Kim Sherwood’s debut nov­el, Tes­ta­ment, tells the sto­ry of a young woman whose beloved grand­fa­ther dies, trig­ger­ing her quest to find the truth of his past. A Jew­ish native of Budapest, Joseph Silk is for­ev­er changed by the Holo­caust, and the effects of his expe­ri­ence and the choic­es he makes after­ward weave togeth­er themes of sur­vival, betray­al, for­give­ness, and the redemp­tive pow­er of art. Sher­wood recent­ly answered some ques­tions about her novel.

Amy Spun­gen: Kim, Tes­ta­ment focus­es on the expe­ri­ence of Jews in Cen­tral Europe, espe­cial­ly Hun­gary, dur­ing the Holo­caust. Can you tell us why you chose this geo­graph­ic area? Is this sto­ry per­son­al for you?

Kim Sher­wood: My pater­nal grand­moth­er is a Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish sur­vivor, and she lived with us in Lon­don while I was grow­ing up. We’ve always been very close, but she only began talk­ing about her expe­ri­ences a few years ago. I want­ed some way to under­stand what she went through, so I began research­ing the Holo­caust in Hun­gary. The nov­el grew from there. Though it’s not my grandmother’s sto­ry — because, of course, that’s hers to tell — writ­ing about Hun­gary helped me to artic­u­late my grief at all I was learn­ing, and also to recon­nect in a mean­ing­ful way with our her­itage. I spent a lot of time in Hun­gary while writ­ing the nov­el, and now know Budapest as well as I do London.

AS: Toward the begin­ning of the nov­el, Joseph Silk’s grand­daugh­ter, Eva, reads from what I believe is a J. C. Squire poem titled Tes­ta­ment” at his funer­al. The book ends with Eva reflect­ing on the same poem: You wrote your name on the sands when the tide was out, know­ing time would come again at the flood. I stand in the break­ers.” Eva has learned a lot about her grandfather’s his­to­ry since his death. Her cir­cling back to this poem from a deep­er per­spec­tive implies under­stand­ing, for­give­ness, and love. Can you say some­thing about these inter­wo­ven themes? Did you intend to leave read­ers with a sense of hope?

KS: It’s love­ly you’ve pulled that poem out — it was writ­ten by J. C. Squire, my mater­nal great-grand­fa­ther, a poet and edi­tor. My mater­nal grand­fa­ther, George, died in 2011, and I read the poem at his funer­al. George was like a father to me, and los­ing him left me unmoored. That poem became a kind of com­pass for me: I’d return to it, imag­in­ing George say­ing, Do not think, when you think of me, of a ghost that haunts the lament­ing sea.” In the nov­el, as you said, Eva uncov­ers her grand­fa­ther Silk’s hid­den his­to­ries, and comes to under­stand what exact­ly he left writ­ten in the sand.

Writ­ing Tes­ta­ment was part of my griev­ing process for my grand­fa­ther. In those dif­fi­cult years after his death, I thought a lot about how our rela­tion­ship with some­one we’ve lost doesn’t end when we lose the per­son. The rela­tion­ship keeps grow­ing as we grow. Mem­o­ries are seen in a new light. Though I didn’t set out to end the nov­el on a note of hope, this feel­ing gave me hope nev­er­the­less: that though loss might scar us, we heal around the scar, and it becomes part of us, just like that person’s voice and vision is part of us.

AS: In less skilled hands, Eva’s romance with Felix — unit­ing Eng­lish Jew with Ger­man gen­tile — could have become a trite device sym­bol­iz­ing the progress of enlight­en­ment. Instead, you por­tray their grow­ing inter­est in each oth­er real­is­ti­cal­ly, sen­si­tive to their per­son­al and cul­tur­al bag­gage. Can you talk about how you envi­sioned these two char­ac­ters? Did their rela­tion­ship evolve as you wrote the book, or did you have a clear pic­ture of their roles from the start?

KS: Thank you, that’s very kind. Felix took me com­plete­ly by sur­prise. Ini­tial­ly, he was just the voice at the end of the phone when Eva calls the Jew­ish Muse­um Berlin to find out more about the wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny left by her grand­fa­ther. But I enjoyed Felix’s voice, and he made me laugh, so I thought I’d write one scene between Felix and Eva at the muse­um. And then he wouldn’t go away!

AS: Silk’s eye­sight is for­ev­er altered by a beat­ing. Ulti­mate­ly, he turns this afflic­tion to his advan­tage, cre­at­ing art that brings him fame. But in anoth­er way his vision fails him — it’s dif­fi­cult for him to tru­ly empathize with oth­ers, to see things from their per­spec­tives. What made you decide to use eye­sight in both a lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive sense?

KS: The ini­tial idea came from a pas­sage in Alexan­dr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Deniso­vich, in which the pro­tag­o­nist is struck by the beau­ty of a sun­set over the gulag. I began to think about per­cep­tion shaped by trau­ma. As I start­ed writ­ing the nov­el, there was the ter­ri­ble mine col­lapse in Chile. News reports sug­gest­ed the men’s eye­sight might be dam­aged. I was also research­ing the Bor mines in Ser­bia, where the Hun­gar­i­an forced labor ser­vice used Hun­gar­i­an Jews and oth­ers as slave labor. I called up the Roy­al Nation­al Insti­tute for Blind Peo­ple and talked with them about eye­sight dam­age, and the ideas came togeth­er to cre­ate Silk’s eye­sight. Silk emerges from the mines only able to see the col­or blue, which, as you say, fuels his abstract expres­sion­ism. But it’s also a metaphor, of course — he recre­ates his life after the Holo­caust, cut­ting away his past. He forces those around him to become an audi­ence to his star per­for­mance, which involves a will­ing blind­ness on his part to the pain this caus­es his fam­i­ly. But the blue of the Danube always fol­lows him — he can’t escape his past.

