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Judith Gelberger -Author

 

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Judith Kopacsi Gelberger was born in February 1946, in Miskolc, Hungary, an industrial town located in the hilly North-East of the country. The family moved to Budapest in 1949 when her father, a police officer, was relocated to the country’s capital. For the first ten years of her life she was surrounded by people her parents and grandparents fought with in the anti-Nazi underground before and during World War II. She grew up on those stories, and it made her very proud to be a child of heroes. In 1952 her father became the Police Chief of Budapest, and she enjoyed all the privileges that came with his title. All this changed suddenly when on October 23rd, 1956 the university students took to the streets, supposedly to sympathize with the Polish workers. The peaceful demonstration soon turned into a bloody one. By then her father, totally disillusioned by the Soviet regime, sided with the revolution, and became one of its military leaders. The Soviet army crushed the revolution, and her father was arrested. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in a secret trial in 1958. His fate affected Judith drastically. Even getting a high school education proved to be a challenge. In 1965 she had a chance to leave Hungary and she came to Canada. It took her another ten years to get her parents to Canada. Judith is married and has had two wonderful children. Unfortunately their son, Leslie was killed in a boating accident in April 2017, leaving a wife and two small boys behind.



 

Judith, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for the followers of my Blog. I’d like to talk about your writing, especially your book Heroes Don’t Cry, released 2009.

Q. When did the idea of writing this book first come to you?

A. I got the idea after my father finished his autobiography in 1978, telling the world about the secret trial in 1958 in which he was one of the subjects. I realised that until now, none of the children of those directly involved ever shared their experiences, and I believed it was important to finally open the doors to those neglected voices.

Q. How long did it take for you to complete the book?

A. After many trials and errors I first wrote it in Hungarian. That version was published in Hungary in 1992. The English version is a much more detailed one and it took almost thirty years to complete.

Q. Was the most difficult part of writing this book?

A. It was like an operation, I had to dig deep into my heart and memories, knowing I must paint a true picture of those times to an audience who most likely knew nothing about it.

Q. Considering the political implications, did you ever consider writing this book under a pseudonym, if so, why, if not, why not?

A. The English version started out as fiction under a pseudonym. When a friend of mine asked me for an explanation, I admitted, writing under my own name and the non-fiction was still too close and frightening, causing me vivid nightmares. But somehow the fictional version didn’t happen. It was like an invisible hand stopped my writing it.

Q. Was the writing of Heroes Don’t Cry cathartic in any way for you? If so, please share it with us.

A. When I finally gathered enough courage to put the story down on paper I felt such a strong sense of relief as if I had dropped at least fifty pounds off my soul. It was as if I finally managed to separate myself from the past. It gave me a chance to look into the future. I didn’t even realise how the untold past dragged me down till then.

Q. What brought you to write this book?

A. For many years I was forced to keep many secrets. A wrongly worded phrase could have harmed my father and family. When my paternal grandfather died a day before my father’s release from prison in the early spring of 1963, I was standing by his coffin and I was so very angry that I could have killed somebody there and then.

Following my father’s release none of my dreams and expectation came to be, the nightmares continued, the family was still ostracized, and I was still just another silent soul expected to play a very small supporting role. I was supposed to pretend and preserve a sense of normalcy for my parents’ sake by putting on a cheerful face while I was bleeding inside. I couldn’t even blame them for our situation as I knew they could do nothing to change the circumstances. So, the book was my triumph to shake off my shackles of forced silence and announce to the world that I too existed, with the hope that announcing my silent suffering would be understood and maybe appreciated. I tried to give a voice to the child.

Q. What kind of research did you do for this book and how much time did it take? What were your sources?

A. As the book covers a large part of twentieth century Hungarian history that my family endured I had to dig into the past. As both of my grandfathers met during the 1919 commune, fighting against the invading ANTANT army, I had to find the relevant documentation.

The same thing happened when I described events during World War II, and my parents and grandparents role in it. I had to rely on historical documentation, books, articles etc. In addition I was lucky to have my father’s detailed notes about the underground movement. They were part of in the town of Miskolc, a truly unique organization of no more than five hundred people but they were so well organized that the German army believed them to be more that 10 thousand people, and as a result gave up the town to the Russian forces. I was also lucky to remember many large gatherings in our home by close friends and relatives, recalling those times.

Q. Your earliest memory, as written in your book, appears to be at the age of four, when you looked into the mirror and saw your reflection that did not seem to correspond with your own impression of what you should be. Can you explain what you mean by that?

A. From the earliest of times I totally identified with my father. First of all we connected in a spiritual level, and secondly I grew up on stories about his childhood and youth, told to me by my paternal grandmother. So, looking into the mirror as a four year old cute little girl didn’t come close to the image of the brave partisan I pictured myself being.

Q. In 1956, you started a diary. Have you kept a diary over the years since then? Did it form the basis for a lot of the research for the book?

A. The diary was mostly good for recording feelings, and some of the happenings. Not all of it, as I had to be sure that it would not fall into wrong hands and cause any grief for the family. Quite a lot of times I had to rely on my memories. Much later I managed to get many thousands of pages from the archive of the Hungarian Secret Service, who had been busy gathering information about the family. This reaffirmed my recollections of those times. I’m grateful to them for documenting our lives so closely, not to mention knowing how many people were employed with the task for so many decades.

Q. When you were ten, during the October revolution, you took all the books on Communism—works by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and placed them in the basement of your house, afraid of a fascist revolution that would place your parents in jeopardy if it were discovered that they had these books in their library. What eventually happened to those books? Were they replaced in the library later or disposed of?

