Blog 92 31/03/2020 A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with Dee White
A LITERARY WORLD
An Interview with Dee White
My guest today is Dee White, a fellow Australian author who recently came to my attention through a new online group, Writers Go Forth. Launch. Promote. Party, which was set up for authors to promote their books on line due to the cancellation of physical book launches because of the corona virus outbreak. It’s a great incentive and I applaud the way authors, in fact all artists, come together in such difficult times. What first attracted me to Dee was a trailer about her new book. When I looked into her work further, I found we shared a common bond. Her novel is set in WWII Paris as are two of mine. There was also another theme, but I will let her tell you about that.
Welcome to A Literary World, Dee. Tell us about your background? When did you decide to become an author?
I wanted to be a writer after I wrote my first poem when I was seven. I’ve worked as a journalist and advertising copywriter, but I’ve always loved reading books so writing them seemed to be a natural progression. When I had children I started writing books, and they became longer and more complex as my kids got older.
What are your novels about and where are they set?
My novels are about people who face real life challenges. They are a mixture of contemporary and historical settings, and I love to add an element of mystery. But it’s the characters themselves who drive the story. In my YA novel, Letters to Leonardo, Matt gets a letter from the mother he thought was dead and wonders why everyone lied to him for the last ten years. He tries to make sense of everything by writing letters to his dead idol, Leonardo da Vinci. It’s Matt’s actions and decision to find his mother, that drive the events of the story.
My newest book, Beyond Belief (out 1 April) is inspired by the true story of Muslims at a Paris mosque who saved Jewish children during WW2. The central character, Ruben is eleven and he’s hiding out at the mosque while his parents go looking for his sister, Rosa. It’s just after the Vel D’hiv roundup during which thousands of Jews were arrested and murdered by the Nazis. If Ruben’s true identity is discovered, he’ll be killed and so will the people trying to save him. He has to learn how to pass himself off as a Muslim. In the story, it’s Ruben’s actions that cause him to have to flee the mosque, and eventually Paris.
What is it that inspires you to write about WWII?
I have a personal connection to this time in history. My father and his family were forced to flee Nazi occupied Austria and come to Australia. My grandparents were married in a synagogue, but my father wasn’t raised in the Jewish faith. Over the years, he has talked a lot about those times … about the conditions in Europe before they fled and what it was like to live in a country where people were starving and personal freedom and everything you owned was taken from you if you were Jewish, gypsy or had some kind of illness or disability. I’ve read so much about the propaganda that was around in those times to try and turn people against Jews, gypsies and people with physical and mental disabilities. I feel it’s so relatable to today’s fake news. I’ve seen letters my Grandfather wrote when he was in Dachau and the tension and desperation of those times is like a thread that’s woven through our family history.
What sort of research did Beyond Belief require?
The research took me on the most amazing journey. I received a VicArts grant from Creative Victoria to spend a month in Paris researching Beyond Belief. I spent three full days at the mosque and thanks to an interpreter, I was able to verify the events I was writing about.
I traced every step of the journey that Ruben would take, even walking through the Paris sewers. I had trouble finding a synagogue that would allow me access, but on my last week I was walking through the Jewish quarter when a man stopped me and asked if I was Jewish. He invited me into his synagogue, the oldest one in Paris and it was exactly the kind of place I could imagine Ruben going. I also visited the Holocaust centres in New York City and Melbourne. Through the Holocaust Centre in Melbourne I spent time with a couple of Paris holocaust survivors and they read my story for cultural and historical accuracy. In my story, Ruben is hidden in a wine barrel and placed on a barge to be taken out of Paris. I’d read about this actually happening, and one of my Jewish sensitivity readers verified it. She was hiding out at a convent outside Paris and said that two children arrived one day in wine barrels. It was so amazing to speak to people who had lived through what I was writing about. I also worked with a Muslim sensitivity reader and learned so much from her.
Are the characters based on real people?
