Berlin, 1934. Homes once filled with laughter stand empty as the Nazi party’s grip on the city tightens. When Anna Tiegel’s impulsive act to save a friend attracts the attention of a high-ranking Nazi official, she suddenly finds herself in terrible danger. As her world closes in, Anna’s only comfort is in the hope of escape with her boyfriend Eddy, but then he shockingly disappears…
Rhode Island, 1957. Peggy Bailey stares in shock at the faded photograph of two laughing women which her beloved adoptive mother struggled to pass on to her before she died, whispering ‘It was inside your baby blanket when we brought you home’. Then Peggy realises that she has seen one of the girls before, in the most unlikely of places… Bursting at the discovery, she embarks on a mission which takes her across America to find the truth behind her heritage. Nothing, however, could prepare her for the tragic story her actions uncover, and how it will change her life forever…
RIDING THE WRITER ROLLERCOASTER
“Most people wait for the muse to turn up. That’s terribly unreliable. I have to sit down and pursue the muse by attempting to work.”
That is a quote from Nick Cave, a musician who I have adored since I was eighteen, which is a terrifyingly long time ago. I am using it in context of this piece on author inspiration with a couple of major caveats.
Firstly, Nick Cave is a genius and I am not. Secondly, I am from the north of England: we have excellent gravy in the north of England, but we don’t have muses, people would laugh at us. His words, however, really resonate with me. Writing is a job. I am lucky – it is a job that I love and it still feels a bit ‘pinch me’ to be doing it full-time and sustainably – but, like any other profession, it has its highs and its lows and the swoops between those two states can be terrifying.
My study is perched at the top of a tenement in Glasgow’s West End looking down onto the River Kelvin. A month ago the banks outside were covered in snow, today there are daffodils pushing back against the tangled undergrowth; almost every day there is a fox clearly grown fat on student chips. It is not a view to get tired of.
My desk is an antique and is just the right amount of battered. It holds piles of research texts and an internet radio which pumps out loud indie rock while I wrestle with the towering pile of spreadsheets keeping track of everything from plot to character which will one day engulf the laptop (I’m not a complete Luddite).
My desk – and the highly personalised room covered in film posters which surrounds it – is more than just the place where I work. Its purchase marked the point at which writing switched from something I longed to do, and grabbed part-time moments to practice, to what it is now: my every day.
Doesn’t that sound smug? Doesn’t that make a writer’s life sound like an ocean of calm? Trust me, I’m not and isn’t – there have been days when I couldn’t see the posters or the view for blind panic and my seat may as well have been strapped to the front of a rollercoaster.
My debut novel was published in 2016 by a small independent publisher. I still remember staring at the email message that contained not the expected rejection but the magic word yes and thinking, ‘that’s it world, I’ve arrived’. Bless.
Do you remember that scene in Bambi when our eponymous little hero first steps onto the snow with a wide-eyed grin and a confident bounce? He falls and gets buried a couple of times but he gives himself a little shake and skips merrily on. Then he jumps onto the ice…
Getting accepted for publication the first time is a wonderful feeling but it is also the gateway to a world that, at times, felt like Wonderland crossed with The Hunger Games. The book came out; there was a launch in a swanky London bookshop, some of which I can even remember. It sold some copies, even to people I didn’t know. It got a review in the Sunday Times. I cried in a car park. I got an agent. I waited for the royalties to pour in, for the script people to call… I am sure you can fill in the rest.
I won some short story prizes which kept the writing spark going but my next two novels couldn’t catch a cold. And it really doesn’t help when the rejection letters are lovely, although you grit your teeth and pretend that it does.
I had written a medieval novel so I kept writing those because all the advice is to stay in the same time period if you want to win, and hold onto, readers. I’ll be honest and say that, as much as I enjoy the Wars of the Roses and the Tudors, that part of history wasn’t my passion – one person’s story had interested me and I had already told that one. I was struggling. Then my agent asked me the key question which I had kept forgetting to ask myself – what do you actually like writing? – and the lightbulb pinged on.
The answer? My short stories. They were dark, twentieth-century based and one of them, about a holocaust survivor who had kept going through the dark days by clinging to a dream, had kept tugging at me.
I wrote a wider treatment of it, then I wrote 10,000 words and my agent liked it, so I wrote the story that was keeping me awake at nights and off it went. And there were rejections, lovely ones. But there was also Bookouture, and an editor who loved my characters as much as I did. That short story became The Fortunate Ones, the first of my World War Two inspired novels, and the rollercoaster started back on the upswing…
That was a year ago. I now write about events and places that fascinate me: World War Two and the shadows of war, and my favourite city, Berlin. I have had three novels in that genre published: The Fortunate Ones, What Only We Know and, most recently, The Lost Mother. Each of those books has taken me on a physical journey: all of them to Berlin, The Fortunate Ones to Buenos Aires and The Lost Mother to America. They have also all taught me a lot – The Lost Mother covers the internment of German Americans during WWII and the German American Bund, a very frightening home-grown Nazi movement. It also includes the movies – 1950s Hollywood and the German film industry under Goebbels – which is another of my passions. It is an absolute privilege being able to write about what I love and, touch wood, so far finding an audience happy to experience those things with me.
