Feathers of the Firebird

Creating There’s A Tiger Out There

Today is the official publication date of my picture book with Ruth Waters, There’s A Tiger Out There(Little Hare) and to celebrate Ruth and I have written pieces on the creation of the book. Enjoy!

Creation of the text, by Sophie Masson

There’s a Tiger Out There began in a dream. In the dream, I was in my house, looking out at the garden, when I glimpsed her: silent stripes gliding through our garden, yellow eyes shining. And with a grip of the heart that was half thrill and half fear, I knew there was a tiger out there and that if I went out—who knew what would happen? Now, it’s not an uncommon occurrence for me to have big cats—lions and tigers, especially—suddenly appear in my dreams, but in this case, it felt different. It felt like this tiger was different, her eyes fixed on me, and when I woke up, I knew why. It was because she wanted to be in a story!

So I began work on transposing her from the realm of dream to the realm of imagination. The first words came quickly, and the first draft was quite simple—just pretty much recounting that dream glimpse and that mix of feelings on seeing her savage, elemental splendour in the midst of our humble familiar garden. ‘There’s a tiger watching me with eyes as bright as sunrise/’ I wrote, ‘There’s a tiger sleek as shadow/stripes of midnight on her fur.’  After I showed the text to my agent Margaret Connolly, who loved it and sent it to Margrete Lamond, who was then the publisher at Little Hare and also loved it, that first draft went through many changes, in collaboration first with Margrete and then, when she left, with Alyson O’Brien, who also loved it and helped me bring the text to its final form. Early on, the draft had transformed from a simple ‘I’ eye-view to the point of view of two siblings, one older and bolder, one younger and more timid, who see a tiger ‘out there’ and react in their different ways—with a twist at the end, of course! It was a story, I realised, about sibling relations, about imagination, about love and adventure and mystery—and the thrill of a good scare!

When I first saw Ruth Waters’ gorgeous collage images, I was so excited! She had completely understood the spirit of my text and created a richly-imagined, warm and distinctive visual world, where the tiger as much as the siblings was completely at home. It was as if that was how I had always seen the world of my story: not only a perfect fit, but extending and expanding it in the most satisfying way.

And of course I just adore the finished book, with Hannah Janzen’s gorgeous design!

Creation of the illustrations, by Ruth Waters

I remember the day I received the email from Alyson from Little Hare Books. I had to re-read it several times. You want me to illustrate a picture book? Me? I had previously written and illustrated my own story but had been waiting for the opportunity to work on someone else’s tale. That said, I opened the manuscript with some trepidation – what if I can’t connect with the story?  I needn’t have worried. As I read each line, I instantly pictured who the characters were, how they looked and what kind of personality they had. A little bit bossy, know-it-all, older sister. A younger brother who adores and does anything she tells him.

The first stage of the making process was to create a series of character sketches in pencil.  Since I work in collage, I also created a collage version to give Alyson a better idea of how they would finally look. I sent these off and waited for her comments. We went back and forth until we were both happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Character Sketches

The next stage was to figure out how the text should be split across 32-or-so pages and come up with a rough idea of how each page would look. I had already made the decision that the ‘real’ tiger should only appear on the last double page spread. This way, not only the children in the story but the reader would not be entirely sure whether there really is a tiger. Another idea was to give the little boy a cuddly toy tiger – this would act as a visual tool to help the reader conjure up the idea that there is a tiger out there. Another idea, inspired by the line ‘cross my heart’ – which appears throughout the story – was to place a hidden heart-shape on every page. Sometimes the heart shape is made from a blade of grass or appears as a ripple in the water.  I also spent quite a bit of time making sure there was enough variety in terms of perspectives – wide shots verses close-up, double page spreads verses one page of illustration.  At this point I also decided on the colour palette – I decided we should go bright – to match the vibrant orange of the tiger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Storyboard and colour palette

 

 

The storyboard was then sent to Little Hare and over a few weeks we made little tweaks. Once I got the thumbs up – I made the final sketches to scale and then got to work prepping the paper.

Final sketch and prepping the paper!