A. The books that I managed to hide on the day of the revolution eventually found their way back to the shelves, but not for too long, as we were afraid that part of my father’s sentencing would involve the confiscation of our belongings, including the books. We had a rather large library, so my grandfather came by regularly, packed the books into his backpack and took them home in the outskirts of Budapest. Come to think of it, I can’t exactly remember whether Stalin ever found his way back to our shelves or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had been abolished from there forever.

Q. Your father was an MP in 1953, his nomination confirmed by the Communist party. He was a follower of Imre Nagy who was ousted by Rákosi in 1955. You said it opened your father’s eyes to some of the injustices of the regime. Did you father move away from Communism because of this and his subsequent imprisonment?

A. Definitely. He became a strong critic of Rákosi and after the 1968 Czechoslovak invasion he realized that the Soviet Union would never allow a Socialist system with a human face. It will always be a ruthless dictatorship, and he wanted no part in it.

Q. The theme of Heroes Don’t Cry resonates through the book. After being denied a visit to your father in prison, your grandfather tells you “We Kopacsis are heroes and heroes don’t cry.” Then at the age of four, you witnessed a little girl who falls and almost ruins her dress while chasing after a kitten. She erupted in tears. Her parents scolded her and her mother spanked her. You thought that her father should have consoled her and told her: “heroes don’t cry.” Was the idea of strength and resolve important to you even at such an early age, and where did it stem from?

A. As I mentioned, I grew up on stories of my parents and grandparents heroism during WW II, and that I totally identified myself with my father. Even as a four year old, when my father took me to the doctor he kept telling me, “Be a brave girl, partisans don’t cry.” Well, later on, the partisan was replaced by a Kopácsi, and it indeed gave me strength to face the difficult times.

Q. On March 5th, 1953, Stalin died. You wrote that you were crushed, and your father was deeply mourning the Great Leader. Your father even swore that he would never celebrate his birthday again since it fell on the same date that Stalin died. Stalin’s reign of terror was obviously not known at that time in the Communist world. When did you and your father become aware of the excesses during Stalin’s regime and what impact did it have on both of you?

A. In February 1956 during the twentieth Communist party conference Khrushchev himself unveiled Stalin for the monster he was. Although it was supposed to be a secret meeting, within a few days the whole world became aware of it. It was dramatic information and it shook the people’s faith believing in the Soviet Union and the communist party. And of course some of the people coming back from the gulag, or released from prisons, began talking about their experiences as well.

Q. What did you edit out of your current book Heroes Don’t Cry? Why?

A. If anything I was afraid I put too much in to it and some people might feel overwhelmed by it.

Q. The dialogue in the book is quite relevant and expressive of the events depicted. To what extent did this come from notes and diaries? Was some of it from memory? To what extent was it fashioned to suit the occasion?

A. As far as I can remember the dialogue came mostly from memories, but some came from directly from my father’s notes, and the many hours long audio tapes that formed the basis of his book as well. And as I mentioned earlier, many years later I was reassured about my good recollection, when I read the reports from the Secret Service archive. For instance there was a whole year worth of recording of our telephone conversations.

Q. Did you hide any secrets from the book that only a few people would know of?

A. If I did, it was not intentional. It was very important for me to put everything down on paper. It was in a way a form of purging.

Q. When you were travelling to Canada, your father selected a book for you—Colas Breugnon by Roman Rolland. It’s a story set in Burgundy three centuries ago, about a man who reviews his lusty life of fifty years with all its joys and sorrows. Your father said: “Having this book will help you to face just about anything with the right spirit.” Did this book in any way represent your father’s life and his philosophy, and did it help you, as he thought it would? If so, how?

A. This book had been and even now is a great comfort for me. It mirrors my father’s philosophy to face the world with good humour, and pick up the pieces after the walls crumble around you. I’m lucky to have a life partner who shares this idea with me. As you know, we recently lost our son to an accident. Before this I had no idea how a parent can survive such a tragedy. This book helped me again, and I could still hear my father’s voice in my head, saying. “Child, keep your chin up, while you can.” It is as if he were still reaching out to me, holding my hands and leading me forward.

Q. The Soviets hailed your father as a traitor—one of the leaders of the counter-revolution against a socialist state. The Western world and exiled Hungarians labelled him as the former Police Chief responsible for atrocities that a large segment of the Hungarian population suffered through. But, the book points out, painfully at times, that your father was one of the architects of the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Has this ever been accepted by the exiles?

A. Some did, some not. He is still a controversial “hero”, who never fit the mold. Interesting enough, while the current Hungarian Government refuses to even mention him, the Minister of Interior and the Hungarian Police Force considers him to be their hero and each year place a reed on the wall of the memorial placket placed on the wall of the Police Headquarters, in Budpaest.

Q. With your father in prison, your family decided that if he were not released by April 4th, 1962, you would all commit suicide, in order to bring international pressure on the regime. Obviously, it didn’t happen. Was it really something that was seriously considered? And what caused the change of mind?

A. It wasn’t the first time that the idea of a communal suicide was entertained by my mother and then the whole family. After my mother’s release from prison on Dec.3, 1956, when she was told by the Russian officer to prepare ourselves for the fact that he will see my father hang from the tallest tree of Budapest, my mother informed Kádár, that in that case we will publicly commit suicide. By 1962 the idea resurfaced, and my mother was very convincing, when we shared our plans with everyone about the upcoming event. But when she was reassured at a high level that within the next year my father would be released in a general amnesty, and furthermore, when she was informed by “other sources” that my father’s name was on the list of political prisoners that the UN demanded to be freed, she graciously promised to postpone the act till further notice. However, this promise influenced my life to such a degree, that when we heard about my father’s death, later, I fainted and for a couple of hours my family was not sure how many people will be buried, one or three.

