Tuesday, October 6, 2015

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Ellie Midwood, Author

Ellie Midwood, Author
Ellie Midwood created her unique novel set in Nazi Germany, THE GIRL FROM BERLIN, to tell an entertaining story and also to depict everyday life during this period and what it took to survive. She thoroughly researched the events and personal lives of the people in Nazi Germany to tell "a story of an SS Officer, his Jewish wife, and their fight against the Reich." She assures us that she lightens her story with humor, because her characters do like to laugh, even in the worst circumstances.

Midwood, born in Russia, currently lives in Brooklyn and has written several novels about New York, a city she loves. She is working on the third book of THE GIRL FROM BERLIN trilogy, among others. She is a “dedicated yoga practitioner” an avid reader, and a student of languages.

Don't miss the excerpt from her book following the interview.

Q: You’ve written several other novels, all of which take place in modern-day New York. What inspired you to start the series THE GIRL FROM BERLIN set in 1930s-40s Germany?

Ellie Midwood: It all started nine months ago when I was watching a documentary on the liberation of Auschwitz (I’m Jewish myself so matters like these have always been of great importance for me), and the book actually was first supposed to be strictly about the Holocaust and concentration camps. But as I started doing my research I realized that so many memoirs and biographies have already been written by the people who were actually there, and I would never write with the same feeling and sincerity as those survivors already did.

However, the subject was getting more and more interesting to me, I started reading more books (mostly non-fiction) on the topic, watched probably every documentary imaginable, and even found files from the CIA which became available for public only after the 80’s or 90’s I believe, about the counterintelligence activities and Nuremberg trials as well. And the Holocaust story became a historical fiction, partially a spy thriller, partially a love story.    

Q: Is the girl in THE GIRL FROM BERLIN based on a real person, or did you create her in order to tell your story? Did you envision the plot and then decide on the character?

Ellie Midwood: It’s a great question, because a lot of people are asking me how it was possible that an Aryan SS officer falls in love with a Jewish girl in the book, because there weren’t many cases like that in Nazi Germany. However the ones that happened became my other inspirational source, just like the story of a young Jewish girl Ilse Stein who fell in love with and got saved – together with her family – by the Nazi captain Willi Schultz, who was in charge of the Minsk ghetto (documentary is called ‘The Jewess and the Captain’). There’s also another memoir written by a Holocaust survivor called ‘The Nazi Officer’s Wife,’ so I would say that my main character Annalise is a collective image of those real Jewish women, even though she’s entirely fictional.

Q: How do you engage readers in today’s world to care about characters in the first half of the 20th century?

Ellie Midwood: Many people still have that fascination with World War II and Nazi Germany history in particular because it touched so many lives in one way or another. I would say that many of us today have at least one person, dead or still alive who remembers the events of that time or participated in them, so it certainly is an interesting subject for a lot of readers nowadays.

What’s really important is the eternal topics which arise as the story develops: that love does conquer all and erases all the differences even in such horrifying circumstances, that you have to stand up to evil even though sometimes you’d be alone against millions, that you have to follow your heart and do what you feel is right, and not blindly obey your leaders… I tried to embrace it all in my book to make the readers think about their lives and their choices in the 21st century.

Q: It’s easy to assume that there is a hero-versus-villain approach in a book set in Nazi Germany with a Jewish protagonist. However, are there different levels of heroes and villains? Are some villains more villainy? And are some characters neither?

Ellie Midwood: The readers would be very surprised to learn that there are not purely positive or purely negative main characters in THE GIRL FROM BERLIN, and that’s exactly how I planned it to be. I didn’t want to make it another good guy – bad guy story, if you know what I mean, where all the Nazis are bad and all their victims are good. I wanted to show them real people, who make mistakes, who make wrong decisions, who are forced to do certain things sometimes to survive, to save their own lives and people dear to them, but in the end they are very honest to themselves and still try to do the right thing.

For example my protagonist Annalise, who is supposed to be a very positive character, starts working in the Reich Main Security Office in order to help the counterintelligence, but still harms her own people by fulfilling her duties of an SS-Helferin. She has to lie a lot, she starts an affair with another man, and that’s definitely not what you expect from a positive character.

Her husband Heinrich, who is now one of the key agents for the allied intelligence, back in the day executed hundreds of Jews following the orders of his commander. He shot his first wife to save himself from being compromised. That’s definitely not something a good character would do.

But if I made them too good, they wouldn’t be real. They wouldn’t last a day in Nazi Germany if they would start an open fight against the regime, and I wanted to make it clear in the book. They’re ordinary people who wanted to help the people but who also wanted to survive.

As for the villains, and that’s another interesting point, some of them turn out to be not as evil as they seemed in the beginning. There are very brutal, hateful Nazi characters in the book, but they play minor roles. The main ‘villain’ – the leader of the Austrian SS Gruppenfuhrer Dr. Ernst Kaltenbrunner turns out to have his own story, and his character changes greatly throughout the whole story. We only see the first glimpse of it in Book One, and later the readers will be able to see the full transformation unravel. He’s actually my favorite character in the book, very complex and unpredictable, good and bad at the most unexpected moments. He wasn’t supposed to be in the story at all at first, but I came across his biography and after doing more research, I just knew I had to make him one of the main characters. He was a very controversial man, but had a very interesting personality. 