 

To create the collages, I first roll acrylic paint on to a variety of textured paper. Then, working with the final sketches, I trace, cut and stick! All of my illustrations are made entirely by hand. It is labour intensive but I much prefer it to using a computer. The other plus about collage is it’s flexibility as I can keep moving the pieces around until I am happy and, only then, glue them down.

Every time I finished a double page spread, I would scan and send it to Little Hare for their thoughts. To me this proved to be an efficient way of working as it allowed me to make tweaks as I went along, rather making lots of changes at the end – when time is tight.

Watch videos of the making process:

 

 

 

 

 

Overall the entire project took about 3-4 months. Much quicker than usual due to my own time constraints (normally I would allocate 6 months). I then packaged it all up and hand delivered it to Little Hare’s production office!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The whole project was a joy to work on from start to finish. And I learnt so much along the way.

Ruth Waters | http://www.ruth-waters.com | https://www.instagram.com/ruthpwaters/

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The Accusation: an interview with Wendy James

I am delighted today to be bringing you an interview with the fabulous author Wendy James, whose multi-layered domestic noir novels, with their gripping, twisty plots, complex characters with brilliantly-observed relationships, and sharp commentary on contemporary life, have earned great acclaim and a devoted readership. I certainly always much look forward to reading her books, because I know I’m in for a real reading treat(and I’m not just saying that because as well as being a fellow author, Wendy is a dear friend!) A couple of years ago I interviewed her when her previous book, the extraordinary novel The Golden Child came out; and today, I’m interviewing her about her brand-new novel, The Accusation, a disturbing, suspenseful read which plunges us into a world of small-town secrets and social-media storms, with at the heart of it, a monstrous accusation which will pit two women against each other. But who is telling the truth? Who is lying? As events unfold with frightening rapidity, everyone takes sides…

First of all, Wendy, congratulations on your new novel! It’s a brilliant, gripping and disturbing thriller and very contemporary in feel, yet as you mention in your afterword, it’s inspired by a classic crime novel, Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair.  Can you tell us a bit about that, and how the idea developed from that initial inspiration, including how it diverges from it?

I’ve been a fan of Tey’s work for a long time. Then a few years ago I came across a piece by UK author Sarah Waters,  discussing the novel as being very decidedly of a particular time and place ( the book was first published in 1948) — and not necessarily in a complimentary way. This sent me back to the original story, the 18th century Canning affair,  and it also really got me thinking — how would such a story play out in the twenty-first century? What was interesting was how so many elements of the 18th century story — and especially the polarising nature of the scandal — seemed even more relevant now.
The novel diverges from Tey’s quite a bit — not only because of the temporal issues, but because the shift in location, a small rural Australian town rather than the UK, changes more than you’d imagine. The class elements, which are very pronounced in Tey’s novel, are still important, but of course play out rather differently in the Australian context. The Suzannah of my novel is very different to the main character in Tey’s — she’s not a quiet, penurious, spinster, but an ex-soap star — rather worldly and world weary. In Tey’s novel Betty Kane didn’t have the option of becoming an instant celebrity as my Ellie Canning does — fame didn’t have quite the same cachet back then.
Do you think social media and the 24 hour news cycle has made people quicker to rush to judgment than in the past? Or not?

I don’t think they’ve made us any faster to rush to judgement — I’m quite sure we’ve always done that — but what they’ve done is given us a  platform to air that judgement in public  – a virtual town square, if you like. It feels like a return to the days when people were publicly shamed, put in the stocks, publicly pilloried — and in some cases had their lives ruined because of the righteous justice of the  mob.

