The Light After the War is about one woman’s extraordinary journey to forge a new life after escaping a train bound for Auschwitz. Tell us more.
The book follows Vera and her best friend, Edith as they spend a year hiding on a farm in Austria where they sleep in a barn and never have enough food or warm clothing. Then the war ends and Vera gets a job at the US consulate in Naples and Edith accompanies her. In Naples they experience their first taste of life after the war but it is not without heartache. Vera falls in love with an American captain who disappears, and Edith can’t get over her great love, Stefan, who she fears is dead. From Naples the book moves to Venezuela where the girls experience more challenges, and eventually ends in Australia.
It is about the heartbreak and trauma of leaving everyone and everything they loved in Hungary behind and trying to create new lives on a different continent. At the same time it is about hope and the resilience of the human spirit. And it is also about love. Love is still the strongest human emotion – not just romantic love, but the special love between mothers and daughters, and the enduring bond between best friends.
This was inspired by a true story – can you tell us more about that?
My mother was Hungarian and the book is based on her experiences during and after the Holocaust. Much of it is true – I didn’t even change the names. I grew up in Sydney and my grandparents lived with us and my mother spoke Hungarian to them. I never learned Hungarian properly but I took in a lot of what they said. They had so many stories to tell: wonderful stories like about losing touch with relatives and being amazed to discover they were still alive. And gut-wrenching tales about the atrocities committed by the Germans and the deprivations that became normal parts of their lives.
When I was a little older, I overheard them talking about their time in Caracas and there were aspects of the story that were truly shocking. That’s when I got interested and wanted to learn everything about their experiences during the Holocaust. The things my mother and her parents lived through are quite unimaginable. I gained a huge respect for my mother’s courage and her ability to just keep going. No one should have to live through what she did at such a young age. I also learned a lot about female friendship – my mother’s friendship with Edith was inspiring and I wonder whether either of them would have survived without the other.
What was the research process like for the book?
In a way, the research started when I was a child but I didn’t realize that at the time! Even the foods my mother and grandmother made: stuffed cabbage and paprika schnitzel became part of the book. My grandmother had brothers and sisters who had made it to Australia after the war and as a child I spent time with them too. They all spoke Hungarian to each other and I picked up a lot of the idioms that I would use later in writing the story.
When I started doing research for the book, I visited Ellis Island and discovered the ship’s manifest with the name and date of the ship that brought Vera and Edith to America. I also dug up old photos – my mother standing in front of a green MG in Caracas, and pictures of her and Edith when they were young. On a larger scale, I learned everything I could about the fate of Hungarian Jews in World War 2 and about life for European refugees in Venezuela in the post-war years. I also did research into Sydney in the early 1950’s (I loved looking at old photos of the same places I knew as a child!).
What is something that has influenced you as a writer?
I try to listen and learn from the world around me. Many people have wisdom to share if one is open to hearing it. It takes a lot of patience to just listen and not try to give my own opinion, but when I do I find I’m so much richer for the experience.
I also read all the time. Fiction is really the best place to learn about human emotions. Characters in books have to be bigger than life in order to capture one’s attention. And by reading, I gain insight into situations I couldn’t previously imagine.
But my agent gave me the best piece of advice when she said write from the heart. I think about that every time I sit down at the computer. I want my writing to resonate with readers so that they think about it long after they finish the book.
What’s your daily writing routine like and what are you working on at the moment?
I am very structured but I do have an odd routine that seems to work. Every night I sit in the dark for about an hour and think up what I’m going to write the next day. I map it all out in my head: dialogue, description, everything. When I wake up in the morning, I sit down and write while it is still fresh. It really works!
Other than that, I don’t schedule anything “fun” during the day. It’s too easy to be distracted by lunch with friends. I have to completely immerse myself in the characters and their stories. At six o’clock every night I sit down with a hot cup of coffee or tea and read! That’s my reward for a long day of writing.
I’m working on a book set in the French Riviera during World War 2. It’s about a “White Russian” – a member of the French aristocracy whose mother fled to France after the Bolshevik revolution, and how she ends up working for the French Resistance in Nice. It’s a fascinating blend of the incredible beauty of the area mixed with the horrors that went on there. I hope readers will enjoy it!