I’m delighted to welcome Gill James to my blog. Her wonderful novel, ‘The House On Schellberg Street’ is an evocative story set during the Holocaust. Rather than only depict the horrors, though, this novel follows several children who respond to their drastic situations in ways that are inspiring and thought-provoking.
Please follow the links at the end of the interview and to purchase a copy, click on the book covers.
What are the main ideas or themes in your book?
Typical of a young adult book, The House on Schelberg Street is about finding an identity. It’s about growing up. It’s a Bildungsroman really, but one with a very particular setting.
What is the setting or context of the narrative?
It’s set in the 1940s and skirts around the Holocaust. Sadly, those of us who know about the Holocaust will know some things that the main characters don’t. Yet it’s not a dreary story. I was once advised not to go ahead with it because it might become “too grizzly.” It’s not at all grizzly and there is even some humour in it.
Tell us more about the main characters and their dilemmas.
The story is in three parts though the dominant story is about Renate who comes over to England on the Kindertransport. She only knows that she is Jewish by race a few days before she is sent to England. She speaks no English. She doesn’t know who she is. The second strand is the story of the best friend who is left behind and helps Renate’s grandmother to hide disabled children in her cellar. There is an irony there: one persecuted person helps to hide another persecuted group. The third strand, told though letters, is of the other friends left in Germany who until near the end of the story have no clue at all about some of the terrible things that are happening.
Why did you feel it was important to write this novel?
It’s based on real events to which I had access but which weren’t fully explained. Fictionalising them offered a chance of exploring them. The real German girls wrote three exercise books full of letters and I have access to the middle volume. Renate was my mother-in-law and she started to write the story herself. How the special class that was housed at Renate’s grandmother’s house survived has always been a mystery. I offer one explanation. Pretty much all of what I’ve written here, however, is fiction and the letters I include are very unlike the real ones, though they carry their spirit.
How do you go about writing a novel? Is it a simple or complex process?
I try to get the idea into two lines. Then I create a bullet point plot. Next, I try to work out the chapters. I start writing but do another bullet point list for each chapter. It then develops organically to some extent. The story will often take on a life of its own. The characters will make their own minds up. However, I keep coming back to my two-line idea and my main plot plan. They are the backbones of the story.
What advice do you have for less experienced writers?
Write, write and write. Read, read and read. You must write every day but set a realistic goal – maybe ten minutes a day. And don’t beat yourself up if you don’t manage it sometimes. If you want to make it as a writer you will but it’s a big “if”. It’s a long hard road but worth it.
What are you working on currently?
The second book in the Schelberg Cycle – possibly the darkest. It is the biography of Clara Lehrs, Renate’s grandmother. Yet even this is not totally dark. Clara is feisty and has a great sense of humour.
What would your perfect day be?
Six hours writing and six hours doing other things that might be considered writerly – marketing, social media, but also walking the dog, reading and watching a good drama on TV.
Name a book that means a lot to you.
There are so many! I’d probably say something different every day. One all-time favourite is Aidan Chambers’ Postcards form Nomansland. Well-written and set in two places I know. Ah – also containing interweaving stories, one of them in the 1940s.
If you could leave a message to the world, what would it be?
Don’t allow any more Holocausts.