The Ongoing Fascination of War by Catherine Hokin

I had the pleasure of reading a pre-release version of Catherine Hokin’s The Fortunate Ones. My Goodreads review: The Fortunate Ones is a story that matters. Set in World War Two Germany and post-war Argentina, it will grab your attention from start to finish, and make you think about war, consequences, choices, and the power of love. Here’s Catherine to talk about the ongoing fascination of war.

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War is hell – there’s a statement I doubt anyone would disagree with. Being caught up in a war, either as a combatant or a civilian, must be one of the worst experiences anyone can endure, and yet, since story telling began, we have filled up our firesides and our books and plays and poems with stories of conflict and the pain that comes with it.

The urge to write about war has been with us far longer than the desire to write about love. Most people’s main experience of classical literature comes through the epic adventures of the Trojan War. Beowulf, composed between 700 and 750 and the oldest surviving Germanic epic poem, tells the story of a monster-battling warrior. One of the oldest English poems in existence is The Battle of Maldon, believed to have been written in 991. More recently, the dynastic mayhem surrounding the Wars of the Roses shows no signs of losing its appeal and there can’t be a secondary school pupil in the UK who doesn’t know the name of at least one WWI poet.

I used to teach some of those pupils and, no matter their ability or level of interest, there was always a moment (usually in the middle of a discussion of something revolting like trench foot) when the age penny dropped. When somebody realised that the boys in uniform were barely older than the boys in the classroom. You could feel the change in mood every time it happened.

They all knew (or could at least regurgitate) the poetry’s key themes and functions: to encourage the heroic, to celebrate bravery and promote the sense of a communal experience; to de-mystify war and bring home its realities; to be anti-war and a propaganda tool. They were street-smart enough to spot the manipulation of words and ideals, but it was the realisation that the dead and the horribly maimed were too often 17 and 18 that brought empathy. That sent them home asking for family stories, or sent them to the newspapers and pictures of Aleppo. That brought wider themes back into the classroom: how recounting experiences can be an act of remembrance; how unimaginable trauma can be dealt with through literature and be made smaller, more relatable. Without wishing to go all Dead Poets’ Society, that moment of connection was when the cost of war became real.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not sticking The Fortunate Ones in a bracket with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I do think, however, that all war-based writing comes from a shared source: the need to make sense of the horrors people inflict on each other in the name of religion or politics or land, or whatever excuse one group can dig up for killing the ‘other’.

I was born in 1961 and grew up in the shadow of WWII. Films were obsessed with it; my parents (who were small children in Liverpool during the conflict) and their friends constantly talked about it; the shadow of rationing still dictated their attitudes to food and waste. Taking it back a generation, my grandfather fought all four years of WWI and carried the mental scars to his dying day.

One of the most common words I heard in relation to WWII in those days, was ‘monster’. Hitler was a monster, the Nazis were monsters. Then I heard about the Holocaust and what other term could you use? That word was where The Fortunate Ones started: an exploration of what monster actually means, in this context most particularly through the character of Inge.

There are universal themes and collective experiences we draw on, but there are also risks involved in writing about war, especially if what you are writing touches on the concentration camps. I was asked why I even wanted to do it, why anyone would write about something as horrific as the Holocaust, and wasn’t it an exploitative thing to do? They are fair questions and were constantly in my mind while I was writing.

Holocaust literature has never been, as odd as it feels to use the word, as popular. There are many theories as to why this is. That the number of survivors is shrinking plays a part, bringing as that does an increased need for remembrance, a need to hold onto accounts that many have only felt able to share years after the actual events took place. The Holocaust has also been described as an embodiment of some of our deepest fears, and that resonates with me. We can pretend such a horror, with its inescapable round-ups and removals and contempt for human life, can never happen again but do we believe that? When we live in a world stained by rising antisemitism and we see children being forcibly snatched from their parents at the Mexican Wall? When we have witnessed genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia and Rohingya?

Like all the generations before us then, we make sense of our world’s cruelties through reading, and telling, stories. Holocaust and WWII literature is part of this: our horror story existing still, albeit just, in living memory. We exorcise our fear of war’s pain and death and separation on the page, but we also we look for hope. The moments of bravery and sacrifice that change a life. Those acts we hope we would be capable of, an uncertainty we hope will never be tested.

Writers will never stop writing on war’s themes, they are too universal. I hope, however, we all recognise that the topic comes with responsibilities.

We cannot glorify war. We cannot romanticise it and make light of its horrors. We cannot use its realities carelessly, creating situations that cannot possibly have happened and blunting or belittling what could. We must do our research and root our characters in real events which we handle with care.

Those were my rules when writing The Fortunate Ones. If I’ve achieved nothing else, I hope in those I’ve been true.

Many thanks, Catherine. As an author who has written four novels featuring war, your words resonate for me and I am sure they will resonate with many others. In our current world of ‘proxy wars’, we should be even more mindful of the horror and obscenity war brings.

The Fortunate Ones by Catherine Hokin ~~ Every day he stood exactly where he was directed. He listened for his number, shouted his answer in the freezing cold. He was ragged and he was starving, but he was alive. He was one of the fortunate ones whom fate had left standing. And he needed to stay that way. For Hannah.

Berlin, 1941. Felix Thalberg, a printer’s apprentice, has the weight of the world on his shoulders. His beloved city is changing under Nazi rule and at home things are no better – Felix’s father hasn’t left the house since he was forced to wear a yellow star, and his mother grows thinner every day.

