Chatting with Helen Maryles Shankman: Her Love of Stories, Her Art, Writing for Journals, and Remembering WWII

I recently had a wonderful discussion with Helen Maryles Shankman, author of “In the Land of Armadillos,” a short story collection of people of WWII from rural, German-occupied Poland. Woven together with history, ancestral stories, and magic, these stories are authentic and captivating. I reviewed the collection yesterday.

Please enjoy my interview with Helen, I know I did!

02_In the Land of Armadillos

Hi Helen, welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’m very happy to have you here. How has the New Year been treating you so far? Congratulation on your book release!

Helen: Hi, Erin, thanks for inviting me! So far, the New Year has been crazy busy. Who knew there was so much to do before a book is released?

Erin: I think each year just keeps getting busier, especially when you have kids and a busy writing career. Throw a book launch in and you lose all track of time! Come in and have a seat in my library. We’ll sit by the window, though it’s a little dreary here in Ohio, though that’s always a good day to stay in and talk books isn’t it?

I’ll bring in some coffee or tea, your choice?

Helen: Oh, thank you, Erin, coffee would be awesome. And look, I brought you some armadillo cupcakes! Which do you prefer? Chocolate?Or red velvet?

Erin: Super cool! I usually do make a baked good, but I was at a loss on what to serve this week. I’m so glad you stepped in and brought some cupcakes. I ‘m always a chocolate girl (though red is nice with Valentine’s Day coming up)! I’ll pour the coffee and we will get started. Let’s talk about your writing, your new book “In the Land of Armadillos,” and your art. You’re a creative soul, do you find your art and writing just flows one to the other or do you have to completely switch and categorize when working?

Helen: For me, they’re closely related. In both art and writing, you create create create, and then you sit back and evaluate; how is my composition? Does it flow well from here to there? Is there enough color? Is there a good balance of light to dark? And what about texture? In painting, texture is a real, physical thing; anything that is painted with heavier, opaque paint comes out at you. Areas painted with thin, transparent washes give the illusion of going back in space. In writing, I think of that as the difference between dialogue and prose, or showing and telling. But, at the same time, there is one major difference. When I am painting, my eyes are wide open, constantly roving over my photo reference, or over the canvas. When I’m writing, I must close my eyes. Only with eyes shut can I draw out the words, the emotions, the senses.

Erin: You are one of the few people I’ve heard say that about closing your eyes when writing. I’m the same way! It’s then that I see most clearly. I’m glad to know I’m not alone.

You’ve written quite a few short stories and had success as in you’ve been a Pushcart Prize nominee and won other awards. Do you love writing short stories best when writing? Why?

Helen: My first attempt at writing was actually a full-length book! The short stories came afterward. I do love writing short stories, though they often edge into novella territory. There’s something about capturing a moment in someone’s life that just turns me on.

Erin: I did find your novel, which sounds like a great read as well! I find short stories very impactful to read, more than novels myself. Your book is a collection of your short stories, some already published in issues of prestigious magazines. For instance, “The Golem of Zukow” was published in the Kenyon Review. I noticed this as Kenyon College is just less than an hour from me and I visited their offices last summer. I highly admire them. How do you write for and submit to literary journals?

Helen: Oh, that’s so cool! It was an incredible thrill when KR selected to publish “The Golem of Zukow.” It was the moment I said to myself, “I guess I can call myself a writer now.” I was concerned that my story would be too specific, too ethnic, for mainstream literary magazines, but since “Golem” was published, I’ve come to believe that the best stories are universal, no matter where they take place, or who populates them. Having said that, there are a few rules for writing to literary journals;

  • Read the journals you want to submit your story to, to get a feel for what they like to publish.
  • Be passionate. Write something that makes you burn. Write something that makes you cry. Write something that won’t get out of your head until you scribble it down.
  • But having said that, there’s also this: There are some story ideas that show up in their submissions again and again. Try to avoid writing them. The science fiction journal Strange Horizons has posted a long and hilarious list of story ideas they’ve seen too often, and if you’re curious, here’s the link:
  • Edit, edit, edit! Proofread, proofread, proofread!
  • I recommend joining Duotrope Digest for researching journals and magazines where you’d like to submit. Their listings are stuffed full of useful details, and they also have great submissions tracking software.
  • Make sure you follow the submission guidelines for the particular magazine/journal you’re submitting to. Some enormous percentage of all submissions are formatted incorrectly.

Erin: Helen, what wonderful advice! Thank you! What made you decide to put your stories into a collection? I think it’s a great idea and I’m enjoying the book. When you write them, do you choose to stick to the similar theme or do you just happen to have them pouring out that way?

