In her 2018 debut novel, The Bookshop of Yesterdays, Amy Meyerson took her main character from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to embark on a literary scavenger hunt.
In her second, The Imperfects (Park Row, $27.99), the Friends’ Central grad brings the story of a fractured family and a mysterious heirloom to her hometown (with stops in L.A., New York, and Vienna).
When a spectacular lost diamond is found in the brooch her grandmother left her, Rebecca “Beck” Miller embarks on a mission to prove that the bequest was acquired honestly. Along the way she learns that her grandmother was among 50 Jewish children who had been rescued from the Nazis by a Philadelphia couple (a nod, with names changed, to the story of Philadelphians Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, which was told in a 2013 HBO documentary).
We talked with Meyerson, who teaches writing at the University of Southern California, about lost gems, found stories, and why family histories fascinate her.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
They were kind of simultaneous. My first book, The Bookshop of Yesterdays, is mostly set in L.A., with a little bit at the beginning in Philadelphia. I really enjoyed writing about Philadelphia for that book and getting to revisit it. And then when I was doing events for the first book, I was still very early in [working on] The Imperfects, but I kept mentioning at my events that I was thinking about setting it in Philadelphia, and everyone got really excited.
And then when I was researching and I kind of stumbled upon the Krauses. I was like, oh, this is perfect. For me, what happens a lot with writing is that I have instincts that I want to do something and I don’t know why necessarily. But then, later on in the process, something unfolds that tells me it was the right decision.
I knew I wanted to write about a diamond that had some historical significance. Initially, I thought I was going to write about one of the Romanov stones. But that was around the 100-year anniversary of the Russian revolution and I knew there was a lot of stuff coming out about the Romanovs. So I honestly just did a Google search for famous missing stones.
To me, anyway, it had the most interesting background. Even before it went missing, there’s a lot of contradicting stories about how it ended up in Europe. It belonged to the Medicis and then it belonged to the Hapsburgs. But there’s all of these really rich rumors of its earlier ownership. Every article I read had competing dates and competing ownership. It gave me more room to deviate from any truth because there wasn’t sort of a singular truth about this diamond.
I would say both. Part of why I changed the Krauses’ name is because I wanted to be inspired by their story, but I didn’t want to feel an obligation of telling it 100%. What I really like about research is that it gives you plot points for writing. The whole backstory of my novel came out of true points of history. So in that regard, it made it easier.
I think the challenge was that I was writing about some figures that haven’t been written about that much, especially in English.
I didn’t grow up in a family where generations were really close. My grandparents on one side lived in Pittsburgh. The other side, they weren’t in the picture. And I think as I get older, I have a lot of regrets over all the stories about my family that I don’t know. And that I can’t really know.
So I’m really interested in this idea of what you can discover about the past, based on what’s left behind. And I like in my books being able to allow the characters to discover more than I’ve been able to discover about my own family. I think it primarily comes from this place of regret.
I think so. My immediate family has always been very close, but I think it does change the way I think about heritage. I don’t have as many stories of the past as my parents do, and sort of thinking about the future, I want to be able to tell him what I know and more.
The mechanics of it are fairly different. But the essence of it is the same — you just want to get it in front of readers. I still think that word of mouth is the most powerful form of publicity for a book. The biggest trouble right now is that unless you get a ton of coverage, the way that most people encounter a book is walking into a bookstore and seeing it on a table. And, you know, booksellers will hand-sell books they’re passionate about. I think the struggle right now is figuring out how to replicate that online.