Q. In 1989, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, your father returned to Hungary. What were his impressions of the country? How was he received by the government of the day?

A. My father was much more optimistic about the possibility of creating a true democracy in Hungary after the fall of communism, than I. He returned after the new government invited him back, and made sure he was compensated both financially and morally for the past decades. He got his status and became the highest ranking officer in the Hungarian Police Force. At that time both the Prime Minister Josephy Antal, and the president, Árpád Göncz had been my father’s prison buddies as well, so it pretty much guaranteed that he was welcomed with open arms.

Q. Being on a visitor’s visa to Canada in 1965, working part time under the table so to speak, yearning for Bela, the love of you life back in Hungary, you must have faced the same emotions every illegal in Canada feels. Has this influenced your approach to asylum seekers today? If so, how?

A. The problem was that I wasn’t really aware of my status in Canada, and my relatives used my ignorance to keep me under their thumb. In reality, even though I was here on a visitors, non-renewable visa, a close friend, whose boss had close connection with the Immigration Department, arranged for my visa to be extended and even got me a working permit, and a part time job, and ensured that I could attend ESL classes as well. But none the less, I experienced first-hand what it means to live in limbo, to be a puppet in the hands of ruthless manipulators. So, yes, I do have very strong feelings about recent asylum seekers, who come here, with the hope to escape war, torture and find acceptance and a peaceful future for their loved ones.

Q. You led a ferocious fight, both here in Canada and Hungary, even internationally, to gain exit for your parents from Hungary and visas to come to Canada. What would you have done if you hadn’t succeeded?

A. I mentioned earlier, about the promise I made as a ten year old, that in case my father is executed the whole family will commit suicide. It was done voluntary from my part, as by then I had an experience to spend close to a month with strangers, thus I knew what it felt to be an orphan. Our good neighbour and my father’s close friend, Josepf Szilágyi, took me with them on November 5th to the Yugoslav Embassy with the rest of the Imre Nagy Government, who thought they found a safe haven there. But this promise went very deep in my soul. I became convinced that if anything happened to my family I would be effected. So as far as I was concerned, fighting for my parents’ freedom was equal to fighting for my own life as well. Quite frankly, many people around me were concerned about my fate, in case I didn’t succeed.

Q. What are your impressions of Hungary today? Do you think there might be a return to the old days or will democracy finally take hold?

A. I’m not happy with the current situation in Hungary. Sure it has free elections, many political parties, and “free press”. But the current leadership is openly advocating the return of the ideals of the pre-World War, a semi feudalist/capitalist regime, open anti-semitism, and hatred of foreigners as well. Both the political, and the emotional atmosphere is responsible for the very large portion of Hungarian elites, mostly young professionals leaving the country, trying their luck on the other European countries. My opinion: it is difficult to build a democracy in a country that never had a real taste of it, yet.

Q. What’s your next project / What are you working on now?

A. I have many projects lining up. Currently I’m in the midst of translating to English a book written by a close friend, Robert Schulz, a former Canadian Movie producer, who was one of the biggest Canadian Advertising Agency during the last part of the twentieth century.

After that I would like to complete two semi-autobiographical novels. In addition I still have one unfinished crime novel placed in Toronto. Then, if I have the energy and the courage, I would like to finish my book about my experiences in the Canadian Refuge Board, where I served for two years between 1988-1990. The working title, SEND THE BASTARD HOME is probably very revealing what the book is all about.

If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming writer of biographies, what would it be?

A. Be honest, and don’t be afraid to reveal the inner you. People, who are writing autobiographies are mostly driven by trying to send out a message, and for that you need to find your voice and paint a picture that will ring a bell with the audience.

What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?

A. Followers could find me on my

Facebook page: under the name of Judith Kopácsi Gelberger

e-mail:

Judith.kopacsi@gmail.com

  

Judith, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Here’s wishing you all the best in your future writing and other endeavours.

The link to Heroes Don’t Cry

Permalink: http://a.co/4k2MToq

 

Enrico Downer -Author

Rico Downer headshot

 

Enrico Downer was born in Barbados. In humble beginnings as his stories will attest. He attended multiple institutions of learning that began with elementary and secondary schooling on the island and continued to the University of Rio Piedras, P.R. and Ponce Technical as a recipient of a scholarship from the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) of the United States.

Rico immigrated to America in 1961 and did some courses at UWI (Univ of Wisconsin). He subsequently joined Value Line, an investment publishing firm in NYC and later was appointed International Correspondent with Airco International in NYC and Madison, Wisconsin.
From early, as an English major, he set about to explore the mystery and magic of literary expression, dabbling originally in poetry and later finding his niche in novels and short stories always steeped in historical fiction and drawn from his upbringing in a colonial society as well as from experiences living in New York, Wisconsin, Puerto Rico and from travels throughout the Far East.



Rico, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers. In addition to your writing, I’d also like to focus on your book There once was a Little England, released in 2012.

Q. The title of your book, There Once was a Little England, is evocative of many things, including an island aspiring, once, to be like its colonial mother country, England. How did you arrive at the title?

A. Barbados has been known as Little England for reasons that could be linked to its topographical features but more significantly to the island’s strict adherence to British traditions. There is also the fact that Barbados, in contrast to other Caribbean islands, was never conquered and occupied by any other nation beside England.

