Creative Writing

“The Distance of Mercy”—A Passage through Darkness into a Hopeful Future: A Book Review Featuring a Conversation with the Author

Shelly Drancik’s impeccably written novella, The Distance of Mercy, is a hundred-page passage through the dark territories of institutionalized hatred and generational enmity, a journey that, thankfully, carries the reader to the other side through the pathways of friendship, love, and mercy. The main setting of the story is Chicago in the late sixties, with situational insight coming through flashbacks to Vienna twenty years earlier.

The book opens with a young woman’s first-person account of how her world was shattered before she was born as a result of the German invasion of Austria, the devastation continuing through the allied occupation of her country following the Second World War. The damage is irreparable, but in the chapters that follow we learn how the narrator discovers a kind of redemption along with the strength and faith to move forward with her life.

“Sometimes ‘all we have to offer is love.’ As the novella closes, the reader will reflect upon the many facets and subtleties of this understated truth.”

Shelly Drancik

Her name is Nicolette, and in subsequent chapters we see her through the eyes of Tillie, a woman who cleans houses and has taken Nicolette on as a helper. Tillie’s voice is that of an “ample-sized” black woman who lost her husband in the war before they could start a family. She never remarried and has remained childless. A bond gradually develops between Tillie, who is never at a loss for words, and taciturn Nicolette.

The girl is something of a mystery to the older woman. Tillie becomes fascinated with Nicolette’s past and how it must feel to travel so far from home and family in order to study violin in America. Nicolette is reticent, but Tillie gradually pieces together enough of her past to realize that both she and the girl have been permanently scarred by war.  

Nicolette’s father, as a gifted violinist, placed high expectations upon his daughter. After his dreams were thwarted, he sought to realize them vicariously through her. Nicolette’s mother was physically and spiritually beautiful, yet her attractiveness and sensibilities became a burden to the family during the Russian occupation of parts of Austria. When Nicolette comes to America, her mother is dead and her father is ill.

The Chicago scenes, as well as the Austrian ones, are sensory and precise without being overwrought. The dialogue, mostly between Nicolette and Tillie, is crisp, revealing, and freighted with emotion. All of the characters, even Tillie, are mysterious and motivated by secret longings.

Nicolette’s desire for love and acceptance eventually overcomes her need for solitude, bringing complicated problems and conflicted emotions. There will be no easy way for the young Austrian violinist, but Tillie, an unlikely ally because of her skin color, lends support. In doing so she gains a broader sense of purpose for herself as well as respite from her painful past. Both she and Nicolette learn that sometimes “all we have to offer is love.” As the novella closes, the reader will reflect upon the many facets and subtleties of this understated truth.

The reader will also, more than likely, turn back to the beginning pages to savor the ways that love and mercy, even when ostensibly absent, carry us through the dark hours into an illuminated future. Read The Distance of Mercy, then read it again. It’s that good. Available through Amazon and other online retailers as well as directly from the publisher, Unsolicited Press.

Following is a conversation with Shelly Drancik:

RY: During the Vietnam era the term “generation gap” was often used to describe the tension, lack of understanding, and lack of empathy that existed between those coming of age and their parents. The war was the principal dynamic behind this “gap.” Can we draw parallels between Nicolette’s WWII-related struggles and the generational conflicts of the early hippie days in America? When Nicolette arrives in Chicago in 1967, the Vietnam war is in full swing. Is this coincidental or was it a conscious decision to have this war, unstated as it is, serve subliminally as a backdrop to reflect the destructive patterns of Nicolette’s and her parents’ circumstances?

SD: Your questions have such depth! I feel you wrote these based on knowing the origins of why I wrote this book. Thank you!

Yes, parallels can be drawn; one of the scenes shows Nicolette on the subway with Tillie as she watches, actually stares, at the females her age. I wondered how Nicolette’s childhood experiences in postwar Vienna would affect the way she sees them, and how they’d see her, though they didn’t notice her. I’m not suggesting that American young adults didn’t have lives that were difficult or traumatic; they were simply raised in a completely different environment. In spending time thinking about Nicolette’s life, the late 60s in Chicago not only exposed this contrast, it also depicted the extreme prejudice Tillie experienced. The Vietnam War was a veiled part of this background.

RY: Nicolette is a complex, fascinating character. You must have spent a great deal of time with her in your mind in order to understand her desires, fears, and motives. Is she based on a person or persons you’ve known, or is there perhaps a bit of the author in your protagonist?

SD: My father died when I was 14 and for much of my life I suppressed the pain that his absence created. It seems that Nicolette became the voice of my buried grief. Her voice came to me very specifically in tone and content but it took a long time to draw out her story.

RY: The book seems entirely accurate in the details of setting (especially the cathedrals) as well as the information concerning the war and subsequent Allied occupation. I get the feeling that this material is very close to your heart. Have you spent time in Vienna? Do you have family members who lived through the events of the occupation?

SD: I’m drawn to WWII history, notably surrounding Hitler’s rise to power and stories about the subsequent resistance movement. I still wonder how his reign came to be, how it could be allowed when his intent was to extinguish an entire population of humans. I started reading about Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria and the Night of Broken Glass when Jewish people were targeted and hunted, or sent away if they could afford the Nazi imposed confiscation tax, and I knew this was where Nicolette was from. Even though these scenes are not in the book, the events weighed heavily on me as I wrote and they became integral to the story.

