Award-winning journalist and author Lisa Barr returns to talk with Zibby about her latest novel, Woman on Fire, which is one of this month’s Barnes and Noble picks and has just been optioned by Sharon Stone. The two discuss which life experiences Lisa lent to her protagonist, how she managed to fully flesh out every character in her expansive cast, and why her family’s Holocaust story continues to inspire her to write books about the era. Lisa also shares the real historical moments she wove into the plot, proving that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.


Zibby Owens: Welcome back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” Lisa, for Woman on Fire, your latest novel. Congratulations.

Lisa Barr: Thank you so much. So great to be with you, Zibby.

Zibby: You too. I’m so glad we were hanging out at Books & Books in Miami for a little bit. I’m sorry you left before we got to take a picture, but it was so fun to see you there.

Lisa: It was so fun. It was such a surprise. Rochelle called and said, “Zibby’s going to be there.” We got in our car and ran over.

Zibby: Yay, that was great. I got to know you through your first book, The Unbreakables, and then through Rochelle and then all of our events. Somehow, we’ve all just gotten to know each other. It’s been so great. I was so excited when Woman on Fire came out because this cover is amazing. Now I am even more excited because your book is so good. It’s so good. It’s really well-written. It’s propulsive. You don’t want to put it down. I feel this pride for you. I’m really excited for you. It’s awesome. It’s really cool.

Lisa: Oh, my gosh, thank you. It is such a great thing in the book world, I feel like we all really try to lift each other. I know when your new book is coming out, and all your anthologies, it’s the same thing. I’m like, go Zibby! I just feel so much excitement about it because we know how hard this business can be. It is great when you have people like you to lift everybody or lift us. Thank you.

Zibby: The joy is when you dive into a book and get so hooked. It’s the best feeling. It doesn’t get old. Tell everybody what your book is about, please.

Lisa: I brought my — this is the ARC. The book is coming out very soon. Woman on Fire is about a twenty-four-year-old very savvy, young journalist who gets embroiled in a major international art scandal centered around a Nazi-looted painting. I loved writing this book. I wrote it all during COVID lockdown. It’s got everything I love to write and read, history, suspense, art, risky journalistic pursuits, and of course, strong, fiery women. It was really fun to write and also difficult, the parts that are with stolen art and the Holocaust. It’s the whole shebang. I really loved writing this book.

Zibby: It’s really good. You have all these different storylines interweaving. The elder man who started the shoe company, what is his name again? What is name?

Lisa: Ellis Baum.

Zibby: Ellis. Ellis is one of the main characters. He has been hiding his upbringing. He pretends that he’s a diamond guy. Really, he survived the war. Maybe I shouldn’t reveal all this.

Lisa: No, it’s okay. This is okay.

Zibby: It was all pretty early. His mother dies in front of him in this horrific Nazi-era — it never gets old. In every Holocaust-era, World War II-era thing, there are these horrific tragedies that happen all the time. It doesn’t get any better just because there are so many of them. Anyway, he talks about his trauma and how he reinvents himself, as so many people did, how he lived in the sewers and then has to come over and ends up basically becoming Manolo Blahnik, essentially.

Lisa: Exactly. Totally.

Zibby: Then now he’s nearing the end of his life in his seventies and is trying to come to terms with some of the stuff in his past and this one painting and his mother and all of this stuff, and how that intersects with all of these other forces like the young journalist, who, by the way, is so amazing, just plowing right in and being like, I am going to get this job. Women on fire, she is the woman on fire in this book, for sure, with her determination. I could never do that in a job interview. I just sat there politely. The idea that I would blow past security and get a job for myself the way she did — then you have the past and the present and the reporter who has already been in this — there’s so many things. Of course, the older man who was hiding all the art and then the art dealer woman who — the characters are so visual. I know we’ve chitchatted that there may be some news about an adaptation or something going on that you can’t reveal yet but probably will be revealed by the time this podcast episode comes out. It is so visual. The way your pacing — I’m sorry, I’m rambling and rambling. Your pacing is so good. You go from this to that to this to the grandson who looks like the Unabomber who’s in recovery. Then you learn about more recovery. There’s so many things. Yet it all links up. It’s very cool. That wasn’t even a question. That was just a random rant.

Lisa: First of all, thank you because you gave such — I’m sitting on the edge of my seat listening to you and all the different things. I think what it was is I wanted to create that one painting that, in my mind — when you write historical fiction or suspense, you want the reader to walk away with something, some sort of knowledge of the history through the backdoor of fiction. I knew that I wanted to create this major artwork based on a composite of paintings that were destroyed or confiscated or looted during the Holocaust by the Nazis. “Woman on Fire” is the painting. It’s the last major work by an expressionist artist who’s murdered. It’s almost as if the painting, given all the things that you just discussed, is a character herself as well. I wanted to create all these people because this is real life where so many heirs of those who were murdered during the Holocaust and lost all their assets, art being a major asset, are trying to reclaim their family’s paintings. Lots of legal work, etc., etc., going on. I wanted to showcase, through this one painting, how all these people are connected and what it means to each of them. Through that, it’s almost like a spiderweb, how they’re all going to connect and intersect.