Q. the word “once” in the title mean that Barbados is no longer aspiring to be a Little England?

A. I don’t think it was ever a case of Barbadians consciously aspiring to be a Little England. As a colonial possession of England, British traditions, ethos and cultural names and holidays, etc. were deliberated imbedded in the Barbadian psyche from early schooling. As I mentioned before, the island was never under the thumb of any other power but the English. Independence came along in 1966 and put a damper on those feelings of allegiance. Moreover, as I wrote in The Lure of America: In the faded light of Great Britain’s glory the children of colonialism have fallen in love with a younger and prettier face: America.

Q. Over two hundred thousand tourists from the UK, the largest segment of Barbados tourism industry, visit the island every year. Do you think this reflects a yearning for the old days by the British, and perhaps the reason for it is the acceptance of such a connection by Barbadians themselves?

A. No, I don’t believe it reflects a yearning on the part of the British for the old days but more of an affinity for customs, sights and settings that are familiar to the English. You would be hard pressed in Barbados to find a street or a parish or a building that doesn’t have a historical English name. And then add to that English familiarity the tourists’ taste of a tropical paradise.

On the part of Barbadians there is no particular preference for tourists from one country or another.

Q. In the novel, the character Ben Carson, who works for the Englishman Thorne as his stable hand, can’t bring himself to believe his master capable of shooting David Prince. Does this reflect the conflict in Barbadian colonial society on the whole, that Barbadians found it difficult to accept their white overlords as being capable of such a crime? Was this a sort of brainwashing, in some respects? Or was it a kind of awe and reverence for the white man, as was prevalent in many colonial societies?

A. In the case of Ben Carson it was a profound sense of gratitude that clouded his reasoning. As the stable hand for his master’s beloved horses, he was favoured by Thorne and afforded possessions and conveniences not available to other servants. Thorne rewarded him with living quarters equipped with electricity and running water on the Thorne estate. This indebtedness to his master is expressed in the following: How could Thorne be capable of committing such an act against a boy one-seventh of Ben’s age. He could not bring himself to believe that the Englishman had killed the boy.

But to address your question in a broader context, British colonialism in the early 20th century tended to be less brutal than other hegemonies, often seeing to it that her institutions were passed along to her subjects in the way of education, law and a parliamentary system that endure up to this day. In fact it is arguable that such benefits contributed to the undoing of British colonialism.

Q. Social Clubs like the Barbados Water Club, the Strathclyde area, and many other institutions in Barbados, were exclusive to whites only. Is there any trace of this on the island today?

A. No, those barriers have been toppled. The only restrictions now lie in whether one can afford financially to join those institutions or live in those exclusive communities. In the book the Barbados Water Club is really The Aquatic Club which exists today and which, like many other associations, may require member sponsorship but the colour barrier is today a thing of the past.

Q. In Curly’s barber shop, Henderson Cruthers, one of the characters in the novel, commented on the benefits of English colonization: Education and Rule of Law among other things. Slim, one of the other customers says: “Is independence we want, Mr. Caruthers.” To which Caruthers replies: “Bajans not ready for independence…we need England to protect us from weselves.” What did Caruthers mean?

A. The barbershop scene was meant to illustrate the differences in perception of Independence versus Colonialist rule, the perception that prevailed between the elders and the younger folk. Henderson Caruthers was from the old school and was quite content with the status quo in light of the benefits like the steady hand of education and the rule of law. He feared that the younger folk, once the island became independent and once they became controllers of their own destiny might one day weaken those institutions with which old man Caruthers had been familiar all his life. In his words, We need England to protect us from weselves.

Q. Harold Prince, at one time in the novel, says: “Bajans don’t take to the streets…we are not agitators.” Was this symptomatic of the belief that the English brought good order, or rather that Barbadians were taught to obey the colonial masters?

A. Neither. Harold was acknowledging that there was never a seminal insurrection on the island since the riots of 1937. He was explaining the passivity of Barbadians to Mickey Norris, the newly arrived from America, who had experienced firsthand the rebellious nature of African Americans in the civil rights struggles of the 60s.

Harold explained the reason Bajans were no longer agitators. When the riot was over, my old lady got a three-shilling raise from the plantation after cutting canes from the time she was a teenager. Barbados was different from Jamaica, British Guiana and Haiti in that regard. Their rebellions had resulted in more meaningful reforms.

Q. In an early episode, village boys refer to the landlord, Thorne I assume, as a “bullah man” and spread rumours about him. “Bullah man” is obviously a reference to homosexuality, (“as if the seeds of homophobia were already ingrained in their fertile minds.”) Was this homophobia really ingrained in Barbadian society back then, and is it still extant?

A. There was a certain degree of homophobia then, as it is today, in every society. But in Barbados it was always a subject for buffoonery and derision rather than for collective hostility towards homosexuals. In any case the suspicion that one was homosexual was rooted in ignorance more than anything else. The boys who threw stones at Thorne’s guard wall were ignorant of the Englishman’s sexual preference but were nevertheless eager to brand him because they needed any reason to ridicule him.

Q. What would have caused this homophobic tendency? Did religion play a part?

A. The Anglican Church (The Church of England), which was the dominant religion of the day, did not set about to espouse homophobia or any other phobia that would be divisive in the society. The Church was more concerned with keeping its flock in check.

Q. In the post independence period, like many of the Caribbean islands, tourism gained ascendency over manufacturing and processing in Barbados. Cane fields and factories became less important. Yet, tourism has its own dependency on the “new colonial masters” of Europe and North America. When these regions have an economic downturn, so does the Caribbean. Have the islands actually transferred their economic and perhaps political dependency from England to these new overlords?

