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An Honest Look at the Who We Are and Where We Come From | Review of “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo” by William Kowalski

It was an honour to receive an advance copy of this book from the author.

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Many of us in North America descend from people who came from Europe. We have had to learn to accept some of the traditions of the ‘old country’ while trying to figure out what are superstitions and prejudices which have no bearing on our own lives in the ‘new world.’ The physical,  mental and emotional  struggles of immigrants and their descendants are important ones to note when pondering the human condition in literature. And that what William Kowalski has given us in his well-crafted book The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo.

Page 15

Of, course, darkness brought its own terrors, as any girl in this world of men knew all too well. They stayed together at all times, each one constantly checking to make sure the others were close by. They slept in shifts to ensure that no male dared try anything while they were asleep. they continued their prayers to St. Christopher, and they added added new ones to St. Jude, the saint of lost causes, for by now they had begun to understand that their entire way of life was lost to them, and the odds against them surviving this journey were very great indeed.

The strangest thing of all about this ship was that everyone was mixed together: Poles, Jews, Ruthenians, Bulgarians, Slovenians, Slovakians, Hungarians, Romaninas, Russians, Bohemians, Bavarians. They huddled together in tribes, dividing themselves naturally according to language and culture, glaring at each other with suspicion. Aniela had not known such a melange of humanity existed, nor that all these languages existed, either. It was proof that the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel was true. Some of these people she had never even heard of.

She had seen Jews before, but she had never been this close to one, let alone whole families of them; she found herself observing them curiously, wondering if all the horrible things the priest had said about them were true. He had lied about practically everything else, after all, including his own divinity. These Jews appeared to be serious grim people. They kept to themselves, and they regarded everyone around them with mistrust. But then, so did everyone else. All in all, despite their funny locks of hair that curled down from the men’s ears, and the strange clothing styles of the women, they did not seem so different.

Kowalski’s previous works are noted novels about the human condition, but this book for him is a deeply personal project from beginning to end. (See my Q&A with him about the launch of his crowdfunding project to get this book published last year.) This book brilliantly shows the life of his great-grandmother Amelia (and her legacy) while trying to build a life in America. But this is no rags-to-riches, and they-all-lived-happily-ever-after immigrant story that are so commonplace. Kowalski honestly documents how immigrants continually win and loose during their lives in North America. Yet even if the losses seem overwhelming and their traditions fade, the resilience of immigrants like Amelia continues, and continues to inspire.

Page 23

It was the ruination of their American dream Iggy was staring at now.

Iggy had heart the American Dream lecture so many times as a kid that back then it was all he thought about. Anyone could make it in America if they just worked hard, everyone said – his parents, his uncles, his cousins, his grandparents, every his great-grandmother herself, who had lived to be ninety-eight years old. He had known her well, although he could barely understand her, since he didn’t speak Polish and had never had more than a passing acquaintance with the English language.

If you didn’t make it in America, there was something seriously wrong with you. You just weren’t trying. You didn’t appreciate the sacrifice your ancestors had made on your behalf, leaving behind everything they held dear.

Nope. If you didn’t make it, you were a failure – not just in business, but as a person, and in the eyes of all those who had come before you.

Iggy sighed and looked at the time on his cell phone. It was nearly time to start prepping for dinner.

While Kowalski may have borrowed story lines from his family and his Polish-American background, he has honestly documented many occurrences that are common for many descendants of European stock in America and brought them to the public domain. He has given certainly many of his fans some thoughts and discussions because of his plot about their own lives. This book is not only a great addition to literature but a glowing tribute to his family.

Page 38

But what Zofia didn’t know was that Aniela planned on remaining unmarried and childless. In fact, she planned on having nothing to do with men whatsoever. The Prussian teacher had been only half right. It wasn’t just Plish men who were pigs. It was all men, everywhere. This had been her experience with just about every man she’d ever met. She would have liked to have been proven wrong, but so far it hadn’t happened. Her father was cruel to her mother. Her brothers were cruel to their sisters. Even the priest got so drunk on vodka sometimes that his hands seemed not to know what they were doing, and this was a man of God. All the girls in the village knew to stay far away from him when he was on one of his benders, or they might get invited back to his cottage for a private confession.

