Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books, Suzy.
Your second novel for young adults, Alexander Altmann A10567 Black Dog Books (Walker Books) is a candid account of a Hungarian boy’s experience in the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In spite of the horrific events, you have crafted a story of human indomitability and hope. Was this a deliberate strategy?
Yes. There’s no episode more grim than the Holocaust. Alexander Altmann A10567 doesn’t shy away from the fact that the world can be a bleak and crushing place, but I also wanted to remind readers that we’re capable of great things, that we can help – in big and small ways – and that our capacity for friendship can powerful.
Why are you interested in the holocaust?
My father inspired me to write the book. I was a litigation lawyer when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1998. My father had survived Auschwitz as a thirteen-year-old, but had never talked about his experiences. Once he was diagnosed he wanted to tell us everything. He didn’t want us to be victims or victimise others.
I left the law and spent the next 5 years writing his story, promising him, on the day he died, that I’d get it published. Writing The Wrong Boy and Alexander Altmann allowed me to remember him and pass on his warning never to forget.
Alexander Altmann was inspired by the true experiences of Fred Steiner, who worked in the elite horse commando at Auschwitz. What was the most disturbing thing he told you? The most hopeful?
The most disturbing episode was when he was forced to throw his baby cousin over a barbed wire fence hoping his aunt would catch him. (She did and that cousin is now living in San Francisco in her 60s.) The most hopeful was when Fred was severely whipped by the Commander but his wife called him by name and fed him cake.
How has the 2013 CBCA short-listing of The Wrong Boy changed your writing life?
I came to writing fiction through non-fiction. It was a steep learning curve: from interviewing people to imagining them into existence. The short-listing allowed me to believe that my writing could touch people and I could master the craft of storytelling.
Why are you writing YA?
I didn’t pick YA. My stories did. Young adults are the next generation of leaders. They’re our future and the perfect audience for a story set in Auschwitz. The only way to prevent something like the Holocaust recurring is by trying to understand it and the best way to help kids do that is giving them a character to care about. Not millions of Jews – just one – a girl or boy their age with the same fears, dreams and insecurities.
I knew teenagers would relate to the stories because their lives, like Hanna and Alexander’s, can also involve betrayal, abandonment, loneliness and shame. They’re also discovering their identity, so a book that encourages them to examine intolerance and question how they want to live is powerful.