Tuesday, 19 December 2017

I met Henry by a random referral when I wrote for the newspaper...

Interview with Katrina Shawver
by Agnes A. Rose

Katrina Shawver is an experienced writer, blogger, speaker, and the author of Henry  A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America, an adult nonfiction biography released in 2017 to high praise. She holds a BA from the University of Arizona in English/Political Science, and began her writing career more than twenty years ago by writing hundreds of newspaper columns for The Arizona Republic. Her favorite quote is ”What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, USA with her husband Rick.

Agnes A. Rose: Katrina, I am very honored that I can host you on my blog and talk to you. In November you published your first book that tells about Henry Zguda who was a Catholic Pole. What happened that you met Henry? After all, there are many Poles who lived or still live in America because they left Poland due to the Second World War or communism. Why was it Henry?

Katrina Shawver:  I am equally honored by your interest. I met Henry by a random referral when I wrote for the newspaper. Except for that phone call we would have never met. I did not seek this story; it came to me by sheer luck and providence. I had never known anyone who was Polish before Henry. I still cannot explain the impulsive decision to offer to write his story, except that he was 85 years old, so there was no time to waste in capturing his memories. He and (his wife) Nancy had no children, and he had no siblings to leave his story to. His story truly would have been lost to history had we not met. He was also very nice and easy to talk with.

AAR: Henry Zguda was arrested in 1942 in Krakow by Germans and sent to Montelupich Prison. Next he went on to survive several concentration camps. Knowing the realities of the Nazi death camps it is very difficult to imagine how Henry was able to survive there. So could you tell the Polish readers, who have not read your book, what he did that he managed to save his life?

KS: Henry would argue that he survived because others saved his life several times, just as he helped who he could. I truly believe that every story of survival is unique and involves a great deal of luck. Did the guards look away at just the right moment? How does one manage to avoid typhus when everyone around you is dying of it? Why was the person standing behind you selected for a firing squad when you weren't? Things happen without explanation.

Henry was fortunate that he had studied German in high school so he could understand, read, and write German. Prisoners who understood German had a longer life expectancy in any concentration camp. At the time of his arrest, Henry was twenty-five-years old and a strong athlete. He was used to hard work and was a quick thinker. He did observe that academics and those accustomed to less physical conditions perished far faster. They just could not adapt physically to the harsh conditions.

AAR: What happened to Henry’s family when he was arrested?

KS: Henry was an only child, and his father died when Henry was an infant, so there was only Henry's mother, Karolina Zguda. She remained in Krakow and continued to work as a housekeeper for a wealthy family throughout the war. Henry's mother lived in Krakow her entire life.

AAR: When Henry arrived in America how did his life look like? What was the most important for him when he started living in a new place?

KS: Henry and a friend defected from communist Poland in 1956 when the regime became very hard line. Neither had ever been married. When he and his friend set sail for America two years later they were free to create new lives. He wanted to see the land of two of his movie heroes: Tom Mix and Elvis Presley.

AAR: Did Henry ever think about coming back to Poland and spending here the rest of his life? As we all know, Poland ceased to be a communist country in 1989.

KS: No. Henry arrived in New York City in January 1959 and married his wife Nancy a year later. She came from a large Italian family and they built a very happy life together. He later became a US citizen. Henry did visit Poland at least once in the 1970s that I know of. Nancy did not accompany him because she felt awkward not speaking Polish, and there was still an active arrest warrant for Henry as a defector. In 1989 when communism finally fell, Henry was already seventy-two years old, retired, his mother had long since passed away, and he had outlived most of his friends in Poland. His life was in the United States, even though he always carried Poland in his heart, and always told me how beautiful his home country was.

AAR: While researching what was the most frightening for you? What event in your hero’s camp life was the most gruesome?

KS: During the interviews, when Henry discussed some of the harder aspects of concentration camps, or when we looked through books of black-and-white photos, I wanted to stop the conversation. Redirect to something more pleasant. Nevertheless, I wanted to honor Henry, and so many others who did not have the opportunity to stop the tape, close the book, and change subjects. As to most gruesome? He briefly worked in the crematorium in Buchenwald, which I visited in 2013.

Katrina and Henry in 2003

AAR: How long did you work on this book? What was your most difficult challenge while writing?

KS: I met Henry in November 2002, so it has been fifteen years from beginning to publication. Unfortunately, Henry passed away a year after we met. Several times through the years I set the project aside, either overwhelmed as the amount of work needed to finish, or simply life interfered. I had three young children, an aging parent, and some family health issues that took priority. Until recently I also held a job, so the progress has been at a slower pace than if I was a full-time writer.