Helen: After I wrote the first two stories, which were “The Partizans” and “The Golem of Zukow,” I realized that 1. They had a common theme, and 2. They were going to just keep coming.  I realized that they really worked best all together, as a portrait of the town of Wlodawa during World War 2. So I found a way to link them, by having them take place in and around the same town in Poland, during the same events, (World War 2) and by having the characters weave in and out of each other’s stories. I have two other stories that didn’t make it into this collection, and truthfully, I think there will be more.

Erin: As well the stories are drenched in your ancestral and cultural history. Are they based on true stories of things that happened, or tales passed down culturally, or are your creations based folklore?

Helen: Most of the stories contain elements of what really happened to my parents during the war. The stories packed with the most real-life events are “The Jew Hater,” “They Were Like Family to Me,” and “A Decent Man.” 

When my parents told us their war stories, there was always something miraculous in their survival; an SS soldier standing on top of the door to my father’s hiding place and not noticing; the silver-tongued Kommandant of my mother’s labor camp driving into the woods to talk SS executioners out of shooting his Jewish workers; my grandfatherhaving the intuition to leave town on just the right day, at just the right time, just before German soldiers swooped in.The mythology of angels, monsters and demons are constants in the Talmud and throughout Jewish history. (The Golem of Prague is our most well known legend.) But I didn’t want to restrict the mythology to a particular religion; after all, the stories all take place in Poland. It seemed natural to add Jewish and Polish folklore to stories of survival that were already almost miraculous.

Erin: In pursuing my undergrad history degree, I had several Holocaust classes and focused a paper on Anne Frank. It’s a part of history that has always stuck with me. It doesn’t seem to matter how much time has passed or how much we read on the subject, there are always new stories of people and their families. It’s why we can never forget. How do you feel the new generation can be raised to not forget this period of history? Is there still more to be done and more stories to tell? Do you want to tell more of them?

Helen: Wow, that’s a tough question. I wish I had an answer for how to raise the new generation to remember and not forget this period of history. It seems like large swathes of the world are already forgetting it. This may sound strange, but I think that anyone who has a World War 2 story must keep telling it to whoever will listen, whether they were perpetrator, bystander or witness. There are lessons to be learned in all of the stories—some lessons are warnings of the end product of extremism, and some lessons are what it takes to survive. Certainly, I believe there are more stories to tell. Just when people think they know everything there is to know about the tragedies of World War 2, some new book comes out that illuminates a different facet, or tells it in a new way. Think of “All the Light We Cannot See,” or, “The Nightingale.”

Erin: What does it mean to you to share the stories of your relatives?

Helen: There are so many facets of World War 2. To many people, the Holocaust has come to be represented by the Warsaw ghetto, or the concentration camps. But that wasn’t my family’s experience; their experiences with townspeople, labor camps, forests, and bunkers was different, and equally awful, but largely unexplored. I wanted to write about it to honor my family, and also the Poles and Germans who tried to help.

Erin: Do you like the supernatural elements in folklore? Do you use this in your writing?

Helen: I love folklore and fairy tales. Take The Big Bad Wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood.” It’s really just a warning about how a strange man might be attractive, but dangerous. But make an ordinary man into a wolf, and pow, that warning takes on mythic dimensions. I LOVE that. Adding the talking dog to the story of my mother’s experiences as a shepherd girl made it whoosh to life as I wrote it. The supernatural elements help to give the story a certain universal appeal, but also, they serve to distance me enough so that I can create.

Erin: Your novel, “The Color of Light,” also caught my interest as I love supernatural and horror, especially intertwined in history. Can you tell us about that?

Helen: My one-sentence elevator pitch for The Color of Light is “A tale of Art, Love, Vampires and the Holocaust.” In brief: Rumor has it that Raphael Sinclair, the founder of a controversial art school, is a vampire, a rumor he does nothing to dispel. Scholarship student Tessa Moss has long dreamed of the chance to study at Rafe’s Academy. But she is floundering amidst the ups and downs of a relationship with egotistical art star Lucian Swain. Then, one of Tessa’s sketches catches Rafe’s attention: a drawing of a young woman in 1930s clothing who is covering the eyes of a child. The suitcase at her feet says Wizotsky. Sofia Wizotsky, the love of Rafe’s life, was lost during the Holocaust. Or was she? Rafe suspects Tessa may be the key to discovering what really happened. But Tessa senses the truth: despite his wealth, his women, and his townhouse filled with rare and beautiful treasures, Rafe is a haunted man…for reasons that have nothing to do with the rumors they whisper about him at school.