Q: You were reared in Russia. Do you think your perspective about Nazi Germany is different than those from other countries? Did that perspective influence your story?

Ellie Midwood: I was raised in Russia, but the funny fact is that I don’t really consider myself Russian. My family is all Jewish, and it’s a very different ethnic group from the Slavic Russian people, and that was the reason why I moved to the United States; it was very hard for me to fit into their society just because the mentality is very different. So speaking of the Russian influence, especially Russian government influence, which has a very strong opinion on the WWII, there was very little of it, if any.

Something else influenced my writing though. Many members of my family fought in that war, my great grandfather came back with minor injuries, like my three great uncles; my grandmother’s uncle never came back and nothing is known of his fate. And my grandfather, who was only seventeen at that time, was lucky enough not only to survive but to go all the way to Berlin where he served later for several years in the Soviet occupation zone. That’s where he learned German, which he started to teach me later, and learned about German culture and traditions.

It’s very interesting that he, a soldier who fought in the front and saw people die every day, didn’t seem to have any hard feelings for the German army soldiers. He was telling me many stories that sometimes they, the Russians and the Germans, would announce a quick ‘non-offensive’ to exchange vodka for cigarettes and other interesting things like that. He explained to me that they weren’t bad people, they were just following their orders like all soldiers have to. I tried to make exactly this point in my book, that not all of them were bad. I’m not talking of the hardcore Nazis here of course, especially the ones belonging to the Einsatzgruppen, or responsible for the Holocaust in the other way, it’s a completely different question. Their atrocities are undeniable, and there’s no doubt about that.

Q: What kind of research did you do for historical accuracy and back-story? What were some of the more interesting pieces of information you uncovered?

Ellie Midwood: I probably read everything written on the topic: ‘The Gestapo: The History of the Horror,’ ‘Nuremberg Diaries,’ ‘Nuremberg Trials,’ other historical non-fiction books, many recovered and now available for public documents from the CIA archives, watched every documentary possible, read many biographies and memoirs… I actually started to joke that I live in 1930-40s now while writing this trilogy, I don’t watch and don’t read anything unrelated to the topic, it’s very funny, but I’m a perfectionist that way, if I get into something I have to really study it to make myself impartial as the author.

It is naturally assumed, especially concerning the war criminals, that they were evil, horrible people. And after a thorough study I came to the conclusion that there’s a lot more to their stories. If they were really bad, brutal Nazis and it was confirmed by multiple sources, I transferred them into my book as they were. But if some characters, I’m talking about real political figures of that time of course, were different and acted not out of blind hatred but because of some other reasons, I tried to show it as it was.

All the historical events in the book, together with main Nazi leaders, are all real and based on what truly happened, described by both history books (I used different sources, not only American, but Jewish, British, French, German and Russian as well, to get an objective point of view on the matter because every country has its own opinion of the events of that time) and witnesses’ statements. So the book is very accurate from a historical point of view.  

Q: Were you able to use humor to develop your characters or tell your story?

Ellie Midwood: Oh yes. One of my beta-readers actually pointed it out as one of the great features of the story, that it’s not too dark and bloody but has a light side to it. My characters are very real people and like real people they joke, they try to keep up the mood even in the scariest situations. My main ‘villain’ Dr. Kaltenbrunner is especially interesting in that sense, he’s very sarcastic and feisty even with his superiors, and my readers told me that they loved his character just for that.

There is another great character who the readers will meet in Book Two, Otto Skorzeny, who is another firecracker, they’re both Austrians and some of their dialogues are absolutely hysterical. That’s how they were in real life according to the sources, and I couldn’t help but put that in the book. Sometimes their witty dialogues lighten a very serious mood, and it’s really fascinating that they sometimes joke about very dangerous things as if it’s nothing. It shows their character. 

Q: Did you write THE GIRL FROM BERLIN series strictly to entertain readers, or did you also intend to educate and/or remind us?

Ellie Midwood: It’s definitely not for entertainment only, it’s a very touching story in every aspect, and it has a lot of very important themes which are timeless and of which people are needed to be reminded. No wonder that after every Holocaust remembrance post people put a hashtag ‘Never Again.’ Unfortunately today we still have very real cases of genocide but many people prefer to close their eyes to it since it doesn’t concern them directly. That’s what happened in 1930s when Hitler came to power and nobody seemed to care about the anti-Semitic propaganda he started spreading. It’s very heartbreaking for me to hear now that people blame the Israeli people in adopting ‘Nazi’ policies in order to pursue their own ‘sinister’ goals. It’s the most ignorant point of view someone can possible express, and is very insulting for me as a Jewish person. People need to be reminded every single day of the things that happened during the WWII in order for those atrocities to never happen again. And that’s another reason why I wrote this book. 

Q: What’s next?

