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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Deborah Guttentag

Please welcome author Deborah Guttentag. Today she is talking of her books, Saving Soroya and Into the Dark. A Manchester, England native, Deborah is wife of the Rabbi of the Whitefield Hebrew Congregation and mother of 6 children and several grandchildren. Drama and writing have been her main interests since she was a little girl, and her family background has been a major influence on her writing. Deborah’s parents were both refugees from Nazi Germany and the quintessential feelings of refugees — insecurity and isolation of the individual — feature prominently in much of her writing.

What was the inspiration for the books?

As both my parents were refugees from Nazi Germany, and as the Jewish community I grew up in was made up largely of German refugees, I have always been very conscious of the unstable position of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. Saving Soraya is about a young teenage Jewish girl, Nomi, looking for adventure on a family holiday in France who discovers a Jewish girl in hiding, who has escaped from Iran. When I wrote the book five years ago things were not as bad as they are now in relation to Iran and now some of the novel seems even more relevant than it did a few years ago. There is an episode in the second half of the book when Soraya is terrified by the relaxed way in which the Levy family walk about the streets of Paris with their tzitzit and cappels prominently displayed. She says it may be safe now but it won’t always be. In fact the Jews of France are now careful to wear caps on their heads because of the open anti-Semitism there. There is also a scene in which the family visit a site dedicated to the martyred Jews of the Holocaust who were taken from there to their depths. So although Saving Soraya is basically a teenagers’ adventure story there are dark moments in it and there is an underlying theme of the insecurity of the Jew.

The inspiration for Saving Soraya was a family holiday in France. For years I’d been searching for a good plot. One Shabbos evening on holiday we had a rather strange experience. We were sitting watching the sun go down. It was terribly hot and close and everyone was on edge - there was a curious sense of expectancy in the air. Suddenly, some large blue insects swooped down from outside into the living room. It was rather odd and unnerving and I realised I had to distract everyone – so, of course – I told a story! The story was about a boy on holiday in France who makes a strange discovery. One of my sons said to me. ‘Why don’t you try to write this kind of plot for children?" Kids want mystery and suspense.’ Eventually, the boy in the story evolved into a girl…the plot changed – but the backdrop – a holiday in France remained!

The plot for In the Dark was similarly conceived on holiday. A cross child needed entertaining. I began a story about a boy and a girl who are taken in as evacuees during World War Two. As it happened my husband’s uncle had just sent us an email describing his visit to Shefford where he had been evacuated for a short time as a boy. I have always been intrigued by the idea of Jewish children being placed with gentiles, completely out of their normal home environment. My mother in law told me how she had been belittled at first, together with her younger brother in the home of a rather cold, unpleasant lady – who had told her that someone had died in her bed! That idea went straight into the book!

I have also always been fascinated by the idea of people having power over others. Some people, through the sheer force of their personality can frighten others into doing what they want. These people are often unpredictable and difficult to please. Do you allow yourself to be controlled by them because they seem in some way superior to you or do you exert your own personality over them? Are you less than them just because they try to belittle you? How is it that some people are not overpowered by these controlling personalities whereas some are? In In the Dark Rochel is drawn into Miss Darwen’s power while Susie, her friend is able to see right through Miss Darwen.

Was a lot of research involved?

I spent a good couple of years researching the book and writing several early drafts. My main ideas for the plot were a) the idea of evacuation b) the idea of a dominating personality. I had no idea, however, in which part of England the book was to take place or at which point in the war. One of my sons suggested that the early part of the war – 1939 was the most suitable for a spy story – the British were very afraid of enemy aliens at the time. I read several books about the life people lead during the war – e.g. rationing, bomb shelters. I also read about the Battle of Britain and the bombing campaigns. A lot of the stuff I read was very technical and a bit over my head but it gave me a feel for the complexity of the danger to Britain in 1939. I also read about the danger to Britain from the U boat campaign in the Battle of the Atlantic – the idea was to cut off supplies to Britain, starving it into submission.

I visited Liverpool several times to get a feel for the place – Rochel comes form there. I smelled the sea air and heard the seagulls! I also saw some of the key places that were bombing targets for the Germans. I visited Scarisbrick once (a village near Liverpool) – the place on which Barroclough is based. A lady called Margaret drove me round the whole village. We were looking for the kind of house that I thought Miss Darwen might live in. She stopped suddenly outside a tall, three storied building. ‘This is Miss Darwen’s house!’ she said. I took photos of it and all through the writing of the novel I imagined the events taking place there. Margaret also sent me maps and pictures of the military installations around the area that helped me plan the novel.

I borrowed a book from the library called ‘MI5’ which described in detail the spying work of the agents and counter agents during the war. This was extremely helpful in helping me plot the book so that it made historical sense! I kept that book for about five years, renewing it over the months but sometimes not managing to renew it. In the end I clocked up a fine of £60!

What is the most interesting thing you learned in the process of writing the books?

That people are genuinely interested in discussing your book with you and helping you find things out and are willing to make suggestions. People like to be involved in the process of creating a book!

What is your favorite holiday?

The English countryside, when it’s not too hot and not raining! Visiting old houses, imagining living in them and then returning to the comfort of a modern holiday home. Walking through the forests and meadows and beside the canals. There’s nothing like the peace and beauty of ‘this green and pleasant land.’

Deborah, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about writing and your fascinating research! I especially enjoyed the learning about Miss Darwen's house!

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