Erin: How different was it to write that novel in comparison to putting your short story collection together?

Helen: It was much easier! There’s lots of room to stretch out when you’re writing a novel, to explore unexpected avenues that present themselves as you go along. When you write short stories, every sentence matters, because they are so concise.

Erin: How do you touch on humanity, and the lessons we learn from it, in your writing? Why do you feel this is important?

Helen:  I felt like I was going out on a limb when I humanized Max, who is a cold-blooded Nazi killer. I wanted to show that the people who went into the forest and executed children weren’t just monsters; calling them “monsters” lets them off the hook, releases them of responsibility. Each of those executioners had mothers, wives, children. I’m fascinated by why people make the choices they do, how someone shuts off their natural humanity to such an extent that they can murder other people without losing so much as a night’s sleep. At the same time, I’m equally curious about how someone becomes a hero, making the choice to risk their lives to save strangers. If we understand what can happen when we allow extremism to penetrate society, maybe we’ll be more vigilant next time.

Erin: You’re also an accomplished artist in every way, but I was excited to read that you presented a portrait of Hillary Clinton to her while she was still First Lady. What was that experience like?!

Helen: Ha! I didn’t get to present it! I spent a year working on this gorgeous portrait, and just as I was going into labor with my first child, we got the call from the White House. “The presentation ceremony will be tomorrow,” they said. The fact that I was recuperating from a C-section didn’t move them one bit. I’ve always wondered where she ended up hanging it.

Erin: Oh, now I feel bad! What a marvelous thing to get to do though. And I’m sure all your other commissions are beautifully done! What other types of art do you do? How does it bring joy to your life?

Helen: I used to play guitar and sing. Does that count? For a while there, I was going to be a rockstar. I still pick it up now and then, just to remind myself that I can do it.

Erin: Yes, that counts. Haha! Creative people tend to do many creative things! What are you currently working on (art related)?

Helen: I’ve been working on a charcoal portrait of an adorable little girl for over a year now, and I’m still not finished! I also hope to paint a portrait of my own kids. I’m pretty intrigued by the new water-soluble oil paints. I’ve bought a few tubes and look forward to try them out. Can’t wait to get dirty again!

Erin: You should definitely should paint your own kids, they grow too fast and time slips away! You could do some amazing cultural books for children. Have you thought of illustrating children’s books or stories? Why or why not?

Helen: That does sound wonderful! But as an artist, I must be honest with myself. I have a knack for portraits. Though I love the art in children’s books, I don’t think I have what it takes to make one myself.

Erin: What books do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

Helen: I am really all over the place. This year, I was blown away by “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt, “The Magicians,” by Lev Grossman, “Ready Player One,” by Ernest Cline, and Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.” I’ll read anything Michael Chabon writes, though “Kavalier and Clay” and “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” are mind-blowingly great. Last year, I read a lot of Neil Gaiman; “American Gods” and “The Graveyard Book”are my favorites. I read a lot of World War 2. Two standouts are “Life and Fate,” by Vasily Grossman, and “City of Thieves,” by David Benioff.

Erin: I love Lev’s series too and so glad to see it now on television. Surprisingly enough, Ernest Cline went to the same high school in my town that my son goes to now! I’ve been wanting to check out his work. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorites. However, I love all WWII fiction, and like you said, there is always more to tell!

What are you writing next or working on now? What are some things you hope to write?

Helen: I don’t think I’m done with World War 2 yet. There’s something about war, folklore and myth that just has a hold on me. I also have this fantasy of doing a “Joy Luck Club” sort of book, following the intertwined stories of children of Holocaust survivors.

Erin: I definitely would read any of that once you get it written! Thank you for stopping by and sharing a part of yourself with us and for writing such touching stories for us to read. Best wishes with all your efforts! Let’s finish our drinks before you go.

Helen: Thank you so much for inviting me, Erin! You really do make the best coffee. I hope you enjoyed your armadillo cupcake. The best of luck with your writing. And thanks for asking such insightful, thought-provoking questions!

Erin: Thanks Helen! As for the cupcakes, I’m going to help myself to one more! 🙂 What a nice guest, one who knows how to feed my sweet tooth!

02_In the Land of ArmadillosIn the Land of Armadillos: Stories by Helen Maryles Shankman

Publication Date: February 2, 2016 Scribner/Simon & Schuster eBook & Hardcover; 304 Pages

Genre: Historical Fiction/WWII/Short Stories/Literary

A Spring 2016 Discover Great New Writers selection at Barnes & Noble.

