The Girl They Left Behind is a breathtaking novel set in war-torn Bucharest that follows the life of Natalia, a child abandoned by her parents who had hopes that her abandonment would mean she would have a better life. It is a tale of unrelenting love and sacrifice, of what defines a family and how to come to terms with one’s past. We recently talked to Veletzos about her incredible debut.
Congratulations on your debut novel! Have you always wanted to be a writer or is this a new development in your life?
Thank you so much! Writing has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I think I fell in love with it when I was about seven or eight, and my first story was entered in a children’s writing competition in my native Bucharest. Ever since I’ve written and read constantly, and in the early years of my family’s move to California, it brought me such solace. Eventually this led to a degree in journalism and work as a copywriter and editor—but it wasn’t until 2010, after bracing some health challenges with my youngest son and my father’s unexpected passing, that my dream of crafting a novel began to take shape. One night during that challenging period, I came across on my hard drive something I’d written three, maybe four years earlier, and it was as if someone had grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. It turns out that those pages became the opening chapter of The Girl They Left Behind, which I then went on to complete in less than two years.
What initially drew you to write a story set in Bucharest during World War II?
I have to say, several factors. Most importantly, my family’s story of survival during the war and the years of Soviet occupation was nothing short of fascinating and harrowing, giving me rich material to work with. Secondly, Romania’s history in that time has so seldomly been covered in modern literature, and I wanted to bring some of it to light through the eyes and experiences of my characters. Thirdly, I suppose it was simply nostalgia for my native city—and a desire to reconnect to it on some level. In fact, many of the piazzas and streets that I describe in my novel come directly from my recollections as a child.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for writing this book? Did you find anything surprising in your research?
Romania’s modern-day history is quite complex and turbulent, and during the long months of research, there were several books that never left my desk. A couple that comes to mind are Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, and Rumania 1866-1947: The Oxford History of Modern Europe by Keith Hitchens. As a native Romanian, I was already familiar with many of the events that shaped Romania’s fate during and after the war, yet these books enlightened me about lesser-known facts, which ended up playing an important role in my plotline. I especially enjoyed learning more about the last king of Romania, King Michael I, who at the age of 21 courageously led a coup against Romania’s pro-fascist General Antonescu and dealt a lethal blow to the crumbling Nazi power. In 1947, Michael was forced to abdicate at gunpoint by Stalin’s troops and fled Romania, but in exile his life continued to be just as fascinating—he was a pilot, a stockbroker and even a chicken farmer. Now there’s rich material for a novel and something I would love to write more about in the future!
The Girl They Left Behind is fiction that is based on a true story. How did you decide what to keep as fact and what to make your own?
I think this happened more or less organically. I knew right off the bat that I wanted to capture my grandparents’ struggles under an oppressive regime as well as the sacrifices they made for their daughter. However, when it came to Natalia, especially when she reached her twenties and fell in love, I felt the need to give her an identity of her own, to see her in my mind’s eye as someone who wasn’t entirely my mother.
The same can be said about Iosef and Zora, Natalia’s blood parents. Originally, the book’s ending followed a path closer to real life, and it wasn’t until it had gone through several revisions and I began working with my editor at Atria, that I decided to change it. Without giving away too much, I will say that it was a very emotional experience to re-write it this way, but in the end, I’m so happy that I did. This is one example where departing from reality really strengthened the storyline, much as the fictional romance which drove the unexpected conclusion.
Are you already at work on your next book? What can we expect to see from you next?
Yes, in fact, I am putting the finishing touches on a second novel—most of which I wrote while The Girl They Left Behind was on submission to publishers. It is a story of self-discovery and lost love, spanning three generations and taking the reader from pre-war Hungary to the Budapest of the late 1980s, to modern-day New York City. More information about it can be found on my website, at www.roxanne-veletzos.com
Roxanne Veletzos was born in Bucharest, Romania and moved to California with her family as a young teen. Already fluent in English and French, she began writing short stories about growing up in her native Eastern Europe, at first as a cathartic experience as she transitioned to a new culture. Building on her love of the written language, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has worked as an editor, content writer and marketing manager for a number of Fortune 500 companies. Since 2012, Roxanne has been writing historical and contemporary fiction. The Girl They Left Behind is her debut novel and is available October 9 at Half Price Books stores and HPB.com. You can find Roxanne on Facebook and Twitter.