This past August, Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR published Traitor, the debut novel of Amanda McCrina. FSG describes Traitor as “a tightly woven YA thrill ride exploring political conflict, deep-seated prejudice, and the terror of living in a world where betrayal is a matter of life or death.” A native of Atlanta, Georgia, McCrina studied at Geneva College from 2008-2010 before returning home and graduating from the University of West Georgia with a degree in History. After teaching English in Spain and Japan for several years, McCrina moved to Franklin, Tennessee, where she works as a bookseller. The following conversation took place with her former professor, Eric Miller, via email.
Your story takes the reader into complex moral and historical terrain, with characters confronting questions and circumstances that would confound the wisest of souls. What made the YA genre attractive as a form for this kind of story?
One reason I decided to write Traitor as a YA novel with teenage protagonists was simply that I wanted to remind my readers that combatants in WWII were often very young. Teens enlisted, or were conscripted, or joined underground movements, and fought and died in every theater of the war. We tend to forget that because Hollywood war movies often cast adult actors in these roles. But it’s important to remember that throughout history, and especially during wartime, teenagers have had to confront the kinds of thorny moral dilemmas and difficult choices I present to my characters in Traitor.
Another reason is that despite the heavy subject matter, Traitor is thematically more YA than adult. The driving questions of YA are the big questions of identity, relationship, and purpose that we tend to grapple with as teens: Who am I? What am I going to do with my life? What is my place in my society and the world? In adult fiction, the protagonists have usually already arrived at answers to those questions as the story opens. But in Traitor, a story about a half Polish, half Ukrainian soldier torn between conflicting allegiances, the search for identity and belonging is the story.
The verb “torn” in this last sentence seems especially apt. The characters throughout the story are in a state of physical and psychic extremity, experiencing forms of pain difficult to apprehend. Is pain important to you as a storyteller?
I try not to be gratuitous with my use of pain, physical or psychological. None of the devastating things that happen in Traitor are there simply for shock value—though many of the things that happened on the Eastern Front of WWII are (and should be) shocking to us. It was a particularly ugly part of an ugly war. I have the feeling that’s one reason why the Eastern Front remains relatively obscure to us in the West. The Eastern Front resists the easy dichotomy of “good guys” vs. “bad guys,” and it’s very hard to write a compelling or uplifting story when there are no “good guys.” To be true to this history was necessarily to write a story full of pain.
There are story-craft considerations too. “All stories . . . end in death,” Hemingway said, “and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, I kept a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls close by while drafting Traitor; it covers a lot of the same thematic territory.) But at the same time I think of Sam’s speech from the movie version of The Two Towers: “But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.” The violence and pain in Traitor make the moments of grace that much more powerful.
For me, some of the most moving glimpses of that grace come through the piety of your two main characters. Amid the suffering, compromise, and betrayal, they evince a longing for fidelity to a faith they each embrace, or at least long to embrace. At one point Aleksey, narrating his story, says “I ached at the loss of our icons.”
Traitor is a story about ethnic and national identities in conflict, and in this part of the world at this time, ethnic and national identity were bound up in religious identity. If it’s impossible to write a story about this particular region and this particular conflict without including a good deal of pain, it’s equally impossible to write a story about this region and conflict without acknowledging the role of religion—how religious belief and practice shaped the world my characters know and the way they navigate that world.
But I wanted to write characters who are not only culturally religious but personally devout—that is, who don’t just practice religion by rote but whose faith informs and transcends all other identities. Aleksey, like Tolya, is an Orthodox believer. Both characters find desperately needed solace in the divine and in their expressions of faith. I’ll note that since I don’t come from an Orthodox background myself, I turned to sensitivity readers to make sure I was portraying Orthodox belief and practice accurately and respectfully, not inadvertently westernizing it—that even when my characters made their faith their own, they did so in ways that rang true to their own cultural context.
