Someone asked me why I’m writing this book, and whether it’s a biography of my family.

There’s an easy answer to the second half:  No.

But it’s actually more complicated than that.  It’s true that I was inspired, and the book is inspired, by my mom’s family.  But it’s not a biography, nor is it a memoir.

I started with what my mom’s family started with:  Two young Polish immigrants coming to America in 1907.  The young woman comes in July; the young man, in November.  They’re both from the same part of Poland (the Russian partition), but from different towns; they don’t meet until after they arrive in America.  They marry in June of 1909 in New Jersey, where he works as a boilermaker for the railroad, and they have a couple of children.  Within a few years, he’s transferred to Jackson, Michigan; they live in a small bungalow in town and have several more children, and then in 1926, they move to a farm on the outskirts of town.

This much is all historically accurate.  My maternal grandparents did all of these things, and in these time frames.

But from that starting point, nearly everything in Eighteen Crossroads is entirely fictional.  Josef and Aniela don’t have the same number of children as my grandparents, nor the same configurations of children (x-many boys, x-many girls, born in x-years).  None of the second- or third-generation characters in the book are real people, and even where some version of some of the events in these stories did actually take place, those events have been fictionalized.  In most cases, they didn’t really happen, and in cases where they did happen, they didn’t happen to these people in these places.

For instance, one of my uncles did serve in Patton’s Third Army during WW2, and I’ve been told he fought at the Battle of the Bulge (a time and place in which one of my stories is set), but I know no more about my uncle’s service (or his life) than that.  I’m sure none of the events in the story in which the main character finds himself in those basic circumstances are remotely similar to the actual events of my uncle’s life.  It would be an incredible (and unlikely) coincidence if they were.

Similarly, I know my grandfather was conscripted into the Russian army, and that he was injured in battle due to a fall from a horse—but I don’t know when or where, or even in what conflict, he fought.  He did die as a result of his refusal to allow the amputation of his leg due to gangrene, and he did say that he came into this world with two legs and he was jolly well going to go out with two legs (actually I think the “jolly well” was probably tacked on by my mom), and my character Josef in the novel does all of these things.  But the fictional character isn’t my grandfather, and the story is not my grandfather’s story.  The fictional Josef is a different Josef altogether.

The point is, this novel is a work of fiction, and the characters who populate it are also fictional.

I am not writing it to tell my own Polish immigrant family’s story.  But I am writing it to tell a Polish immigrant family’s story.

Which leads me to the other half of my friend’s question:  Why am I writing this book?

My purpose is to explore issues of both human identity (removed from national identity and/or language and custom) and the formation of American identity as it develops over several generations.  I’m fascinated by the well-known “generation gaps” that seem so inevitable between parents, their children, and their grandchildren, even as the human condition–that is, the general experiences involved in simply being human–remain unchanging from one generation to the next and also across races, creeds, and cultures.  Why is it so hard for most of us to imagine our parents as eighteen-year-olds, or as children?  What defines family, other than genetics?

In the book, Aniela struggles with the difference between the American “Melting Pot” and what Poles referred to as “Russification” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which was enforced by law.  There’s also a marked contrast between Poland and America, both politically and socially, as America was a country in need of people and in search of an identity, while Poland at that time (or more accurately, Polonia) was comprised of millions of people in the diaspora who identified as Poles but had no country to call home.

And finally, two or three or four generations removed from the immigrants themselves, do the American descendants of those immigrants have any connection at all to their ancestors’ roots?  — and should they?

The exploration of these questions, and others, is the reason I’m writing this novel.

And also . . well . . it’s fun.

Why do you write what you write?  What inspires you?