V. Z. Byram – Latvian-American Writer – MFA in Creative Writing – Goddard College
KIRKUS REVIEW: An authentic and tense portrait of everyday people dealing with war.
V. Z. Byram was born in a displaced persons camp in post World War II Germany of Latvian parents. They immigrated to the USA when she was three. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, has won numerous writing awards, and taught literature and writing as an adjunct professor. She is a past president of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and currently sits on the board of Gulf Coast Writers Association in Fort Myers, Florida.
WRITER’S DIGEST JUDGE’S COMMENTARY: This was a powerful and beautifully written epic novel with historical significance. After reading to the end, I had to sit for a little while to digest it all, wiping away the tears. This novel is a moving tale of struggle and loss in a terrifying and often seemingly hopeless situation. I love the heroine, Mija, who is a testimony to the strength and power of women. She inspires us all with her determination to help others as well as her own family, risking her own safety in the process. As a parent, I can’t imagine what it’s like to try and protect your children in a war-torn, occupied country with such callous, ruthless enemies, first the Russians then German forces. The author succeeded in pulling us completely into the story, as I was worried about the kids throughout. I also loved the horse, Big Z, who became a character in his own right. Some of the scenes are superbly written, for example when Laima gives birth – I was transported to that room in 1940s Latvia. The pacing was fast and tense and kept me turning the pages. I also loved the setting, it was very interesting to learn about Latvia – it encouraged me to do further research. I like the cover and the author has written one of the best one-liners I’ve read in a while: “with her husband’s name on a hit list, the fight got personal.”
What brought you to writing? In July 1990, I stepped off a plane in Riga, Latvia for my first visit to my home country. Latvia had been under communism since the end of WWII. My first impression was that I walked into a time warp. Almost everything was just as it was at the end of World War II. The rubble was still there. Nothing had been rebuilt. The same trolleys and trains ran. Store shelves were bare. The few restaurants in existence did not have a menu. You either ate the meal they offered that day, or you didn’t eat there. I stayed with relatives and learned what my life would have been like if I had grown up there. I am very grateful that I grew up in the USA.
I had no idea I would go on to write a novel about Latvia during World War II. I was a computer programmer then. But between the stories I heard growing up in the USA and what I saw in 1990, an idea was born that wouldn’t go away and led to my writing Song of Latvia. I also went back to school for my MFA in Creative Writing and am now a full-time writer.
In 1991, Latvia regained its freedom. I go back to visit every couple of years. Every time I go, Latvia looks more and more like any other European country. Everything has been rebuilt. Before WWII, British writer Graham Greene dubbed Riga the “Paris of the North”. Travel writers are calling it that again and with good reason.
Do you write in more than one genre? Yes. I started writing historical fiction, which culminated in my debut novel. I also write poetry because sometimes I get an idea or thought that can only be expressed in a poem. I never thought about Memoir but like my novel, Memoir came to me. My younger daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a fierce three-year battle, she passed away in July 2019. About six months later, I was so filled with grief that I thought I would explode. In an effort to lessen the pain, I started writing. First came a prose poem about her death. Then I started writing stories about her life, about when she first told me, about my experiences helping to care for my grandchildren who had asked me questions like, “Is my mom going to die?” Then I started writing about my own life as an exiled Latvian. A new idea was born. My daughter Tara loved Latvia as much as I did. We took a number of trips there together. Our last trip was the summer of 2018, a family trip with Tara, my husband (her Dad), her husband and their two teenaged children. I am now writing a Memoir which holds the intertwined stories of Tara’s battle with cancer and my own life as an exiled Latvian.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? The main characters in Song of Latvia are based on the personalities of people in my family and many of the things that happen to them happened in real life. However, I didn’t want to tell the story of one family. I wanted to tell the story of the whole country, so all of the minor characters are based on research I did about what happened to other people. Although many events are based on things that really happened, the writing is my own version of events and my book is truly a novel.
Do you outline or are you a pantser? I am both. I start with a rough outline that changes as I write. I know the beginning and the end. I have some vague ideas about what will happen in the middle. However, in the writing, my characters lead me in directions I don’t expect. For instance, I didn’t expect that my two main characters in Song of Latvia, Aleks and Mija, would wind up having their own chapters. I started with Mija as the main protagonist. And then one day I wrote a chapter in Aleks’ point of view. He refused to have just one chapter. I went back and gave him a voice in all the appropriate places.
What kind of research do you do? For Song of Latvia, much of my research involved traveling to Latvia and visiting the places I wrote about, interviewing relatives and other people, and visiting archives in Riga to look up records. I also did historical war research online and read period books written by Latvians and others. I did the research as needed, relative to where I was in the writing. When I got to the end of the novel and realized Mija would have to go to a particular town, I took a trip to Latvia just to visit that town for a few days. I walked the streets and talked to various people who lived there.
Looking in the future, what’s in store for you? After I completed Song of Latvia, I started writing a post WWII spy thriller based on the personality of my father, titled The Reluctant Spy. It starts in Germany (where I was born), moves to Brazil, and finishes in the USA. I am still working on it while I also work on the Memoir. I’m not sure which one will be finished first, but I know they will both come in their own time.
Order book: https://www.amazon.com/V.-Z.-Byram/e/B081LFL3NC
How do readers contact you? https://vzbyram.com
I loved Song of Latvia from the beautiful cover to the last page. It was so well written it swept me along through the trials and heartbreaks faced. Looking forward to Vee’s next book.
Great insight into the historical novel writing process. I can see how having friends and relatives who lived through those catastrophic times would enrich the story far beyond the documentary record.
Thanks for your comments, Conrad.
Congratulations on the review. I look forward to reading more of your writing.
Thank you, Cass!
This interview’s a pleasure to read. Good insights into your writing process!
Thank you David.
I’m so happy for you for the good reviews you’ve received! They’re well deserved.
Thanks for your comments, Neva.
Great interview, VeeZee. So wonderful to hear your story although I’m so sorry the loss of your daughter is part of it. Seems a long time ago we met at the 2011 SF Writers Conference. Glad to see your success, friend!
Wow, that conference was 10 years ago. I remember it well and the nice dinner we had. Thanks so much for your support!
You are an inspiration to us all. The account of your life moved me to tears. Too often we forget the human suffering that is attached to war and its aftermath. Best of luck to you with your writing.
Thanks very much, Michael.
Great Writer’s Digest commentary for your intriguing historical fiction book.
Thank you, Vi.
Great review for a fantastic writer!