When did you get the idea to write the book?
I first became interested in writing everything down when my mother told me stories of what happened to her in the war and I compared this with what I had read, for example the Diary of Anne Frank and also with what I had learnt at school. I then spoke to other family members and gradually pieced it all together. This is going back more than 25 years. The notion that it could become a book evolved over many years, but seriously about 10 years ago.
What were the most challenging aspects of writing War and Love?
A major challenge was bringing a draft manuscript to a conclusion. I kept discovering new sources of information and adding to what I had, so in the end I had to stop looking for a while. Then there is the polishing of the narrative. There are only so many times it can be revised but over a 20+ year period number of iterations were staggering. Eventually I had to draw a line under it and I'm so pleased I did. I think this is a challenge for many writers – letting go of the manuscript, sending it to print and then the really scary part of waiting for feedback.
Even so, I know now that there are changes I want to make, new information to add and, despite having read it dozens of times and having it professionally proof read there are some corrections to be made for the next edition.
The other challenging aspect was researching family members’ histories when some of the events were almost taboo. Later there were a few barriers to publishing some of the more personal aspects. I overcame that by writing a letter to my mother addressing her concerns and setting out the reasons why publication was important. I can elaborate or share the letter another time.
Take us through the process?
The process began with the recording of family members and then stitching it all together to become a coherent story. Sometimes events were repeated as different family members recalled similar events. My intention was always to catch up and tell the stories in their own voices as much as possible. The parts of the book about my grandfather, Willem and Aunt Liesje, were written mainly by me.
The next stage was undertaking quite extensive research to understand what was happening at that time and to underpin War and Love with accurate historical context and ensure as far as possible everything I wrote was true. So in research terms this was using both primary and secondary sources. I read lots of books on the topic, listened to other witness testimony, visited websites, visited the Amsterdam Archives, several museums and other institutes, visited Westerbork camp and asked lots of questions. The Dutch Digital Monument to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust and websites with genealogy information were great sources. During that time I would go back to family members asking them for more information. Eventually I don't think there was much more they could have told me. I also spoke to published historians, for example Bob Moore who is an eminent expert on the Dutch Holocaust. All of this gave me valuable insight.
I went on a weekend Guardian Masterclass on creative writing in 2011 which gave me more ideas and insight but no clear plan on how to get to publication. Then in 2014 I joined a writing workshop led by Ali (Alice Frances) from New London Writers – now Purcell Press). Ali kindly reviewed the extract from my work and thought it showed a lot of promise. Over several months, Ali, provided valuable feedback on the text and later introduced me to literary agent, Jeffrey Simmons. Jeffrey was also impressed by the narrative, and felt confident that he would be able to get my book published. Years ago Jackie Collins had been his client! This was an exciting breakthrough for me and I was happy to enter into a contract with him. He had lots of contacts in all the main publishing houses. However although they were full of praise for the book, the publishers turned down my manuscript and I had to deal with that rejection. Meanwhile I was continuing to improve and hone my work, encouraged by Ali not to give up. I circulated copies of the manuscript more widely and came up with the title “War and Love”. Eventually I decided to self-publish so that my mother who was in her early 90s would get to see the book in her hand before she died.
Melanie giving her mum a copy of the book
When the printed copies arrives I embargoed the book so that the first person to see it was my mother (see photo). Since then she had it by her all the time and in her last few months whilst she was in a care home she carried it everywhere. Sadly she died at the end of January.
You also run a successful business, so how did you fit writing around work?
Fitting in writing and the research around my work and personal life has been a huge hurdle. That's the main reason it has taken so long! And the amount of work around actually completing the manuscript and getting it ready for the printing was even more challenging than the writing itself. For example obtaining permission from the sources I had quoted and the images that I wanted to put into War and Love was very time-consuming. But it was important to me to illustrate the events in the book. I had found the photographs and other artefacts interesting as I discovered them and they really do bring it to life.
What interest have you had so far?
I have had a couple of the historians saying they will put my book on their students’ reading list. Interest from book clubs, I've given a talk at a local day centre which went down very well and I even had interest from a film producer. Oh and I created a collage art piece which was exhibited as part of the 2020 Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration (75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz).
Future plans? Another novel? Screenplay?
As yet I have not written any novels. Though it is interesting how book shops classify War and Love – it is sometimes put into ‘young non-fiction’, sometimes biographies and has even appeared in autobiography. I see it more in in Second World War or Holocaust history. I do have one or two more books in mind. I would like to write the story of my father and publish some of his poetry. He was and still is an amazing man and the poems he wrote during his life, especially when falling in love with my mother are very beautiful. Maybe a book about my own life too at some stage.
In the meantime I am planning to get involved with a charity who provide presentations to schools, community institutors and other establishments with speakers who have a personal connection with Holocaust survivors. All of this of course has to fit in around my work schedule. At some stage I will retire and hopefully we'll have a lot more time to achieve my objectives.
I think War and Love would translate very well into screenplay, although there is rather too much to squeeze into a film, so it would be better as a series for television.
Interviewed by Alice
"The extent of Melanie’s oral history work is impressive and the results outstanding.
This (book) is packed with fascinating information and is obviously the result of a massive research effort. The extent of Melanie’s oral history work is impressive and the results outstanding. She obviously won the full trust of the people she spoke with, and helped them to recall episodes that must have been painful to live through, and tempting to forget or suppress."
Patrick Allitt, Professor of History
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