A. That dependency is not unique to Barbados. Whether an island’s economy is agricultural in nature or bolstered by manufacturing or dependent on tourism, the reality is that they are all dependent on foreign exchange from Europe, Canada and America and are negatively affected when there is a downturn in those foreign economies. Barbados’ sugar industry which was at one time a gold mine ran into stiff competition from countries like Brazil and other third world sugar-producing countries. Without a ready-set manufacturing base the island had no choice but to turn to a service industry; hence the tourist trade which was always vulnerable as we witnessed in the global recession of late.

Q. The colour advantage is referred to often in the novel, in reference to the white colonial masters attitude to Barbadians of black descent. I read about a travel writer’s observation about the West Indies on the whole, where colour is stratified even up to today. Where pure whites still have an advantage over light or fair blacks (of mixed descent), who have an edge over dark blacks. He seemed to indicate that discrimination based on colour was still rampant. What do you think? And what is it symptomatic of?

A. In Barbados, skin colour is no longer the kind of hard factor that divided the society into layers as it did in the period of the book. But class discrimination may still be rampant. Blacks may still look down their noses at less advantaged blacks and whites at less advantaged whites. I describe this in the book as “the curse of classism”.

Q. The antagonist, Englishman Thorne is placed on trial for murder and the jury consists of six whites, four half-whites and two blacks. He’s found not guilty, despite overwhelming evidence. I can see that the six whites and even the half-whites were swayed by colour. But why would the two blacks have agreed to the verdict?

A. Good question! In describing the trial of the Englishman Thorne, I alluded to the captivating impression that Barrister Cunningham had on the two blacks on the jury. I can best describe it in the following passage:

Times were different now; the fracture was now blurred by the rise into the middle class of educated Bajans like Barrister Cunningham, who could cross over to defend the other side, if for no other reason than to proclaim himself a child of the new order in a society in the process of healing itself. The jurors were impressed. The two blacks on the jury were in awe of their ascendant black brother.

 Q. Was the writing profession something that struck you as something you wanted to do at an early age? If so at what age?

A. Yes, I began by dabbling in poetry which impressed no one else but one elementary teacher who encouraged me to keep reading and writing. My first attempt to join the Public Library in Bridgetown was declined by a very austere Chief Librarian who said I was much too young. (I don’t remember my age at the time). I persisted; so she placed a book under my nose and challenged me to read a whole page. In the end she relented. My first books included the British Bigglesworth series. There were no books by local authors at the time on the shelves of the Public Library.

Q. Many writers are influence by a particular period in their life. Is this how it is with you? If so, what period?

A. I am more influenced by remarkable historic events before or during my lifetime. All my stories were triggered by actual occurrences although I may stray from a true recounting of the events.

Q. Are the names of your characters in the book based on real people in the history of Barbados, or totally fictional?

A. It is interesting that you should ask this question. With a few exceptions, the characters in the book represent real people. I fictionalized the ones I considered unsavoury; but in a few cases I revealed real names. A few examples were Harry, the owner of the famed Harry’s Nitery on Lower Bay Street; Cyrus the motorcyclist patrolman, who would arrest his own mother for crossing the colour line in Strathclyde; also Piggott who owned the rum shop across from Gittens’s church. Brother Gittens was a fictional character, not to be confused with a Brother Gittens, known to me as an upright and honourable citizen in Barbados.

With regard to places in the book, I patterned The Barbados Chronicle after The Barbados Advocate. Also, as I said before, The Water Club is The Aquatic Club of those years. And of course there was no need to rename the streets and places of business.

Q. What is it in your life experience and career so far that has influenced your novel(s) and writing?

A. I would have to say my encounter with people along the way who rose up and conquered their limitations and the hurdles that lay in their way.

Q. In working on this novel, what was the most difficult part of YOUR artistic process?

A. The book is set in the decade between 1956 and 1966. I had to make a concerted effort to adhere to customs, places, and events that pertained only to that period of time.

The greatest difficulty for me was to kill off certain characters dear to me as the one who brought them to life; the ones I was sure my readers would regret their premature demise.

If your question, then, is why? Their deaths were germane to the theme of the story.

Q. How does a writer know he’s successful?

A. A writer measures his/her success by the degree by which readers grasp the significance and depth of the story. The reason that readers’ reviews are so important.

Q. Have you ever found yourself suffering from a lack of creativity, where you might have, perhaps stalled on a work in progress? If so, how did you overcome it?

A. Of course; it is the bane of every writer. I overcome it by immersing myself into a steady diet of reading. I reach out to the works of my favourite authors, even the ones I have read and reread a million times before.

Q. Is writing cathartic in any way for you?

A. The process of writing a book for me is indeed cathartic; but finishing the book is not. I often agonize over how I could have made it better.

Q. At what age did you start to read? Write? Were you a precocious reader?

A. As I mentioned before, I was at an age (which I don’t remember at the moment) when I was denied a library card at first to join the Public Library. I was thought by the Librarian to be much too young to borrow books responsibly. Precocious? Well, that might have been the opinion of the Librarian.

Q. Who’s your favourite West Indian author? What do you like most about him/ her?

A. Besides yourself of course it would have to be Caryl Phillips, a Kittitian. I like that he has lived and worked alternately in the West Indies, England, Canada and America and brings to his stories the multifarious experiences of having spent significant portions of his writing career in different cultures.

