Monday 15 October 2012

Reaction from beta readers

Most of the comments are in now from my beta-readers. Most of the commentary is around the Nazi voice. This is something I wasn’t all that sure about myself in fact. Should it be there? Was it strong enough? Was it too strong?
I’ve concluded, after hearing what everyone has had to say, that it should be there, but that it isn’t yet quite right.
Interestingly, some people have interpreted it as purely a Nazi voice and some that it is really just Renate thinking. I actually mean it to be both at once. If it should be made into a play, I would imagine these words spoken by an actor dressed in an SS uniform and that this figure would appear on a balcony, in the auditorium or if on stage all lights would be out except for a spot on him and maybe he would be upstage right.
I decided in the end to extend that voice a little. I’ve now reread every single scene where it occurs and in nearly every case I’ve lengthened it.  
It constantly reminds Renate that she is neither German, English nor Jewish, that she belongs nowhere, that she is a disgrace and that she doesn’t deserve any happiness.
I think I may now be about to send it out to agents, followed by small press.
It would be useful to get it out internationally.  

Monday 3 September 2012

Marianne Wheelaghan The Blue Suitcase

There are many parallels between this and Potatoes in Spring. And there are some subtle and some less subtle differences.
We have both used material produced by young German women. Marianne Wheelaghan’s “account” covers the years from 1932 to 1947 and mine form 1938 to 1947. Both of our accounts are more intense as we lead up to the outbreak of World War II and both take bigger leaps towards the end. We have both translated from German and have had to fill in the gaps when we couldn’t read the writing. We both feel that we have brought something of a young German woman’s voice that isn’t a 21st century one to what we have written, and that our reader may need to work a little to understand that voice.
Both works add something new to a topic that has been much discussed. Both of us have complemented the fantastic primary resources we have had with much research about the era. Both books end with some hope but neither the reader nor the central character in each know how it will work out. Marianne and I actually do. Our stories are about real people we know well.
The reader learns from The Blue Suitcase what it was like for one German family, who had a Polish-sounding name, and who eventually had to move from their home to the American zone after the war, pushed out first by the Russians and then by occupying Polish families. Potatoes in Spring of course is the story of a ‘Mischling’, of a miraculous escape for some children with severe learning difficulties and of the daily life of some ordinary German girls who had little idea if what was actually happening in their country. Somehow many of the issues are nevertheless similar. And we both have teenage girls behaving … like teenage girls.           
The Blue Suitcase is a mixture of letters and diary entries, some of which are quite long and read like fiction. Potatoes in Spring is a mixture letters and short scenes, some of which are based on written and verbal accounts from the central character. I have possibly strayed a little further away from my primary resources than has Weelaghan but I’ve had to do that partly because otherwise I would have had too many characters and I didn’t have quite as much material in the first place. In spirit, actually, the two books have much in common.      

Friday 31 August 2012

Markus Zusak The Book Thief

This is another fictionalized account of something that could have happened during the Holocaust. The main character is Death and s/he arrives at various intervals to take someone away. But this person also lingers and tells us of some of what else is happening. “I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling amongst the jigsaw puzzle of realisation, despair and surprise. They have punctured their hearts,” says death. The story s/he tells is of:
  • “A girl
  • Some words
  • An accordionist
  • Some fanatical Germans
  • A Jewish fist-fighter
  • And quite a lot of thievery.”
The girl, Liesel Meminger, is the book thief. Her mother, unable to look after her, leaves her in the care of the accordionist. Liesel steals three books and reads a lot of words.  Zusak writes a lot of words. The fanatical Germans are as fanatical here as they are in any other literature, factual or fictional, and the Jew Liesel and her family protect is a fist-fighter. Many of the characters steal in order to survive.   
Zusak was not there at the time. He has had to use imagination in order to work out how it was then. He has used his writerly method-acting to create the persona of Death. We get close to Liesel, too, and learn of her encounters with communist, fascists, Nazis, and Jesse Owens. Zusak gives us a strong hint of how life was there and then by putting us amongst the people who lived that life.  
The voice is strong and unusual in this novel. The layout too is quite different. All of this brings our attention more closely to this so important story.              

Thursday 19 July 2012

Revisiting the Holocaust – which works best, visiting a museum or engaging the imagination through fiction?

Revisiting the Holocaust – which works best, visiting a  museum or engaging the imagination through fiction?
As I’ve intended for some time, I visited the Holocaust Exhibition at the ImperialWar Museum yesterday. It was a little surreal, anyway, as in the morning I worked with the Ministry of Stories, at their Children’s Republic of Shoreditch. All that is fun and zany. The IWM is more serious.
I suppose my intention in visiting the IWM was to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I hadn’t, and in fact I found I knew more about each aspect of the topic than the exhibits showed me. I have after all used much of the IWM’s online archived material and as well as many other online resources. I’ve read a great deal and have a 40 page bibliography of books yet to read. Although the novel is finished I still wish to contextualize it.  
Nevertheless, the visit was fruitful. I found another half dozen books I’d like to read sometime. I was also able to visit the “A Family in War Time Exhibition” which was pertinent to the “Renate in England” strand of the project. Again, there was little I didn’t already know. However, it was useful to sit in an Anderson shelter and experience what it might fell like during an air-raid and also to have a close look at a Morrison shelter. I didn’t have time to visit the Blitz Experience. That is something I will do another day.
In another way the visit was extremely relevant: I realised that although the exhibition is informative for those who know little about the Holocaust it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter as some of the other materials and accounts I’ve studied. It doesn’t have the emotional impact of the creatively written texts I’ve read to support my research: - those by John Boyne, Emma Craigie, Charlotte Delbo, Marcus Zusak and Jake Wallis Simons. A really important aspect of this project for me, the creative writing academic researcher, is the opportunity it offers to examine that relationship between fact and fiction and how fiction and writing fiction can investigate what actually happens in a different way from how a bare laying down of facts informs us. Perhaps I need to assess how much my beta and beta+ readers understand of what I have written.
And a final advantage of the visit is that the receipt for my coffee included an invitation to hold my next important event at the IWM London. Now that would be grand: launching Potatoes in Spring at IWM London and perhaps at IWM North as well.        

Monday 7 May 2012

Finished? Not without Molly the kitten

Yes, I think I’ve finished.  I’ve completed all edits, even the copy edit and the read out loud edit.  Very last minute I’ve put another tiny sub-plot in. A story about a kitten. Traumatised Kindertransport children often found it easier to relate to animals than to other humans, no matter how much kindness was shown. In fact, kindness by others often made them feel guilty. They felt unworthy, partly because they had been labelled as a disgrace by the Nuremberg laws and partly because they felt guilty as they were surviving whilst other friends and relations were not.
It was particularly difficult for Mischling children such as Renate, who felt neither as if they were German nor English and neither were they properly Jewish like the other Kinder.
Molly the kitten has to be bottle fed. She is the daughter of one of the two farm cats who gave birth within a few days of each other. Most of the other kittens feed from either mother without hesitation. Molly seems unable to decide which cat should feed her and is ultimately rejected by both mothers. She becomes attached to Renate who looks after her. Molly eventually goes to live in London with Renate after she has left school. She is initially as confused about her identity as Renate is. But she thrives because she is loved.
I’ve found out very recently that Renate adopted a cat while she was evacuated with the school. She took it everywhere with her, often hidden inside her jacket. It seemed like a thread that needed to be woven into the story. The word count has gone up now by a couple of thousand.