Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
The third in my Isolation Publicity Series is part of a blog tour for a book called The Deceptions by Suzanne Leal, which is based on stories she heard from her landlords who had lived through the Holocaust. It’s a riveting and moving read, exploring the Holocaust and hidden stories and secrets and how these can affect generations of a family. My review is more expansive. Enjoy this interview and the review.
Hi Suzanne, and welcome to The Book Muse
- Novels and books about hidden stories like The Deceptions are some of my favourites, and often very powerful narratives. What has led you to writing these stories as an author?
Hi Ashleigh, and thanks so much for having me. You’re absolutely right: in my new novel The Deceptions everyone has something to hide or a secret they don’t want revealed. I’m very interested in what people try to hide or what they simply leave unsaid. Often the things we don’t know about a person – and what they don’t wish to discuss – are the very things that are most interesting about them: the trauma they have had to overcome, the country they were forced to leave, the loss they have experienced. It is these hidden stories that, once known, give us a new insight into people we may have thought we knew well.
- Did your experiences as a lawyer help you understand how people in unimaginable situations, like your characters in The Deceptions, make decisions that we may think are immoral or dangerous?
I started my legal career in criminal law, then moved into refugee and immigration law and now child protection. In each of these areas, I deal with people in crisis, whether this is because they risk going to jail or have fled their homeland or have lost their career. My work has taught me a lot about the difficulties people face in their lives, the mistakes they make and how they might try to make up for them. When I read about the difficulties facing people during the Second World War I often wonder how I would have behaved. Would I have behaved as admirably as I might hope I would?
- Some people think all war novels are the same. Yet as someone who reads a lot of these sorts of novels, I find each one tells of a unique aspect. Is this something you think novelists in general aim to do?
I’ve never really thought all war novels are the same for truly no two writers will ever tell a story in exactly the same way. Writing a novel takes time and, for me at least, is a difficult thing to do. I have to be absolutely taken by the story I have to tell to enable me to keep going with it. That involves discovering the essence of each of my characters: who they really are and why they behave the way they do. This is what many most writers do – they really drill down into their characters – and in so doing, make each work unique.
- You credit your landlord, Fred, for starting your career as a writer – can you expand on how you feel he helped you enter this career?
For seven years, Fred and Eva Perger were both my neighbours and my landlords. They were also Czech and Jewish and had both survived the Holocaust. As we became closer, Fred started to confide in me about his experiences during the war. These confidences became regular interviews and in the space of a year, I had five hundred pages of transcript describing events and places with an honesty and photographic recall that still astound me. These interviews formed the basis for my first novel, Border Street, which opened my career as a writer.
My new novel, The Deceptions, was inspired one of the stories Fred and Eva had each told me. As teenagers, they’d been sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto outside Prague. Whilst there, they got to know a Czech gendarme whose job was to guard the camp but who was also having a clandestine relationship with one of the young Jewish women detained there. Some months later, the gendarme and the young woman disappeared from the camp. After the war, he returned home but her fate remained unknown. Over the years, I found myself wondering what had happened to her. I didn’t have enough information to research her actual life – I didn’t even know her name – but at the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. In the end, I gave in and, using my imagination, I recreated her instead. From there, The Deceptions emerged.
- Which do you prefer – being a writer, or fighting for justice in a court room?
I like the combination. As a lawyer, I sit on a tribunal where I make decisions about people who come before me. I might be called on to decide whether a person should have a taxi licence or a building licence or a tattooing licence or a firearms licence. I might also be asked to decide whether a person should have the right to work with children. To make decisions like this, I need to know a lot about a person’s background, behaviour and motivation. This makes my work fascinating.
As a writer, I love to sit alone and to try to put into words those things in life that puzzle me or shock me or surprise me. I love sitting down to get out on paper all the thoughts that would otherwise clog up my head.
- What is it about World War Two and its stories in particular that you are interested in?
I am interested in World War Two because of the unbelievable horror of the Holocaust. I find it absolutely impossible to contemplate what it must have been like to have been part of it. Because I became so close to my neighbours, Fred and Eva Perger, who were both Holocaust survivors, I found myself thinking about World War Two a lot. I found myself wondering how I would have behaved had I been part of the war: would I have behaved well, would I have been altruistic or would I have simply focused on myself?
- What is it about dual timeline narratives in historical fiction that you think is an effective and powerful means to tell the story?
I’ve always liked reading dual timeline narratives. Last year at Storyfest – the Milton-based festival directed by Meredith Jaffé- I interviewed Natasha Lester and I love the way she intertwines her stories of contemporary life and historical fiction. A dual timeline narrative was important for my novel The Deceptions because it is very much an exploration of the legacy of war through the years and through generations.
- What do you prefer writing – historical fiction, or another genre? Why?
I like writing both historical and contemporary fiction, although I find writing historical fiction more difficult because of the all the research required. More than anything, I’m interested in how we live now, how we manage our relationships, our work, our losses and how we find the strength to get through hard times.
- Have you shared your story with Fred and Eva’s family?
Since Fred and Eva’s death, I have stayed in contact with their daughters, Helena and Renata, to whom I have dedicated The Deceptions. Helena and Renata read the manuscript early on because I wanted to make sure there was nothing in the book that might upset them. For although the character of Hana is in no way based on their mother, the places Hana is taken during the war are the same as the places Eva was taken. Helena and Renata checked my Czech for me and have been incredibly supportive of me.
- When did Fred and Eva start telling you their stories about the Holocaust?
I lived beside Fred and Eva for seven years. After a year or so, they began to tell me about their wartime experiences. It wasn’t until I’d moved away from them that Fred and I met each week to record his life experiences.
- For many people, the Holocaust is a distant event, that’s sometimes just a number. Yet it affected millions of people, has millions of names attached. How important do you think it is to continue teaching it and letting the world know about stories like Eva and Fred’s story?
I think it is fundamental to keep telling stories of the Holocaust so that the horror of it might never be forgotten and never repeated. It is difficult to comprehend the deaths of millions of people, so difficult it can lose its impact. More confronting can be the story of one or two or three people whose stories we follow so closely we can immerse ourselves in their lives and get an insight into their experiences. This, I think, is the particular power of fiction.
- What impact do you think stories with named victims will have on the teaching of the Holocaust, beyond the usual names such as Anne Frank that we all know? Is it your hope that more stories like this will not only expand knowledge, but expand understanding and empathy?
There are so much Holocaust stories of so many people from so many different backgrounds. To expand these stories is fundamental to an understanding of the horror and reach of the Holocaust. I think it is also important not to forget that the damage war causes has a long reach: it stretches through time and down the generations.
- Finally, what are you planning for your next book, if there are any plans?
I’ve just finished the first draft of my new novel, which continues the theme that so interests me: how do we find hope and resilience in the midst of troubled times?
Thank you Suzanne, and good luck with future endeavours.