In the novel, the media pits images of women against each other– for example, the young, ‘innocent’ figure of Ellie Canning, as against the ‘corrupted’ figure of middle-aged Suzannah Wells, who is the target of Ellie’s accusation. Why do you think people still respond to such stereotypes?
Ha! I guess it satisfies some primal desire. I suppose we so badly want beauty and youth to correspond to goodness and innocence — and age and relative beauty to represent the opposite. It’s Snow White and the wicked queen,  Cinderella and the wicked stepmother. It’s altogether satisfying, and seems only fair.  The fact that Suzannah was once in a similar position—young,  beautiful, famous,  and universally admired—makes it a very bitter pill.
The portrayal of Mary, Suzannah’s difficult mother, who is suffering from an unspecified dementia-like illness, is a tour de force of unflinching yet compassionate observation. How did you create her character?
I’m glad you like Mary. I think she’s one of my favourite characters. She came from two places. I really enjoyed the figure of the mother in Tey’s novel—she was acid tongued and brutally honest in a way that would be almost entirely impossible to make sympathetic these days. I actually didn’t originally have a mother figure  — but then I started to think about what someone like Suzannah,  who is a single woman of a particular age,  might have happening in her life — and a dependent mother seemed just right. Mary also lightened things a little — which I like when things get a bit too intense. She was great way to reveal certain things at just the right ( or occasionally, for poor Suzannah, wrong)
Small-town life is often a focus in your novels. What is it that makes that kind of setting interesting for you as a novelist?
I think the fact that even introverts can’t get away with being anonymous in small towns. And there’s always the fact of not being a local. I’ve had the experience of being both a local (there were five generations of my family in Bourke when I was growing up) and then not a local in other small places — and in both cases there are some interesting dynamics. Being a complete  outsider — for Suzannah – and one who has a relationship with someone who’s utterly local – is also an interesting position.
The revelation of the unexpected villain–villains, rather–uncovers a disturbing plot and a gross betrayal. Tell us something about how you put the pieces together.
I can’t tell too much, or I’ll give the game away. I can say that the fact that the villain of the real case remains unclear ( indeed, in the real case both Canning and Wells/Squires were arrested) freed me up when it came to making a decision about who I wanted the bad guy/s to be. It took me a while to decide, to be honest — it could be made plausible either way.
The Golden Child, your previous novel, also revolved partly around the power of social media. What is your view on how it and the fake news that proliferates with it has impacted on society?
I think so much of what we hear now isn’t so much ‘news’ as what people think or feel about the news. And then this in itself becomes and, in many cases, directs the news. And there have been so many changes — good and bad — in how we live and interact, fuelled by technology and social media. It’s  a bit like one of those dreams where you’re driving somewhere fast, but your foot is stuck on the accelerator and you can’t quite see over the dashboard: it’s exhilarating — such speed, such power! — but simultaneously terrifying.. You know it could all end very badly.
Finally, I believe that there are TV series plans for The Golden Child. Can you tell us a bit about that?

It’s very exciting. Fox21 and Temple Hill Productions  ( Fault in our Stars, Twilight) optioned the book last year and it’s currently in series development at FX Network in the US. Fingers crossed we get that beautiful green light happening!

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More about The Accusation: 

Somebody is lying.

After eighteen-year-old Ellie Canning is found shivering and barely conscious on a country road, her bizarre story of kidnap and escape enthrals the nation. Who would do such a thing? And why?

Local drama teacher Suzannah Wells, once a minor celebrity, is new to town. Suddenly she’s in the spotlight again, accused of being the monster who drugged and bound a teenager in her basement. As stories about her past emerge, even those closest to her begin to doubt her innocence.

And Ellie? The media can’t get enough of her. She’s a girl-power icon, a social-media star. But is she telling the truth?

A powerful exploration of the fragility of trust and the loss of innocence, from the author of The Golden Child and The Mistake.

More about Wendy:

Wendy James is the celebrated author of eight novels, including the bestselling The Mistake and the compelling The Golden Child, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Ned Kelly Award for crime. Her debut novel, Out of the Silence, won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for first crime novel, and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie award for women’s writing. Wendy has a PhD from the University of New England and works as an editor at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University. She lives in Newcastle with her husband and the youngest of her four children, and writes some of the sharpest and most topical domestic noir novels in the country.

 

 

 

Short overview video about my life in writing and publishing

I’ve just uploaded a short video I made, based on some presentations I’ve made recently, which is a bit of an overview of my life and career in writing and publishing. Hope you enjoy…

The original background music by the way is by my very talented son Bevis Masson-Leach, aka music producer Papertoy.