Aniela shook her head. She had to remember to leave these old thoughts behind. That priest, that teacher, her father, her brothers, hadn’t followed her to Ameryka, after all. She was safe from them now. And maybe the men of Ameryka would be different.

Besides, there were new challenges to deal with. It was all well and good to speak Polish in the streets of Black Rock, but eventually this business of English would have to be dealt with, or she would never succeed here – not unless she wanted to be an ignorant washerwoman all her life.

It was a true pleasure to dine upon The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo by William Kowalski. The many thoughts and experiences that Kowalski documents in the book are universal for any person of any European background living in North America yet never have been truly mention before. A great and unique piece of literature and a great tribute to Kowalski’s family.

*****

Link to the official website for The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo

Link to William Kowalski’s website

“I also suspected that large traditional publishers might turn their noses up at a book that appeared to be so “ethnic”. Being Polish hasn’t become cool yet, though every group will have its day sooner or later.” | Q&A with author William Kowalski on using crowdfunding to publish his latest book

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William Kowalski is one of the most detailed writers I know. So I was surprised to see about a month ago that he had launched a Kickstarter Crowdfunding campaign to fund his latest book The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo. But before my next paycheck came in in order for me  to help with his book, his campaign goal was reached. So in order to find out more about this book and the campaign, I asked Kowalski to answer a few questions for me – about the book, the campaign, and anything else he was working on. He took time out from a busy schedule to oblige me.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo?”

This story is partly fiction, and partly based on a real person: my great-grandmother. It moves back and forth in time, alternating chapter by chapter,from 1908 through the 20th century to the present day. In the historical chapters, we see a young Polish immigrant, her mother, and her sisters arriving at Ellis Island, making the trip to Buffalo, New York, and joining the throngs of Poles already there. Immediately, they do what everyone else around them is doing: they dig in and try to find some way to get established. In the present-day chapters, we meet their descendants, who are dealing with modern challenges, but who still feel a strong connection to their ancestors. Like many of my books, it has one foot in the past and one foot in the present. It’s about how these two worlds connect, and about what might come next for this family.

2) Was there something specific that inspired or motivated you to write “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo?”

There were several things, but most importantly, I was inspired by my great-grandmother, Amelia.

I knew her fairly well, since she lived to be 98 years old. She passed away when I was 20. She was born in a tiny village in Poland in 1892, and she immigrated to America when she was 16. I was always fascinated by what her life must have been like, but she was never very forthcoming with details. Whenever I asked her about life in Poland, she would claim she didn’t remember. She seemed so incredibly old to me that I had no trouble believing she had simply forgotten ever being a child.

But now that I’m older, I know that our greatest hurts nearly always feel like they just happened yesterday. And the more I learned about what her life must have been like under the Prussian occupation, the more I realized it must have been so awful she preferred not to mention it. All of Poland was suffering during that time, under three simultaneous occupations: by the Prussians, the Russians, and the Austrians. Legally speaking, Poland didn’t even exist when my great-grandmother was born. It was treated by these nations like Tibet is treated now by China. If you buy a globe made in China, you’ll notice that Tibet doesn’t appear on it. Poland had no place on the map, attempts were made to erase its history, and its people were regarded as inferior.

I became even more fascinated when I realized that Amelia had come here with her mother and sisters–but with no men accompanying them. They left her father and brothers behind in Poland, and they never saw them again. In those days, that must have seemed very strange. Normally it was the men who would come over and work until they had saved enough money to send for their families. You did not often see women making such a huge journey on their own. There must have been circumstances behind this. I can guess at what they were, but we will never know for sure.

I wrote this book partly as a tribute to my great-grandmother, and partly because I wanted to get to know her better. I did a lot of research, and I made her world come alive for me.

