Guest post by Greg Archer
Lilac Reviews asked Greg if he would speak to us about writing about historical events with real people, especially family members. Here is what he had to share…
When I set out to write Grace Revealed, I had a purpose: to take a step back from Hollywood and entertainment reporting and examine my Polish family’s life during of the 1940s. In the process, however, the signs that led to embark on this journey also, and quite surprisingly, led me to expose one of the most under-reported events of the 20th Century: Joseph Stalin’s mass deportation of nearly two million Polish citizens to the Siberian gulags and the life-and-death events that followed. My quest took a dramatic turn, too. As I walked an emotional tightrope between the past and the present, another serendipitous overseas adventure become a kind of saving grace and helped heal the ancestral soul.
In some ways, it may have also helped bring justice to my family and their forgotten Polish comrades.
Now that the book is out this year—75 years after Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror across Eastern Europe—a question was recently poised to me about the process of the book and what it entailed. As in, what was the process like to interview and then write about real people—mainly my family.
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This, in and of itself, was a remarkable journey but one that also required extreme sensitivity and had me using my journalistic chops in new ways. I interviewed four living family members—two uncles, my mother and the current Migut Family matriarch, my eightysomething aunt. These interviews were conducted over a course of five to seven years, and more than once with each person, as I learned that memory and time and place can be a sneaky thing in the retelling. I recorded these interviews and transcribed them. Afterward, I tossed myself into significant research to link together the threads of what my family shared with me with actual recorded research in various libraries and databases and historians.
But back to the interviewing of family members. This is a curious journey to navigate because, as I mentioned above, during second and third interviews with individuals there were slight discrepancies and timelines. What I found myself doing was tossing all the material together and mapping out their specific journey as best I could. Then, I backed it up with third and fourth interviews as well as other research. In some instances in the book, a family member is quoted verbatim about a specific incident—the journey in the boxcars; being a refugee wandering around Russia after an amnesty was granted to the family and the Poles; being taken to Africa for safety. Before final edits and sending the book to the publisher I had gone over these quotes with family members to make certain that A) they were, indeed accurate and B) is was truly what they wanted to share. These sections of the book were the only portions I shared with family members, because they were directly related directly to them and their particular journey.
Initially, I was told to consider a legal release and I recommend this for authors, especially those interviewing non-family members for something that will appear in print. However for my family, I did not do this. I think the bonds between us were strong and that they knew what I was doing, and what I was sharing with them, that this all seemed to flow easily. However, this is not always the case with every writer penning something about their family and using their “material.” I think one needs to trust their gut feeling here, however one might want to lean toward an official release.
Overall, I was very concerned that my family’s survival story was accurate; that they felt that their story was given justice—this was in part two of the book. I had shared that entire portion of the book with my uncle, who pointed out minor tweaks but found that their odyssey had been aptly told.
Beyond that, because of the subject matter—that history had nearly forgotten about these people and what Stalin did to them; and that their strength and endurance deserved justice and a place in history—I was especially sensitive to the research on all fronts. In many ways, I believe this added a sense of grace to my own journey unraveling quite a remarkable part of history.
About the book
GRACE REVEALED: A MEMOIR, goes from glitz to the Gulags as the popular entertainment reporter takes a step back from Hollywood to explore his Polish family’s mesmerizing tale surviving Joseph Stalin’s mass deportation of Poles during the 1940s. What he uncovers along the way fuels his mission to not only expose the nearly forgotten odyssey that befell nearly 2 million Poles 75 years ago, but to also expose the ripple effects that remain today.
About the Author
GREG ARCHER’s work covering agents of change, history, travel and the entertainment industry have appeared in The Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine, San Francisco Examiner, The Advocate, Bust, Palm Springs Life, VIA Magazine, Jetset Extra and on variety of cable television outlets. A four-time recipient of the Best Writer Award in a popular San Francisco Bay Area Readers’ Poll, he shines the light on change agents near and far, and other under-reported issues in society. His splits his time between his hometown of Chicago, and Palm Springs.