I think another moment we see personal faith very clearly is when Tolya recites the Orthodox funeral psalm (Psalm 91 in the Western tradition) for a dead friend. The death was a suicide, which strictly speaking would mean the traditional funeral service is forbidden. Yet Tolya speaks the funeral psalm anyway. To me this scene indicates both the comfort and liberty he feels within his own faith and his understanding of God first and foremost as a God of mercy and forgiveness—which helps make sense of some of his choices later in the narrative.
Did your publisher give you any push-back for your foregrounding of faith in these two characters’ lives?
None at all. I have an incredible editor at FSG Books for Young Readers. He helped me shape the story and make it more accessible for an audience who may have no background knowledge about this particular conflict. But he also understood what I wanted to do, and he trusted me with a tremendous amount of creative liberty to tell the story I wanted to tell. I made many revisions following his suggestions, sometimes painful revisions, but I never had to compromise on the heart of the story.
How did your experience as a college student affect you as a writer?
I honestly can’t tell you why, as an incoming freshman at Geneva College, I picked history as my major. I liked history as a subject, especially WWII history, but I already knew I wanted to be a writer, and everybody else I knew who wanted to be a writer was majoring in English. But I’m very thankful I picked history and stuck with it. Learning how to do history has helped me immeasurably as a writer of historical fiction, not only by giving me the technical tools to research my stories and settings, but by teaching me what to do with what I find—especially important when I’m dealing with subject matter (like Polish-Ukrainian relations) that remains sensitive in the present day.
Are there ways being a student at a Christian college affected your writing?
This question gave me pause. My immediate thought was, “Of course my experience at a Christian college affected my writing; how could it not?” and then my next thought was, “But how, specifically?” That stumped me for a while, and then finally it occurred to me that really my experience at a Christian college affected me as a Christian. It broadened my vision of Christian community; it deepened my understanding of my faith by introducing me to strands of thought within the Christian tradition that I’d never encountered before; at its best, it challenged me to consider how faith worked beyond the classroom, in praxis. And my being a Christian affects me as a historian and writer—in my understanding of historical processes, in the research questions I ask, in the stories I tell and the themes I explore.
What did studying at a state university offer you as a writer that your experience at a Christian college did not?
I hesitate to pit my experience at a Christian college against my experience at a state university. In one sense, I’m not sure it’s helpful to do so since so much of the academic experience depends on factors that can’t be chalked up directly as “Christian” or “secular” (things like professors’ personalities and classroom dynamics). The differences that stood out to me were all very practical and mundane ones: There were more course offerings at the state school—more courses on narrower topics of special interest to me; there was a larger library and readier access to research materials; and, not insignificantly, the state school was cheaper. But perhaps worth noting is that a good number of the faculty in the history and political science departments (I minored in poli-sci) were professing Christians.
What is one piece of advice you can offer to those who are teaching aspiring writers?
As a history student with aspirations to become a novelist, my favorite classes—the ones that really stuck—were the ones where the professors incorporated fiction or creative nonfiction where you wouldn’t necessarily expect those sorts of readings. I loved reading Vasily Grossman in a class on WWII—in fact, The Silent Unseen owes its existence to A Writer at War. I read Mark Twain, Isabel Allende, and Walker Percy (among others) as part of a particularly memorable poli-sci class. I really appreciated professors who got creative with course texts. In each case, I went away with both a better grasp on the historical (or political) topic at hand and a bigger idea of what literature can do.
The Silent Unseen, a companion novel to Traitor, will be published by FSG in August. Can you give us a teaser?
The Silent Unseen is a little more of a conventional YA adventure story than Traitor. The one-line “elevator pitch” is, “A Polish Resistance girl has to work together with a captured enemy soldier to find her special-ops brother when he disappears on a mission.” The protagonists are a little younger than in Traitor, and the story isn’t quite as dark—though we’re still in WWII Poland and still dealing with some difficult subject matter, including the Ostarbeiter (slave workers sent to Germany from occupied Eastern Europe) and the Volyn Massacres. The title is a reference to the Cichociemni, elite Polish paratroops who were trained in Britain by the Special Operations Executive and then parachuted back into occupied Poland to help lead resistance efforts there.