E.R. Ramzipoor was a college student when she learned about the use of underground literature in Europe during World War II.
It's an experience that Ramzipoor recounts in the interview below.
E.R. Ramzipoor Photo Credit: Dr. Sherry Zaks
And that discovery led to Ramzipoor to writing her debut novel, The Ventriloquists (paid link), which is available to purchase starting today.
The Ventriloquists is the story of an orphan girl, Helene, living as a boy in Belgium during World War II. Helene sells copies of the nation's most popular newspaper, Le Soir, which is now a Nazi propaganda machine.
After meeting a rogue journalist, Helene is pulled into an underground network that's publishing dissident newspapers.
The network decides to publish a satirical version of Le Soir that makes fun of the Nazis. But they only have 18 days to do it.
It's a story of regular individuals doing incredible things in the face of terror and oppression. As Ramzipoor says below, "In this book, these heroes get to be the masters of their own story."
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Q&A with E.R. Ramzipoor
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now, I divide my time between the Bay Area and LA. I’m a runner, climber, and gastrotourist – and I also write stories and articles about tech.
Did you become interested in underground literature in resistance movements while studying political science as an undergrad at UC Berkeley?
Yes, I was a political science major at UC Berkeley. For my senior thesis, I wrote about how resistance movements use underground media to wage rebellion. While researching for the paper, I stumbled across the story of Faux Soir.
How did you first become interested in the use of literature in resistance movements?
It’s a funny story. I was taking a grad class on international relations, and I needed to come up with an idea for a term paper. Other than a vague notion that I wanted to write about political humor, I couldn’t figure out a topic. This really bugged me. My plan was to go to grad school, and yet I was floundering on this paper.
I mentioned to a friend that I was struggling, and she asked whether I’d ever heard of samizdat. She said it like it was a TV show I should’ve seen by now…but I’d never heard of it. So I googled it and discovered that samizdat is a type of Russian underground literature.
Political science is no different from popular culture: it paints a picture of rebellion as an act waged by men with guns. For the first time, though, I understood what people like me—nerds—do during wartime. We don’t fight with guns. We fight with typewriters, computers, and pens.
So instead of going to grad school, I wrote a novel and married that friend.
After learning about Faux Soir, when did you first think there may be a story there worth telling? And what was the writing timeline like for The Ventriloquists?
As soon as I learned about Faux Soir, I knew it was a story worth telling. These ordinary people pulled off the most daring feat of journalism in modern history – and yet I’d never heard their names. How is that possible? I knew then that if I could do something—even something small—to share this story with the world, then I had the responsibility to do so. Plus, it’s just a fun, wild, madcap tale.
I started writing it as soon as I finished college. It’s hard to say how long it took; the writing itself didn’t take long, but the editing process took a while. This is a twisty, sprawling story. I needed to balance accuracy with narrative structure, and that wasn’t always easy.
E.R. Ramzipoor on Writing The Ventriloquists
Were there any challenges to writing a novel based on actual events and real people?
My identity informs my writing heavily.
The main challenge was that this caper unfolded in secret and in only eighteen days. The real-life characters didn’t have time to stop and document what they were doing: they just needed to get the paper done and out the door before the Nazis figured out what hit them. That left me with very little information to work with.
This was both fun and a challenge. I got to breathe life into these forgotten characters, but I also felt tremendous responsibility to do justice to their lives and stories.
Is there a particular theme or point you hope readers take away from the book?
The cover of The Ventriloquists features a typewriter rising up to meet the Belgian skyline. I think this cleverly alludes to the central theme. This is a book about underdogs, about the people whom the Nazis tried to strip of their dignity: queer people, Jewish people, disabled people, women, children. In this book, these heroes get to be the masters of their own story.
While I was doing research on the events behind The Ventriloquists, I was deeply moved by stories of ordinary people performing small but stunning acts of resistance. I hope readers will come away understanding that the backbone of the resistance has always been people like us: readers, writers, and nerds.
Do you have any plans to celebrate on release day?
I do! I’m having my launch party at Moe’s Books in Berkeley (if you’re reading this and you’re local, you’re welcome to join). My wife is well-known in her field for making books that look like her colleagues’ cakes – and she’s caking my book. I always joke that I’m in this publishing business for the cake, and sometimes it’s not really a joke.
What's Next, What's Good
Are you writing anything new these days?
I'm always writing something new.
Should we expect more books set during World War II?
Maybe! There are so many extraordinary stories to tell.
Who are some writers that you admire?
Daniel Handler has been my literary hero since childhood. As a young adult, I discovered Jennifer Egan, whose work is just unspeakably beautiful. She taught me that a sentence can hold an entire world.
Have you read any good books lately?
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