As to difficult challenges, there was nothing easy about this project. I read everything I could find with this caveat — I only speak English. Besides the huge task of research, translation of documents, and planning a trip to Poland, there were challenges transcribing each of the interviews. Henry used the terms and names he remembered in Polish and German, without translating to English. It was not practical to stop him after every word for an explanation. Even places, street names, and people I could only write out phonetically. When I reviewed my notes ten years later I had so many "aha" moments as to what Henry was saying that I had not understood at the time. Henry once joked "You should learn Polish. Then we could really talk."

AAR: Could you tell us how your meetings with your readers look like? While talking to them what do you pay your attention to? What questions do they ask?

KS: The book has only been out for two months. Over 85 people came to my book launch event in November, and many referred me to other book groups to speak. I have spoken at a Jewish Community Center, a genocide conference, and writers' groups. Everyone seems fascinated with the story. Except for Poles, Henry's story is a piece of history that no one has heard — the Holocaust as seen through Polish eyes. This story seems to resonate with so many people both as a forgotten and important piece of history, an intelligent read, and getting to know a likeable person such as Henry. Even in a concentration camp he found humor at times.

I do love connecting with an audience in person and enjoy public speaking. In addition to local events, I am really trying to reach out online and through social media. I can reach so many more people around the world from my computer. I feel fortunate to have connected with you

AAR: How much has Henry’s story affected your life? How has it changed?

KS:  Meeting Henry Zguda did change the direction of my life. When I began I did not know, what I did not know. Today I am a published author and educated on Poland and WWII and how little credit Poles, and Henry, have received for their suffering and deaths. Early on, I realized Henry's story represents so many other Poles who never received credit outside the Polish community, which I thought was terribly unfair. My definition of a bad day has changed. Compared to a bad day in a concentration camp, if all that happens is someone cuts me off in traffic or work is especially stressful, well that means I'm blessed to own a car, and that I'm employed. I am far more conscious of not wasting food — food was a precious commodity for most of Henry's life.

AAR: In your book you write that you and your husband were in Poland in October 2013. You visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Could you tell us something more about your trip?

KS: It helped that we had an excellent translator with us all day. I had an appointment in the morning with head of the archives for the museum. I had sent several research requests and prisoner names on ahead, and staff had pulled a huge stack of records for me to review. After going through the documents, Dr. Plosa very patiently answered all of my questions.

We had arranged for a private tour guide at 4 p.m. for a three-hour tour. I had very specific locations to see and questions to ask about Henry's experience. Henry was only imprisoned in the original Auschwitz I, so we spent most of our time there. At the end of the day I wanted to see Birkenau since there is a story of Henry walking to Birkenau. As it happened, my husband Rick, Magda our tour guide, and I were the only three people remaining in Birkenau as the museum closed, a place that used to hold more than 100,000 people. We shivered because it was a cold winter evening, dark, and silent. We had not brought enough warm clothes. There is no comparison to visiting a concentration camp on a cold dark day to get a sense for what it was like for miserable prisoners. In the silence I truly felt the ghosts of a million murdered souls who called to me "Do not forget us." I never will.

Published by Köehler Books
Virginia Beach (USA) 2017

AAR: How do you think why WWII is still a part of our culture today?

KS: I think there is an ongoing fascination with WWII for several reasons. We are still within two or three generations of the history and we still have a few survivors from that era, though not for much longer. They are all in their 80s and 90s so their memories are precious and golden and need to be captured before they are lost to history.

The Holocaust from the Jewish perspective has been extremely well documented and taught for three generations. There are thousands of "Holocaust" memoirs in print, and I think people are still trying to figure out "why" and "how" ordinary German people, many highly educated, could turn into truly evil killers, and participate in the calculated mass murder of millions of people.

AAR: Why are you so interested in Polish history? 

KS: Almost everyone asks me this. I am an American with no previous Polish connection. When I planned a trip to Poland many people asked "Why Poland?" I am quite unique. The simple truth is I met someone from Poland, offered to write his story, and needed to understand the reality and context of a time and place I had not experienced. I have always loved history, and a good writer must be curious and ask questions, especially why things happened, not just that they did. As a journalist I need to cross-check my sources, which means finding the same information at least twice. Early in our interviews I realized that the dynamics of European history and changing borders are extremely relevant to what happened to Poland during and after World War II.

