Kevin Haworth politely demurs when asked for historical lessons gleaned from researching and writing his first novel.
But ask how an unclaimed historical idea can inspire a writer and stimulate a creative process that consumed him for eight years, and he becomes exceedingly voluble and engaging.
In his debut novel "A Discontinuity of Small Things" (QWIP Books, $23.95 hardcover), described as a "quiet story of the Holocaust," Haworth has taken the history of the rescue of Denmark's 7,000 Jews during the war and crafted a finely tuned novel that resonates with multiple layers of meaning.
Haworth, who received a master's degree in fine arts in fiction writing from Arizona State University in 1997 and was a recipient of a Morris N. Kertzer scholarship, spoke recently at Hillel at ASU about the book and the writing process. The program was sponsored by Hillel, the ASU Department of Religious Studies and the Jewish Studies Program, the Harold and Jean Grossman Chair in Jewish Studies and the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.
Haworth says his interest in the Holocaust surfaced at a relatively early age and has been an abiding theme in his work since he began writing seriously as an undergraduate at Vassar College.
"Most kids learn about the Holocaust and get over it," he says. "I didn't."
A year in Israel after college (and another extended stay when his wife was in rabbinical school) deepened his interest.
As a participant in Sherut La'am, a yearlong volunteer program, he picked avocados on a kibbutz and worked in a community center in the Negev.
"I read that whole year," he says. "Israeli novelists and history, American literature."
He was not writing but instead allowing himself time to read and think.
"You don't experience something and write about it the next day," he says, addressing how personal experience can inform a writer's work. "It has to percolate."
Being in Israel provided a key theme of his work, exposing him to ordinary people who together may do extraordinary things.
"They are average people who are doing average things that add up to something," he says.
So when he happened on an exhibit at ASU's Memorial Union of grainy black and white photos evoking the rescue of Danish Jews, his curiosity was piqued.
"It appealed to me," he explains. "It had deep historical significance to a topic I was already interested in."
The resulting novel turns on four main characters, each representing a different segment of Danish society, whose lives intersect unexpectedly due to historical circumstance. They include Bakman, the medical student who becomes active in the Danish resistance; the Faeroe Islander, age unknown; Carl, the fisherman, a man of few words who plays a pivotal role in the rescue; and Hannah, the daughter of a privileged Jewish family who yearns to go to then-Palestine.
"The book has multiple characters because I wanted to explore the many different types of responses," he explains. Germany occupied Denmark in April 1940; the vast majority of Jews escaped in October 1943. The small number of elderly Jews who remained were deported to Theresienstadt.
Haworth weaves together the stories with a spare style, moving easily from past tense to present and back again.
"There were some things I wanted to say in the past, some in the present," he says of his unorthodox approach.
Ultimately, he says, what he was trying to do was to "make an idea into a world."
Most distinctive is Haworth's use of detail. He is fascinated with the minutiae of life - and its ability to tell the story - and he has an uncanny ability to observe, and depict, the seemingly inconsequential "small things."
Toward the end of the book, when he is telling of the departure of the Jews, ferried in small fishing boats from Denmark to Sweden under cover of night, he painstakingly describes a man who refuses to leave his bicycle behind, and ultimately settles on carrying just one wheel with him onto the tiny craft.
"My compulsion to use the details was to make the emotion real," says Haworth.
A trip to Denmark about halfway through the writing process helped him flesh out those details. Meeting people, talking to them and listening to their stories deepened his visceral understanding and illuminated his writing.
"I found things that I would not expect to find," he says. "Things that are useful to a fiction writer."
Haworth says he had been writing each character's story separately, saving it in its own computer file.
"I had no idea how I would put it together," he says.
He decided to try a method he had observed during his stay in Arad, where a number of artists and writers live and work.
"I put everything I had written on index cards labeled with a name," he says. He affixed them to the wall in his writing studio and over the next month played at arranging and rearranging them.
"I did it over and over again to get the right pattern," he says. "And that was when it became a book."
Currently Haworth is at work on a second novel and teaching literature and writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. His wife, Danielle Leshaw, whom he met at Hillel at ASU, is a rabbi and executive director of Hillel at the university, the second largest state university in Ohio.
They married in 2000 and have two children: 3-year-old son, Zev, and newborn daughter, Ruthie.
Haworth, who was born in 1971, says that he wanted to address the question of how people of his generation can grapple with the legacy of the Holocaust.
He felt by choosing one small story he could best pay homage.
"The only way to explain life is through the details," he says. "A lot of small things add up."