Friday, 25 April 2014

Author Interview: Suzy Zail (The Wrong Boy)

I read The Wrong Boy last month and absolutely loved it. It's a sad, harrowing story set in WWII and the Holocaust, and I was left with a strong desire to learn more about the book and Suzy's writing process. Her account of her father's own experiences in the Holocaust, The Tattooed Flower, will be available on Kindle soon so keep an eye out for that too.

Thanks to Suzy for answering my questions, and I hope The Wrong Boy finds its way into other reader's hands soon. It's a fantastic novel worthy of huge sales and worldwise praise.


WR: Hi Suzy, thanks for answering my questions about your debut novel, The Wrong Boy. What inspired you to write this incredibly moving, important story?

SZ: My father was my inspiration. In 1998 he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, and given 6 months to live. The first thing he wanted to do was tell us his story; his holocaust story. My father had survived Auschwitz as a thirteen year old. He’d lost his parents and a brother there but had never told me or my brothers about his time in the camps. He thought that the best way to build a new life in Australia was to put it behind him, and we didn’t press him. I guess we didn’t want to see our strong, happy father sad. He told us his story in the weeks following his diagnosis. He wanted us to know who he was. He opened up about his past because he didn’t want us to ever be victims, or to victimize others. I quit my job as a lawyer and spent the next five years writing his story, eventually adding (as alternate chapters) what I’d learned from watching him live with his disease. That memoir, The Tattooed Flower, was published a year after he died in keeping with a promise I made to him to tell his story so that the world would never forget the awful events that transpired in Europe during the Second World War. That promise never left me. Writing The Wrong Boy allowed me to revisit my father’s story and remember him, as well as the millions of children and teenagers who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

What sort of research did you do in order to bring Hanna and her family to life?

I think my first concern was to get the history right and write the story respectfully and sensitively. I didn’t want to offend any survivors (of whom I knew many). I also wanted the book to educate, not just entertain, so I wanted to portray the camps, the guards, the prisoners and what went on there accurately. The characters in the novel were created from my imagination, but the cattle trains packed with innocent men, women and children, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where they were brought to die in the summer of 1944 existed. Dr Mengele stood on the ramp and sent the startled people who stood before him, to the right or to the left; to the labour force or to the gas chambers. There was a Commandant of Birkenau, every bit as cruel and sadistic as my Commandant Jager and an Orchestra that were forced to play marches at the camp’s main gate.

Before I put pen to paper I spent six months researching the Holocaust. I interviewed survivors, read about the real Birkenau Women’s Orchestra, watched documentaries, looked at hundreds of photos and aerial maps, read survivors’ memoirs ( and the memoir of the real Commandant of Auschwitz) poured over history books and listened to oral testimonies. The reality was so much worse than any story I could have imagined, but I needed to see the images and know the facts so I could draw from them to tell a truthful story. I also had my father’s testimony and interviews I’d conducted with survivors to draw on. Their stories were heartbreaking but infused with so much hope, strength and courage and I clung to that. To understand Hanna I read the biographies of the women in the real Birkenau Orchestra. I’d never been particularly interested, or good, at playing the piano (though I had lessons for years) so I read up about famous composers, especially Hanna’s favourite, Clara Schumann. I read about Hungarian cuisine and studied the Hungarian map, so I could describe the streets of Hanna’s hometown, Debrecen. Everything else was drawn from my imagination.

Was The Wrong Boy as difficult for you to write as it was for me to read? How long was the whole process?

The book took me just over two years to research and write. The research was difficult and spending my days in Auschwitz with Hanna was hard. Knowing she’d make it out of there, helped. And knowing there’d be kids who’d read the book who might never have heard of the Holocaust, made it easier too. It was also my first work of fiction, so a steep learning curve.

With your own father being a survivor of the Holocaust, did you grow up hearing stories of WWII, or is it a part of your family's history that came to you later in life?

We knew that my father had survived Auschwitz and lost half his family in the war. My grandmother had survived Dachau and lost her parents too. Most of my friends’ parents had been touched by the war. It was my history, part of my story, but not something we talked about over dinner, and I certainly didn’t know the intimate details of my father’s experience. His attitude was that the war had been an aberration, and that for the most part, people were good and kind. We only learnt what he’d seen once he was diagnosed.

Following on from this, are there any parts of The Wrong Boy that are based on your father's own experiences?

Hanna was an amalgam of my mother, my father and countless other brave teenagers who survived the Holocaust but her experience and the way she faced her ordeal was drawn from my father’s experience. Both were strong, brave and hopeful. Both came from happy homes, travelled with their siblings on cattle trains to Auschwitz, were tattooed and shaved and operated on without anaesthetic. Both experienced the kindness of non-jews in the camp and returned home to find their parents dead and their homes lived in by a new family.

Is there a particular reason why the UK (The Wrong Boy) and US (Playing for the Commandant) titles are different? Do you have a preference?

I think the U.S publishers felt the Australian and U.K title (The Wrong Boy) put too much emphasis on the Commandant’s son and his ‘friendship’ with Hanna. The book touches on this forbidden romance, but more than that it’s a story of family, war, love, loss, hate and history so I understood their reservations. I like both titles.

During your research for The Wrong Boy, did you visit the sites of any concentration camps or museums? How did that affect you and your story?

I’d been to Dachau concentration camp many years ago and wanted to visit Auschwitz, but unfortunately couldn’t find the time- not if I wanted to make my deadline. Instead I spent months at the Holocaust museum in Melbourne and at home, online, doing virtual tours of the camps and reading about the camps - everything from the layout of the latrines, to what the guards served for dinner. Reading the survivors’ memoirs and interviewing survivors helped give me a sense of the place and the dreadful conditions. I couldn’t have written Hanna’s story without it.

Do you have any plans to write more novels set in WWII?

I didn’t, but then I met Fred Steiner. I was attending a lecture at the Holocaust museum in Melbourne and at the end of the lecture an elderly man raised his hand and asked whether the speaker had ever met a kind German. He answered before the speaker had a chance to respond.“ Because I have,” he whispered. I found him after the lecture and introduced myself. I wanted to hear his story. I’d just finished writing, The Wrong Boy, but was still troubled by Hanna’s relationship with Karl, the son of the Camp Commandant. I let Hanna and Karl fall in love. I made Karl sneak her food. I knew it was unlikely that the son of a high-ranking Nazi would defy his father in this way, but I wanted it to be possible.

Fred had worked in the SS stables, caring for the Commander’s horse and pony. “The Commander of the platoon drove me to his house to chop wood one morning,” Fred told me. “He left me in the kitchen with his wife. She poured me coffee and fed me cake. She asked for my name. My name,” he repeated. “She used my name.” The Commander had beaten Fred black and blue. He’d whipped most of the men in the platoon at one time or another, but the man’s wife had fed him cake and given him back his name.
Karl had snuck Hanna cake, but I’d created Karl. The wife of the Commander was real.
It was too powerful a story to ignore and it reminded me of my father’s warning, never to forget. I knew there were history books and photos in the library, but not all children liked to read history books . Not all of them were ready for graphic images. I’d been to schools and libraries and talked to children about their holocaust reading and knew that the best way I could help them understand the holocaust was by giving them a character to care about. Not millions of Jews - just one - a girl or boy their age, with their fears and insecurities. Someone they could suffer beside but also triumph with. I finished Alexander Altmann A10567, six months ago. It comes out in Australia in April.


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