AAR: Apart from writing you also deal with other things. Could you tell us something more about it?

KS: I love classical music and attending the symphony. I like to hike the mountain near my house, and try to find time to read. I also love taking my daughter out for mother-daughter dates. We are very close.

AAR: What is your next project? Could you tell us something about it?

KS: Right now I am focused on launching Henry and getting his story out to as many people as possible. I am confident the next story will come into my life at the right time.

AAR: Katrina, thank you very much for this conversation and for your book. I hope that someday your book will be translated into Polish. I am very happy that in America so many authors write about Poland and its history, especially about the wartime history. Is there anything you would like to say to the Poles?

KS: I too hope my book will be translated into Polish. I have gained a huge respect for Poland and Poles. The Polish-American Congress, Arizona division has been supportive, and included me as a guest at the Polish Heritage Ball recently. That the country continues to survive and today thrives is a testament to the strength of the culture. I am proud to say two copies of HENRY are in the library and collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. For English-speaking Poles, HENRY is available internationally through Book Depository, Amazon UK and others such booksellers.

I do love to hear from readers, even if it is only in Polish. I use online translation software so it is no problem reading a language other than English. For longer texts I have Polish friends who will help me with translations.

I can be found at:

Email: katrina [at] katrinashawver.com
HENRY on Book Depository: Click here
HENRY on Amazon UK: Click here

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here.
If you want to read my book review, please click here

Saturday, 16 December 2017

“Henry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America” by Katrina Shawver

Published by Köehler Books
Virginia Beach 2017
I read the book thanks to the author's courtesy. Thank you!

Krakow was one of the Polish cities that suffered severely from human casualties during the Second World War. When the cities such as Warsaw, Poznan, Bialystok, Gdansk or Elblag were virtually razed to the ground and suffered under the subsequent marches of hostile forces and the long-lasting Nazi occupation, Krakow being the largest and most important city in southern Poland, remained almost untouched. It is possible that this kind of situation resulted from the fact that the Germans wished to provide it some protection because they established the headquarters of the Nazi General Government there. In other words, the city was taken over by the Nazis becoming the capital of a pseudo-state which included the south-eastern half of present-day Poland and the south part of present-day Ukraine. That project was controlled by Hans Frank (1900-1946), who was declared as a war criminal and executed in Nuremberg after the end of the war. He chose Wawel Castle, the ancient seat of the Polish kings, as his first headquarters. So even though Krakow’s architecture was not as badly ruined as for example in Warsaw, the same cannot be said about the culture of the city and its inhabitants.

We must know that at the very beginning of the war, the Germans decided not to divide the city with the Jewish population. It is important to know that before the outbreak of the war, sixty thousand Jews lived in Krakow, which represented a quarter of the entire population. The German occupation of Krakow began on September 6, 1939. At that time, the Nazis liquidated the Jewish social organization and established their own, which was supported to deal with the issue not only of the Cracovian Jews, but also those living in the whole country. It was called the Jewish Council of Elders (in German: Judenrat). In April 1940 the Germans ordered the Jews to leave Krakow within the next four months. At that time thirty-five thousand Jews were evacuated from the city and only fifteen thousand of them remained there. Since that time Krakow became the capital of Poland occupied by the Nazis.

In March 1941, the Germans built a Ghetto in the Podgorze district south of the Vistula River where twenty thousand Jews lived, including Jews coming from surrounding towns. The Ghetto very quickly became a place where people were dying of starvation, and because of overcrowding, fatal diseases were also spread, not to mention the unimaginable brutality of the Germans, who murdered the Jews when they wanted to. Mass deportations from the Ghetto began in June 1942. At that time, five thousand Jews were sent to the death camp in Belzec. Apart from that, in October 1942, another six thousand Jews were also transported to Belzec. During that horrible action the Nazis executed those who were in the hospital and in the nursing home as well as children living in the orphanage. About a few hundred Jews died in the Ghetto. The Ghetto was liquated by Amon Göth (1908-1946), sending people, who were capable of working, to the Nazi camp at Plaszow, murdering others in the streets or in their homes, and sending the rest of them to die at Auschwitz.