AS: One of the most riv­et­ing aspects of your nov­el for me was your use of some of the actu­al ques­tions asked of sur­vivors by the Hun­gar­i­an Nation­al Com­mit­tee for Attend­ing Depor­tees (DEGOB) in 1945 to guide read­ers into the sec­tions of Tes­ta­ment. What inspired you to use these ques­tions the way you did?

KS: I vis­it­ed the Jew­ish Muse­um Berlin in 2011, and was real­ly struck by the voids — inac­ces­si­ble con­crete shafts that cut through the muse­um. I began to think about the voids as tun­nels from past to present that we can nev­er ful­ly tra­verse, just as we can’t bring the dead back — but that nar­ra­tive can tra­verse. In my research, I dis­cov­ered and was trans­fixed by the DEGOB ques­tions, which reflect how much our under­stand­ing — of every­thing from death to his­to­ry — was about to change. The inter­view­ers first asked the sur­vivors if they expe­ri­enced or wit­nessed any crimes or vio­lence, what meth­ods were used to kill peo­ple. Then they moved from past to present tense, ask­ing sur­vivors where they intend­ed to go next, how they planned to rebuild their lives. I saw the ques­tions as a kind of lad­der I could drop into the void, allow­ing the nar­ra­tive to move between past and present. The ques­tions divide the his­tor­i­cal and present-day time­lines, but also link them.

AS: How long did it take you to write Tes­ta­ment? Did you find any sur­pris­es along the way?

KS: Six years. Like a lot of peo­ple, I grew up with a gen­er­al­ly good under­stand­ing of the Holo­caust. But as I began to research deep­er into the his­to­ry, I found myself shocked again and again, despite every­thing I’d already learned. There’s a line from Anne Michaels’s Fugi­tive Pieces: Two wars, which are both the rot­ten part of the fruit that can’t be cut away and the fruit; that there’s noth­ing a man will not do to anoth­er; noth­ing a man will not do for anoth­er.” One thing that sur­prised me in regard to the UK’s rela­tion­ship with the Holo­caust was how deeply sus­pi­cious and xeno­pho­bic many peo­ple were towards refugees, some believ­ing them to be Ger­man spies, some sim­ply hat­ing the idea of aliens.” I was struck by how much this res­onates with the UK’s rela­tion­ship to refugees today. I always knew, of course, that many peo­ple didn’t want to accept any Jew­ish refugees to the UK. But because we hold up the Kinder­trans­port as a totem of our accept­ing nature, I had been lulled into believ­ing a larg­er nation­al nar­ra­tive of open arms. While doing research for the nov­el, I read a lot of advice pam­phlets for refugees, which advised them to speak Eng­lish at all times, avoid speak­ing of the trau­ma they had endured, and to become as Eng­lish as pos­si­ble. I was also struck by the lev­el to which the Anglo-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty fund­ed mis­sions to res­cue and finan­cial­ly sup­port refugees, form­ing char­i­ties and lob­by­ing a reluc­tant gov­ern­ment and population.

AS: Were any of the char­ac­ters par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing for you? Why?

KS: I found Eva the most chal­leng­ing char­ac­ter to cap­ture on the page. Her voice resist­ed me for a long time. I began writ­ing her sec­tions in third per­son. Trav­el­ing around Berlin and Budapest, I’d make notes from her point of view in first per­son, and then change them to third as I draft­ed the nov­el. I wrote about 70,000 words that way, but Eva’s voice was still resist­ing me. So I wrote a let­ter to myself from Eva about how she felt about being invent­ed. She was furi­ous with me. She felt like I’d brought her to life in this moment of great grief, and then left her stuck there, unable to speak for her­self. It had to be in first per­son. So I start­ed again.

AS: Can you tell us a bit about your next nov­el, set in south­west­ern Eng­land? When can we expect it?

KS: I’m real­ly excit­ed to have just received sup­port through a grant from the Soci­ety of Authors Foun­da­tion to help me write my sec­ond nov­el, A True Rela­tion. Draw­ing on adven­ture fic­tion, the lit­er­a­ture of roguery, and trav­el and life writ­ing, the nov­el explores issues of gen­der, genre, and place in South West Eng­land. The main thread of the nov­el is a sub­ver­sion of the smug­gling tale, inter­cut by cen­tu­ry-span­ning con­ver­sa­tions between male and female writ­ers who either vis­it­ed or lived in Devon. By plac­ing these nation­al fig­ures – includ­ing Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe, Hes­ter Thrale and Samuel John­son, George Eliot and Charles Dick­ens – in con­ver­sa­tion, I hope to explore the por­trait they paint of the UK, and the com­plex­i­ties they reveal about our nation­al sto­ry. I’m going to say it will be out in 2020, and maybe that will man­i­fest a fin­ished draft!

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.