Jaclyn Goldis: From Personal History to Historical Fiction

Debut author Jaclyn Goldis explains how her novel When We Were Young was inspired by her real-life grandmothers and how many times she rewrote her first chapter.
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Jaclyn Goldis is a graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and NYU Law. She practiced trust and estate law at a large Chicago law firm for seven years before leaving her job to travel the world and write novels. After culling her possessions into only what would fit in a backpack, she traveled for over a year until settling in Tel Aviv, where she can often be found writing from cafés near the beach. Her debut novel When We Were Young will be published by Forever on February 16, 2021.

Jaclyn Goldis

Jaclyn Goldis

In this post, Goldis explains how her novel When We Were Young was inspired by her real-life grandmothers, how many times she had to rewrite her first chapter, and more!

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Name: Jaclyn Goldis
Literary agent: Rachel Ekstrom Courage
Title: When We Were Young
Publisher: Forever
Release date: February 16, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: When secrets from summers spent on the Greek island of Corfu converge with a Florida beach wedding, three generations of women must face both the love and tragedy dealt by their island—and by each other. The book spans World War II-era Greece to present-day Florida.

When We Were Young

When We Were Young by Jaclyn Goldis

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What prompted you to write this book?

I knew I wanted to write about three generations of women. I am extremely close with my maternal grandmother; she is one of my best friends. And my paternal grandmother, whom I never got the fortune to meet, had a harrowing World War II journey, in which she escaped the Nazis on the last train out of her Ukrainian town. I was inspired by both of my grandmothers to craft a grandmother character who must confront the painful past she has tried all her life to bury.

The first kernel of the story actually came to me on vacation in Jamaica, when I saw two little kids playing together on the beach, who’d met because their families were staying at the same resort. I instantly imagined a story involving two families who vacation together every summer in some exotic locale, where everything is not as it seems on the blissful, sun-drenched surface.

(The Pleasures and Perils of Writing Historical Fiction)

I chose to partially set the book on the island of Corfu, because of its appealing, beachy ambiance, and also because of its little-known World War II history. Many people do not know that the Nazis occupied Corfu later in the war, proceeding to decimate the island’s Jewish community. This story has been little told, and I wanted to tell a part of it.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

It took six years from the first germination of an idea, but four years from when I began writing in earnest. The plot didn’t change much during the process, however, very few words from the first draft remain in the final one. This novel was a masterclass for me in creating lovable but flawed characters, being concise, and many other aspects of craft and compelling storytelling. The biggest ostensible change though was in the historical chapters. They are now squarely historical, narrated from the 1940s, but were previously told by contemporary letters between reunited lovers from World War II.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Once I sold the book, I realized that—surprise!—strangers were eventually going to read it. And those strangers were going to have opinions, and maybe even want to see my face out on the internet. Although those facts are basic, I’m not sure we writers really comprehend them until we sign our names on the contract. In hindsight, I think the length of the publishing process is a very good thing. It was a year and a half from when my publisher bought the book to its publication date. I remember thinking that was insanely long. But just like a mother needs nine months to prepare for her baby’s arrival, so too did I need time to transition from a writer to an author.

(Getting the History Right in Historical Fiction Using Declassified Records)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? 

I certainly didn’t foresee just how many times a first chapter can be reconceived and rewritten. I would estimate that overall I wrote over fifty different versions of the first chapter. The process to get to a first chapter that sings and hooks and starts in the right place was humbling and frustrating—mostly frustrating!

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

There is nothing better than the delight of losing yourself in a good story, especially in these unprecedented times. When I finish a good book, I always feel like my heart has doubled in size.

I hope my book makes readers think and feel and ultimately emerge with even more love in their hearts.

Jaclyn Goldis: From Personal History to Historical Fiction

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Believe in yourself. Commit to always growing as a writer, but mostly just believe in yourself so much that it will sustain you through any bumps along the road. I remember a time I felt particularly defeated after agent rejections. And I had a moment of reckoning with myself where I faced that it might not happen for this particular project. But I decided that I loved writing and I loved telling stories and I was never going to stop creating, and I was never going to stop trying to get published. And soon after, I did sign with my fantastic agent. But remembering that the joy for me is in the creating and that I believe in myself and in what I create, is instrumental anytime I get down about an aspect of the path.

And along these lines, we writers can have an almost voyeuristic obsession with discovering other authors’ methods for writing and success. Pantser or plotter? Write every day or no set routine? I know I am eternally fascinated and inspired by other authors’ paths, but as illuminating and sometimes instructive as their paths can be, the path I choose to travel is the one that feels true to me. At times I hear another author’s “must for success” and I think, Good for you, not for me. So above all, believe in yourself so much that you take nothing as gospel other than your own inner compass.

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