of freedom to make my own choices. 

Q. How did you decide what belonged in the book and what did not, especially since you were dealing with memoir?
A. Editing is not easy. Writing is really the process of rewriting and whittling away at the unnecessary in order to reach a level of clarity. There’s a saying that recommends you murder your darlings since the author can’t possibly be objective about a piece of writing. As a writer, I know how hard it is to cut something that’s been written from the heart. But unless the paragraph or the chapter in question serves your story, it doesn’t belong. A lot of writing is just warm up, before a workout. In the long run, being discerning with extraneous prose proves to be a very good thing. Of course, you can always rework and save a cut piece for a later essay or short story. Nothing is wasted, because as you write, you learn. It just takes time, perseverance, and patience. 

Q. Are there other genres that you're interested in, or do you feel that you will continue to write memoir?
A. I can’t imagine any writer only writing memoir, but it does happen. I am very much interested in writing fiction — by that I mean primarily novels. I’ve also written short stories, and I find that they are indicative of the themes that are at the core of my writing.

Q. What’s next on the horizon for you?
A. Writing! This time it’s indeed fiction. I’m in the midst of researching and writing “Light Splashed,” a coming of age novel about a seventeen-year old boy, set in New York City. I also look forward to meeting many of the readers of “Under a Red Sky” in schools, bookstores, at book groups, and many other places where people care deeply about reading.