In order to fully understand Nicolette, I had to imagine what it would be like as a child to live in an environment vastly different than mine with everything controlled politically. Families suffered, and still do, under occupation and oppression. The Soviets were some of the Allied liberators in Vienna at the end of the war but then became the oppressors during the next ten years.  

To make sure my descriptions were accurate, I was fortunately able to visit Vienna for a few days. I spent time in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, went on a historic tour, visited a couple of museums, and indulged myself at a kaffeehaus for jause.   

RY: In reading The Distance of Mercy, one can’t help but reflect on the horrors of war and how the devastation ripples through time and space. Distance, though, eventually helps, even heals. Those who’ve suffered often cling to memories, artifacts, and the practices that abided with them through the bad times, but they’re also—at least the ones who come out on the other side—able to cast their hopes on a better future, their dreams clarified through experience and perspective. Distance, both temporal and spatial, seems to be the key. Is this idea implied in the title? Can you elaborate on other elements that are necessary in order for sufferers of traumatic stress to move out of despair toward hope and fulfillment?

SD: The title changed a few times. I decided on The Distance of Mercy knowing that Nicolette had to leave for America in order to get distance from her life. With this act, she betrayed her father.  Nicolette felt she had to forgive herself for what she saw as her sin when she was a child—taking confections from a Soviet soldier and not protecting her mother from him. She clearly wasn’t responsible, yet some children have a coping mechanism of self-blame in order to make sense of traumatic events they are a part of or witness.

Tillie was the one person who saw Nicolette’s pain even though she didn’t know its precise details. With that one human connection, Nicolette was able to “move out of despair toward hope and fulfillment.” Tillie stood in as well as a mother figure though Nicolette was reluctant to open herself up to her. At the end, there was a subtle, yet significant change within both women.

RY: Can the human race ever move beyond war and its horrors? Why is it so difficult for us to apply the lessons of history in a constructive way, actually learning from past mistakes?  

SD: After war has ended, it continues to affect soldiers and lingers within families. Trauma is passed from generation to generation. I don’t understand why we as humans can’t learn from our past mistakes with war, destruction, and loss of life. It doesn’t make sense.

RY: The novella doesn’t provide a neatly wrapped ending with all conflicts resolved; war has taken its toll and there are victims. As in real life, the future is uncertain. The story does, though, close on a hopeful—albeit unexpected—note, at least for Nicolette and Tillie. Did you struggle with the ending? What is your idea of a perfect ending and what strategies can be employed in achieving it?

SD: Yes, I struggled tremendously because for a long time the ending was different. I had to frame Nicolette’s story within the context of who she is narrating the story to. The ending for Nicolette is more like her beginning. For Tillie, even when life was unfair and difficult for her, she didn’t dwell; she moved on, and that will continue to be her path.   

I believe that endings must first satisfy the story even if doing so results in readers preferring a different ending. One strategy is to try out different endings until you find the most authentic one, the one that clicks. With the screenplay that I’m working on, I know the ending so I’m writing everything in the script to get to that moment of closure.  

RY: Please explain your writing process. Do you start with voluminous notes and detailed outline, or do you allow the narrative to develop organically, growing out of the characters and maybe a pivotal scene or two? Do you always choose one method over the other, or do different projects require different approaches?

SD: With this story, I heard Nicolette’s voice. With other stories, it may be a line of conversation or an image I see which triggers something inside of me. It’s rarely intentional. After an idea has a hold on me, I start jotting down notes and researching if necessary. Outlines haven’t worked for me since I’m not a linear thinker.

For the novella, the pivotal scene (after many failed attempts) was the appearance of the Soviet soldier in their flat. The rest of the narrative flowed from Nicolette’s experience of that moment and the loss that would follow, all seen through her limited perspective as a child.     

RY: What other projects do you have in the works? Do you see yourself producing more fiction in a similar vein, or will you veer off into entirely new directions?

SD: I’m working on a book of nonfiction flash as well as writing a screenplay. I’d love to write another novella as I’m partial to its form and compression. Maybe something a little less heavy though!

RY: What are your hopes for The Distance of Mercy? What would you like for readers to take away from this impactful reading experience?

SD: I’m grateful that the book exists and believe much of it is relevant today, especially with our country’s reckoning of racial inequality this last year. What do I want readers to take from it? That in experiencing a connection with one person vastly different than ourselves, we can find the opportunity to feel compassion for everyone.    

RY: Historical fiction often becomes bogged down with details and facts, but here the prose is sparse and lyrical. The carefully placed details, the tight dialogue, and the references to classical music reach us on a level that is more spiritual than mental while still providing much to ponder. How did you manage to achieve so much in only a hundred pages? What role does the process of revision play in producing such a cogent finished product?

SD: Because of the first-person narration, I knew I couldn’t load this story with too many historical facts and details. I had to weave them in as naturally as possible. At one point, I tried an omniscient narrator just so I could include more facts! Finding the right structure for the story was also crucial. Many revised drafts helped me realize how it wanted to be told: in parallel voices of Nicolette and Tillie.

The process of revision plays a massive role. Writing is rewriting. Then more.

I also keep a Mark Twain quote nearby. “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”

RY: Thanks, Shelly, for sharing insight into the making of this impactful reading experience!

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