The Dollmaker of Kraków is your first novel. What is the story of your journey to publication?
I’ve been writing stories since I was about eleven and had actually written 4 or 5 novels before The Dollmaker of Kraków. Those books now live a literal steamer trunk in my basement or, less romantically, on Google Drive. As much as I loved them, I knew they weren’t ready for publication. And that was okay! Those stories certainly weren’t a waste of time and I’d like to fix some of them one day.
Dollmaker, however, felt different than those other books. The manuscript had been my thesis for my graduate degree and with the encouragement of professors who read and loved it, I decided to query it. After five months of twists, turns, and many revisions, I signed with my amazing agent, Jenny Bent. She had me to do another round of edits (I was actually at an academic conference in the midst of this, which meant I was editing between panels!) and then on a Friday in March 2016, she sent my book out to editors. By Monday morning, we had an an offer. It was whirlwind!
What was it for you, about Krakow, that ultimately led you to place your story there?
Kraków is my favourite city in Europe. I visited it for the first time when I was eighteen and I was immediately struck by how magical it appeared to be. It was one of the few major cities that was physically untouched by the Second World War, and it looked like a setting from a fairy tale. And the more I explored Kraków, the more it seemed to full of fairy tales, from the legend of the dragon who supposedly lived under the royal palace to the pigeons rumoured to be cursed knights.
Originally, Dollmaker took place in another city entirely. But I realised very early on that it wasn’t working there. I thought about it and remembered how much I loved Kraków—so I decided to move the story there. Everything soon clicked into place.
What was the inspiration for making your main character/protagonist a doll?
My protagonist, Karolina, showed up in my imagination almost fully formed; her spirited nature was apparent right away! I do think that I drew some inspiration from my younger sister, however. She’s twelve years younger than me, and when she was small, I watched her use her toys to say things that she didn’t necessarily want to say as herself. So her dolls and plush animals were always very blunt and fiesty—just like Karolina!
What does an 'average' day of writing look like for you?
For better or for worse, I’m a night owl; I usually do my best writing between midnight and two in the morning, and I aim for 2000 words a day when I’m working on a project. I’m usually pretty good about meeting my goal—although I sometimes have to battle my gigantic black cat for the keyboard to do it!
Music is a huge part of my writing process as well. When I was working on The Dollmaker of Kraków, I had a playlist full of instrumental pieces by Danny Elfman, Agnes Obel, and James Newton Howard, as well as songs by Polish artists that all helped inspire me.
What was the research process like for you?
Unless I need to know a particular fact in order to keep writing, I try to wait until after I’ve written my first draft to do in-depth research. Otherwise, I tend to get bogged down in details or distracted by the interesting facts I’m learning! After I have a draft however, I am very obsessive about research—especially when I was dealing with a topic as sensitive as the Holocaust. I very much wanted the book to be an accurate portrayal of what happened in Poland during WW2.
I was lucky that when I was revising, I had a access to a wonderful university library. I was able to read accounts by Holocaust survivors from Poland, books on Polish history, folklore and poetry, and I even translated some German first-person sources. (Badly, mind you!)
Is it difficult to find a balance between research and writing? How do you make sure that your writing doesn't get too bogged down in facts and historical detail?
It was difficult. I learned so much while I was doing my research, but I also knew that my audience was not going to be made up of historians who would want to know every small detail about life under the Nazi occupation. I was writing for kids! I wanted to transport my readers to Kraków, if only for a little while, and I chose the details that I did want to include based on whether they would help me to do that.
If you could offer a piece of advice to an aspiring author looking to get published, what would it be?
Writing a book from the heart is terrifying because there’s a possibility that it will be rejected. But the only way to tell meaningful stories. Write what you’re afraid to write, the one you’ve been carrying inside of yourself for a long time. It may take your life in a very unexpected direction. It did for me.
R. M. Romero is a Cuban-American author who lives in Miami Beach with her witchy black cat. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program.