The Glass Bell spotlight: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

To celebrate the absolutely stunning international bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz being shortlisted for the Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award, I’m delighted to be sharing a little bit of the backstory behind the tale, kindly supplied by Heather Morris and her publisher Bonnier Zaffre, on Back to the Books.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is up against five other amazing titles; VOX by Christina Dalcher, Snap by Belinda Bauer, Our House by Louise Candlish, Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg- Jephcott and The Puppet Show by MW Craven. The winner will be announced by Goldboro Books on Monday 16th September.

Launched in 2017, the Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award is awarded annually to an outstanding work of contemporary fiction, rewarding quality storytelling in any genre. The winner of the Glass Bell will receive £2,000 in prize money, and a handmade, engraved glass bell. The jury of ten consists of team members from Goldsboro Books, DHH Literary Agency and The Dome Press. There is no fee, nor limit to the number of books that a publisher may submit, allowing both established and debut authors a chance to win. The inaugural winner was Chris Cleave, for his extraordinary Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Sceptre), the moving and unflinching novel about the profound effects that the Second World War had on ordinary citizens back at home in Britain. Last year, the award went to John Boyne for his sweeping, poignant and comedic odyssey of post-war Ireland, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Transworld).

Many many thanks to Heather Morris for sharing the incredibly poignant piece below, which explains the process behind her writing.

The Glass Bell 2019 poster - shortlist

Memory and history.  How to tell when these two events waltz in step or strain and part.  Faced with a real life story of horror, trauma, survivor guilt, how to first ‘do no harm’ to the story teller became my responsibility.  I also had to acknowledge and deal with the transference of these emotions to myself, something that wasn’t immediately obvious to me.

This was the challenge for me in writing my debut novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz – the true, amazing story of Lale Sokolov, a man I met when he was 87 years of age, whose wife, Gita, had recently died, and who had a story worth telling.

At my first meeting with Lale I deliberately chose not to take any recording or even writing material.  I thought it was important that I just listen, engage in conversation, let the stories I was told he would tell, come to me in whatever rhythm and order he chose. I knew there would nothing more off putting than my asking his to stop mid sentence because I couldn’t write fast enough, or the tape needed changing.

I did not know, could not know, how much time I would have to hear his story which was being told piecemeal, often at bullet pace with limited coherency and with no flow or connection among the many, many stories he told.  The only question he asked me was ‘how quickly can you write?’  When I asked if there was someplace he needed to be, he responded ‘yes, I need to be with my Gita’.

And so I sat at Lale’s kitchen table with him guarded on each side by his two dogs, eyeing me suspiciously, as his hands shook, his voice quivered and eyes moistened as he stepped back 60 years in time.

This was the beginning of my 3 year journey with The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

I created a template to capture each visit.  I’d like to share two random notations:

Date: 4th Jan 2004 My story – still not writing / recording just listening.  Watching Lale as he spoke seeing the raw emotion of his experiences being relived both horrific and beautiful.  Lale’s story – Gas chambers, crematoria indiscriminate shootings and beatings.  Angry ++.  He was back there watching the atrocities take place.  Shaking. Tears and smiles at the mention of Gita.

And

5th Feb 2004 My story – Go to nearby Café for coffee.  Hilarious.  No talk of past just 2 friends chatting.  Met some of his friends, introduced as his girlfriend.  The guy’s a flirt. His story – Talked of his friends in Melbourne, idle chatter.  More relaxed outside the confines and memories evident everywhere in his home.

These entries were invaluable to me when it came to writing the book, years later. The notes took me back to that kitchen table, and the café two blocks away that we visited often, and once again I was with him, hearing in his words, his story. I chose to write The Tattooist of Auschwitz in a simple style so that the reader can picture themself in my place, hearing Lale’s voice only.

It became obvious that if I was to really get to know this man and expect him to trust me and have faith in my telling his story, we had to spent time doing ‘normal’ things.  If the circumstances were different and I was being asked to ghost write someone’s past or write their memoir, it would be reasonable to expect one-on-one meetings with the telling of the story the sole focus of our relationship.

In determining the role I was playing in telling Lale’s story  we needed to get to know each other; he needed to know about me and my family and life.  Then and only then, could I expect him to recall his incredibly painful memories, and trust that I would respect his pain and suffering and present a story of the truth of this time as he had witnessed and now remembered.

So, what to leave in and what to leave out became my next challenge. Lale had told me many terrible, horrific things he had witnessed, especially as they related to Mengele.  Many of them I asked him ‘do you want that in your story?’  He invariably said no. It would serve no purpose for me to retell the details of the Angel of Death.  We agreed on what incidents he witnessed to include as examples.