There are more books to come, including a series which is testing me and making me learn whole new aspects of my craft. It is joyful, and it could change in a heartbeat, but it has happened for me and it could happen for you. All it takes is one person to say, “that’s interesting, what happens next?” and you’ve hooked them. So let’s get back to the desk…
Central Park, New York, November 1935
Anna felt the sound in the same moment she heard it. The ripple of notes caught in her throat and left her unable to open her eyes. It was so like the gurgle that ran through her dreams, she wondered if she had dozed off for a moment. And then it came again, richer this time, rising up to meet the birdsong which normally rang out unchallenged this early in the morning.
Four months. That’s when they start to laugh. It could be her. If it’s a little girl, it could be her.
A hopeless thought, a desperate thought. And yet…
Anna opened her eyes. There was a baby carriage parked beside the opposite bench, and two women arm in arm cooing over it. It was such a jolt to see anyone sitting there, Anna wondered for a moment if she was still sleeping, if she had somehow conjured them up.
In the four weeks since she had first found this little corner of Central Park, she had been its sole occupant, besides the birds and the occasional curious rabbit. At seven o’clock in the morning, which was Anna’s preferred time to slip away – or, more accurately, the one time in the day she could carve out for herself – Central Park was a haven. It was too early for the office workers seeking a moment’s solitude before the demands of their day engulfed them, or for the children who, come afternoon, would spill from their classrooms into its playgrounds. There were no honking car horns, no whooshing subway vents; none of the clamour which filled the rest of the city. The air was so still, Anna could hear the lions in the park’s zoo roaring their good-mornings. The tree-shaded nook had become her place to breathe, and to remember. To be herself away from prying eyes, with all the longings and the pain that shedding of her outer skin brought. And now that sound, that beautiful sound, had slipped out of her imaginings and she was struggling to hold on to the day.
‘She’s only recently started doing it.’ The young woman rocking the boat-shaped pram caught Anna looking and smiled. ‘The laughing, I mean. The slightest thing sets her off. If we could get her to start sleeping as happily, life would be perfect!’
It was clear from her shining eyes that life was already quite perfect.
Anna nodded – all her words seemed to have left her – as the older of the two women beamed.
‘My first grandchild, such a beauty and always up before the rest of the world. We thought a little fresh air might help, but she’s far too curious to settle.’
It should be me rocking the pram. It should be my mother bragging about her precocious grandchild.
The image of the three of them sitting together, her holding her baby, her mother holding her – an image Anna had been running from for months – hit her so hard, she gasped.
The real mother and grandmother moved instinctively closer to the pram.
It could still be me. If I could only find her. If I had my own baby back, I could make a home. I could find some way of contacting Mutti. If I had my own baby back, I could do anything.
She got up, wanting nothing more than a closer look at the child. The baby was lying on her back, her satin-edged blanket kicked off, her face all circles and smiles. She peered up at Anna and chuckled.
‘Sie ist sehr schön. Sehr schön.’
The German came from nowhere.
The mother was suddenly on her feet, her body thrust between Anna and her child, her arms outstretched as if to fight Anna off. ‘Get away from her.’
It was the same order that had torn Anna apart in Berlin’s Charité Hospital. Delivered in the same staccato tone. Time slipped away and took reality with it. All Anna could see was the ward, and the cot, and another woman reaching out for the child that was really hers.
‘Aber sie ist mein. Ich bin ihre Mutter.’
The blow stung Anna’s cheek and broke whatever bad spell had gripped her.
‘I am sorry. I am so very sorry.’
She had recovered her English, but it was too late. There was nothing she could say to make amends for the fear in the other woman’s eyes.
‘I know she’s your baby, not mine. I never meant any harm or to frighten you. But my daughter is here in America. She is somewhere here. And I need to get her back.’ The words came out in a tumble, her accent all heavy and tripping them.
The older woman pulled the pram away and began shouting for help.
‘I really am sorry.’
The apology was pointless, insulting. Her words had no weight here. Her pain, so raw and alive, had lashed out and hurt someone else. She had made another mother feel as wretched and afraid as she had been. It was unforgiveable; it was not who she was.
The mother was sobbing, clutching her baby. Footsteps were coming, the grandmother’s cries had been heard.
Anna turned and, still stumbling over her apologies and her longing, she ran.
Catherine is an Amazon best-selling author of novels which take inspiration from World War Two and are largely set in Berlin, which is her favourite city. She came to writing after a rather meandering, and highly entertaining, career which jumped between marketing, teaching and politics. She is from the North of England, which has given her a life-long addiction to custard and gravy, but now lives very happily in Glasgow with her American husband. If she is not at her desk, you will probably find her in the cinema, or just follow the sound of very loud indie music.
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