SS staff in the Nazi death camp in Belzec (1942)

At the very beginning of the war, Krakow lost many of its leading thinkers, and it was when the Germans arrested the Jagiellonian University professors. It was November 6, 1939. The professors were sent to German concentration camps. The Poles who remained in Krakow witnessed the change of their city every day. Shops, houses and generally the whole districts were taken over by the Nazis. Even the Cracow Market Square lost its name because it was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz. During the war years, there was distinct resistance of the Cracovians. The Home Army (in Polish: Armia Krajowa) operated in the city. Its soldiers planned an uprising there, which was supposed to be similar to the rebellion that broke out in Warsaw on 1 August, 1944. Eventually, the decision about the uprising was, however, called off, and it happened because the Nazi forces were too large while many young Cracovians, who were able to fight, had been arrested. Apart from that there was the shortage of weapons that could be used during a possible uprising.

It is not without reason that above I mentioned the realities that had occurred in Krakow during the Second World War. I did it because the protagonist of the unusual biography by American journalist Katrina Shawver was associated just with Krakow. He was born there, grew up there and next he was arrested by the Germans, and then was locked up in a prison located on Montelupich Street. Originally this place served as a military barracks, and was located in a building that had belonged to the family of the Italian merchants and bankers called Montelupi since 16th century. In 1905 the Austrian authorities decided that there would be a military court which had formerly been located in Wawel Castle. Then the court was turned into a prison. During the Second World War, there was a Nazi police prison in this building under the control of the Gestapo. Between 1940 and 1944 there were about fifty thousand prisoners.

Prisoners of the Montelupich Prison in 1939 after the invasion of Poland 
by Nazi Germany.

It can be assumed that the life of Henry Zguda (1917-2003) promised to be really great. He was a great swimmer and water polo player, and he also knew foreign languages. If the war had not broken out, perhaps his life would have been different. In 1942 he was arrested by the Germans and imprisoned in the aforementioned prison on Montelupich Street. Then he was taken to Auschwitz and next he was sent to the Nazi concentration camp in Buchenwald, which operated since July 1937 until the end of the war. Henry Zguda was also in the German camp in Flossenbürg. He also experienced a dramatic death march, finally reaching Dachau where he was liberated at the end of the war. His life in post-war communist Poland was not easy either. The new authorities began mass persecution which also affected Henry. Eventually he managed to emigrate to America where he married the love of his life and died in 2003 at the age of 86. However, he never forgot about swimming. For him the emigration to the United States was a sort of escape from a world that was no longer the same as Henry had known before the war. You have to remember that it would not have been possible for him to do it unless he had had his friends he could count on at any time.

Katrina Shawver’s book is an extraordinary account of the man who survived despite the enormous cruelty that was present in the Nazi concentration camps. While writing, the author took care of every detail. On the pages of this book a reader meets Henry who was a really unusual man. In addition there is so tragic story that you can be almost sure that there is no return to a normal life from that hell. In a very interesting way Katrina Shawver reveals the fate of Henry Zguda, and the whole book is enriched by numerous photographs. The biography is based on interviews with Henry Zguda between 2002 and 2003. It was just before his death. I think that some invisible force had to direct that Katrina Shawver could meet Henry to be able to write down his memories, which are a true tribute to all people who survived that terrible war and to its mortal victims. This kind of books should be published as much as possible, but unfortunately every year it is getting harder because the eyewitnesses of those events are less and less. 

Katrina Shawver and Henry Zguda in 2003

On the pages of the book we learn not only the events that took place in Henry Zguda’s life but also we can read how emotionally the author approached them. Therefore, there are also her observations and remarks. In addition a reader also learn what Poland had looked like prior to the war before Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) decided to destroy not only the country but first of all the people living in it. The book's hero is a really beautiful character regardless of what part of his life his story is about. Very often Henry mentions an extraordinary inner strength that helped him survive the worst moments of his life. Some people may be surprised by the fact that despite the ubiquitous terror he never complained about his fate, although it does mean that he accepted it. It is possible that it resulted from his immense desire to live. I am sure that it was just his willingness to live that gave Henry the strength to survive each day. In my opinion Henry’s story, although very tragic, gives us hope and uplift.

There are many people in the world who do not really know much about the cruelty of the Second World War. They do not fully understand what the Holocaust was about. Therefore, this book can be a great source of information for them filling the gaps in their historical knowledge. I have no words to express my emotions after reading this book. For my part, I can only be grateful to the author that she decided to undertake such a difficult subject. For Poles, it is very important people around the world learn about the great drama we experienced when on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. But that's not all, because several days later (September 17) the Soviet Union, headed by Jozef Stalin (1878-1953), did the same. Therefore, I recommend Katrina Shawver’s book to anyone who wants to know the extraordinary story of the man who survived hell, and even so he never gave up and lost his faith in people.