My article on maintaining a literary career, now published in TEXT

What’s it really like maintaining a literary career, especially in a regional area? What role do literary organisations like writers’ groups and writers’ centres play? In Wearing many hats: literary creative practice in New England, an article of mine which has just been published in the prestigious journal TEXT, I explore these and other aspects of the regional creative life through my own experiences and the experiences of other local creators, through interviews I conducted.

Hope you enjoy reading it!

 

Creating On My Way

Today is the official publication day of On My Way, my picture book with Simon Howe(Scholastic Australia), and to celebrate Simon and I have written about what it was like to create the world of the book. Enjoy!

Creating the text, by Sophie Masson

It was just an ordinary drive to town, on an ordinary day. I was in the car when the first line of On My Way unexpectedly popped into my head for no apparent reason and as soon as it did I could hear this little voice excitedly telling ‘Mumma’ all the extraordinary things that could be seen on the way to school and the shops and so on: rather like my own kids used to do when they were small!

Normally, when I think of a good idea for a story, I put it down in my notebook–but I was driving, and couldn’t stop. Yet the little voice was so insistent on telling the story RIGHT NOW I knew I couldn’t wait either 😀

So all along the 15 kms between home and our local town, I was trying out lines aloud to myself, repeating them over and over so they’d stick in my head until I could write them down and start working on them properly!

Right from that unexpected start, this has been such a fun text to work on, as the child tells what seem to be wilder and wilder stories about more and more unusual things and yet the patient, busy mother doesn’t appear to be surprised by any of it… Even in the car, repeating those first few lines, I knew there would be a big twist–and that was such an enjoyable thing to create!

I was so delighted when I first saw Simon’s storyboard and then as time went on viewed more developments of the magical visual world he’d created for my characters. And I just loved the clever and wonderful way in which he’d revealed the twist. That excited little voice I’d first heard on a boringly ordinary drive to town, had really come to life and that was just so exciting!

Creating the illustrations, by Simon Howe

The manuscript for On My Way was an invitation to participate in a story far more than many book texts. The writing gave me a relationship between two characters, but left who they are, where they are and what they’re doing entirely up to me. The world of the story could have been a thousand things – a thrilling proposition for an illustrator.

Rather than getting bogged down in the possibilities of the world, I came to a decision fairly quickly. The mother’s dialogue in the text is warm, but also dismissive. I imagined her preoccupied with an activity and only half-listening to her child, who in turn is only half-helping, and mostly getting in the way. I was gardening quite a bit at the time, and thought I’d have the mother in the story doing the same. So I had my setting – a garden. I wanted the book to be full of warm greens, so this environment was perfect. It also allowed me to easily place hints to the final twist!

Like an increasing number of book illustrators, I chose to create everything digitally, using Photoshop and a Wacom Cintiq display. The textures and subtleties available to digital artists today are astounding, and while you can usually still spot the digital from the traditional, it’s certainly becoming harder. Regarding process, I’m a drawer rather than a painter, so I almost always start with lines. I use two brushes that mimic the look of pencil, and scratch out the picture fairly roughly. When refining the lines, I like to leave some of that roughness.

I then use a brush that mimics the look of watercolour, and I build up the colours over several passes. The last step is to use a pencil brushed again to add highlights where needed. That all sounds very traditional, but the benefit of digital is that it’s all done in layers, and it’s very easy to correct and adjust things at any stage of the process.

There was a little back and forth with the publisher over some details, but the original vision remained largely unchanged from the first roughs, through a second draft and finally into the finished art. After all the pages were finished, the publication was delayed for a significant amount of time. Somewhere along the way, I decided to tweak some of the artwork. Then things got a bit out of control and I ended up re-drawing and colouring the entire book! I should really have left it alone, but I was happy with the small improvements I made.

It was a thoroughly pleasurable book to illustrate, and I’m grateful to both Sophie and Scholastic for trusting me to wrap a world of my own around such a clever and funny piece of writing.

 

 

Interview with Paul and Beth Macdonald, authors of The Hole Idea

It was exciting recently to get a signed copy of a beautiful new picture book, The Hole Idea, written by Beth and Paul Macdonald (known to many in the children’s book world as owners of the wonderful Children’s Bookshop in Sydney) and illustrated by well-known illustrator Nathaniel Eckstrom. It’s also the first title for new publisher Book Trail Press. It’s a gorgeous book, with an imaginative, funny, touching text, lively illustrations, and beautiful design, and will I’m sure find many fans.

