Curled up on the sofa of her New Jersey home on a wintry night several years ago after her four children were asleep, author Helen Maryles Shankman became entranced by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The notion of Buffy – a teenager who battles supernatural foes — got her creative juices flowing.
“I realized that vampires were the ideal metaphor for anyone living outside the boundaries of a typical existence,” she said.
For years, she had yearned to share the tales of her family’s survival during the Holocaust. At the same time, Shankman herself had a rich personal history as an art student in Manhattan, working as an artist’s assistant in Tribeca and as a graphic designer at Conde Nast under the direction of a renowned editor. She wished she could put it all into story form but wasn’t sure how.
She decided vampires were the solution.
“Vampires are immortal, which meant this character’s life could span an era from the 1930s through the 1990s. Since my vampire wasn’t Jewish, it meant he could also serve as a witness to the horrors of the Holocaust without being swept up in it,” she told The Times of Israel.
The next night, Raphael Sinclair, the protagonist of her novel, appeared in her head whispering his tragic story.
“My art school experiences, my years as an art assistant in downtown New York, my mother’s Holocaust stories — he tied them all together with his enigmatic, generation-spanning presence.”
And thus “The Color of Light” (Stony Creek Press: 2013) was born.
The book has since earned acclaim as the number one book on the Jewish Literature and Fiction Bestseller List, number 8 in Paranormal Romance and number 14 in Horror — quite an unusual combination to say the least.
The novel tells the story of Tessa Moss, a student at the American Academy of Classical Art who opts to paint images from the Holocaust in honor of her survivor grandparents. Tessa soon catches the attention of the school’s mysterious founder, Raphael Sinclair, who is rumored to be a vampire.
Raphael is drawn to Tessa after he spies her sketch of a mother at a concentration camp holding a child. At her feet was a suitcase with the name Wizotsky printed on it. Raphael is convinced that the drawing depicts Sofia Wizotsky, a Jewish artist who was the love of his life and who disappeared during World War II.
Raphael decides Tessa is the link to discovering what happened to her. But the pair soon find themselves inexplicably drawn to each other.
Author Shankman’s ability to blend fact with fantasy, and make it sound so real, is a testament to her soulful writing. She brings readers into the art studio – from the smell of turpentine, to the joy of bringing life to an empty white canvas — and shows us Rembrandts, Vermeers and Da Vincis.
The elegant writing and sensory descriptions in this book, along with the fabulous plot twists will keep readers enchanted until the end.
This reader’s only caveat is that there are some steamy love scenes, which will prevent me from gifting the book to my mother.
Initially, Shankman feared that pairing the Holocaust with vampires could insult survivors and their families. But she considered Art Spiegelman’s cartoon “Maus,” in which Jews were portrayed as mice. She was also inspired by “X-Men.” Magneto, who can lift, bend, and control anything made of metal, is a Holocaust survivor.
Utilizing the medium of vampires to tell her story will undoubtedly reach readers who wouldn’t normally pick up a book dealing with the Shoah. At least one blogger wrote she has shied away from Holocaust literature since high school but was drawn to this book because of the cachet associated with vampires these days.
Both of Shankman’s parents were from eastern Poland. Their first-hand accounts of hiding from Nazis, and their sense of fear informed the World War II section of the book, she said. Her grandfather made saddles and harnesses for prominent Nazis.
Her grandfather and his family were protected by a powerful German official, who helped him at real risk to himself. Later, they were saved by kind and brave Polish farmers.
Eventually, her grandfather took his family into the woods, where they hid for two years. After the war they went to a DP camp in Germany.
The horrors that her family underwent helped turn Shankman into an artist
The horrors that her family underwent helped turn Shankman into an artist and gave her material to work with. It was a way for her to cope with what had happened to her relatives, she said.
Growing up in the West Rogers neighborhood of Chicago, she spent many of her yeshiva day school classes doodling instead of listening to teachers’ lectures and she developed a special talent for drawing portraits.
“When you’re an artist, you know,” she said. “When you are four, you already are drawing way better than everyone else.”
Shankman studied at Parsons School of Design and the New York Academy for Art. She worked as an assistant to Conde Nast’s editorial director, Alex Liberman, a legend in the art world. Her artwork has been displayed in numerous exhibitions in and around New York City and she has painted many commissioned portraits, including one of Hillary Clinton that was presented to the White House while she was First Lady.
She subsequently discovered writing is much like painting. And although she modestly insists she wasn’t a writer when she began this book, the short stories she has written over the past few years have earned acclaim including a nomination for a Pushcart Prize.
“You strive for different colors, different shadings in your words. In some passages, you sketch out information,” she said. “And in some passages you dive in for more intensive treatment. Though a book and a painting are both made of many parts, each must work first as a whole.”