My book A Winter's Day in 1939 is now available in bookshops (whoop, whoop!!) and on Monday evening I got to talk a little about the book and the highs and lows of writing it at the Gala Opening of the What Lies Beneath Exhibition, now on at the National and Takapuna Libraries. I appreciate that I am probably biased about the event as I was one of the eight speakers (including Kyle Mewburn, Donovan Bixley, Maria Gill, Heather Arnold, David Elliot, Lindy Fisher and Fifi Colston) but I found it really interesting and had a great time.We were each invited by author and illustrator wrangler, Rosemary Tisdall, to share something positive, something negative and something interesting about the creation of our books. It was fascinating to me to hear some of the similarities in our experiences. All of us had put our hearts and souls into our work and it was clear that 'What Lies Beneath' was a true title for the exhibition as we talked about the passion we felt for our subjects, and the lengths we had gone to to give our books the depth, the layers and the meanings that are there for readers to tap into when they pick up our books.
For those of you who wanted to be there, but weren't able to make it, this is what I said.
Something positive - I was given the chance by the publishers Scholastic, to share my father's story with a wider audience. And the chance to share a lesser known part of World War 2, the experience of so many Polish people, with a wider audience.
Something negative - transforming a true experience into fiction, into a story that would be accessible to younger readers (the book is for those 9 or 10 and up) was challenging, especially a story that is so significant and personal for me. After completing the first draft, I rewrote the entire story twice to try and get it right. It wasn't easy. And it just occurred to me when I was preparing for this event, that the fact I wrote this story is a bit of a give-away about whether my father survived or not :)
Something interesting - I learned a lot of interesting and amazing things as I worked my way through the story - history, geography and much more but to me one of the most interesting was how people coped in the harshest of situations. I read this from my book:
When the screeching of braking wheels announced the train had finally stopped, there was no mistaking it. Along the length of the siding were nothing but closed-in cattle wagons.
Soldiers undid the bolted doors and slid them open to reveal cold, dark interiors. Looking through the open doorway of one wagon, I saw a black pot-belly stove in the centre.
“What’s that?” I pointed at a pipe sticking up through the floor to the left of the stove. Everyone stared. A small boy beside me crouched down and peered beneath the train.
“The pipe sticks out the bottom too,” he said.
“Maybe it’s for rubbish,” Zofia suggested. That sounded reasonable, I thought, but Father frowned and Mama pursed her lips. Whatever they were thinking, they kept it to themselves. When we boarded the wagon a few minutes later with two other families, the soldiers explained what the pipe was for and I understood their reactions. That pipe was our toilet; just a hole in the floor. It looked disgusting.
“I’m not using that,” one of the mothers said. I silently agreed. I could hold on for a long time if I had to. Maybe even a whole day. There was no way I was going to the toilet in front of everyone else.
They weren't on the train for a whole day - they're journey took eleven days. And they had many other journeys on trains just like it throughout the time they spent in the USSR. My father's experience was much much more than interesting. And I am very proud I got the chance to turn his story into a novel.