There existed in the camp both a hierarchy of SS and also one of prisoners.  Ranks, names, to be specific about who said what and when would have added a level of complication to my story to its detriment.  Commandant, Fuhrer, Oberfuhrer, Oberscharfuhrer, to name a few.  Lale knew them all, I chose to focus on 2, the Camp Commandant and Camp Oberscharfuhrer and assign all contact to one of them.

Similarly the camp roles of prisoners.  Kapo, Sonderkommondo, blockälteste, Lagerälteste. I settled on the one title – Kapo.

Extensive research in Poland and Germany was undertaken to confirm where history and memory waltzed in step. What and how I wrote became clear to me when I came to the realisation it was not my job to tell THE STORY OF THE HOLOCAUST, I had been given the privilege of telling A HOLOCAUST STORY – the story of The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

I had to focus on the fact that he was just a man, trying to survive.  Time and place became my mantra.  Who am I to judge?  What right do I have to judge?  These were very simple questions for me to answer.  I had no right, and in my opinion neither does anyone else who ‘wasn’t there’.

For six months I had no structure: no beginning, no end. What I had were vignettes of Lale’s time in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The one thing that was immediately clear to me was the love story that began in July 1942, when Lale held the hand of 18-year-old Gita, looked into her eyes, her soul, and fell deeply in love with this young girl – her head shaven, dressed in rags, and trembling with fear as he tattooed the number 34902 onto her left arm.

For writers who, like myself, who search for and are lucky to find the amazing true stories that exist but are as yet untold, let me tell you a little of the effect hearing such stories, and being entrusted to tell such stories, might have on you. Yes, this is a warning. A warning of the need to take care of not only the person telling the story, but just as importantly, yourself.

Early on in my meeting with Lale I spoke to a friend, a social worker, concerned that I was doing harm in allowing Lale to talk at length to me of what was clearly an incredibly painful time. She told me to take it slowly, never push for clarification or further explanation, even though I knew there was so much more to tell. She assured me he would not tell me anything he was not comfortable telling. And this was so true.

It was going to take time to earn his trust; such was the deeply personal nature of his story. Every second or third visit we would go out for coffee, or to a movie, or meet up with some of his old friends where I would scold him when he introduced me as his ‘girlfriend’. I cannot stress how important this approach was in getting to know Lale well enough for him to reveal to me secrets and details of his life in the camp, not told to anyone before, whispered between he and Gita in the sanctity of their bedroom, even kept hidden from their son who would learn about some of them only on reading my manuscript.

It happened gradually. I was not aware of it initially, but my family were. Like a lizard shedding its skin, Lale shed the horrors and guilt of what he had witnessed, been a part of. Unlike a lizard the discarded skin did not lie on the ground as he moved on, it moved on to me, like a cloak over my shoulders, weighing me down. I would return home to my family morose, sullen, and not wanting to talk to my husband and adult children. I told myself I needed to protect them from the terrible things that had happened to Lale. The problem was who was protecting me?

Once again I spoke to my social worker friend. Transference, she said. When someone who has experienced severe trauma at last finds someone with whom they can share their experience they can feel liberated, free from owning their pain alone – they now have someone to share it with. This transferring of emotional pain is more commonly felt by professionals in the mental health field, and it was important that I recognise it and develop strategies to deal with it. I had to detach from his pain, leave it behind when I left him after our visits.

I chose to emotionally separate from Lale’s trauma by saying goodbye, driving a street or two away, parking, and sitting quietly by myself in my car listening to music that was uplifting to me.

On My Life by Angela Clarke

A gripping, eye opening thriller, not only packed with bags of tension, but which shines a spotlight on a prison system not fit for purpose.

 

On My Life opens with Jenna being sent to prison to await trial for the murder of her beloved stepdaughter – the murder she insists she didn’t commit – and of her fiancé. Terrified, grieving and confused, her panic is only exacerbated when she discovers that she’s pregnant.

 

Abandoned by her friends and constantly on edge that her fellow inmates might discover she’s a child-murderer, Jenna keeps her head down and tries to fit in whilst also going through that last fateful day, when she came home to discover Emily brutally murdered, to work out who could be responsible. And the more she thinks about it, the more a likely-looking bunch of suspects appears in front of her.

 

Angela Clarke really taps into the terror of being locked up for a crime you didn’t commit, knowing that however much you insist you didn’t do it, to lawyers, family members, other inmates, no one believes you. Angela’s spoken about her time volunteering in prisons, and speaking to inmates, and you sense that in the writing of the other inmates and even the most vicious of prison guards, she blames the system rather than the individual. (And we’re talking vicious here!) The completely broken system where prison guards are resigning or retiring at a rate of knots after years and years of budget cuts is what comes in for criticism, let alone the horrifying treatment of pregnant inmates – which should bring a lump to the throat of even the most hardened reader.

 

Highly recommend this excellent, thought-provoking thriller, which ends on a gut punch of reveal that made my breath catch in my throat.