Ellie Midwood: I’m currently working on the third book of the trilogy ‘The Girl from Berlin,’ and after that I’m planning to write a book which will also be a part of the series, but at the same time will be separate from it. It’s going to be a sort of fictional memoirs of my main ‘villain,’ and he has a very interesting story to tell. I’m very excited and at the same time a little intimidated to start working on it since it’ll be the first book written from a man’s perspective by me, and I will have to really get into my character’s head to understand his motives and actions.  

Q: Tell us about Ellie Midwood. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Ellie Midwood: I’m a very dedicated yoga practitioner and an avid reader. So when I’m not writing I love my yoga classes and a good book. I also love studying a lot, especially history and languages, so recently I decided to remember all the German my grandfather taught me and really learn it this time. The subject I’m currently writing on was certainly a big motivation since I came across many words and notions that I left untranslated for the book to sound more authentic. Next language in queue is Hebrew, as I think I’ve gotten more religious and started to respect my history even more after doing so many researches for my book.

About Ellie Midwood

Ellie Midwood is a New York based author who loves writing about her city and its people. She's a health obsessed yoga enthusiast, a neat freak, an adventurer, Nazi Germany history expert, polyglot, philosopher, a proud Jew and a doggie mama.
Ellie lives in Brooklyn with her Sicilian fiancé and their Chihuahua named Shark Bait.

This is a diary of Annalise Meissner, a young German Jew with long time ago falsified papers, living a carefree life in pre-war Berlin. A talented ballerina, she comes from a wealthy family and at first doesn’t want to concern herself with the changes her country starts undergoing under the new Nazi regime. However, when the oppressions against the Jewish population begin, she realizes that she can’t be a silent bystander and swears to help her people in any way possible.

She falls in love and gets married to her father's longtime friend, Standartenführer Heinrich Friedmann, who even though he works for SD – the Reich Secret Service – seems to share her views, and soon Annalise learns why. Her new husband turns out to be a counterintelligence agent working for the US government, and together they start a dangerous game against the sinister Gestapo, trying to save as many lives as they can and not to compromise themselves.

But it's not only the persecuted people Annalise wants to save; she meets the leader of the Austrian SS Gruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner who everyone seems to fear, but for some reason Annalise isn't intimidated by the Chief of the Austrian Gestapo and doesn't believe the rumors about his brutality. Gruppenführer Kaltenbrunner isn't hiding the fact that he would love to get this beautiful girl as his mistress, but Annalise, despite the mutual attraction, stays faithful to her beloved husband. However, the risky game she’s playing will soon change everything…


       “Ilsa! How did you allow this to happen?!”
       “Hello, grandma.”
       “Don’t you ‘hello grandma’ me, fraulein! Are you out of your mind to marry that man?!”
       Even though she was born and raised in Germany, Grandma Hilda was still very Jewish. Unlike my mom, who was already very ‘Germanized,’ Grandma still spoke three languages: German, Polish and Hebrew (the last two only with Grandpa when he was still alive and very rarely with my mom, who didn’t understand any of it anyway). Needless to say that with everything anti-Semitic going on, she hated everything connected to the Nazi party out of some former national pride I guess, which she clearly refused to give up.
       “Mother, what can I do?” My mom tightly hugged Grandma and kissed her on both cheeks. “She’s in love, she wants to get married.”
       “But why to a Nazi?!”
       “Grandma, Heinrich is very nice. He’s not like the other Nazis.”
       “No such thing as a good Nazi!” Once that woman made up her mind on something, no arguments normally worked to persuade her in the opposite, so I just shrugged and turned to the mirror to put on my earrings. “All of them are evil and merciless killers, that’s what they are! They think they’re better than everybody else! The descendants of Gods! And whoever is not ‘purebred’ enough needs to be get rid of in order not to ‘pollute’ the genes of the ‘superior’ race! Just look what they did to those poor people during Kristallnacht! And now my only granddaughter is marrying one of them!”
       “Heinrich wasn’t even in Germany during Kristallnacht, Grandma. He didn’t kill anybody.”
       “Well, it’s true, Frau Brauer.” My father finally came to my rescue. “Heinrich is more of a… an office worker. He works for Intelligence. He just collects information, he doesn’t actually walk around and kill people.”
       “Collects information about who, Richart?” Under Grandma’s stern look my father didn’t seem happy he got involved into the whole conversation. “The ‘unfits.’ The undesirable for the Third Reich people, which includes Jews, communists, and everybody else who doesn’t support them. Maybe he doesn’t hold a gun himself but the result is the same. Those people are dead. Or in camps.”  She turned to me. “But I guess that fact doesn’t concern you, does it? You betrayed your roots!”
       “I didn’t betray my roots, grandma! I can’t marry a man who I love because he’s German? What, are you discriminating against Germans now?”
       “They discriminate against us, and I can’t discriminate against them? Since your great-grandfather was forced to come to this country every single member of our family would only marry Jewish people. They were hiding their origin just like us, but that didn’t matter. We knew who we are and we honored it. And now you want to marry a Nazi! Do you even realize that your kids are going to be Nazis?”
       “Nazi is not a nationality or religion, Grandma.”
       “It is both a nationality and religion now, girl!”


Twitter: @EllieMidwood

No comments:

Post a Comment