Email: katrina [at] katrinashawver.com
Website:  katrinashawver.com
HENRY on Book Depository: Click here
HENRY on Amazon UK: Click here

If you want to read this review in Polish, please click here

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

It was a story I’d wanted to write for years...

Interview with Margaret Leroy
by Agnes A. Rose

Margaret Leroy is a British novelist. As a child she wrote elaborate fantasy stories but she never showed them to anyone. When she was about 12, she stopped writing and she did not start again till her mid-twenties. She went to Oxford to study music. In her twenties she tried all sorts of things – music therapy, play-leading with children with disabilities, work in a toy shop, teaching. Finally she found work as a social worker. At first, she wrote non-fiction and a book for children. Her first novel – TRUST – was published in 1999. This book was adapted for a British television film with a screenplay by Matthew Hall as LOVING YOU in 2003. Later she wrote POSTCARDS FROM BERLIN (2003) that was also published as THE PERFECT MOTHER, and THE RIVER HOUSE (2005). In Poland we can read two of the Margaret Leroy’s books: THE SOLDIER’S WIFE and THE ENGLISH GIRL which were published by GOLA.

Agnes A. Rose: A very warm welcome to you, Margaret, and can I thank you, for taking time to talk to me today. Because recently I have read your book called THE SOLDIER’S WIFE, I would like to start our conversation just with it. The main character of this story is Vivienne de la Mare who gets involved in a forbidden love affair with an SS-officer. It is very controversial. Could you tell us what motivated you to create this story?

Margaret Leroy: It was a story I’d wanted to write for years, ever since I first learned about the Occupation of the Channel Islands by the Germans in WW2. It was a hidden piece of history, and I thought it would make a wonderful setting for a story. But I didn’t feel the right moment had come until I’d already written five contemporary novels: I was quite nervous about writing my first historical novel!

AAR: While writing the history of Vivienne and Gunther, weren’t you afraid that you would create negative emotions both in readers and critics?

ML: I guess I don’t really think about critics when I’m writing a novel – I just have a story which I want to tell. For me, the Occupation was fascinating to write about, because people face such difficult dilemmas in their everyday lives when they live alongside the enemy. I was interested in the moral complexity of the situations my heroine would have to confront, and I hope that people will empathise with her as they read the story.

AAR: We all know how women who fraternized with the enemy were punished not only during the Second World War but also after the war. You mention that in your novel, too. Do you think that Vivienne would also deserve such a punishment? After all, she loves that German officer in a way, and besides, she meets him in order to be able to provide food to her family when her husband is absent.

ML: In fact, women who’d slept with the enemy weren’t punished in that way on Guernsey, but some were punished on Jersey, one of the other islands. That was one of the reasons I chose Guernsey as my setting, as that wasn’t essentially part of the story I wanted to tell. As to whether she’d have deserved such punishment, I guess that’s for the reader to decide!

AAR: While reading THE SOLDIER’S WIFE, I got the impression that Vivienne’s mother-in-law is also a very important character in this story. Despite the fact that she lives in her own world, in a certain way she understands the reality that surrounds her. Did you have any difficulties creating this character?

ML: I think you’re absolutely right in what you say about her. She’s someone whose mind is starting to go, but she also sometimes sees into the heart of things. I used to work as a psychiatric social worker, and that background was helpful in creating the character – I had some understanding of the way someone suffering from dementia might talk or behave. And I like creating characters who may seem strange or different, but who have their own wisdom.

AAR: Why did you choose Guernsey as the setting of your book?

This is the Polish cover of
 "The Soldier's Wife"
Published by GOLA (2013)
Translated by Anna Wojtaszczyk
& Olga Wojtaszczyk 
ML: Before I wrote the book, I went to Guernsey on a research trip as I knew I couldn’t write the book if I didn’t love the place. And I was enchanted. Though the island is quite small, it was easy to leave the crowded bits behind and to seek out peaceful places, like the deep lanes of St Pierre du Bois, where I decided Vivienne should live. I even chose a particular house where I could picture her living. I find it a huge help in writing a story if I can see the setting very precisely in my mind’s eye. And once I’ve created that world, it’s always such a joy to return to it every time I sit down to write.

AAR: Your second book we can read in Polish is called THE ENGLISH GIRL. This is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who is offered the chance to study at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. Pre-war Vienna is very beautiful and makes Stella Whittaker an amazing impression. What made you decide to write this kind of book? Its plot also focuses on the Second World War.