A radiant debut collection of linked stories from a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, set in a German-occupied town in Poland, where tales of myth and folklore meet the real-life monsters of the Nazi invasion.


With the Nazi Party at the height of its power, the occupying army empties Poland’s towns and cities of their Jewish populations. As neighbor turns on neighbor and survival often demands unthinkable choices, Poland has become a moral quagmire—a place of shifting truths and blinding ambiguities.

Blending folklore and fact, Helen Maryles Shankman shows us the people of Wlodawa, a remote Polish town: we meet a cold-blooded SS officer dedicated to rescuing the creator of his son’s favorite picture book, even as he helps exterminate the artist’s friends and family; a Messiah who appears in a little boy’s bedroom to announce that he is quitting; a young Jewish girl who is hidden by the town’s most outspoken anti-Semite—and his talking dog. And walking among these tales are two unforgettable figures: the enigmatic and silver-tongued Willy Reinhart, Commandant of the forced labor camp who has grand schemes to protect “his” Jews, and Soroka, the Jewish saddlemaker and his family, struggling to survive.

Channeling the mythic magic of classic storytellers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer and the psychological acuity of modern-day masters like Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander, In the Land of Armadillos is a testament to the persistence of humanity in the most inhuman conditions.

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“Moving and unsettling…Like Joyce’s Dubliners, this book circles the same streets and encounters the same people as it depicts the horrors of Germany’s invasion of Poland through the microcosm of one village…Shankman’s prose is inventive and taut…A deeply humane demonstration of wringing art from catastrophe.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Every story in this remarkable collection reveals Helen Maryles Shankman’s talent for surprising, disturbing and enlightening her readers. Blending the horrors of war with the supernatural, she creates a literary landscape that is strangely mythical and distinctively her own. These stories haunted me for days after I finished reading them.” – Sarai Walker, author of Dietland

“With unflinching prose and flashes of poetry Helen Maryles Shankman spirits her readers back through history to the Polish hamlet of Wlodawa during the dark days of Nazi occupation. Horrific reality and soaring fantasy meld in serial stories that include an avenging golem, an anti-Semite who shelters a Jewish child, brutal SS officers who lay claim to ‘their own Jews’ and an unlikely messiah whose breath smelled of oranges and cinnamon. That scent will linger in the memory of readers as will the haunting stories in which barbaric hatred is mitigated by the reflection of a survivor who reflects that love is a kind of magic. There is, in fact, literary magic in these well told tales.” – Gloria Goldreich, author of The Bridal Chair

“Populated with monsters and heroes [human and perhaps not], but mostly with ordinary people caught up in horrific events they neither understood nor controlled – this series of intersecting stories drew me in completely, making me read them again to find all the connections I missed the first time. The writing is fantastic, and I marvel at Shankman’s literary skills.” – Maggie Anton, author of the bestselling Rashi’s Daughters trilogy

“In The Land of the Armadillos is a moving collection of beautifully written short stories that readers of Jewish fiction will celebrate. Not to be missed.” – Naomi Ragen, author of The Sisters Weiss

Author Helen Maryles Shankman, Biography

03_Helen Maryles ShankmanHelen Maryles Shankman lived in Chicago before moving to New York City to attend art school. Her stories have appeared in numerous fine publications, including The Kenyon Review, Cream City Review, Gargoyle, Grift, 2 Bridges Review, Danse Macabre, and She was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Winter Story Contest and earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers competition. Her story, They Were Like Family to Me, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Shankman received an MFA in Painting from the New York Academy of Art, where she was awarded a prestigious Warhol Foundation Scholarship. She spent four years as as artist’s assistant and two years at Conde Nast working closely with the legendary Alexander Liberman. She lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year, spending the better part of each day in an enormous barn filled with chickens, where she collected eggs and listened to the Beatles.

Shankman lives in New Jersey with her husband, four children, and an evolving roster of rabbits. When she is not neglecting the housework so that she can write stories, she teaches art and paints portraits on commission. In the Land of Armadillos, a collection of linked stories illuminated with magical realism, following the inhabitants of a small town in 1942 Poland and tracing the troubling complex choices they are compelled to make, will be published by Scribner in February 2016.

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One response to “Chatting with Helen Maryles Shankman: Her Love of Stories, Her Art, Writing for Journals, and Remembering WWII

  1. Pingback: In the Land of Armadillos | HELEN MARYLES SHANKMAN

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