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Why I Write Historical Fiction

Monday, July 13, 2015| Permalink

Janis Cooke Newman is the author of the novel Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln and A Master Plan for Rescue as well as a memoir The Russian Word for Snow. She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, on the board of Litquake, and a founder and organizer of the Lit Camp writers conference. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

One of the inspirations for my novel, A Master Plan for Rescue, is the story of the refugee ship, the St. Louis.

The St. Louis was built as a pleasure boat, meant to take passengers on one and two week holidays. But the 900 Jews who boarded it in the spring of 1939 carried one-way tickets, and it must have seemed miraculous to them that they were being allowed to leave Hitler’s Germany for Cuba, a country with no Nazis.

And perhaps it was too miraculous, for when the St. Louis arrived outside Havana harbor, it was not allowed to dock. For nearly a week, the ship sat anchored in the hot sun with the city in view of those 900 Jews, until the Cuban government, and the ship’s owners, insisted they raise anchor.

With nowhere to go, the St. Louis sailed up and down the coast of Florida. Frantic cables went off to President Roosevelt on behalf of its passengers, cables that pleaded for 900 visas. But America, it seemed, had enough Jews, and eventually, the captain had no choice but to turn the ship around and sail back to Germany.

I came upon the story of the St. Louis during a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I had never heard it before, and once I did, I could not get it out of my head.

What could it have been like, I wondered, to have been one of those Jews? To leave Hitler’s Germany and step aboard a pleasure boat, and suddenly be brought fresh towels and cold drinks by a German waiter in a white jacket. To glide across the marble floors of the upper deck’s ballroom as the ship’s orchestra played a waltz. To spend all your shipboard money on the way to Cuba, because you were certain you would not need it anymore.

I wondered too, what it must have been like to wait in the heat outside Havana harbor with your bags packed, and see the city you had been promised. And to do it day after day. It is known that one of the 900—a man—slit his own wrists and jumped into the sea.

How did it feel, I wondered, to sail so close to the Florida coastline, you could make out the shape of the pastel-colored hotels? So close, that fishing boats filled with vacationers motored out and snapped photographs of you, because you had become another tourist attraction.

And what, I wondered, could it have been like to feel the ship beneath your feet turn back toward Germany—a country that was full of Nazis?

These questions haunted me as thoroughly as if those 900 Jews had taken to following me around. And so, eventually, I wrote a character onto that boat. I bought him a one-way ticket, and I gave him a broken heart—because broken hearts are always good for fiction—and through him, I imagined my way into the answers to those questions.

This is the great pleasure of writing—and reading—historical fiction. At its best, it becomes a delicious combination of time travel and reincarnation. Unlike historians, novelists are free to dream up entire lives that take place in other times. Writing historical fiction gives me the opportunity to experience life in another era, to know—or at least imagine—what it might have been like to step onto the deck of a pleasure boat on a late spring day in 1939, and believe I was heading toward freedom. It also gives me the license to create whatever destiny I like for the characters I buy my tickets for.

Read more about Janis Cooke Newman here.

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