ML: I’d visited Vienna in my twenties, and found it an amazing place. In terms of culture, it’s so rich: Freud lived there, and so many celebrated musicians – Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart. And the coffee-shops are wonderful! I chose the 1930’s because I find those years just before war broke out very fascinating – the way people maybe sensed what was going to happen and yet it couldn’t be stopped.

AAR: And now let’s talk about your debut, please. I read on your website that your first book called TRUST deals with an allegation of sex abuse. This is a very serious problem. Could you tell us something more about this novel?

ML: At the time I wrote it, I was working as a social worker, and the seed of the story was something that happened to some people I knew. The story is told from the viewpoint of a woman, Chloe: her lover is a child psychologist who has an allegation of child abuse made against him. The incredibly difficult dilemma she faces is whether to believe him when he says the allegation is false. Should she trust him?

AAR: What made TRUST be adapted for a British television film? Do you remember what you felt when you found out about it?

ML: I was completely thrilled! It was so exciting for me to see my story on the screen, and they made a beautiful job of it. It was so strange to think that one day the idea had come to me, to write this story, and now it had grown into a television drama that was seen by an audience of eight million people.

AAR: What motivates you to write about difficult life problems?

This is the Polish cover of
"The English Girl"
Published by GOLA (2014)
Translated by Anna Wojtaszczyk
& Olga Wojtaszczyk
ML: My first thought was to say that this is because of my experience as a social worker. But I think the answer is more complicated than that – maybe I was drawn to social work for the same reason that I’m drawn to write stories about difficult life problems! I think I’ve always been intrigued by the darker side of human nature, and I always want to understand why people behave as they do. And of course many stories do deal with difficult things: you need to put your characters into extreme situations and see how they react.

AAR: Before you published TRUST, you had written non-fiction and a book for children. Could you tell us something more about this part of your writing career?

ML: I wrote books about miscarriage and female sexuality. I enjoyed researching and writing those books, but if I’m entirely honest they were also a way in to what I really wanted to do – writing novels. Through my non-fiction, I met publishers and literary agents, and began to understand how publishing works, and all that knowledge was helpful when I wanted to offer my first novel for publication.

AAR: Your latest book is entitled A BRIEF AFFAIR. Its plot also focuses on the Second World War. Why do you write about the war so often?

ML: My first five novels were set in the present day, but I’ve since written three WW2 books, and very much enjoyed writing them. There are still so many great stories to be told about WW2, and readers continue to be fascinated by it. But I think A BRIEF AFFAIR will be my last WW2 book, and I’m writing something quite different now.

AAR: How do you find the perfect balance between dialogue and narrative?


ML: I find this quite a difficult question to answer, as it’s not really something I think about consciously when I’m writing. My approach is first to write a plot outline, and then to write a quick first draft of the book, which will have most of the dialogue in, but not very much description. Then in later drafts I’ll fill out the story, and there will be much more narrative and description, but the dialogue will probably stay much as it is.

AAR: Could you tell us how your typical working day looks like?

ML: I only write in the mornings – I can’t write for longer than four or five hours at a time. In the afternoons, I deal with all the other things – research, email and so on. I also try to fit in a bit of exercise – writing is the most sedentary of occupations. I’m a fanatical swimmer, and I’m constantly dragging my poor husband off on long walks!

AAR: You mentioned above that now you are working on a new novel. Would you like to tell us something about it?

ML: My new novel is set in the New Forest, which is a beautiful part of England where I grew up, and where my grandfather was a forester, so I know the setting very well. The story has two strands – one is contemporary, and one takes place a thousand years ago. So this is something quite different for me, and utterly fascinating to write.

AAR: Margaret, thank you very much for this nice conversation. Is there anything you would like to add or tell your Polish readers?

ML: I’m so glad that you enjoy my novels. Happy reading!

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

Monday, 10 April 2017

I find my stories everywhere...

Interview with Barbara Wood
by Agnes A. Rose

Barbara Wood is an American author but she was born in Warrington (Lancashire, England). She was born to an English mother and a Polish father, and her maiden name was Lewandowski. She immigrated to the United States with her parents and older brother. She grew up in Southern California and attended Los Angeles Schools. After High School, Barbara attended the University of California at Santa Barbara but left to train as a surgical technician. She sold her first book in 1976. So far she has written twenty nine books, including three under a pen name Kathryn Harvey. These books are quite different from the Barbara Wood’s novels. Now she is at work on her thirtieth. She is an international best selling author with books translated into over thirty languages. The reader is transported to exotic countries that Barbara has meticulously researched to provide her fans with a true sense of the culture and history relevant to each story. At the heart of every book, is a strong, independent woman. When not writing, Barbara often takes time to enjoy the work of other authors.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much that you accepted my invitation to take part in this interview. I am very honored that I can host you on my blog and talk to you. As I understood you trained as a surgical technician. Could you tell us what made you change your mind and you decided to start writing books?

