Roni Robbins has been a professional writer for 35 years, but her first novel “Hands of Gold,” draws from her family’s real-life experience and flight from anti-Semitism before the height of the Holocaust.
“Hands of Gold” is a work of fiction, but Robbins pulls from the original cassette tapes left by her maternal grandfather, who survived tuberculosis, a workplace shooting and an accidental killing, and walked thousands of miles across several countries to flee anti-Semitism in pre-Nazi Europe.
The story follows Sam Fox, a man who spent his whole life running against the hands of time across four countries, nine decades and five generations. “Hands of Gold,” weaves together Sam’s love affair with his “girl,” Hannah, and his immigrant adventures. From his early days as a self-centered hustler – a character you’ll love to hate – to his travails as family provider, Sam ultimately gains the reader’s sympathy as he exposes the frailty of life and proves his strength as a survivor in the face of unmistakable odds.
Sam’s path takes him from war-torn Europe at the turn of the 20th century through Prohibition, the Great Depression, labor union reforms and the golden age of radio and television in America. He’ll face a number of financial, emotional and health challenges along the way. Namely, he’ll contract tuberculosis, accidentally kill a man in a trolley collision and lose a grown son to leukemia.The novel begins and ends in a nursing home with a remarkable secret, a past worth chronicling and a cherished treasure that was buried for years and uncovered.
In 2009, “Hands of Gold” was a quarter-finalist for historical fiction in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.
Robbins is an editor and writer for Medscape/WebMD, having previously served as the associate editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times/The Times of Isreal. Her writing has appeared in major publications such as Forbes, Huffington Post, WebMD and the New York Daily News. She currently resides in Atlanta.
Cobb Life Editor Madison Hogan asked Robbins to share some of her insights as a writer and talked the nitty gritty about finding inspiration in family history, dedicating her time to her craft and diving deep into the secrets of the past.
CL: How did the idea for “Hands of Gold” come about?
RR: My grandfather left 450 minutes of cassette tapes for the family. I was inspired by his words and he said if there was a writer in the family who wanted to do something with the tapes, so be it. I took it as a personal calling as I’m the only full-time writer in the family as a career journalist. At first, I wrote a story for the Atlanta Jewish Times, when I was a reporter there in the 90s, titled “Giving Memories a Voice: My grandfather left a piece of himself behind as a legacy to his progeny” that was the precursor to the novel. Around the same time, I also won a Rockower Award, known as the Pulitzer Prize of Jewish journalism, for a piece I wrote about seniors in nursing homes, “Out of Touch.” This may have influenced the beginning and ending of the book and my details within about aging.
CL: What separates this book from other pieces you’ve written? What connects it?
RR: As a journalist, I’ve only written nonfiction, based solely on facts and interviews. My longest pieces were maybe 5,000 words max. This novel is some 70,000 words. I’ve also never written this much fiction, making up quotes and developing characters and scenes from my own imagination. Admittedly, I created a few fake stories
as celebratory gifts for friends and family, including one about my grandparents in 1986, “Extra! Extra! Grandma and Grandpa celebrate 60th anniversary.” Some of the lines in that piece may have influenced “Hands of Gold.”
What connects my nonfiction article with this novel is that the latter is based on truth – I initially transcribed the cassette tapes – and involved research to ensure credibility, just as my articles do. I started with facts as I’m accustomed to in my non-fiction and built the fiction around that base. Both types of writing employ the creative process and storytelling.
CL: What can readers expect from “Hands of Gold”?
RR: Readers can expect to be transported to a different place and time, starting at the turn of the last century before the world wars. They can expect to learn about European and American history, the struggles of Jewish families in both countries, immigrant life, in general, and the culture and trends of that time period. This may be my family’s story, but it is largely universal, similar for any ethnicity or descendants of immigrants, which is most of us.
In addition, readers will walk away having read a well-researched book, the culmination of my 35 years as an award-winning journalist who has been published by some highly respected media. I bring the best of my writing skills to bear in this novel. It has gone through multiple edits, book group critiques, two publishers and proofing.
CL: How does inspiration strike you?
RR: Inspiration comes from employing my five senses. When my kids were little, I thought they smelled like baked goods. When I sit at the ocean and close my eyes, I listen to the breathing of the waves. Sometimes enough moves me about an experience to write about it. Typically, that writing has taken the form of a poem, as it’s more immediate and shorter.
In my longer-form writing, it is the same. The mood strikes, and I write it down. I hear or read something that inspires me and I play around with words strung together to form phrases until they flow the way I believe they should. When I listened to my grandfather’s words on tape, they touched me, and I just let them lead me. I did a lot of research and drew connections in the text, finding signs and symbols that guided me too.
CL: Do you have any rituals/best practices for writing?
RR: I don’t have rituals exactly, but I’m not a procrastinator, and I don’t have writer’s block. For me the latter doesn’t even exist. A writer writes. In my opinion, blocks are for those who don’t write for a living as I do.