I wrote it also because I was raised without much of a Polish identity. At this point, after three generations, we’re pretty much just American. I’m fine with that, but I’m still curious. What did it mean to be a Polish-American? I wanted to know more. I’ve explored the Irish side of my heritage, and someday soon I hope to begin exploring the Jewish side, which is a small part of my ancestry I didn’t even know existed until very recently. I have a lot of German background as well. As you can probably guess, this is really just a journey of self-discovery. These people made me who I am. I want to know who they were.

3) You have used a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to help fund self-publishing the book. What inspired you use that format to ‘get the book out’ as opposed to the traditional method of sending a manuscript to a publisher for them to consider printing?

There were a few reasons. Primarily, my experience with traditional publishing lately has been very disappointing. It’s always been a difficult industry, but my last traditionally-published book, THE HUNDRED HEARTS, was abandoned by its Canadian publisher and never found a traditional home in the U.S. at all, even though it won a major award and has been translated into German. So, I’m kind of fed up with the status quo.

I also didn’t feel like dealing with all the waiting and the disappointment that goes along with submitting a manuscript through an agent. It can take years for a book to get published. It might never happen at all. I’ve been down that road too many times. It’s starting to feel like madness. I know how to market this book and who to market it to, and the technology is there for me to do it myself. I don’t need to give up ninety percent of my royalties to make it a success. Maybe I’m being naive, but I think I can bring this book to the tipping point. I wrote it for a broad readership. It’s a very accessible book–it’s far shorter than most of my novels, which I think is a good thing, and it deals in universal themes that anyone can relate to.

I also suspected that large traditional publishers might turn their noses up at a book that appeared to be so “ethnic”. Being Polish hasn’t become cool yet, though every group will have its day sooner or later. It’s funny–I could never reasonably claim that I’ve been the victim of prejudice or racism, because on the surface I’m a white male, and I have benefited enormously from the privilege that accompanies that in our society. But there is still a distinct, if subtle, bias against Polish last names. There are certain assumptions about them, certain stereotypes: the big dumb sloppy Polak, or else maybe Brando’s portrayal of the violent, animalistic Stanley Kowalski, or the jokes about screen doors in submarines. We don’t really associate Polish names with literary fiction. When my first book was published in 1999, a woman I know who worked in publishing told me that if it had come out even a decade earlier, I would have been forced to change my name to something more WASPy sounding. I laughed it off, but at the same time I found it painful.

The Kickstarter campaign occurred to me because I wanted to prepare the manuscript in all the ways a small publisher would, but I’m supporting a family and paying a mortgage, and I just didn’t have the extra money. I wanted to be a to pay an editor and a cover designer, and to have some money for advertising. I knew this would take at least several thousand dollars. I felt like I could raise that if I pre-sold copies of the book, which is essentially how my campaign was presented. I let people know that the book was already written. I think that made a difference. They weren’t subsidizing endless hours of me daydreaming in my bathrobe. They were investing in something that could rightly be considered a cultural commodity, something that had value for them. I also presented it as a new way of publishing, that is, the readers deciding ahead of time what they want to read, rather than having publishers make that decision for them. I’m certainly not the first person to think of that, but for many of my subscribers, this was the first time they had been exposed to that notion, and I think it appealed to them.

4) Am I right in assuming that your Kickstarter campaign was a complete success?Will you now be able to publish the book? (Even publish the book sooner than you expected?)

To my delight, my campaign surpassed my goal by about a thousand dollars. So,yes, I will be able to self-publish the book in the way I had envisioned, hiring a professional editor and cover designer. I’ll record some radio spots and buy some air time in key markets, and I hope I’ll have some left over for internet advertising as well.

I’m allowing plenty of time for the editing and the various design elements to happen because I don’t want anything to be rushed. If the book comes out some weeks earlier than planned, so much the better. I think that’s likely. But there is still a lot to do.

