Diane Armstrong talks to us about writing and research:
- The Collaborator , a novel that is based on a true story, is told in two time frames. In 1944, in Budapest, during the darkest days of the Holocaust in Hungary, the man I have called Miklos Nagy, finds the audacity to confront the dreaded Adolf Eichmann who has arrived in Budapest to send the Jews of Hungary to Auschwitz. Against all odds, Miklos succeeds in securing a train on which he rescues over 1500 Jews from certain death. But instead of being lauded as a hero, several years later, he is accused of being a collaborator, and meets a fate no one could have predicted.
In 2005, in Sydney, Annika Barnett, a journalist who has resigned from an unfulfilling job, is puzzled by her grandmother’s hostility towards the man who saved her life. She travels to Budapest to discover the truth about this mysterious man. In a shattering climax, she learns the toxic secret that has poisoned the lives of three generations of women. The Collaborator is also about doomed love, the destructive effects of vengeance, and the redemptive power of forgiveness.
- A shiver ran down my spine when I first heard the story about this remarkable rescue. As soon as I heard it, I could visualise the chilling confrontation between the powerless Jewish activist, and the all-powerful Nazi whose pistol lay on his desk. More than the astonishing rescue, and its even more astonishing consequences, I was intrigued by the moral ambiguity at the heart of this story, and the controversy that rages about this man to this very day. It made me want to explore the issues implicit in the story. Was he a hero or a collaborator? Can he be both? Do we have the right to judge the actions of people in extreme situations? Do the ends justify the means? Are we obliged to keep a promise made to corrupt individuals?
- The more I researched The Collaborator, the more fascinated I became by the ambivalence he aroused even among those whose families had been rescued. Because of the time that had elapsed between 1944 and now, I didn’t expect to come across anyone who had actually been on the train, but by an amazing coincidence I did find a woman who had travelled on the train as a small child, and she could recall some aspects of the journey. What’s even more amazing, she told me that her little sister was born on that train! That certainly brought the whole episode much closer and gave it a personal perspective. When I read some historical accounts of the rescuer, I was struck by the vehemence of those who reviled him despite his extraordinary feat. It all added to the complexity of the situation and the mystery surrounding this man.
- In fictionalising this story, I hope that I have drawn the character of Miklos Nagy with enough balance to enable readers to form their own opinion about him. I hope that I’ve given some insight into the frightening historical events that form the backdrop to this novel. As a writer, I’ve always been fascinated by the way ordinary people behave in extraordinary circumstances, when their courage and resilience are put to the test. As Ernest Hemingway once noted, war provides the ideal setting for exploring the best and the worst in human nature, and by writing The Collaborator, I hope that in some small way I have illuminated something about our common humanity.
- When writing a novel, I sit down at the computer every morning and write for as long as the ideas keep flowing. That may be two hours or so. Then I might go for a walk, or do some shopping, before returning to the computer. There always comes a moment in the afternoon when I face a challenge I don’t know how to solve, and I know that I need to take my mind off it until the next day. I always start off re-reading what I have written the previous day. That gets the juices running. I ‘m often asked about writers’ block- in my opinion, that’s just another expression for anxiety and I’ve found that the best way to get over it is just to sit down and write. I never know exactly how my novel will end- that keeps me interested to the very end!
- I consider myself very lucky because ever since the age of seven, I have wanted to be a writer. I’ve always loved mysteries, and in a way, writing historical fiction is turning history into mystery. For me, writing fiction is a mystery. I start off with a blank screen, an interesting character, and an intriguing situation, without knowing how to shape it into a coherent whole. And somehow, without any conscious effort on my part, characters appear on that screen, and I can see them and hear them saying things I never expected them to say. I’ve thought a lot about this process, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s almost magical. I feel that there are two main components to writing fiction: knowledge and intuition. Knowledge is what you know you know; intuition is what you don’t know you know- the unconscious part of the brain made up of everything that I ever thought, seen, heard, and experienced, that bubbles up as I write.