If I get stuck, I write around the problem area, but keep going. I try to get it all out of my head or if it’s an interview, out of my notebook and onto the computer, and then revise, revise, revise. But the main task is to write it down as soon as it comes to me, even if it has to be on small pieces of paper or a notepad until I can put it in the proper form in the story. I find it’s best for me to carve out time to write, usually after lunch when I’m not hungry or distracted.
CL: What advice can you share with other local aspiring authors?
RR: Just write. Don’t be afraid of what others will say about your writing, don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done or there’s too much competition. In my opinion, you don’t have to be a celebrity, have a book already published or have a huge social media following. Certainly work on the latter as you write your book. But don’t give up.
It took me 20 years. I received some 50 rejections and that’s just those who responded. I’m on my second publisher. All you need is one “yes.” I got two. It requires tremendous determination, but if you want it, it’s like any other goal: Set your heart on it and make it happen for yourself. And although I write for a living, and get paid for it, I don’t think my path was any easier, though I knew I had a well-tested skill that propelled me to stay on track.
CL: How has your environment influenced your work?
RR: “Hands of Gold” is based on the Jewish family life experience, which has always been a part of my life. I was a reporter for the Atlanta Jewish Times for four years in the 90s and then associate editor for three years from mid-2018 until August, when I took a similar position with Medscape/WebMD, the latter with offices in Midtown. I’m also active in my synagogue, Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta. I am the main usher and I’m serving my second non-consecutive term on its Board of Trustees. In my youth, I also was a leader in Jewish organizations. So Judaism is an important part of my life and definitely influenced my Jewish journalism and the creation of this novel.
I also grew up in New York not terribly far from our extended family, including my grandparents and others mentioned in the book who influenced so much of my early childhood and Jewish life.
CL: What’s your favorite part of writing? Your least favorite?
RR: My favorite part of writing is when the words string together to form a sort of poetry or all the pieces of an article unite like a puzzle. It always amazes me when the finished product mirrors the harmony of an orchestra, all the sections working in unison to create a polished production. Obviously, I love when readers say they enjoyed my article or learned something new. Writing is my way of making a difference, educating and entertaining. It really is a gift from God I am blessed to share with others.
My least favorite part of writing is the rewriting and rewriting. Of course, the writing can improve in this process, but sometimes I have to give up some seemingly precious words, sentences, graphs, because the piece is too long or I’ve lost my focus trying to pack in too much. It’s hard to cut when you worked hard to create.
CL: Why did you start writing? What made you take the plunge?
RR: At first, I was writing poetry. I thought I wanted to be a musician, but I soon realized I just liked writing the lyrics. A popular friend from high school said she was going to major in journalism and had taken a journalism class. So I followed suit and when I read what I proposed for a class assignment as the opening copy of the yearbook, the room was silent. I stopped, and the teacher said to continue, and afterwards I was named the yearbook copy editor, which meant I wrote most of the copy. At that point, I realized I must be good at journalism and I never looked back. I got a journalism scholarship to the University of South Carolina and there again, my ego led the way. Probably a good clue that I was heading on the right path was that I actually enjoyed writing my college essays.
CL: What/who was your favorite book/author of all time? Why?
RR: This is probably the hardest question because I don’t have one favorite book or author; I have many. The ones that have probably influenced me the most include: “Exodus” by Leon Uris, “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant, “Letters from Rifka” (My Hebrew name) by Karen Hesse and of course, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Why those? Because I can remember the characters and the storylines years later and they run through my mind when I’m writing about Jewish themes.
The following is an excerpt of “Hands of Gold.”
She was a real hotsy-totsy. Absolutely a doll, in my opinion. I could have sworn I was having trouble breathing or at least I was breathing faster while admiring her, I’m not sure which. She was busy making the rounds, greeting relatives with kisses. When she glanced over at me, she smiled, and then a guest pulled her back into conversation and she continued her rounds. Had she returned my glare I would have surely been caught gawking.
As she moved closer, I could tell she didn’t wear much makeup, except a pale pink gloss on full lips, but her cheeks were extenuated as if with a dash of color. Her skin was so smooth and unblemished. Thick auburn curls were pulled back from her face and secured with a clip of tiny silk flowers at the back of her head. I scanned her figure once more down her curves to her hemline, revealing hearty calves, her ankles springing from double-strapped black, leather heels that did not look the least bit comfortable. Then again, I didn’t see how women wore those kinds of shoes anyway.
Apparently, Leah Stein noticed my attentions and grabbed her sister by the arm, excusing her from her rounds. Arm in arm, the two sisters approached. “This is Hannah,” Leah said, smiling mischievously, nudging Hannah towards me. “She’s visiting from New York. She’s a seamstress there in the garment district.” Our eyes met and she could hardly look at me without blushing – as I was – and smiling coyly.
All throughout dinner we glanced at each other between mouthfuls of brisket and lokshen kugel. When we weren’t talking to others at the table, we exchanged brief smiles. We were obviously flirting, and it made me feel warm and a bit flushed. I had to loosen the top button of my shirt. She watched me as I did it, and then looked away before I could catch her eyes.
In the evening, after we finished supper, as I prepared to leave, Leah suggested to Hannah, “Why don’t you see Sam out?” Hannah nodded, trying to conceal her fascination with the stranger.