Barbara Wood:  And I am honored that you have invited me to participate! Yes, I worked in a hospital in the operating room. About writing: I never changed my mind. I have always told stories, ever since I was a little girl. I started actually writing them down on paper when I was around twelve. Writing was my hobby, something I did in the evenings after working at the hospital. It was only after I had published three novels that I was persuaded to quit my “day” job and stay home and write full time. It was a very strange transition, to go from working with a surgical team to working entirely alone.

AAR: Did you have any difficulties during the release of your first book? If so, how did you deal with them?

BW: The only difficulty I had was going into a bookstore and see my book there! My friends literally had to push me through the door!

AAR: On your website I read that you wrote your first book at the age of 16. I think it’s very early. I am very curious what that book was about. Do you still remember it?

BW: Oh, I remember it! I still have it all these years later. It is called ATON’S KINGDOM and is a romance set in ancient Egypt in the time of Nefertiti and Akhenaton. There is a lot of hand-holding in it and starry gazes. LOL! I have left instructions that it is to be burned upon my death.

AAR: Before you became the international bestselling author you had held many different jobs, such as waitress, secretary, switchboard operator, and even dog walker. Was that your own way of searching for your place in your life?

BW: I suppose it was. Plus, I guess I was looking for myself through my writing, except that I didn’t know it at the time. I always thought of writing as a hobby. I never thought I’d be published. I wrote complete novels and put them in a drawer. It was my husband who suggested I try submitting one. I sold it on my first try. I was very surprised!

AAR: On the pages of your books you usually invite readers to visit some exotic countries. Sometimes you also write about the prehistoric times. How do you collect necessary information for this kind of stories?

BW: I do a lot of research. And I have visited every place I have written about. I won’t write about a place I have never been to.

AAR: Since you have visited all countries you have written about, could you tell us about your travel impressions? What country did you like most? Why?

BW: I have loved every country I have ever visited, but each for a different reason.  (Italy, the food; Germany, the wine; Egypt, the ancient sites; Australia, the beer). But in all cases, I have loved the people. I love meeting strangers, asking them about themselves, listening to their stories. People fascinate me. Plus, everywhere else in the world has a longer history than America (there are no written records for when the Indians were the sole inhabitants here). It is such a treat to visit a country that has such old streets and monuments, and where famous people walked.

AAR: I have been reading your books for many years and I love them very much. In Poland your readers can read most of them. A few weeks ago I read DOMINA. In my opinion it’s a very beautiful story. The main character of this novel is Samantha Hargrave who wants to be a doctor but all the time she must struggle with the world dominated by men. She is a brave woman who does not want to give up. What motivated you to create this female character living in the conservative Victorian era?

BW: I love the medical world. I loved working in the operating room, I am fascinated – even to this day – about women who enter medicine, especially as doctors, and I have always had an interest in the history of medicine. It was always a male dominated profession. In the Middle Ages women who tried to practice medicine were burned as witches. I think the men were jealous. I wanted to show readers what it was like for women in the Victorian era. Nursing became an accepted profession for women, but not the role of physician.  A few brave women succeeded. Samantha Hargrave is a composite of several real women doctors in the 19th century.

AAR: The second of your book I have read recently is THE LAST SHAMAN. What a great idea for the story! In this novel you take your readers to the pre-Columbian era. Could you tell us how your work on this book looked like? Was it difficult to create the world of the Toltec culture?

BW: Of course I visited the ruins in Chaco Canyon and tried to imagine what it was like back then.  No one really knows. Experts (scientists, historians, archaeologists) can’t agree on how the Toltecs came to New Mexico, or why, or even if they were there at all. And most mysteriously – why did they suddenly vanish without a trace? Although I did as much research as I could, most of the book comes from my imagination.

AAR: I know that you are the co-author of the story about Poland occupied by Nazi Germans. It’s entitled NIGHT TRAINS. The time is 1941 and the place is the strategic town of Sofia. I wonder why the name of the town is Sofia. In Poland there has never been the town with such a name. Is it fictional one? The novel has not been translated into Polish yet. Could you tell us something more about this book, please?