What I did in order to make this work is I literally separated each character and gave them a composite down to what their scent is, what they smell like, what they eat, what they like, and the things that would connect each of them. I was able, with that, to cross over and intersect and give the reader a direct lineage to the painting with each of these characters. It was a lot of work. You should’ve seen my dining room table covered with cards and sticky notes. The main character, Jules Roth, twenty-four-year-old journalist, was a lot of me in my past life. There’s real stuff that we can get into that was my own personal story that I gave to her. It was very fun writing her. Where I am this crusty, old, seasoned journalist author, being able to go back to when I was idealistic and “nothing but the truth, and I’ll get there” — no kids at that point, so I could do anything in a fearless way. As you’re saying, creating all these characters with everyone having their own angle toward this painting, the book came together, finally.

Zibby: Let’s go back to Jules and the similarities to you. Jules gets the bug, essentially, for journalism by becoming an anonymous source in what becomes a Pulitzer Prize-winning case for a paper. Then it goes too far with the main guy at the paper. She feels like she’s thrown away her entire career. Did something like that happen with you?

Lisa: Yes.

Zibby: Oh, no. Really?

Lisa: Yes, that is my story. In high school when I was a senior, I was used as bait to break a sex trafficking ring, and we did.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Lisa: That’s my story that I gave to her. I embellished it and changed it for her where all these people were brought to justice that were prominent people. In my case, it was these seedy characters who were involved in a terrible sex trafficking ring. I wanted to give her something as this anonymous girl. Showing that she was going to be a journalist way back then, the bug got to her very early on. Yes, myself and so many other women have had these experiences, Me Too type of experiences. Mine was different than Jules, but I wanted to give her something that would really impact and affect her and how she would go after things in life, a real turning point for her as a young journalist and how she would handle things. Later on when a relationship starts to happen, she has to make a decision. Do I want to get involved with a source? Do I want to do this? It triggers things in her. Yes, that was a lot of me in Jules. I enjoyed writing her and showing how you can survive and get past things and still use those things for good. Jules is a special character to me, for sure.

Zibby: I could definitely see you tossing aside a navy sheath dress for some black, skintight number to show off your amazing figure.

Lisa: Forever twenty-one, baby.

Zibby: Yeah, forever twenty-one. I’m like, okay, that sounds familiar. In that scene, too, with Me Too — not to — I don’t know. I have to tread lightly in this whole topic. I think what you did so well in the book is how you can want to get together with someone and not want what happens afterwards. She wants to hook up with this guy, but that doesn’t mean that anything that comes after is okay. Desire on the part of women, there’s nothing wrong with that. Just because you desire to be with somebody doesn’t mean you want it completely out of your control immediately. Yet that’s what gets women into trouble. It’s like, you kissed him first, or whatever it is. Okay, yeah, but does that mean that I deserve whatever comes next?

Lisa: Exactly. I agree with you. I was trying very careful, because I wanted to keep the focus on the painting and the history, not to make it a Me Too story, but I did want to give her —

Zibby: — It’s just a tiny passage.

Lisa: Right. It’s a tiny aspect of her background, but it’s a big aspect of why she does the things that she does or how she feels about things. All these things we could address that happen in our youth make us who we are and the things we fight for today. That’s what I wanted to give to her.

Zibby: You wrote it in such a good way. Let me see. I dogeared this passage. You said, “She vowed to never let anyone or anything get in the way of a story again, but she did exactly as the man had asked. She told no one and let it go, and yet it never really went away. It cleaved and clawed at her until it became a new layer of skin, thicker, tougher, and impenetrable.” That’s beautiful.

Lisa: I think that piece also made her the journalist that she is and she will become toward the end of the story. She will really rise and learn. She will have a journey here.

Zibby: Wow. You also show Jude learning about all of the Holocaust stolen things. You casually put in all these facts and figures like six hundred thousand stolen artworks and millions more that you don’t know and how they were shuttled off to different countries and how galleries tried to do that. Tell me about your research into all of that and how much you knew. Was this you who saw something at your bat mitzvah like Jules? She had something at her bat mitzvah. When did you learn all about this? Did you always have a fascination with this stolen artwork piece of the puzzle?

Lisa: It’s a great question. I’m a daughter of a Holocaust survivor. I think it was in the early nineties, which is — in terms of timeline, Jules would’ve had her bat mitzvah. I went to an exhibition at The Art Institute about stolen art and the Nazis. It was the first time this is coming out. This is before Monuments Men. This is before Woman in Gold. This is early on. I went in there. I had this aha moment. I could not believe learning that Hitler was an artist and a madman, a murderer. How could someone have that sensitivity? Then I just started getting hooked. For my first novel, Fugitive Colors, it was my debut novel, it’s about stolen art as well, but about the painters themselves. I did four years of research before I would even allow myself to write. I was in Paris. I traveled. I interviewed, documentaries. This is where my journalistic skills came in handy. I left no stone unturned. Not that I became a quasi-expert, but I really knew this subject. It was so deep and so heavy that when I got to The Unbreakables, I needed a break from that. I needed to write something fictional, sexy, art as well, she’s a sculptor, but something totally different.