On My Life by Angela Clarke is out now, published by Mulholland.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

No one tells a story quite like Kate Atkinson, but truthfully, what I love most about her books is her incredible way of constructing a sentence, her wry, almost aloof, yet clearly affectionate way of engaging with her characters. I genuinely feel I would read her adaptation of the phone book.

Transcription follows eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong, who in 1940 is recruited to MI5 to monitor British Fascist sympathisers. From transcribing reports by unwitting and oddly mundane fascists, convinced that they’re sending secrets to Hitler, to being sent out to parties of Nazis, the job is both relentlessly dull, yet often thrilling. Until disaster strikes, and Juliet finds herself concealing something terrible.

Ten years later, Juliet is working at the BBC as a producer, still periodically drawn in for an odd MI5 job, but mainly occupied with the BBC’s schools program. But the past is rapidly catching up with Juliet. Decisions she took, as well as accidents not of her making seem to be putting her at risk. Who from the war is finally seeking retribution?

It was a joy to leap back into Kate Atkinson’s writing. I’ve always loved her wry humour, and her quirky, endearing and flawed characters. Juliet starts the book as a naive eighteen year old, albeit with a mildly sceptical attitude, nursing an almighty crush on her boss and dedicated to doing what’s right. Ten years later, we find a slightly more hardened and cynical Juliet. “There was a better life somewhere, Juliet supposed, if only she could be bothered to find it.” The British misdeeds of the war are not glossed over, from the Italian staff at Juliet’s favourite café Moretti’s, interned during the war, eventually dying at sea, to the rampant antisemitism of the Oswald Mosley set. Unlike Cressida Connolly’s nonetheless hugely enjoyable After The Party, Atkinson doesn’t accept any suggestion that British fascists didn’t know what they were signing up for.

Thought-provoking and beautifully written, Transcription still very much has the pace of a thriller. It’s an exhilarating, sometimes playful chase through London, which also explores at the meaning of truth, loyalty and the very point of war.

A hugely enjoyable and clever spy thriller, that isn’t really a spy thriller. Or is it?

Transcription by Kate Atkinson is out now, published by Transworld.

Tell Me Your Secret by Dorothy Koomson

Since I worked with her a few years ago, I’ve always adored Dorothy Koomson’s books – gripping emotional thrillers with a strong sense of principle behind them, whether she’s exploring domestic violence, infidelity, gaslighting or the issues behind adoption. So I was overjoyed when she offered me a beautiful proof copy of her latest Tell Me Your Secret.

 

At their heart, Dorothy’s books have always been thrillers, with a crime of some kind at the heart of the story whilst focussing heavily on the impact of it on those around it. However, this is a very different beast – a much darker direction, and it’s brilliant!

Tell Me Your Secret follows Pieta Rawlings, a journalist working in Brighton – and harbouring a terrible secret. Ten years ago, she was abducted by a serial killer called The Blindfolder, who tortures his victims whilst forcing them to keep their eyes closed. If they manage, they walk free. If not, they’re murdered. And now the women who survived him are being murdered too. Detective Inspector Jody Foster has a very personal reason to want to catch The Blindfolder, bordering on obsessive, and is determined not to let him slip through her fingers again. And when she realises that Pieta could be holding vital information, she will stop at nothing to get it – no matter the impact on Pieta and her loved ones.

One of Dorothy’s biggest strengths is her characters – she writes genuinely relatable and sympathetic, yet flawed women. And all her supporting characters are brilliant, from the walk-on PCs, to Pieta’s magnificent seagull-hating son Kobi.

All builds to a grand, and genuinely shocking reveal, with tantalising clues dropped along the way, scattered with heartbreak – and a depressing realistic, almost mundane motive.

It’s been a joy jumping back into a Dorothy Koomson thriller – thanks for the journey! – and I kind of want to try pottery now…

Tell Me Your Secret by Dorothy Koomson is out now.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in… 

That’s right, after something of a fallow period, blog-wise, I am returning to champion Ordinary People by Diana Evans, as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize blog tour today.

Ordinary People Diana Evans cover.jpg

The eight books on this year’s shortlist include four novels, a novella, two non-fiction books and a collection of poetry whittled down from a list of 80 works published in the UK in 2018 chosen by members of the Folio Academy.

Ordinary People is Diana Evans’ third novel, and follows two couples, as they weather storms, and alternately push each other away, and pull back from the brink. Melissa and Michael have just had their second baby. Unmarried, they’ve lived together for 13 years, but with the new arrival, Melissa finds herself harbouring a profound dissatisfaction. Struggling to reconcile her professional identity with motherhood, she doesn’t feel supported by Michael, and she’s convinced their Victorian Crystal Palace home is turning on them. On his side, Michael loves Melissa and is devoted to his children, but is feeling more and more pushed away, unable to bridge the gap opening up between them.

