Author publishes first novel based on her grandparents

Sarah Hanley is holding her first novel titled “Matka.” Submitted Photo

Publishing a novel is a dream that a lot of writers have, getting it out into the world for readers worldwide to enjoy. Novels have the ability to take the reader into a different world or a different time. That was the goal of young writer Sarah Hanley. In August 2018, she self-published her first book “Matka.”

“Matka” is about Zosia, a young girl who is taken to a German prison camp as a prisoner of war (POW) in place of her son. She meets Czeslaw, a man with connections that could help her escape Europe. When they are released after the war ended, the protagonist has a choice to make: go back to Poland where her children were waiting for her, or go to the United States to start a new life with Czeslaw.

Hanley said the last chapter of the novel actually takes place in Minot.

It’s “loosely based around her grandmother,” Sofia Lach, who came over to North Dakota from a German prison camp where she was held as a POW, being a Polish Catholic. She met her husband, Chester Lach, at the prison camp, and once they were set free, they crossed the Atlantic Ocean to settle in Minot.

She found the story of her grandparents “interesting,” using what she was told by her grandparents to write her novel. Her grandmother “was reserved, anxious, and suffered from dementia,” so Hanley didn’t get to know her very well. Hanley said her grandfather “was a character.” He was “a very big, loud, interesting person” and he made friends all over.

Chester Lach had a business in Minot for several years before he moved to Garrison and passed away in January 1998. His wife passed just a little less than a month later.

Sarah Hanley was born and raised in Minot, graduating from Minot High School. After graduating at 18, she went to college at North Dakota State University in Fargo. At first, she went in for engineering, but discovered that she didn’t like or understand the math, so she changed her major to architecture. She said she wasn’t great with dimensions and distances. On top of that, architecture was too structured for her. She wanted a more creative way to express herself.

She always “gravitated toward art and felt comfortable there.” After receiving a degree in visual arts with concentrations in photography and graphic design, she got her job as a graphic designer in Maple Grove, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. She has been there since graduating from NDSU.

The main motivator she had for writing her novel was her grandfather. Hanley had originally wanted the novel to be a biography about him, but she found a way to relate better to her grandmother: she had twins six years ago. Having children and knowing that bond between mother and child gave her insight as to the internal conflict her grandmother must have felt, so her protagonist became Zosia.

Hanley also had a general timeline of the events of World War II, and she used that knowledge to structure the novel.

She began writing the novel in 2015, finishing a first draft and presenting it to her writing group where she received some helpful feedback. She took a break for about a year from the novel after her father passed away.

The break helped her to clear her head. “(In) the fall of 2017, I picked it up again and committed to publishing it in one year (…) after many rounds of rewrites, advice from my writing group, and a fantastic editor,” Hanley wrote in an email. She also said she is very grateful for her writing group, “who are honest and brutal in their critique, but are extremely supportive of each other.” They kept her going when she didn’t think she could continue in making her dream a reality.

“Matka” has won awards since its publication 2018. One was from the Minnesota Author Project, which chooses independent authors from different states. Each state declares a winner and they go to a competition from there.

Another award was an honorable mention in Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards in the mainstream fiction category.

Currently, the novel is available through Barnes & Noble and Amazon, on the Nook and Kindle through their respective providers, and can be found on the shelves in paperback. She has thought about getting it printed as a hardcover. Libraries prefer to have hardcovers for their durability over a paperback, and she would like more places to carry her novel. They are more expensive to print, and because she had it published herself, she doesn’t have any plans for hardcovers at this time.

She has also had several requests and mentions of having her novel released as an audio book. When lives are busy, people don’t have the time to sit and read a book, so they listen to it while they drive or while they do the dishes or fold the laundry. Hanley debated about audio books a lot, and wondered if she would want the readers to have thick accents for authenticity, slight accents, or no accents at all. “(It) sounds overwhelming right now,” she said, so she put it on the back burner.

In early 2020, Hanley plans on releasing a new novel, based in the 1920s and in the present, going back and forth between the time periods. The new work focuses on the Coney Island sideshow of premature babies that were put on display in machines that kept the infants alive. It will also be printed in paperback and digital formats.


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