BW: I wrote NIGHT TRAINS with a surgeon I was working with at the time. He found an article in a medical journal about a town in Poland that cleverly kept the Nazis out by faking a typhus epidemic. So it’s a true story. But there was no way we could find out the details, so we decided to fictionalize it. Sofia is a fictional town.*

AAR: You have written so many books. Could you tell us where you continue to find new, fresh ideas for the plots?

BW: I find my stories everywhere. I read newspapers, I discover interesting things online, or I overhear conversations in restaurants. I am always writing things down. I carry a notepad with me all the time, and when I see something or hear something that sounds interesting, I write it down. I am currently working on my 30th book and have enough material for thirty more!

AAR: In my opinion so many old-school romance novels feature needy, kinda pitiful women. I am very interested in the fact why did you decide to do the exact opposite and feature strong, successful, go-getter female characters?

BW: I guess it’s because I’m not a soft, needy woman and so I can’t relate to such a heroine and can’t write about one. I’m a fighter and so that’s the kind of woman I write about.

AAR: What is the message you want readers to take away from your books?

BW: I have just two hopes for the readers of my books: that they have been entertained and possibly forgotten their worries for a while (that’s why I read books), and also that they have learned something new, that I have given them something to think about (another reason why I read books).

AAR: Could you describe your writing schedule? Do you outline? Any habits?

BW: I outline as I go along, never ahead of time. The story reveals itself to me as I write it so that, many times, I am just as surprised by a twist or a secret revealed as the reader is. I only keep an outline for reference. A book can take up to a year or more to write, so I need to go back and remind myself where the characters have been and what they have been doing.

My schedule is the same every day: I get up and go straight to my favorite chair by a window, curl up with my cat, my writing pad, and my coffee and I write by hand. I take a break and go for walks around the neighborhood, and then in the afternoon I transfer my handwritten material onto the computer.

AAR: As I mentioned above you also writes as Kathryn Harvey. You have written three books under a pen name. Why did you decide to change your name to write these stories? How much different are they from those you create as Barbara Wood?

BW: The Kathryn Harvey books contain explicit sex. A lot of authors use pen names when they change their style. I didn’t want Barbara Wood readers to be shocked.

AAR: Could you tell us about your next project or projects?

BW: The book I just turned in to my publisher is called THE FAR RIVER. It’s about German immigrants who come to California in 1912 to establish a winery (California is famous for its wines). It’s a three-generation family saga. That book is finished and will be out next year. Now I am starting another family story, three-generations, and it starts with three sisters in the present day who come into a startling inheritance, and they eventually uncover some shocking family secrets.

AAR: Thank you once again for this conversation. I wish you further success in your writing. Is there anything you would like to tell your Polish readers?

BW: Thank you, Agnes, it was my pleasure. Your questions gave me something to think about!  And your English is excellent by the way. Unfortunately, the only Polish I ever learned was when I was a little girl and my father taught me to say my prayers in Polish. I suspect he thought the Virgin Mary preferred Polish to English.  J

And to your Polish readers I would like to say that I have a very special place in my heart for Poland. After the war, my father could never go back, and so he was cut off from his family there. So I would like to take this opportunity, if I may, to say hello not only to your blog visitors, Agnes, but also: if there are any Lewandowskis reading this blog, Greetings from your cousin in California!

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

* It is probably a fictitious epidemic of typhus that was caused by two Polish doctors at the turn of 1941 and 1942: Eugeniusz Lazanowski (1913-2006) and Stanislaw Matulewicz (?). One day Matulewicz discovered a benign bacterium that being present in the human body showed in medical texts the same results as typhoid fever. Then the doctors began injecting the non-lethal bacteria into their patients’ bodies and next sending their blood samples to German laboratories. The whole situation took place in the neighbourhood of Stalowa Wola (the town which is located in the Podkarpackie Province). And so the Germans, horrified by the "epidemic" of typhus, began to escape from the endangered area. The evacuation referred not only to German officers but also ordinary German citizens. Due to the fear of plague, the Nazi abandoned the arrests and mass deportations of people to Nazi concentration camps. In this way the Polish doctors saved many people, including Jews. In order to avoid being uncovered a conspiracy, the doctors concealed the fact of using the complete innocent bacteria even from their patients. For the first time the novel “Night Trains” was published in 1979. Its co-author is Gareth Wootton.