Q. What brought you to write There once was a Little England?

A. The story was influenced by a true 1950s incident in Barbados when a small boy from a working-class community was shot and killed when he trespassed on the private property of a white farmer in St. Peter. The farmer’s name was George Swayne. His defence in Her Majesty’s Court was that he mistook the boy for a monkey, whereupon the whole island erupted. The people were even more enraged when a brilliant Bajan barrister stepped forward to defend the farmer and advancing the same dehumanizing defence. That barrister was none other than Grantley Adams (later Sir Grantley Adams) who eventually became the prime minister of the West Indies Federation and ultimately one of Barbados National Heroes.
There once was a Little England is far from an actual recounting of that incident or an attempt to re-litigate the trial but is instead an allegorical fiction that borrows key elements from that historic case. The story also seeks to examine the conflict that might arise from a lawyer’s duty to a client who diminishes and denigrates his race.

But on the whole I wanted to write about the island’s travails along the road to Independence.

Q. How long did it take to write?

A. It took me nine months from cover to cover and before then three months or so to complete the research.

Q. Is there a message in the book, to the reader?

A. I was once chided by a fellow writer for not ending the story at the point of denouement where the killer was revealed to the reader. But the story was not intended to be a “whodunnit” but a story about the social ills that led up to the independence of a British colony which I covered in the final few pages.

Q. We all need a hero! Tell us about your protagonist(s)? Was there a real-life inspiration behind him or her?

A. Harold Prince and his woman Cissy Brathwaite were the principal protagonists, all victims of the racial, class and socioeconomic disparities that prevailed prior to Independence … and to some degree afterwards. Barrister Cunningham was symptomatic of the black man aspiring to rise into the realm of the privileged whites by hook or crook, even to the extent of joining with his own oppressors to negate the rights of his own people.

Q. A good villain is hard to write. How did you get in touch with your inner villain(s) to write this book? Was there a real-life inspiration for him/her/it?

A. It was easy. I drew on the true story of farmer George Swayne as mentioned earlier and the vengeful murder of a young boy from a working-class community. Rightly or wrongly, Thorne was perceived in the book as the devil incarnate. That was the way Mr. Swayne was perceived by most Barbadians of that day.

Q. What kind of research did you do for this novel and how much time did it take? What were your sources?

A. Three or four months of the year that it took to write the book were devoted to research. I consulted a number of historical references including the works of Sir Hilary Beckles, FA Hoyos, Dr. Karl Watson and Andrea Stuart, among other historians. Also the writings of Barbadians George Lamming and Austin Clarke were instrumental.

 Q. If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming writer, what would it be?

A. My first advice would be to write for the love of writing and not necessarily for monetary gain.

Q. What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?

      A. Via Email: r.downer@rocketmail.com

 

There Once was a Little England
by Enrico Downer
Link: http://a.co/8PJMrQu


Rico, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Here’s wishing you all the best in your future writing and other endeavours.

Thanks, Ken. I appreciate the offer to do the interview. It was a pleasure.

Michael Joll

MJoll New Background for CS

Author Michael Joll

Born in England during the Late Pleistocene Age, Michael Joll has called Canada home since shortly after Confederation. He has held many jobs, from selling Continental Delicatessen in Selfridges on Oxford Street in London, to temporary part time deck hand and purser on a car ferry plying the North Reach of the Bay of Quinte. In between he was gainfully employed for forty years too many. Retired since 2004 (“The hours are great, the pay not so much”) he has spent most of that time writing fiction. He has been a Brampton, Ontario since the mid-1970s with a wife (his own) and the memories of the dogs with whom he has been privileged to share his life.


Michael, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers. First I’d like to talk about your new book Perfect Execution and Other Stories, released this year, 2017.

Q: How long did it take you to assemble this collection of stories?

A: About seven years. I wrote the first story in the collection, “Officially Old”,  in early 2010 to commemorate my 65th birthday. The last, “The Darling Buds of May I wrote in the spring of 2016.

Q:: Is there a favourite, for you, among all the fifteen stories in Perfect Execution?

A: They are all different, in content, theme and style, so there is no discernable common thread running through the collection. Perhaps my favourite is, “The Summer I Turned Eleven.”

Q: Why is this one your favourite?

A: There are a number of reasons. First of all, I chose to set part of the story in Brampton, Ontario, where I live. I placed the narrator, Tiiu, in the house next to mine and Warren living a couple of streets over, a short walk. Then there was the subject matter – a coming of age story of a young girl becoming a young woman during the summer she turned eleven, a particularly difficult time in a girl’s life. I chose to set the story fifty years in the past – long enough ago for the angst to have died down but with the memories still sharp. Finally, I could contrast the emotions of the girl with the 61 year old woman recounting them over a cold beer on a hot afternoon.

Q: What was the most difficult story to write and why?

A: Some of the stories I wrote in one sitting, at least the first drafts. “A Handsome Woman” came to me while walking the dog. Two hours later it was on ‘paper’ in my laptop. The first drafts of, “With Regret,” “Untitled”, and “Wilma” did not take long to complete.  Others took years before I was semi-satisfied. “Death of the Bus to Lucknow” was probably the most difficult to write. It has been 70 years since I left India, and I have no memories of my brief time there. It was important to get the ‘Indianness’ right; not too much, not too little. I had real difficulty in bringing the character of Chanti, the protagonist, to the page, making her real, three dimensional, and not a stock cardboard cutout of a beaten Indian wife. I toyed with various combinations of Reshmi, Chanti’s friend, before settling on the one in the book after ‘pointed discussions’ with my editor! I think this story took me four or five years of tinkering, revision and total rewrites, including a sea change in the point of view.

Q:We all need a hero! Tell us about your favourite protagonist in Perfect Execution and why you like him or her so much.