I caught up with Paul and Beth to ask them about the book, and their new and exciting enterprise.

First of all, Paul and Beth, congratulations on the publication of The Hole Idea! Can you tell us something about how it started? What was the inspiration for the book?

Thank you for your congratulations.

This book represents two births.

We have set up a new imprint Book Trail Press– a collaborative publishing house that publishes four picturebooks a year.

We have both written books in the past but were keen on writing picturebooks.

The Hole Idea started with an idea formed in a writing workshop led by children’s author Zanni Louise.

You are joint authors of the book. Can you describe what it was like to work together on the text?

We work together and live together seven days a week. This was a really natural process. We discuss the main framework and our ideas. After we get a first draft written –the fun begins! We argue (not too much) and push back and forth. After 47 drafts and much debate our book was ready to go.

At what stage was Nathaniel Eckstrom the illustrator brought in? And how did the three of you work within the picturebook experience?

Although Beth is an illustrator (and has a picturebook coming out in July with Dirt Lane Press) we understand that a great picturebook has to be a marriage of text and pictures- the illustrations must speak to the text and vice versa. Nathaniel Eckstom was the perfect choice for this story. He is the award winning illustrator of seventeen books- and we knew his style was a natural fit for Finnian. He was bought in at the beginning stages – after just the first few drafts. We were keen to make it a collaborative process so wanted his input from an early stage and actually met around the table to develop the book together.

What was the process like for you, from first spark to production of the book? What were the challenges and pleasures?

Taking a book from the idea, through the writing and design process into print was a huge learning curve for us. We really wanted to understand all aspects of creating books. We really believe that it is a collaborative creative process. The book is the result of a team of six people- two editors, a great designer, two authors and an illustrator. We met, we discussed, we crafted a work that we are proud of.

We also learnt so much about the printing process and lots of new jargon!

The Hole Idea is also the first title in your new Book Trail Press publishing enterprise. How do you see Book Trail Press developing?

Book Trail Press is a boutique imprint. Our goal is to create four picturebooks a year. Books with heart, incorporating quality language. Books that focus on the creative process. We have commissioned an illustrator for the second book and the third is underway.

Paul, you are of course also an award-winning and popular bookseller, with the Children’s Bookshop being the most loved and long-lasting specialist children’s bookshop in the State. How did your deep knowledge of literature and the industry as a bookseller influence the way you approached the creation and production of The Hole Idea?

I felt a wee bit of pressure knowing that we had to create a quality book. We surrounded ourselves with the most talented creators we knew and recognised that creating a great book is a collaborative process. While we were asked to submit the manuscript to several publishers, the challenge was to produce a book from first spark to delivery of the first print run. It’s been a fast learning process.

You are now covering pretty much every major aspect of the book industry, as authors, publishers and booksellers! What’s it like, wearing all those hats? And what have you learned, as part of the process?

Wearing multiple hats is good- you need to see ‘the book’ as many things. It is first of all a narrative that must resonate, but it is also an art object, a possible focus for teachers in schools and must leap off the page as a great read aloud.

Hopefully the book sits proudly next to quality picturebooks in good bookshops and is a book that booksellers are keen to handsell! You can’t forget the importance of the bookseller!

Finally we know that creators need to promote their work through social media and get on the road- we are off to Freemantle, Melbourne and Brisbane after we have hosted two launches in Sydney. That’s the fun part!

At launch of the Hole Idea, Children’s Bookshop, May 25: Paul(at back), Nathaniel and Beth. Photo by Kristin Darrell, posted on Facebook

The Hollow Bones : an interview with Leah Kaminsky

Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Leah Kaminsky. Leah is an award-winning Australian writer whose published work includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her second novel, The Hollow Bones, has just come out with Penguin Random House Australia. Set just before World War Two, The Hollow Bones tells an extraordinary, gripping story of obsession and ambition, recreating a bizarre SS-sponsored expedition made by German scientists to Tibet, aimed at proving the Himalayan origins of the ‘Aryan race’. With its beautiful evocations of nature and complexity of characterisation juxtaposed with chilling depictions of Nazi racism and lunatic ideas in action, this is a potent novel which explores many disturbing themes, with a light yet deep touch.