Meanwhile, Damian and Stephanie live in the suburbs with their three children, but the recent death of Damian’s father has thrown him into a crisis, which is affecting their marriage. But has Damian ever truly been happy?

Diana Evans’ writing is poetic, each sentence perfectly crafted, and yet the book feels intensely grounded. Her writing about relationships is both instantly familiar, and yet often very funny. Domesticity becomes the key battleground – everything from cooking rice (‘Listen for the rice’), to fitted sheets becomes a source of tension.

I alternated between crying and rooting for all four protagonists, then urging them to call it a day. And then at the turn of a page, I found myself laughing so hard my sides hurt.

Ordinary People is a fresh and clever novel about the highs and lows of love, the difficulty of devoting yourself to someone whilst fighting to retain your own identity and the experience of expectation versus reality as you grow older. I’m delighted to see it recognised by the Rathbones Folio Book Prize judges.

The winner of the Rathbones Folio Book Prize is announced on 20th May – who will you be rooting for?

Ordinary People by Diana Evans is published by Vintage. 

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar

Amer Anwar was kind enough to send me a copy of his excellent thriller Brothers in Blood some time ago, and I’m ashamed to say it’s taken me some time to get to it, this despite it coming with a chai teabag, and some butterfly plasters – so useful for fingertip wounds! But at last, this summer, under a powerful Provençal sun, I lost myself in hugely promising, pacy debut set in deepest West London…

Zaq Khan is just out of jail, stuck working at a dead-end job at a builder’s yard, and just wants to keep his head down. But any hope of that is finished when he’s forced to search for his unpleasant boss’s runaway daughter Rita, who has presumably run away with a boy not of her father’s choosing. Reluctantly, Zaq decides he has no choice but to do what he’s told, no matter the consequences for her. He has the threat of going back to jail hanging over him – or death by Rita’s terrifying brothers. But London’s a big place.

With the help of his best mate Jags, Zaq gets to work, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t simply a case of runaway brides or family honour – and that Rita may not be the helpless damsel she appears to be. And on top of that, it appears that ghosts from his past are reappearing – and they want revenge.

The stakes are high in this thriller – more than once, Zaq crawls into bed having suffered a heavy beating, and there’s one particularly nasty scene which almost finished me off. That said, it’s also a genuinely funny thriller with real heart and friendship. I loved Zaq’s relationship with his boisterous yet loyal flat mates, and of course his friendship with the brilliant Jags, always happy to help Zaq through his death-defying plans, and then make him a cup of tea and pass him the paracetamol at the end.

Superbly plotted, gritty and edgy, yet written with real humour, Brothers in Blood is a truly cracking debut, with a wonderfully likeable and engaging main character. I can’t wait to read more of Zaq and Jags’s adventures around Southall, righting wrongs, staying out of trouble, and then enjoying tea and parathas at the end of the day.

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar is published 6th September by Dialogue Books.

Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour: The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy

It’s an honour to be asked to take part in the Ngaio Marsh Awards 2018 blog tour – cheers Craig! I was asked to – or begged to – read Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room for the awards this year. I confess to have had no knowledge of the premise or plot: only that it was written by Stella Duffy, who comes most highly recommended.

The Hidden Room follows Laurie and Martha, happily married with three children. Laurie’s career is taking off in the way that she could never have expected. Their children are all dedicated athletes – Hope, the oldest is a talented dancer, and Jack and Ana, the twins, are swimmers. Hope’s new dance teacher is motivating her to a new level, and when Martha befriends him, he asks her to help with his life coach training. And by the time that Laurie, busier than usual, realises the extent that this dance teacher has wormed his way into her family’s life, it’s too late. Because this man is a dangerous figure from Laurie’s past, that she has done her best to conceal from her family.

Laurie grew up in a ‘community’ in the US, a cult demanding absolute loyalty, but with the expectation of physical and sexual abuse. She was taken away and adopted at the age of 9, and this is the story that most people know – but as the reader gradually learns through glimpses of the past, this isn’t the full story.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling the shocks and twists that come through, but let it be said that The Hidden Room is an exquisitely written literary thriller, and a compelling exploration of how cults come to be. Despite the usual wanting to yell ‘you fool, CALL THE POLICE!!!’, Duffy makes a clever and convincing case for how manipulation and brainwashing can so easily turn into complicity – how abusers can maintain a hold. The narration is almost despairing, yet strangely detached, which has the effect of heightening the intensity, and making the atmosphere all the more claustrophobic.

Thought-provoking and genuinely chilling in its simplicity, The Hidden Room is a clever thriller about the nature of devotion and obsession and how far you will – or won’t – go to save your family.

The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy is out now from Virago.