Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1574
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on November 14, 1949 to Ruth Gloria and Roy Joseph Matas, Carol Matas completed her public schooling in the city. She subsequently attended Toronto's York University and then the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, from which she graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1970. While English literature was Matas' academic major, she was very involved in the University of Western Ontario's strong drama club. Two years at the Actor's Lab in London, England followed.
On her Web site, Matas relates how she initially found her way into acting. When she was fifteen years old, her parents sent her to the Banff School of Fine Arts to study French for the summer. When she attempted to register for her classes, Matas found the line for French to be very long while the one next to it, the line to register for theater, was much shorter. In retrospect, Matas is not certain what compelled her to switch queues, but switch she did. Her Web site reports that her parents, upon learning what she had done, took her decision well. Characterizing the summer as "amazing," Matas said that from that time on she was hooked on theater.
Following her training at the Actor's Lab in England, Matas returned to Toronto where she acted professionally in theater for four years, and it was during this period that she began to write. Again, on her Web site, Matas describes how her initiation into writing came about. She hung out with a group of actors who were interested in various forms of writing, such as plays and stories. On their free afternoons, this group would share what they had written. Matas recalls that during one of these sessions, someone read a short story, a fantasy, about a raindrop. Inspired by what she had heard, Matas went home and wrote her own fantasy tale. When she read her story to the gathering of actors, they liked it. Encouraged by their response, Matas wrote another which she shared and which also received a favorable hearing. This practice of writing and sharing continued for three years while Matas also acted.
When Matas returned to her natal city of Winnipeg to act in a play, fate intervened, for there she met her future husband, Per Brask. Following their marriage, the couple moved to Toronto, but Matas did not immediately return to acting. When she got pregnant in 1977, she decided to use the period of her pregnancy to write a full length book because she had found her stories were getting longer and longer. Matas achieved her goal and wrote her first novel, "Carsten and Kaspar," which is yet unpublished. A move to Montreal followed, and while Matas periodically tried to get back into acting, because she was now a mother of two, it never quite worked out. With the creative outlet of acting not available, Matas continued with her writing, serving a long apprenticeship before finally being published. In an early interview with Dave Jenkinson, Matas noted that it was about 1973 when she first started writing for her own enjoyment and her first book was not published until 1982.
Between 1982 and 1987, Matas had four juvenile science fiction titles published, all of them in the H. G. Wells style of SF which focuses on social issues. Then, as the result of conversations with her husband and her father-in-law, Matas made a switch from writing science fiction to authoring historical fiction. Matas's husband shared with her that his grandfather had been involved in the Danish resistance during World War II as a saboteur, blowing up trains. Matas's father-in-law was only twelve when Denmark had been invaded, and he did not talk about that period very much. However, Matas questioned him about what had occurred, and she learned enough from him about wartime events to be able to craft what she considered to be a good story. During that period, Matas and her family were living in Montreal, and somebody gave her husband the book, Rescue in Denmark, an account of how most of the Jews in Denmark escaped being transported to the death camps. After reading that book, Matas made the rescue the key event in her story, and she transformed the twelve-year-old boy who was in the resistance into a twelve-year-old girl. Lisa, published in the United States as Lisa's War, was followed by Jesper, published in the United States as Code Name Kris. The second book, which uses some of the characters from Lisa, was actually the story about the Danish resistance that had originally intrigued Matas when she had spoken with her father-in-law.
In 1993 Matas published two additional historical fiction titles, each dealing with a nation's attempt to destroy its Jewish population. Sworn Enemies, set in the early nineteenth century, dealt with a historical event unfamiliar to most of the Western world: the attempt by Czar Nicholas I to assimilate and Christianize Polish Jews who had become "Russian" through conquest. The other title, Daniel's Story, presented the Holocaust of World War II through the eyes of a German Jewish boy.
In her autobiographical piece in Something about the Author, Matas explains the origins of Daniel's Story. Matas was just finishing Sworn Enemies when her agent, Amy Berkower, called to ask if she would be interested in writing a book for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was opening in Washington, D.C. Apparently the museum had approached Beverly Horowitz, who was editing Sworn Enemies for Bantam Doubleday Dell, and asked her to recommend an author, and she recommended Matas.
Describing Daniel's Story as "the most difficult project of my writing career," Matas went on in her essay in Something about the Author to describe how she wrote the book. Her first challenge was time. Matas had received the call from Berkower in March of 1992, and the planned opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum was the spring of 1993. If the book was to be in print in time for the opening, Matas would need to finish the manuscript in just three months, and she had already committed herself to a long speaking tour in April. Matas assumed that she would be provided with all kinds of material with which to work. Instead, she was only given a set of restrictive directions governing the book's parameters. Because the museum was going to contain an exhibit called "Daniel's Story," the book was supposed to compliment the exhibit. The idea was that children who went through "Daniel's Story" could then go to the bookstore where they would be able to purchase a book and read about what the Holocaust might have been like for a real boy. The character is to be an "everybody," with an individual story. Matas's protagonist must bear the name Daniel, and he must live in Germany. He is to be sent to the Lodz Ghetto, to Auschwitz, and finally to Buchenwald. And he must not die. Remaining within those constraints, Matas could be free to write what she wishes.
The short period available for writing Daniel's Story meant that Matas had to abandon her usual way of doing her research. Unable to organize interviews, Matas researched via history books and videos. Among the source materials she used were memoirs and diaries, many of them by people who had not survived the war. Matas found these personal accounts very moving and said that she cried every day. The tight time line also changed Matas's writing habits. Her normal pattern of researching first, thinking, and finally writing became blended. With Daniel's Story, she began to write while she was still researching, and read at night while writing during the day.
Since penning Daniel's Story, Matas has revisited this historical period in a number of other books. After the War and The Garden both feature Ruth Mendenberg, a concentration camp survivor, who returns to her home village in Poland to discover that she has neither a home nor apparently any surviving family members. In the first book, Ruth travels with a group of children across Europe in order that they might illegally enter Palestine. In the sequel, The Garden, Ruth is living on a kibbutz (a communal settlement) in Palestine when the United Nations partitions the country into two, one for the Arabs and another for the Jews. The experiences of other Jewish adolescents in war-torn Europe are also central to Greater Than Angels and In My Enemy's House. Both books show how some Jews escaped Nazi persecution by hiding or being hidden.
Anti-Semitism is integral to The War Within, set in the Confederate South during the American Civil War, and Rebecca, which uses 1912 Winnipeg as its locale.
While Matas has written almost a dozen books of historical fiction, she has not entirely abandoned the genre of science fiction. She has produced a pair of linked SF titles, Cloning Miranda and The Second Clone, and with her coauthor, Perry Nodelman, Matas has written the "Mind" series of fantasy titles. Additionally, she also writes mainstream young adult fiction such as The Primrose Path and Telling.
Critical recognition has been bestowed on virtually every one of Matas's young adult books. Lisa, her very first work of historical fiction, was the inaugural winner of the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction, Canada's premier prize in this genre. Among its many accolades, Daniel's Story, was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award in Children's Literature and received Ontario's and Manitoba's provincial readers' choice awards.
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