A: I am of an age where I can empathize with older people more than the young. Martin is a weak man, fearful of violence, but makes his one life-altering decision in the face of great physical and moral danger. The unnamed Mother Superior of the Ursuline convent stands out as my favourite character in the story – strong, determined, a woman of faith and moral rectitude but with a possible flaw. She could be accused of passive acquiescence in her ‘turn a blind eye’ attitude to Germany and the war, but for reasons never disclosed she had a change of heart in helping the allies in the manner in which she did.

Q; The stories in this collection run the gamut of international locations, from India, the Caribbean, Italy, Canada, America and England of course. Are these stories all based on your visits to these settings or was there extensive research done to arrive at the background, or both?

A: I was born and mostly raised in the south of England but spent several of my youngest years in Calcutta, which I don’t remember, and in Karachi, Pakistan, of which I retain fond memories. I have visited or lived in many of the other locations in the stories. All, however, required extensive research to bring me up to date with the places I used as settings, particularly those I have never visited except through the National Geographic Channel. Thank goodness for the computer and its search engine, the Brampton Public Library, my own collection of books, magazines and videos, and for the input of so many people whom I know or have met over the past several years who have first hand knowledge of the places I have never been to.

Q: Could you tell us something briefly, about the title story Perfect Execution?

A: The elevator pitch? It is September 1943, and the allies are making their way slowly north through Italy. A section of German army clerks under Corporal Martin Hartmann is sent to a convent in Tuscany to check out its suitability as a possible army Headquarters should the Wehrmacht be forced to retreat further. A Nazi officer shows up and takes over. They discover that the convent is sheltering downed American airmen. The officer orders the nuns be executed immediately for aiding the enemy. Faced with the dilemma of shooting the nuns, and risk eternal damnation, or refusing to carry out orders and be shot himself, Hartmann takes it upon himself to shoot the Nazi officer instead.

Q: How did you arrive at the title for this story?

A: It was a play on words, ‘Perfect’ being a description of the lives of the nuns in the Ursuline convent, and ‘Execution’ for the order given to Corporal Hartmann which he refused to carry out. ‘Perfect Execution’ does not in any way refer to my writing style but rather the execution of the perfect.

Okay, I’d like to move on to your writing.

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

A: At age 6, but I quickly gave up the idea when I discovered it meant putting pencil to paper and actually writing something. I disliked it all through school, but the courses I took were all writing intensive (no multiple choice, check off the box questions in those days).  And I was, and still am, a lousy speller. I spent a working lifetime writing dry reports, legal briefs and the like before retiring at age 59. I took up writing then as a hobby. It devolved into a passion. It has yet to reach the obsessive compulsive stage, although my wife might beg to differ.

Q: Most writers bring something of their own life to their writing. What period of your life do you think has influenced your writing most of all—child, teenager, young adult, adult?

A: Most of my stories involve adults as protagonist and antagonist, some quite elderly. I still remember the days of my childhood, not necessarily always fondly, my early tween and teenage years at boarding school, followed by the years of finding my way as an adult, first as a young man, then through several decades of expensive parenthood. I hope I have learned from all the experiences which have allowed me to take bits from here and there to weave into my stories. But I’m not saying which ones!

Q: How about your working experience. What aspect of it has insinuated itself into your writing most of all?

A: Note taking and report writing as a police officer taught me the three most important words in paperwork – Full, Complete, and Accurate. The narrative must be full with nothing left out that is relevant to the story. It must be complete in itself – no loose ends and unresolved sub-plots. And descriptions need to be accurate to be believable, from clothing, to furniture to blood spatters.

Q: What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

A: I usually write, revise, rewrite, edit and repeat the process umpteen times six days a week, Sunday through Friday. I like to spend anywhere from two to six hours a day at my computer, more if I’m on a roll. On Saturdays I do important things, like the cryptic crossword in the Globe & Mail, and grocery shopping, and watching Hockey Night in Canada.

Q: How do you develop your plot and characters?

A: I’m bad at the former and not much better at the latter. When I hear, “I don’t have a strong feeling for what the story’s about,” I know it’s time to go back to the drawing board and work on plot and structure, more clearly defining the narrative arc and focusing on both the big picture, especially within the context of history, if applicable, as well as the smaller details which bring a story to life.

  I draw many of my characters from my real life experiences, though the character who ends up in the story will almost certainly be an amalgam of several people whom I know, at least in passing. Others simply reside in my imagination until it comes time to flesh them out with warts and foibles, speech characteristics, clothing choices and annoying habits.

Q: Did you learn anything from writing the short stories in Perfect Execution, if so, what?

A: Writing these stories was a journey. I started with “Officially Old,” and kept writing. I haven’t reached my destination yet. I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t know where it is. I do know that the plane hasn’t run out of fuel and crash landed yet. And most of all I learned that, even with the best will in the world, I’m incapable of writing the perfect story. But I keep trying. Is that one of the definitions of insanity?

Q: We all have our favourite authors and books. What books have most influenced your life and writing?

A: I love Chaucer, but I can’t say he has had a shred of influence on my writing. Although his style of storytelling is sadly out of favour these days, Wm. Somerset Maugham, the prolific short story writer of the 1920s and 1930s has profoundly influenced me as a writer of short fiction. So too has Rudyard Kipling and the French author, Guy de Maupassant.

  When it comes to the novel, I wish I could write as well as the late English author, John Masters, or even come close. He set many of his novels in India, mostly in the days of the British Raj, delicate eggshells on which to tread these days, but he never praised the British rulers or their rule. His characters, British and Indian, lived there, suffered there and for the most part died there.

Q: What is the most difficult part of YOUR artistic process in completing a short story?