First of all, Leah, congratulations on the publication of The Hollow Bones! It’s an amazing and memorable novel and must have taken a great deal of work. Can you tell us something about its genesis, and how you went about researching the background of the novel?

Thanks for those kind words, Sophie. It really has been an interesting journey researching and writing THE HOLLOW BONES over the last 3-4 years. I first came across the material that sparked the idea behind the book while researching my last novel, THE WAITING ROOM, in which I touched on the critical role physicians played in the Third Reich during WWII. As a doctor myself, I have always been fascinated by the beauty of science, so I was gobsmacked when I stumbled across World Ice Theory, or Welteislehre, a pseudoscientific idea postulated by a steam train engineer, Hanns Hörbinger, that became the platform of the Reich in the 1930s, embraced by the German populace as well as high ranking politicians such as Himmler and Hitler. The Nazis banned the teaching of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on the basis that it was considered ‘Jewish science’. The ice crystal became known as the building block of the universe, based on a bogus belief that the sun was the only star in the sky. Hörbinger postulated that an icy moon crashed to earth thousands of years ago, destroying the civilisation of Atlantis, which lay buried under the Himalayas. I was fascinated and horrified to learn of a German expedition to Tibet of a group of SS scientists, sponsored by Himmler himself, sought to uncover the true origins of the Nordic Aryan race amongst the Tibetan peoples. This little-known story of their leader, 26- year-old zoologist Ernst Schäfer, drew me in as I tried to imagine what sort of man would go to such lengths in the pursuit of academic success and admiration of his peers.

Main character Ernst Schäfer is a complex person—a lover of nature and a ruthless hunter, a man who can show a kind of tenderness towards people like his wife’s disabled sister Margarete, yet whose cold ambition leads him to appalling acts; a man of science who dissents privately about the ridiculous ‘scientific’ theories of the Nazis yet who is quite prepared to serve the regime for his own benefit. Tells us something about how you created his character.

I wanted to look at the complexity of someone growing up in pre-War Germany, and the inherent moral choices confronting individuals as they witnessed the dramatic changes taking place around them. Ernst Schäfer, a forgotten character in history, spent most afternoons of his childhood exploring the forest of Thuringia which lay on the edge of his tiny village. Early on, he became a keen collector and hunter, filling his room with a menagerie of creatures. I was interested to see how this childhood innocence and passion for nature could go so terribly wrong. I read widely, looking at the history of the Third Reich and the SS through personal stories. I painstakingly translated Schäfer’s books, field diaries and letters from the original German, my research taking me to dark places I have always been fearful of exploring. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I went way past my comfort zone in an attempt to examine what leads a man to tread the treacherous terrain of moral compromise. I trawled the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, finding photos, documents and even detailed equipment lists and invoices for Schafer’s earlier expeditions to Tibet.

‘Science is pure and elegant in itself, not a pony to be ridden around a circus ring,’ Ernst tells a scoffing Bruno, a fellow researcher and member of the expedition, at one point. Yet despite this lofty private attitude, Ernst publicly kowtows to Nazi pseudoscience to further his own obsessions and ambitions. It’s a perfect example of what happens when the line between science and politics is blurred too far. Can you expand on that?

Yes. I think that’s what struck me so much about these little-known events. Even though it all happened in pre-war Germany and Tibet, it is so relevant today. The story of the corruption that occurs when science and politics become bedfellows is still palpable today, with contemporary debates raging around climate change and sustainability, as well as animal rights. 

The juxtaposition between Nazi Germany and traditional Tibet is very striking: how did you go about evoking those very different settings and atmosphere?