The story is inspired by actual events, but the main character Ruben is fictional, although I think he’s a combination of my eldest brother and my eldest son who loves cats … and they feature in the book. The head of the resistance is based on a real person, but I’d rather not say who because that would give too much of the story away.
What are the most challenging aspects of writing about WWII?
There is so much material out there. It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole when you’re doing the research. And it’s quite hard emotionally to read and hear true accounts of what people went through. The other thing is that there’s a certain amount of secrecy around certain events and a certain amount of denial, so reliable information can be hard to come by.
Do you think fiction helps us understand the past?
Definitely. It brings a personal element to historic events and gives people a deeper understanding. Statistics can be overwhelming and people can become desensitized to mass atrocities, but when they see something terrible happen to a character they have connected with, they can develop a more empathetic view. Through characters, people can experience a world they haven’t known and see past mistakes more clearly.
How important do you think historical accuracy is when writing fiction?
I think it’s very important, but it can be hard to discern sometimes. I’m experiencing a lot of disparity between facts published by two historians in relation to The Explorer’s Niece, the book I’m working on at the moment. So I need to find other sources to verify the dates and events I plan to include in my story
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do to chill out?
Draw, paint, play golf and travel.
Leonardo da Vinci
Favourite piece of music?
I’m a big Les Miserables fan.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on an historical fiction set in Australia in the 1840s. I also write funny books for kids. I find I need some light relief after I’ve been working on something that’s emotionally draining. So I have another book, Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Parent Training released 1 May and Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Teacher Taming, which comes out in September is currently a work in progress. Added to that, I’m working on Paris Hunting, which is the book I was researching when I uncovered the events that inspired Beyond Belief. I’ve also applied for another grant to go to Paris (fingers crossed) to work on an historical thriller set there.
Excerpt from Beyond Belief
Ruben willed the mosque door to open. He wasn’t sure any more that the distant sound of dogs was real. Nothing seemed real. Everything had happened so fast.
‘Why can’t I go with you and Papa to look for Rosa?’ he asked.
Mama bit her lip. ‘In her last letter, Rosa said it must be done this way. The people of the mosque will keep you safe, until you can be sent for.’ Mama turned her head.
Rosa had been to university, but it didn’t make her an expert on everything. What if she were wrong?
Ruben grabbed Mama’s hand. He wished Papa were here. He would have done one of his big shrugs, laid his hand on Ruben’s shoulder calmly and said in his slow, deep voice, ‘Fear is something you must not give in to. It is only as big as you allow it to grow.’
But Papa had gone to find Pierre, and Ruben’s knees would not stop shaking. He willed the mosque door to open. His heart thumped almost as loud as the traffic that bumped and lurched on the cobbles of the Place du Puits de l’Ermite.
Suddenly, Ruben’s skin prickled and panic flooded through him. Fear curled icy fingers around his heart. Mama’s hand squeezed even tighter. She had heard it too.
The squeal of brakes. The cutting of an engine.
One of the buses had stopped.
Thank you so much for being a guest on A Literary World, Dee. I love the research you’ve done for Beyond Belief. I know WWII Paris holds a great fascination for many of my readers. I particularly like the way you focus on the Parisian Muslims helping the Jews. War brings out the best and the worst of humanity, and it’s especially heart-warming to see how various religions and ethnicities, who often have conflicting viewpoints, pull together in times of need. I’ve seen this many times, particularly in my books set in Asia Minor. On behalf of my readers, I wish you continued success.
LINK: Writers Go Forth. Launch. Promote. Party
USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR
The Asia Minor Trliogy: Three stand-alone novels set in Greece and Turkey.
The Carpet Weaver of Usak
Conspiracy of Lies set in Paris and Brittany
Code Name Camille set in Paris. From the USA Today Bestseller WWII Tales of Resistance: The Darkest Hour Anthology
The Poseidon Network set in Egypt and Greece.