Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author George P. Tymitz about his writing and his recently released book, Key Number 17: A Ukrainian Grandfather’s Odyssey of Courage, a heartfelt, powerful, and emotionally complex tale that’s a must-read.(Read the review here.)
George Tymitz wrote his first novel, Key Number 17: A Ukrainian Grandfather’s Odyssey of Courage, to honor his Ukrainian heritage through a fictional tale. He began writing as a pastime following a fulfilling forty-five-year career as both a military and a commercial pilot, flying the F4 Phantom fighter in combat in Vietnam, the F15 Eagle, and the venerable Douglas DC-8 Super 70. Born and raised in Chicago, George lives in Kentucky with his wife, Paula. They spend their time pursuing adventure: experiencing different cultures and hiking the summits of high mountains. They have traveled the world from Patagonia to Nepal. They have two fantastic adult sons and a wonderful daughter-in-law, who occasionally join them in exploring the world.
Your bio mentions that Key Number 17 was written to “honor [your] Ukrainian heritage through a fictional tale”. Can you tell us a little more about how your own ancestral heritage influenced or inspired the writing of this book?
I knew but one of my four grandparents; two had passed away before I was born, and a third died when I was a very young child. My remaining grandparent was my Ukrainian grandfather, Onuffri Tymitz (I have seen his first name, even in signature, spelled like this, and also as Onufri, and even Onuffrey). What is correct? I have no idea, so I have chosen to think of him as Onuffri, and I have dedicated Key Number 17 to him as such. As a child I would see him at family gatherings, but he never said much. But at those times when I did hear him speak, I heard a deep, strong, heavily-accented voice struggling through the English language, even after living in this country for decades.
He never actually spoke to me, except on one occasion when he said, “Hello, George.” Two words, and they were all mine. Interesting, isn’t it, that I remember those two words over seventy years later? In his defense, I never really spoke to him either, except in a greeting like, “Hello, Grandpa.” He never told me stories about his life, and I never asked. I was too shy and busy with other childhood things to pay much attention to him. I regret this deeply, for as I got older, our separation became even more pronounced, and the chasm between us became wider and wider. As an adult, I still harbor those regrets. To this day, I still ask myself, “Why, why in the world didn’t you ask him about himself?” Why didn’t you ask him where he came from, how he came to be a coal miner, where he met my grandmother. The list goes on and on.
I learned some basic things about him from my dad. He said Grandpa came from Ukraine, and that he had been a coal miner. But I never asked if he’d been a coal miner in Ukraine, in America, or both. Dad said he lived near the Carpathian Mountains. I learned later from his immigration and wedding papers that he came from a town called Dolyna in an area called Galicia, and that his country of origin was Austria. In those days, until 1918, the area encompassing Galicia and, within it, the town called Dolyna, were all part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
I also know that Onuffri came to America roughly around the time of the first, but unsuccessful, Russian Revolution of 1905, and I wonder to this day if there was a connection between the two events. And finally, I knew he married a young woman named Eva, my grandmother. I never knew her – she died the year before I was born. On their wedding day in 1905, he was 26, she 16.
Finally, there’s the issue with our family name. I’m pretty sure it didn’t start out as Tymitz. In some Ancestry records, I see the name Tymec. Also, my dad said he vaguely remembered seeing the name Temecz on some paperwork, now lost in time. So, our family name might have been something like Tymec in the old country. In those early twentieth-century days of mass migration to the U.S., one can visualize throngs, hundreds, maybe thousands, of immigrants, disembarking from gigantic ocean-going ships lining up in American ports like New York City (Ellis Island) and Baltimore. While some immigrants were dressed in good clothes, others might have been in rags or, at least, in work clothes as though they had just left the farm or the factory before boarding the ship in their homeland. Few spoke English, and it’s possible that most of them neither spoke nor understood their new language. Thus, when asked their names by immigration officials making rosters of all the newcomers, the name could have been written down incorrectly. Again, most of the exhausted, confused, excited immigrants would never have known the difference. Onuffri was one of those, and I feel pretty certain he left the Port of Baltimore to start his new life thinking that in English, his name was Tymitz. My heart breaks when I recall this story.
I lost track of him completely upon reaching my teenage years, with high school and college, and then my aviation career, ahead. He passed away in 1964. I was twenty years old and in college. I came home to attend his funeral.
And that’s it. I know nothing else about him, and I have always wondered: Were his parents ethnic Ukrainians, or something else? Did he have siblings, and if so, what were their names? What did his family, and ultimately, he, do for a living? Why did he emigrate to America? Did he meet Eva in Ukraine or in America? Again, the list goes on and on.
As a young adult, I pondered this situation. I felt awful that I knew next to nothing about my grandfather. I wondered: Can I do something about this? These thoughts were placed on hold for the next 45 years of my aviation career. I retired in 2011, and that year I decided to write a book. It was something I had always wanted to do, but I had never taken the time. It would be my way of stimulating the grey matter now that my working life was over. I decided to write about Onuffri. But I would make up a story about his life. The only similarities between the fictional protagonist and the real-world character would be that he was a coal miner from Ukraine and the love of his life was Eva. I decided to portray him as an exceptionally strong, courageous, humble, honorable man, the man I wanted my grandfather to be. And thus, the book would honor him. Again, please remember that Key Number 17 is fiction.
Did writing Key Number 17 function as a way for you to connect with your past/ancestry?
