Roxi Harms didn’t set out to write historical fiction, but some stories are irresistible. A chance meeting, a true story, and much research later, her book The Upside of Hunger is helping to finance high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I’m eager to learn more.
Hi Roxi, great to talk with you. How did you break into writing? What happened?
Roxi: I don’t know if I would call it a break, but there was definitely an inciting event. LOL. It was January 2012. I was in Costa Rica on vacation. As I stood on the patio looking out over the ocean and enjoying the sunset, I heard the clink of ice in a glass and looked down to see an gentleman in the yard below, also gazing out over the water. I called out hello, and he got up and came over. Next thing you know he and his wife, and my hubby and I were headed out for dinner together. What happened in the next couple of hours changed my life.
As we chatted and got to know a bit about each other, I realized I was sitting across the table from someone who had experienced and survived monumental historical events. Adam was raised in eastern Hungary in the 1930’s and ended up on the Eastern Front at 15 years of age – on the “wrong” side. I was fascinated not only to learn of his involvement in WW2 and how he was affected by Hitler’s rise and reign, but also by his family of origin and probably most of all by the life he built as a result of his indomitable spirit and unquenchable hunger for living. It took me two years to get up the courage, and when I finally did, I asked Adam if he would be interested in sharing his life story as a basis for my debut novel. Five long, but precious and irreplaceable years later, The Upside of Hunger was published.
What made you want to write this story?
I had no idea what I was getting into when I decided to write Adam’s story. I just had this pull, deep in my gut, to record it before it was lost (Adam was 82 when we met). I didn’t really think too deeply about why, it was more of a strong, instinctual desire. Since publishing it, I’ve learned so much from my readers about why Adam’s story is important. I’m so deeply touched when I read reviews that talk about how The Upside of Hunger illustrates our common humanity, regardless of which “side” of a conflict a country is on or which faction society judges to be right or wrong.
As I was saying, I had no idea what I was getting into when I committed to writing a book. And it was hard! Harder than anything I’d ever tackled in my business or personal life to that point. I just kind of made it up as I went (until I finally found an amazing coach later in the journey). About half way through my second or third draft, I woke up one morning and thought, “what if this book is successful, and makes a profit?” I hadn’t even considered that possibility, and I was perplexed… I didn’t want to profit from Adam’s story. That just wasn’t at all why I was writing it. We talked it over, Adam and I, and decided to establish a fund that is distributed to high school graduates from financially strapped families each year, to assist with first year college or university tuition. In 2020 we awarded our first two Upside of Hunger Bursaries. A few weeks later, I received this thank you card in the mail. Nothing could be more rewarding.
I crossed out the young man’s name as I haven’t had a chance, with COVID, etc. to meet with him and confirm he’s okay with sharing his story about receiving one of our bursaries.
So now, bottom line is that every reader who purchases The Upside of Hunger is helping our youth access an education.
Oh, and another amazing thing that has happened with The Upside of Hunger is that high schools have begun picking it up to use in History 12 and English 11 & 12. I’ve just completed a 35 minute film of Adam discussing events in the book, as supplemental material for classroom use. I just love so much that kids (well, young adults really) are reading and discussing the life lessons in Adam’s story! It’s like a way that the terrifying events that Adam lived through and his response to difficulties throughout his life can serve a purpose and add value to the world for generations to come. I’ve posted a little video of commentary by some teachers and students: https://roxiharms.com/2020/01/13/upside-used-in-bc-schools/
Now that you are a writer, what’s your favourite writing food and drink?
Depends. Early morning writing is generally very productive as long as the first strong, black coffee lasts, then it peters out as I wake up and my mind starts to wander. Afternoon writing is rarely productive for me, perhaps because I can’t keep my hand out of the Hawkins Cheezies bag long enough to type anything.
Late night no food or drink is needed. The creative wheels just seem to turn and the words flow freely late at night.
Sometimes night lets our minds go free, I agree. Has your work been compared to other writers?
I can’t recall any direct comparisons to other writers, but I did have a girl put down the copy of The Testaments (Margaret Atwood) that she’d been clutching as she headed to the checkout, in favour of a signed copy of The Upside of Hunger, at a book signing event just before COVID started. I took that as a HUGE compliment! Oh, and last New Year’s I was tagged in this book club Instagram post. That was pretty amazing too!
Is writers block a thing for you?
Isn’t writer’s block a think for every author?
Partway through my first novel, I figured out that when I have writer’s block, I have to stop trying. Just stop. There is just no point in staying at the keyboard because whatever I write when I’m in that mode is garbage anyway. The best solution, which also happens to be pure bliss, is to pick a book from my shelf – often something by Michener or Ken Follett or Diana Gabaldon, an author whose prose I admire – get comfy on the sofa in my writing room (acquired for just this purpose), and read for an hour or two.
I don’t usually pick up whatever book I’m actually reading at the time or I might not get back to writing that day. Instead, I pick any one of a number of favourites on my shelf, and just read for a while. Somehow it gets my brain firing again. Resets the rhythm and opens the locked doors.
What kind of reader would like your book/s?
My knee-jerk reaction to that question is readers who love true stories and readers who gravitate to historical reads. BUT, then I look at a list like the Hey Girl Book Club Top 5 from 2019 (I still kind of blush with pride and disbelief when I think of that list) and I wonder if my mindset about who my target readers are is too narrow. Apparently readers who enjoy coming of age stories, dystopian fiction, LGBT romance, and crime thrillers also love The Upside of Hunger!
If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?
Definitely Adam, the protagonist. He’s 91 now and loves nothing better than a good chat. But then again, readers also love Jean, the quiet heroine of The Upside of Hunger. Adam and Jean are wonderful people – both highly intelligent and great conversationalists. And given they’ve lived almost a century, there’s never a shortage of things to talk about.
I’m sure there isn’t! Thank you so much for sharing your story with me today. All the best for the future of the bursary too.