Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

“No Country Is Safe From Totalitarianism:” An Interview With Author Gloria Whelan

The most amazing thing to me about Gloria Whelan is her incredible versatility and productivity. She has written dozens of books set in times and places as varied as Vietnam, Communist Russia, 19th century Michigan and ancient China. Through all that, her writing is never bogged down in research. Her stories are first of all that — stories. And she tells them well 🙂

You set many of your books in exotic locales — other worlds, other times. Is this your way of satisfying your own curiosity?

GW: No, a story appeals to me and I follow the story.  Sometimes it leads me into exotic locales, sometimes as in my next young adult book:  SEE WHAT I SEE, out in December I write about my own hometown of Detroit.

You have set a series of stories in St. Petersburg, Russia, too. When you researched and visited the country, what did you think?

GW: It was not difficult to choose Russia.  I did visit St. Petersburg, but I’ve always been fascinated with Russia.  When I was a student at the University of Michigan I took two years of the Russian language.  I had two professors.  One Russian instructor taught us Red Army songs and the “International,” while the other Russian instructor told us how the Bolsheviks had murdered her husband and son. I believe there are many young readers with no knowledge of Russian history and its profound influences on our own country.

So, what was your visit like? And what fascinates you about Russia? 🙂

GW: I was there for three weeks in the 90’s while Yeltsin was president.  I love the expansiveness and the tortured personality of the Russian people who seem to feel life one hundred percent more than most of us.  I am fearful for Russia.  The country suffered so much during those years when it lost its freedom, it concerns me to see some of those freedoms, like the freedom of the press and the freedom to demonstrate, taken back as they have been these last years.

As far as your writing goes, what is your research process like? How do you know when you get enough of a feel of a country, or a time period? How close do you think a fictional portrayal can ever come to the actual historical truth?

GW:   I try not to write the kind of historical fiction where the history is the tail that wags the dog.  I hope that in the books I have written, books set in other times and other places, it’s the story that is the important thing.

The poet, Yeats, said, “The facts don’t give you the truth, a fact is not a truth until you live it.”  That, I think is the key to writing fictions set in other times and places.  The writer can’t write from the outside, looking back, the writer must live in that time, and that place, and to the extent that the writer is successful, the book will be successful.  I don’t mean facts are unimportant, for the facts are the underpinning of the story, but they are never the whole story.

Imagining ourselves into the lives of others is not unique to authors.  It’s something we all do every day.  Without our identification with other people, without being able to imagine how others feel, there would be no compassion.  That imagining ourselves into the lives of another is what makes life tolerable and makes us all human.

I have counted about forty books under your name since you broke in with “Silver” in 1988. You have published ten books since 2007, four of them just in the last year! Are you one of those writers who, upon typing “the end” for one of your books, opens up a new file and writes chapter 1 for the next book? 🙂 What is the secret to your great productivity?

GW: I like to write and I do it every day.  Many of my most recent books are picture books requiring less time; they are like poems, few words, but each word exactly the right word.  My young adult novels take at least a year.

I have really enjoyed your book “The Disappeared.” 


You have set two other Russian books in the time of a dictatorship as well. And your beautiful “Homeless Bird” (a 2000 National Book Award Winner) set in India deals with restrictions that society places on its citizens. Through your research and the writing of these books, what have you noticed about the effects of cruel totalitarian government on its people? Our American kids today are so removed from it all. Why do you think they need to know?

GW: No country is safe from totalitarianism, not even ours.  Totalitarian governments don’t just happen.  Liberties are given up one at a time.


September 3, 2010 - Posted by | Contemporary History, Interviews, Politics and Religion


  1. Great post! I love Gloria Whelan. I grew up in Northern Michigan, so her stories about the Michigan of the past are great for me to share with my children. I guess they appeal to me the same way her stories about Russia must appeal to you.

    Comment by Julie | September 5, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Julie —

      Thanks for stopping by! You’re probably right — also, I was just so very curious to see what someone like Gloria would think of the crazy country I grew up in 🙂 At the same time though, I love the way she writes about other cultures too. Have you read her “Homeless Bird?” It reads like a song!


      Comment by Katia Raina | September 5, 2010 | Reply

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