Yes, of course. I had to make many excursions through Eastern European history books. I learned about the history, the geography, the languages, the ethnicities, and all the other parts of a country, of which I knew so little. In so doing, I learned so much about the people and their culture. I could easily put myself in their shoes and imagine how they viewed their lives, what made them happy, what made them sad, what made them angry. I learned of their special days, like Christmas, and how they celebrate. I learned the events and lessons of history which have come together now in the twenty-first-century and placed Ukraine in the middle of a serious war of survival with her neighbor.
All people are affected and shaped by the historical events that have preceded them in arriving at their present point in space and time. By writing this book, I feel a kinship with all Ukrainians, but especially with all those who have come and gone before me and have already experienced the things I’ve just read and written about. And I especially admire and respect the courage and tenacity of all Ukrainians, civilian and military alike, who now bravely fight for their freedom against a seemingly invincible foe.
What kind of research did you have to do for Key Number 17, and how long did you spend doing that research?
The entire process, from first hand-written sentence to publication, took me twelve years. Ten of those years were spent actually writing the manuscript, with the last two spent revising. During this time, I read various history books about Ukraine and Russia and their neighbors. But these research campaigns occurred when I felt a need for more knowledge to make the tale sound more convincing. I enjoyed this research; it was fascinating. But I started with an idea, and wrote about it. Then I did the research when I felt the need. I believe it is important to start writing as soon as the idea for the story is clear in the author’s mind. Everything else, including research and characters, seemed to fall into place when required.
The Internet was indispensable for general ideas and for locating and ordering books, periodicals, and maps. For instance, I ordered detailed maps of Ukraine, Kiev (Kyiv), and other Ukrainian cities and regions. These sources gave me excellent insight into the natural and geo-political features of the country.
There are a few books that deserve special praise. They are listed in the Suggested Reading List at the end of the book. Of this list, I would single out the following books as being especially helpful: Ukraine: A History (Subtelny, Orest, 1988), Coal and Politics in Late Imperial Russia: Memoirs of a Russian Mining Engineer, (Aleksandr I. Fenin, 1990), and A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891 – 1924 (Figes, Orlando, 1996).
Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?
I am definitely an old-school guy. I’m impressed by authors who, first and foremost, have a good story to tell, and second, have an ability to present their prose in a beautiful way that hooks their readers from the first page. Their books are beautifully crafted, their sentences and paragraphs works of art.
Examples abound, but let me name a few. Favorites of mine include John Steinbeck (East of Eden), Leon Uris (Exodus), Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea), Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff), and more recently, Ken Follett (The Pillars of the Earth), Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, Flight Behavior), and Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch). I have found similar craftsmanship and delight in a long list of Russian authors like Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), Alesksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), and Fyodor Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment). These authors truly inspire me to write, and I would be honored if their literary style shines through in my writing.
Most books feature protagonists who are much younger than Olek is. Was it important to you before you figured out all the details of the story that your protagonist could be a grandfather (or the age of a grandfather), or did that come about later because it just made sense for the story?
Yes, I decided on this detail before I started writing. It was important that Olek be an older man. It was necessary for him to spend a large portion of his life suffering over a misdeed early in his life. Then, as an older man, he realizes the challenges faced by his grandson, and he automatically reasons that helping the boy will bring redemption for himself.
Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
Viktor, for many reasons. The most challenging attribute to write about was his strength. I wanted him to have a trait that would be a highly visible quality. People would remark about his strength, they would be in awe of him, as in the coal mine disaster, he would use it to save Eva’s life, as in the Kiev demonstration, and many other examples. But it would also be his undoing up until his final act. I feared that if I didn’t do this just right, readers would think Viktor was some kind of superhero from a distant, fantasy planet in the cosmos. In my mind, he was far from a caricature that we see today in books, comic strips, and movies. I wanted him to be an average human being in all ways but one – his strength. Could he really hold up a collapsing rock ceiling down deep in the mine? Maybe not, but he tried. He is a man of integrity, a man of honor who would never leave his incapacitated partner without trying to save him. Could he really upend a horse with his bare hands? Experts tell me that it is possible if the man can control the animal’s head. But only someone with extraordinary strength could even attempt such a thing. Perhaps someone like Viktor Tarpenko.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?
I greatly enjoyed the scene of the political march and demonstration in Kiev. I must admit it is a favorite. It has many elements, and it’s filled with opportunities for surprise, action, violence, escape, and even redemption. It’s an open field, ready to be plowed and seeded with adventures and contests between disparate characters in the story, be they marchers dreaming of changing the world, or soldiers intent on stopping them.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Every human being has courage. But with many, that courage is locked away within the dark recesses of the soul. People thus afflicted have no self-worth; they are hesitant to enter stressful situations; they can do little with their lives other than to merely exist. They have no ability to look inside themselves, find the courage locked within, retrieve it, and use it in fearful, dangerous situations.
As Olek tells his grandson, look in your heart, and do what your heart tells you. Most people, regardless of athletic or combative ability or experience, will then make the correct decision. Then the heart tells the brain to fire the correct nerves and muscles to take action. But one must make the decision to either fight or flee. This is, of course, an oversimplification. Making this decision is one of the most complex and important life factors in our existence. The principle can be applied to many situations in life, things like a house fire, or a plane crash, or, yes, an encounter with a bully on a street corner or school yard.
In Key Number 17, Olek realizes that his grandson faces a lonely, miserable life. The boy tells him that he has no courage. Olek knows the opposite is true; he knows that his grandson, like everyone else, has courage locked away inside him. His love for the boy is strong, and he readily accepts the challenge of helping him. And he further believes that doing so might also help him to find his own redemption after his misdeed in Ukraine so many years ago.
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