Then with Woman on Fire, I needed to go back to it. What led me back, I was actually working on something having to do with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I put it aside. What led me back was, in 2012 or 2013 is when the story was exposed; in Munich, they discovered a recluse, an old man with fifteen hundred works of art, major masterpieces, Chagalls, Picassos, Matisse, literally hidden in his stove and in his food cabinet worth $1.5 billion. It turns out that this is not just any old man recluse. This was the son of Hitler’s art dealer and the guy who went after and handled all the stolen art. The father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, bequeathed all of this to this reclusive son, Cornelius Gurlitt. It was huge, crazy, big story in the art world. I thought to myself in that moment — when I know that I have my story, I get this visceral body reaction. I’m like, this is my story. I have to use it. This is the jumping board where my evil character — Margaux de Laurent is a ruthless art dealer. She goes in and she takes — it’s not a spoiler, but steals all these paintings. Is it a crime if you steal from the robber? is my question. That’s where it all developed. I look for a news hook with whatever I write for my stories.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I didn’t realize that was a real —

Lisa: — Yeah, that’s real. That’s real.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Now I feel kind of stupid.

Lisa: No, no. That’s what I love. People are going to learn about this. You’re giving me a chance to talk about this. It does feel like fiction. Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes. That is a real story that I jumped off of in this book.

Zibby: Tell me about your family history. Which parent? Where were they based? What happened? The whole thing, if you don’t mind.

Lisa: My dad, literally, he was very young. He had his bar mitzvah coming on the boat to America. He was really young at the time. My immediate family survived, but all of their relatives from Poland perished in Auschwitz. They survived because they were pushed to Siberia. They were sent there into work camps. That saved their life, in a way. You get all these stories as a young person living in suburbia. You know that you’re very different than the other kids around you, your background. Mostly, for me, my grandmother, she’s the voice in my head. She was my best friend. She was a fighter. She was tiny like me, the whole thing. We were like this. I really learned everything — very simple woman, but such a fighter — from her. I think my going back to this part of history is really my connection to her. I dedicate the book to her as well. That’s my family history. As you know, our family histories guide us in everything we do, the mistakes we make, the choices we make, all those things.

Zibby: As you are telling me the story — you know in Back to the Future where the photo disappears all of a sudden in front of you?

Lisa: Yes, yes.

Zibby: It’s so unlikely that you even got — the fact that they survived and that you got to survive and now you’re writing this whole thing about it and letting other people know and we get to talk about it, it’s a miracle, really. Then I think about all the people who aren’t able to do that and all of your cousins and the people who would’ve been here.

Lisa: It’s hard. Also, with the surging of anti-Semitism these days, it’s really tough stuff. I think it’s important. That’s why I feel like, although this book is suspense and, from my feeling, strong fiction, historical fiction, for me, there’s personal meaning. I want people to walk away, that they take something or they learn something or they just feel connected. They’ll see an article in The New York Times about stolen art, and they’ll have had a little bit of background because they’ll have read my book. For me, that is the most meaningful part of this whole new book journey.

Zibby: It’s so amazing. It’s really impressive. It has the intrigue and all of that from the art, Thomas Crown Affair-ish intrigue, and yet the soul of the Holocaust. It’s very powerful stuff. Very cool.

Lisa: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you.

Zibby: How do you go from writing a project like this to then being like, okay, now what? This feels like a magnus opus of your career. How do you go on to the next one?

Lisa: You know how it is. You’re getting a book out, and you start working on the next one. I am working on something. Every time I try to get away from World War II, it’s like I’m pulled in. I get sucked right back in. I had told you about this Warsaw Ghetto Uprising type of story. That is the background, but it’s also about an actress of today, an older woman. A young actress wants to do a documentary on her. She also has a completely hidden past. Think Lauren Bacall, who’s this famous actress, but she is not really Lauren Bacall. She’s Betty Perske, her real name. I’m inspired by this façade of acting and actresses and what went on with her history. You didn’t know that she was an assassin back in the day, back in her younger years. I’m working on this story right now. We’ll see what happens. I’m really enjoying this character, but I have to kind of put it aside every time with book stuff. It’s kind of a stop-and-start. That’s what I’m working on right now.

Zibby: Wow. I’m really excited for you, for this book to come out, for people to learn and get wrapped in. Talk about a book where you’re not going to have your attention waver. You’re in it. You do all the things to keep people engaged, which is great. Bravo. Congratulations. I can’t wait to hear the news of the adaptation or whatever the news is that you have. I’m very excited to hear publicly.

Lisa: Thank you, Zibby. Can I just say one thing?

Zibby: Yes.

Lisa: I hope you are told enough over and over how amazing you are. What you do for our community, you work effortless twenty-four/seven to promote writers while you’re working, while you’re being a mom, while you’re doing all these things. You are so loved and appreciated. If I had this one little last stand, it’s to you. Thank you so much for all that you do, really.

Zibby: Thank you, Lisa. Thank you. Bye. Thanks.

Lisa: Bye.


WOMAN ON FIRE by Lisa Barr

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