Then one night, Felix meets a mysterious young woman in a crowded dance hall, and his life is changed forever. Hannah is like a rush of fresh air into his gloomy, stagnant life and Felix finds himself instantly, powerfully infatuated with her. But when he tries to find her again, she’s vanished without a trace.

Was Hannah taken away by the Gestapo and held prisoner… or worse? When Felix himself is imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, his thoughts are only for her safety. And when a life-threatening injury lands him on the ward of Dr Max Eichel – a Nazi medical officer with a sadistic reputation – his love for his lost Hannah sees him through the pain.

Until one day Dr Eichel brings his pretty young wife to tour the camp and Felix’s world is thrown off-kilter. Framed in the hospital window he sees – impossibly – the same girl he met that fateful night… her wrist in the vice-like grip of the deathly calm SS Officer. And it’s clear Hannah recognises him at once – there is no mistaking her expression, she has been dreaming of him too…

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Who’s Saying What about Historical Fiction

I thought I’d take a look via Google at what others are saying about historical fiction.

First up – a list from Read It Forward of Historical Fiction We Can’t Wait to Read in 2019 and written by Keith Rice, freelance writer and editor @Keith_Rice1. By the way, there are many other lists of interesting historical fiction for 2019.

In Why Are We Living in a Golden Age of Historical Fiction?, Megan O’Grady writes: “As visions of the future increasingly fail in the face of our present moment, literary authors are increasingly looking back, not to comfort us with a sense of known past, or even an easy allegory of the present, but instead — motivated by a kind of clue-gathering — to seek reasons for why we are the way we are and how we got here, and at what point the train began to derail.” She has a lot more to say than this one quote and I encourage you to read the full article.

In Read Brightly, tagline Raise Kids Who Love to Read, Ellen Klages writes Why Historical Fiction is Important for 21st Century Kids … “I think it’s important for kids to be aware that the past was often less than savory, that they learn about what actually happened, not what some would like to pretend it was like.”

Why is Holocaust Fiction Still So Popular? Writing in Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, Emily Burack tackles this topic. She says: “I came to understand that Holocaust fiction remains popular for four key reasons: a mix of who is telling the story (the third and fourth generations), the types of stories (not straightforward, but morally ambiguous), the historical truth at the heart of all these novels and our current political moment.”

Historical Fiction – How, What, When and Why … this article appears on a site called Writers & Artists – The Insider Guide to the Media. The article, written by members of Triskele Books, includes top research tips, visual approaches, inspiration, and reliving the past.

The Walter Scott Prize for 2019 Shortlist is out … the shortlisted novels include The Long Take by Robin Robertson, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller, The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey, After The Party by Cressida Connolly and A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

 

Footprints in the Forest – writing about the Holocaust

footprints-in-the-forestAuthor Jeannette Katzir offers her perspective on writing historical fiction. She is the second child of five children born to two Holocaust survivors. Jeannette rode horses for almost thirty years until a fall put an end to something she truly loved doing and has now turned her energies and passion to writing.

Footprints in the Forest, is her second book in this genre. Her first book, Broken Birds, the Story of My Momila, received positive reviews, and was spotlighted by Jesse Kornbluth of Head Butler and The Huffington Post. She lives in Los Angeles.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

Memorable historical fictions have the ability to artfully interweave a manufactured story thread into an actual historical event, all the while, maintaining the integrity of that historical occasion. This new thread must be skillfully written, so it feels real while remaining within the constraints of an event already known to us.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

They are different because when a reader opens an historical fiction novel, they already know the beginning and the ending. In contemporary novels all of those events are manufactured with any and all endings possible.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

I consider myself a Holocaust-aholic and so in my book, Footprints in the Forest, I highlighted the horrors of that atrocity. I then shined a light onto those perseverant souls who survived at the cost of losing almost everything and everyone they held near and dear.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

Fortunately for me, I speak a smattering of Yiddish and German, so I was able to infuse the spoken language(s) of the day onto characters who were based on people I knew and grew up with, (my momila (mother) and tatinke (father). I also had a time-line sitting on my desk so that I could make sure I always backed into the dates and events that occurred. This can be helpful and also limiting. It caused me to be sure and plant storyline seeds along the way so in the end, the book made historical as well as fictional sense.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

The spoken language of a particular period of time is crucial to a book, as reading is not a visual medium. In my particular case I felt it was important for the reader to feel what our heroine was feeling. They needed to trudge along side Chana as she marched through a near pitch-black forest. They needed to understand the additional terror of slogging through a waist high marsh when you can’t swim a stroke.

When she was in 1948’s Brooklyn, I wanted the reader to experience a drastic difference. I wanted them to travel back in time with her to a place outside our current time. I wanted them feel her conflicted feelings when she had the opportunity of getting what she most wanted, if she was willing to give up something she never thought she’d have to.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I am pleased that much of the historical fiction has become so personalized. History can sometimes be rather dry, but historical fiction allows us to step into history and feel the feelings of that time. We are invited along that thrill ride, all the while pretty much knowing how it will all turn out.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Footprints in the Forest, is about a fourteen year old Jewish girl who is ripped from her mother’s arm and thrown into a Russian otriad, Partisan group. Our heroine, Chana, comes of age under the worst of conditions, and even though she is underweight, starving, and running from a terrifying enemy, she finds love. There is a concurrent story line of her as a young woman assimilating to Brooklyn New York in the late 40’s. She feels a out of place as she is still governed by the rules and laws of her upbringing. But she must let the past go if she is to find love.

Many thanks, Jeannette for sharing your thoughts on historical fiction. Best wishes for your latest novel and future writings.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.