Going West

Congratulations to the organisers of the Going West Books and Writers Festival 2011 at Titirangi for an enjoyable stimulating weekend. I was honoured to be among the wide range of speakers, all of whom were New Zealand writers. Talking about The Violinist, I was fortunate to be paired with Helen Schamroth.

Helen, who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, noted that Holocaust memoirs are often written by survivors or relatives of survivors. In the course of writing The Violinist, people assumed Clare was my mother. It surprises people that not only are we not related, but I am not even Jewish. How then did I come to write such a book? As I am often asked this question I will answer it here.

The initiative came originally from Penguin. I was asked if I was interested and I said yes, but the the commission was not secured. Giving the reason that Clare’s story ‘wasn’t big enough’, Penguin withdrew.

Why then did I continue? I thought the story was too big to drop. It wasn’t just about Clare, or about Jews and the Holocaust. It was about humanity. It was about people, like ourselves, in extreme situations and in everyday life. It was about music, love and laughter. I hoped it would touch others as it touched me. Already deeply engaged in my research, I found the questions it threw up challenging. I wanted to meet that challenge.

At this point, Clare asked me, ‘How do books get written?’ I had her trust, her memories, records and commitment to continue the journey ahead, but there was never any question of her commissioning the project. ‘Step by step’, I told her. The first step was to continue recording Clare’s life, which I did over the next six months. This was harrowing, but also a joyful process. Look at the photos of Clare — she is always laughing. Working with her was engrossing, and I found the whole task challenging in the best way.

I cannot equate the work with the cost – to some extent it was a labour of love – but I write for a living and to continue to the next stage I needed funding. After many unsuccessful applications, I received private seeding funding, then the Todd Writers’ Bursary followed by a Claude McCarthy Fellowship. For two years I had the use of an office at the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University, and The Stout Trust and Clare herself made contributions towards my research overseas.

One step led to another … further research and many drafts. To write a book about the Holocaust in the twenty-first century is a risky enterprise as I had discovered at the beginning. With so much published on the Holocaust, the benchmark is high. The advantage is that I had access to the work of great Holocaust scholars, and increasingly contemporary primary material became available to me, much of it online.

The last step, the publishing process saw Fergus Barrowman of Victoria University Press and my editor Ginny Sullivan add their quality as they spurred me to the end.