Maple Grove author Sarah Hanley touches people’s hearts with her debut novel, Matka. The book is based on the true story of her grandmother Zofia Lach’s life during and after World War II. The road to publishing her book was neither short, nor easy, but with the help of her writing group and the encouragement of her family, Hanley delivers a powerful story about the refugee aftermath of World War II.
When meeting Hanley, one first notices her shy smile. She is humbled by the attention her debut novel has received. With the publication of Matka, the Maple Grove resident of over 15 years fulfilled one of her dreams. “The book was in the works for a long time,” Hanley says. “I was fascinated by my grandfather’s stories about World War II, how at times they had to eat grass to survive and how my grandparents found each other. When I was laid off my job in 2003 and started freelancing as a graphic designer, I had some extra time and thought his life story would make an interesting book.”
However, Hanley ended up not writing the story of her grandfather. Rather, she focused on her grandmother—hence the title. (Matka is Polish for mother.) “Becoming a mom myself five years ago made me understand the complete hardship of the shattered families after the war. The story then started to speak to me from a different point of view,” Hanley says. “I realized what my grandmother had gone through. She was separated from her oldest three children and ended up working as a laborer on a farm. The desperation parents felt in being displaced and taken away from their children and loved ones was difficult to describe.” The result is a touching novel about the aftermath of the war, family and a mother’s never ending love.
The time between when the idea of a book first took root to the final product was lengthy, a lesson Hanley quickly learned. She had never written anything of substance before, nor did she take special writing classes in high school or college. “I didn’t know how to balance fiction and facts,” she says, as she describes her initial dilemma. In order to learn how to write a novel, Hanley took a class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and became a part of a group of likeminded, aspiring writers. “That class really helped me, and I am still meeting with my writers group. If it weren’t for that group, I would have quit writing a long time ago. These fellow writers inspire me, as they are honest and trustworthy,” she says.
The support of Hanley’s husband and her mother also helped tremendously.
“My mother was a great resource,” she says. Hanley describes the process of researching facts and diving into the history of Europe after World War II. “There were times when I was stuck in the story, and I was able to question my mom because she lived a part of the story and heard it directly from her parents,” she says.
The experience of writing a book helped Hanley make the difficult transition from working as a graphic designer to being a writer. “I became more drawn to words. I learned to appreciate the beauty of writing and the flexibility of it, though now I still work in the design field,” she says.
However, choosing a publishing route was not easy. Self-publishing was always appealing to Hanley, and a fellow writer, who predominantly self-publishes, encouraged her to finalize the last steps to releasing her novel in August 2018. “I like the control, which you have by self-publishing. I felt that I could do it,” she says. “As a graphic designer, I had my ideas for the cover already in front of me, and I was able to set my own timetable.”
But the road isn’t always easy to navigate on the self-publishing journey: “The most difficult part is the marketing,” Hanley says. “With the thousands of good options out there, it can be hard to get a potential reader’s attention.”
Emotions are kicked into high gear in Matka, and the story of her grandmother continues to be an emotional topic for Hanley. Both of her maternal grandparents suffered dementia (likely Alzheimer’s, but not confirmed), and she witnessed the effects that the debilitating health issues had on them. Her grandparents passed away in 1998, less than a month from each other. As a result, Hanley donates a portion of the sales of her book to the Alzheimer’s Association. “I am committed to do that for every book I sell,” she says.
Hanley continues to be driven by inspiration. Matka will not be her last book; several more are in the works. One project tells the story of an artist and his muse, and Maple Grove Magazine will certainly check back with Hanley when this book arrives on the literary scene—we can already see her shy smile emerge when we speak about her latest endeavors.
Sarah Hanley welcomes invitations to local book clubs. “I enjoy discussing Matka with anybody,” she says. As a member of a book club herself, she appreciates how rewarding it is to exchange opinions. Many books touch on topics, which were highly relevant when the book in question was written or when the story takes place, but some of those same topics are easily transferred into today’s discourse. This is the case with Matka. “The refugee issue is still very current,” Hanley says. “History can repeat itself or keeps repeating itself. If my book contributes to learning about our own past and helps readers understand this sensitive topic, I am happy.”
Speaking of books, what genre does Hanley read, and what are her favorite books? “I don’t favor a particular genre,” she says. “I just finished reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin. My favorite novels in college were The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.” Plath and Smith’s classic works deeply inspired Hanley. “You can feel the emotion and anguish in those books,” she says.
The Write Stuff
For those who are interested in exchanging stories with other authors, the Maple Grove Writing Group meets from 9:30-11:30 a.m. every first and third Friday of the month at the Maple Grove Community Center, 12951 Weaver Lake Road. Additional information is available at 763.494.6514.
Where to Buy
Matka can be purchased at Common Good Books in St. Paul and ordered through the Maple Grove Barnes & Noble store. The paperback and e-book versions are available on Amazon, and the Hennepin County Library system circulates a copy. Visit sarahhanleybooks.com for more information.