I initially applied for funding that might enable me to travel to Berlin and Tibet to help with research. When the funding didn’t come through I thought I might need to drop the project. Then I remembered the words of my dear, late friend, the painter Yosl Bergner, who told me he could never visit the places he painted as it would ruin his imagined vision of them. I realised then that the places I was writing about no longer existed – their histories couldn’t be suspended in time. So, I set about visiting Tibet and Germany of the 1930s through books, photos and old film recordings, in a kind of virtual tour of the imagination. This brought my settings to life for me. In a strange way, I think literature lets you visit places that no longer exist. I think visiting modern-day Tibet and Germany may have spoilt my initial vision.

The passages featuring the enigmatic and touching figure of Panda, taken from Wild to be in the Glass country, lend a touch of whimsical fantasy which nevertheless has a serious purpose. Can you tell us something about that?

I visited the library at Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia while I was on my US book tour for The Waiting Room. While I was there, I walked around the dioramas and was shown through the archives and storage in the basement. I came across a four-month-old taxidermied panda that Ernst Schäfer had shot on one of his earlier joint American-German expeditions to Tibet. I felt so sad learning about the background to how this panda ended up at the museum. Several months later, I was at Varuna, the Writer’s House, on a fellowship I was awarded by the wonderful magazine Griffith Review. The tiny voice of Panda insisted on being heard. I tried to ignore it at first, thinking it was a bit strange to have a stuffed animal’s POV I the book, but it took over and became the beating heart of the novel.

Most of the characters in the novel are based on real historical figures—not only Ernst, his team, and his wife Herta, but also major Nazi leaders of the most monstrous kind. What kinds of challenges did you find in recreating encounters such as those Ernst has with Himmler and Göring?

The biggest challenge really was to find the voice of Schäfer’s first wife, Herta. I found so much information about all the other real-life characters, which enabled me to inhabit them relatively easily. I was very aware of not wanting to make them caricatures – they needed to mirror my protagonist, Ernst Schäfer. Herta was the only one who seemed to have disappeared entirely from history. This was in reality a gift, because it allowed me to imagine who she might have been – a woman with a moral conscience living inside an ideological nightmare, watching the man she loved make choices she disagreed with. She and Panda are the only true fictional characters in the book, and also play the role of moral commentators, checking the emotional temperature of those around them.

Many prominent Nazis, especially but not only Himmler, were greatly influenced by fringe and occult elements: by esoteric mish-mash philosophers, quack anthropologists, amateur mythologists, self-proclaimed psychics and mystics and so on, as well as pseudo-scientists. How did you research this aspect of the regime, and how do you think this occult attraction fed into their racist, supremacist ideology?

Reading about the wackiness of all these pseudoscientific and occult beliefs, held by leaders such as Himmler and Hitler, sometimes had me laughing out loud. Until, that is, I began to understand the powerful impact these ideas had on the Reich’s platform which upheld expansionism, racist ideology, genocide, as well as forced sterilisation and involuntary euthanasia of those with mental health issues and disabilities. The Ahnenerbe, or Ancestral heritage organisation, established in 1935 under the auspices of Himmler as an offshoot of the SS, was dedicated to proving that Germans were direct descendants of the Nordic Aryan race, which fed directly into Nazi ideology and its gruesome results. The existence of a school that trained dogs to ‘talk’ and tap out the alphabet, so they could participate in espionage for the gestapo, sounds like something straight out of a comedy, but Hitler took all this very seriously. The slippery slope of #fakefacts into popular belief is especially evident today.

The Nazis became, at least in the West, an image of pure evil, an aberrant and alien phenomenon. That image could distract from the reality of what happened—and make people complacent. And sometimes was evoked inappropriately, lessening the impact of that reality. Today, as the generations to actually go through that period die and revisionists attempt to re-interpretations, how do you think society can guard against the threat of forgetfulness? Can we really learn from the past?

I don’t believe in the concept of pure good and pure evil. The most dangerous state to my mind is complacency and indifference. I think we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it. It frightens me that recent surveys show that 5% of people in the UK are outright Holocaust deniers. In the US, 65% of millennials and 41% of the general population have never heard of Auschwitz. I think education is the key to understanding our differences and engendering tolerance and compassion. And of course, as a writer, I believe in the power of literature to change people’s lives. The Nazis understood the power of the written word, so much so that they burnt books that didn’t fit their twisted world view.

 

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