5) You mentioned in a blog post how much Facebook was used to during the campaign. (“I should really call this a KickFace campaign, or some similar portmanteau. https://williamkowalski.com/self-publish-like-pro-part-1/ ) Did that really surprise you? Will you be using Facebook more as opposed to other social-media applications from now on?

I’ve been using Facebook for a long time, but I had assumed that only a small portion of Kickstarter subscribers would find me through it. Boy, was I wrong. As I mentioned in that blog post, nearly all my subscribers came through Facebook, and they were nearly all people I knew. If it wasn’t for Facebook, I have no idea how this would have turned out. Probably not well. Kickstarter will promote certain campaigns itself, but they seem to focus on the really cool, flashy technology ventures. My Twitter campaign was ignored, drowned out in the chaos of the Trump circus and the nine zillion other more important things going on around the world. My posts on other sites were scarcely effective. In the end, it all came together because of Facebook.

6) Most of my fellow readers (and myself) not only enjoy reading books but also getting out and hearing authors speak about their works. Are you planning a tour with “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo” once you get it published? If yes, is that something you plan to pay for yourself?

I think publicity events are going to be crucial. I hate to say this, because I detest touring–I’m really an introvert, and I would prefer to stay home. But once I’m out and about, I enjoy myself. I still have a lot of family in Buffalo, and there are sizable Polish communities there, in my hometown of Erie, PA, and in places like Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Allentown, etc. It’s not that this book will only appeal to Polish-Americans, but they are a logical place to start when it comes to scheduling events. I don’t know if I will visit all these places, or how I’m going to pay for it. But there have been changes in how touring works, too. Sometimes authors will agree to come speak to a group if that group will chip in for a motel room for the night, for example. If you get enough friends together, it costs you very little to have an author spend an evening with you, and it’s a great scenario for the author because he gets to sell books. So, any touring I do will probably follow that sort of a model. I will likely start planning that in the new year. In fact, I already have one event lined up, through a genealogical society in western New York State.

7) You mentioned on your Facebook page that you recently agreed to work with Orca Book to create another book for their “Rapid Reads” series. Are there details about it you can share? (Release date, title, etc?)

Orca has been just fantastic to work with. I’ve recently signed a contract with them for my seventh Rapid Reads, which are books written for adults who simply haven’t learned how to read yet, or who are new to reading English. Illiteracy is a huge problem in our society, but most literate people don’t know that, because people who can’t read tend to be extremely clever at hiding that fact. These books are also good for strong readers who want something fast. They use simple language, but they have strong story lines. This book is called JUMPED IN. It deals with gang life, just as my first Rapid Reads book, THE BARRIO KINGS, did. It also addresses the way young men of color tend to be treated by the police. These books find a wide readership among people who are in our detention systems, and who are still suffering greatly under what could be called “institutionalized racism”, or simply being born into disadvantageous circumstances for cultural reasons. I get a lot of letters from them. For most of them, it’s the first letter they’ve ever written to an author. For some, it’s the first letter they’ve ever written, period. I always write back.

8) Outside of “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo” and your book with Orca, are you working on anything else right now? (If you have time for anything else?) If yes, are there details you care to share?

I seem to be experiencing an explosion of creative energy these days. I have a few ventures going on: I am currently working full-time as an instructional designer, I make and sell dill pickles at KowalskisPickles.com, I run a small web design business at MahoneBayWebDesign.com, and I run a site called My Writing Network at https://mywriting.network, which offers free websites to anyone in writing or publishing who wants one. And yet I’m really just a writer trying to carve out enough time to write.

I have an idea gestating for a novel that feels very big and very complex. It has a murder in it, and also a political revolution. I have no idea when I’m actually going to write it. I’m quite excited about it, though. It’s the thing I think about when I’m caught up in the drudgery of my daily existence, the pillar of fire burning in the night sky that I’m following through the wasteland. I hope to be able to begin it sometime early in the new year.

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Link to William Kowalski’s website