A: No question: editing, revision and rewriting. I have little difficulty in coming up with story ideas. I take them as far as I can in my head to see if they have legs. If not, I discard them, at least mentally, perhaps to be picked up again some day as a potential sub-plot, character study or as an idea I can infuse into a longer work. Cutting out my ‘darlings’, the sentences, paragraphs, episodes and even whole chapters that I have spent months, sometimes years trying to make perfect, I find particularly damaging to my delicate psyche. But when an editor says to me, “As beautifully written as this passage is, it fails to advance the story. Get rid of it,” I do as I’m told by those who have forgotten more about writing and editing than I will ever learn.  

Q: What do you feel are the common traps that upcoming writers encounter and how could/ should they overcome them?

A: I suspect we all want to write a novel, even The Greatest Novel Ever Told. Beethoven didn’t begin his career as a composer by writing his 9th Symphony any more than Mozart started with the ‘Jupiter.’ Like they did, start small. Write it well. Then write it better. Length will come, but excellence takes a long apprenticeship. Write what you know? Perhaps, if you have no other ideas. But why not write what’s in your imagination? Give the horse its head and see where it carries you. Don’t tell me J.R.R. Tolkien “knew” Middle Earth before he started ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Q: Do you think someone could be a writer if they can’t feel the emotions of their characters?

A: Absolutely! As a man, how can I experience the emotions that are peculiar to a woman? Or as a young person, how can I get inside the head of a pensioner? Use your imagination. Read. Ask people how they might react in a given set of circumstances, physically and emotionally. Write down their answers. Massage them. Use them, a bit here, a bit there. But if you don’t know how it feels to suffer a spousal assault, or go through a messy divorce, or lose your child to cancer or an abduction, do the research. Read about PTSD. Addiction. Mental illness. Ask, ask, ask. A Psychology degree with a specialty in deviant psychology will probably stand the aspiring fiction writer in better stead than an English degree. Something to think about.

Q: Assuming you always think there’s room for improvement, what’s your approach to becoming a better writer?

A: Number one – read. But I don’t take my advice as seriously as I should. I spend too much time writing.

  Number two – study. This mostly comes down to reading books on the craft of writing. See Number one above.

  Number three – go back to the basics. Learn from what doesn’t, or didn’t work – a flat lead character; a hackneyed plot; an uninspired opening paragraph which only leads to a weak ending; a lack of surprise in plot or character; a unrealistic plot twist that comes out of the blue; happy people without conflict in their lives. Some are merely irritants. Others story killers.

Q: What’s the most difficult stumbling block for you in writing characters of the opposite sex?

A: I love writing women, particularly strong women, but often ordinary women who become victims of events they may not always be able to avoid no matter how strong, or weak, they might be. Chanti in ‘Death on the Bus to Lucknow,’ Anna-Lise Jaeger in ‘Anschluss’, and Wilma in ‘Wilma’ are examples of women, two old, one young, who find themselves swept up in events they cannot control and who must find their own solutions. Auntie Tillie in the story of the same name, Sue Lewicki in ‘Snowfall’ and the Mother Superior in ‘Perfect Execution,’ are all stronger women who still find themselves in over their heads and have to deal with the consequences of their actions.

  I find the complexity of women fascinating, which is partly their attraction in writing about them. I find men tend to be more predictable and less capable of caprice or surprise. Maybe that’s just the way we are. Besides, women are prettier and generally smell nicer.

Q: Is writing cathartic in any way for you?

A: Not at all. Not even remotely. I simply enjoy writing for its own sake.

Q: Did you hide any secrets in this book that only a few people would find?

A: Very occasionally, someone who knows me well will find something as short as a sentence or as long as an episode and say, “That’s you, isn’t it?” If it happens to fit into the story and doesn’t libel or slander anyone else, I might use it. The closest I came in ‘Perfect Execution & Other Stories’, is Hugh in ‘Officially Old’. It started as a short piece for the Globe & Mail’s ‘Facts and Arguments’ column several years ago. I decided to turn it into a short story, fictionalizing almost everything about it except for Hugh’s occupation as an Marine Insurance Average Adjuster (I worked for one early in my career), his hobby of writing bodice-ripping genre Romances, and his abhorrence of walk-in bath tubs.

Q: What’s your next project?

A: I have a second collection of short stories currently being reviewed by a potential publisher, and a third collection gathering dust in my laptop’s hard drive waiting for the publisher to beg me to send them to him. I have just had a professional Second Draft Critique completed of a novel, tentatively titled, ‘For Valour’ and have been busy making corrections, killing my darlings, and generally doing as he strongly suggested to make the story better. The next step is to find a publisher. A second novel, something of a follow-up to ‘For Valour’, is in first draft and I have just started going over it again after leaving it fallow for a few months. And a genre Romance is ready to go as soon as Harlequin asks me for it!

Q: If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming writer, what would it be?

A: Don’t chase the latest trend. By the time you know what it is, it will be out of fashion. At the very best it will be a lame ‘Me too,’ story. It’s too easy to lose your integrity as a writer, so be true to yourself and your original goals. If you want to write commercial pulp fiction, write it. Sci-fi,fantasy, if that’s your thing, go for it. Westerns, Zombies, Vampires, mommy porn? Whatever. If you write it well, an audience will find you.

Q: What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you: Email: mbj691@gmail.com will reach me.

Facebook; I have a Facebook page under my name. Also the Brampton Writers Guild: https://www.facebook.com/BramptonWritersGuild/notifications/


CHECK OUT MICHAEL’S BOOK HERE

Stories
by Michael Joll
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