At what point do you think someone should call themselves a writer?
I suppose there are no hard and fast rules about this, are there? As I went through the process of writing my first novel, I found that I went through various stages. I called myself a “wannabe writer” when I had nothing more than an outline and a desire, to “aspiring author” when I had a completed the first draft, “budding novelist” after the second and “novice writer” somewhere near the end of the final draft. I became a “debut author” during the querying phase and now look forward to being a “published author” in a few months. After that, I’m hoping it will be “New York Times Best Selling Author.” That has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?
Have you always wanted to be a writer? As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
From my middle school years on, I pictured myself as becoming a dentist and having a small practice based out of my home, much like the family dentist I went to at the time. That vision of the future kept with me until I was in college and ran into an obstacle called “organic chemistry.” I knew there was no way I would end up in dental school, so I switched majors to something I truly enjoyed studying – history. I focused on the history of Germany between the wars, a subject dear to my heart as it relates to my family’s personal history of emigrating from Germany to the United States in the turbulent inter-war years.
That is the setting for your book, is it not?
Yes. Choosing Sides is a work of historical fiction. It’s the story of an ordinary family torn apart by Hitler’s Germany. It’s based on the true, and I think compelling, tale of my father, who was raised on both sides of the Atlantic and faced a difficult decision when his two worlds collided. Would Karl-Heinz choose America, as his parents did by fleeing the country in response to the rise of Nazism? Or would he stay in Deutschland, as his favorite cousin, his childhood sweetheart, and most of his extended family chose to do?
What inspired the idea for your book?
Well, the original idea came from family history – the multiple trans-Atlantic trips my grandparents made with their son, my father. It came from the stories behind their decision to leave Germany in 1927 but then return in 1934, a year after Hitler became Chancellor, and to leave again, for good, in 1935, after seeing what was going on in their homeland. It came from family lore of my grandfather being wounded in the trenches of World War I, his marriage to a local cabaret singer, my grandmother, in 1921 and their first move to the US, looking for work and a better life. As a child, I learned that the return to Germany in ’34 led to my father being inducted into the Hitler Youth, but because he was seen by the other kids as an American – a foreigner – he was severely bullied by the other kids. And I knew that by a dramatic sequence of events my grandparents and father met Adolf Hitler himself. As the story goes, ‘Grandpop’ decided then and there that remaining in Germany was not an option for him, even though most of the family were not inclined to leave. So I wanted to write about how world events in such a troublesome time period affected not only my family, but so many other families that ended up being shattered.
So the resulting book is based on true events from world and family history then. Where does the fiction part come in? How much of the story is made up?
Good question. When I sat down to capture the story on paper, I realized I had a wealth of historical information to work with. There is plenty of material to work with on the rise and fall of the Third Reich. The difficulty there was winnowing all that material down to the aspects of history that had a direct link to the family saga. But I had no personal diaries from my grandparents or my father to work with, no letters from one family member to another, and certainly no recordings of the difficult conversations they must have had at the dining room table as each family member determined how to deal with the rise of tyranny they saw all around them. So I turned to fiction to fill in the gaps; but one rule guided my writing. That was to keep any and all fictitious elements well within the range of likelihood. Given what I knew of my ancestors and their personalities; given what historians have written and given the nature of autobiographies that do exist, I feel my made-up dialogues, my imagined scenes, and my invented characters are all representative of people, places and events that very well could have been real. I guess I agree with the fantasy writer Neal Gaiman who said: “There are people who think that things that happen in fiction do not really happen. Those people are wrong.”
What is a significant way your book has changed since the first draft?
The book that comes out in March of 2024 is practically a total re-write of the first draft. My wife, who is my first-reader and has been so totally supportive of my writing effort, is also a great critic. She referred to my first draft as a ‘wonderful 300 page term paper’ that some, but not many of my family members might actually read. Looking back on it, I must admit it was pretty dry; it laid out the basics of the family story and relevant world historical events, but had no emotion. No drama, no depth of feeling. I focused on adding those elements in my subsequent drafts, keeping in mind a great quote from E.L. Doctorow, best known perhaps as the author of Ragtime. “This historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” I’ve worked hard in drafts 2 through 6 of Choosing Sides to do just that.
You’ve mentioned a few other writers. Are there any books or authors that inspired you to become a writer?
Absolutely. Along with my formal studies in history, I have always been a fan of historical fiction. I love books like Shogun or Noble House by James Clavell, Trinity or Armageddon by Leon Uris; books like Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus and Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale; books that transport the reader to another time and place. I also enjoy time travel books like Jack Finney’s Time and Again or The Oxford Time Travel Series by Connie Willis; books that help the reader understand the past.
If you could be mentored by a famous author, who would it be?
If I could be tutored by the likes of Erik Larson, I would be delighted. His narrative non-fiction books always entertain and always educate. I think that’s what historical fiction novels should do – combine a cracking good story and just the right amount of detail on an unfamiliar or unique setting, something other than the here and now. That is what I have tried to do in the writing of Choosing Sides. So I’d love to get some personal tips from an author like Larson.
In addition to your wife, who do you trust for objective and constructive criticism of your work?
As I went through writing Choosing Sides, I had the benefit of getting feedback and suggestions, and some critical thought provoking questions, from a good number of family members and friends – my two children, both of whom read a lot; my beta readers, who I chose because I knew they’d provide both positive and negative critique; my writing group members, who work in a wide variety of genres. I received reviews, fact-checking, corrections and suggestions from two professors of European history, one from my undergraduate days and one who himself grew up in Hitler’s Germany. And when I thought I was finished with the book, I invested in the services of a professional developmental editor who disabused me of that notion. His review was overall positive, but pointed out a good number of areas that I could improve. I strongly recommend every author, especially us first-timers, find a good developmental editor that is experienced in the author’s particular genre.
If you are planning a sequel, can you share a tiny bit about your plans for it?
Thank you so much for asking that – and for today’s interview in general. I am indeed working on a sequel that is focused on the post-war lives of my three main characters, including my father. After the war, Dad was recruited by the U.S. military intelligence command to help extract German scientists from the Russian-controlled zones of Germany and Austria. He was a spy and made several trips behind the Iron Curtain to sneak materials and people out of the Eastern Bloc. The follow-up book to Choosing Sides, which I’m thinking will be called Changing Sides, will tell the story of Dad’s involvement in Operation Paperclip – and the role some other characters from the first book played in helping him.