The story behind the novel

I was inspired to write this novel after the death of my mother in 2002. A friend of mine, a woman I had known for over 30 years, asked me how it was exactly that my mother had ended up living in England, so I started to tell her –and she said: that is an amazing story! And I realized, yes it is, and I didn’t want that story to die with her death. I had always known the outline of what happened to my mother and her family during World War II: that she had left Czechoslovakia just before the Nazi invasion, but her family stayed behind. And I knew they were Jewish, although she never practiced Judaism and I was raised in a totally secular environment. Twenty years before her death, I had recorded an oral history with her, in which I delved into some of the background of the Czech side of my family, but there were a lot of gaps. I certainly didn’t understand many of the details, and my mother never discussed the emotional impact of what she went through. So I thought, well I love fiction, I’ll make up what I don’t know, I’ll write a novel.

I had never written a novel. I had written professional papers that had been published in academic journals, and I’d read a lot of novels, but I had never taken any creative writing classes and knew nothing about how to write fiction. So my first drafts of the early chapters were pretty terrible: overloaded with backstory and flowery language! But I started taking writing classes and attending workshops, and receiving feedback and criticism from my writing teachers and classmates, and little by little I improved.  I was still working in my day job at the time, and it was a demanding, stressful job which I loved – so my writing happened in the evenings and on weekends or while on vacation. It took me six years to complete the first draft, and then another four to re-write and edit and re-write again. In the process I discovered the joy of writing as a creative endeavor – as well as the hard work.

And I discovered the joy of doing research –and the challenge of keeping most of it out of the novel! I read memoirs by some of my mother’s contemporaries, fellow refugees, and histories about the home front during the war, and discovered some amazing sources online, such as the BBC archives of stories from people of all walks of life. And there were some answers that I couldn’t find on line – such as the details of air travel in early 1940. I knew my mother had flown from Paris to London at that time, but all my on line research stated that flights had been suspended at the outbreak of war in September 1939. It took an in-person visit to a funky little British Aviation Museum near Heathrow Airport to solve that conundrum.

I also came upon the letters my father had written during the last two years of the war to his close friend, Chris Small.  They were completely devoid of any personal details, but offered fascinating glimpses into the political climate that lead ultimately to the landslide defeat of Churchill in the 1945 election, right after VE day. As someone in my writing group said: how was it possible that Churchill, the heroic war leader, lost that election? And I read about the anti-immigrant hysteria in Britain when invasion seemed imminent in 1940, and the internment of enemy aliens, including many Jews and Communists who had fled Nazi Germany; I knew nothing about that. So there was so much I wanted to explore.

While I was in the final stages of re-writing the novel, the new refugee crisis hit Europe. I thought of the stories my mother and her friends told of the ruses they had to invent, the lengths to which they had to go to escape, and what happened to those who were not able to leave. The images of German people welcoming Syrian refugees with open arms were very poignant, and I wondered what my mother would have made of those. She refused to travel to Germany for decades after the war, saying she would look at anyone of a certain age and wonder what role they might have played in the death camps. I thought of her when I saw a new generation of Germans going to such efforts to make amends by offering shelter to today’s refugees from war and terror.

I think what I have loved best in writing this novel, is weaving together the wonderful historical nuggets I discovered, the little snippets of things I remember my mother telling me over the years, and the arc of the fictitious characters that I generated on the page. I hope you will agree that I have created a rich, compelling story, a story about hope and love and the fight for a better world, which has relevance in our own time.

This post also appeared on She Writes Press: “Behind the Book” 9/25/2017