New York Times bestselling author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris is coming to the Pioneer Theatre on Thursday, March 10.
This will be The Hills Shire Library Service’s first “live and in conversation” author talk since they were moved online in 2021, after the Sydney-wide COVID-19 lockdown.
Ahead of Heather’s “in conversation” event to promote her latest book, Three Sisters, FOCUS caught up with the esteemed writer to discuss how she discovers her stories, her passion for storytelling and the best piece of advice she’s received as a writer. This is what she had to say:
Question: Did you always want to be a writer? If not, was there a moment that triggered you to take up writing?
Answer: No. I was considered by my family to be a storyteller but never considered the possibility I would be able to write. I am in awe of authors, an avid reader, it was beyond my comprehension that one day I could produce a novel. After meeting Lale Sokolov and hearing his story as the Tattooist of Auschwitz, I knew I needed to find a way to honour his request to write it down. I studied screenwriting and for many years his story existed in this format.
Question: How did you discover the incredible story of Cibi, Magda and Livia? And why did you decide their story needed to be told?
Answer: I was in South Africa on a book tour when I got an email from Livia’s son. He told me he had picked up a copy of the Tattooist of Auschwitz at Toronto (where he lived) airport and taken it to read while visiting his mother in Israel. Livia had seen the cover and remarked: ‘that must be about Lale and Gita’. When he asked her how she could know that, she pointed to the number of the girl on the cover, then to the number on her arm. They are 3 away. Her sister Cibi’s number was 2 away from Gita’s. They came from the same town as Gita, went to school with her, were on the train going to Auschwitz with her and in the same block in Birkenau – Block 21. We emailed, then I spoke to Livia on the phone, and she asked me to come and visit her. When I had finished my commitments in South Africa I flew from Johannesburg to Tel Aviv. I spent a week with Livia, Magda, their families, and Cibi’s family. Cibi died in 2014 so I never got to meet her. Sending me to Jerusalem for a day the families got together and, on my return, asked me if I would write the story of the sisters. I said “yes”.
Question: Do you believe in luck? I ask this, because you say that every Holocaust survivor you meet says the same words: “I was just lucky”. Or, do you believe it’s something else?
Answer: Definitely under the circumstances people survived the Holocaust, luck played a huge part in it. From the moment young men and women arrived in Auschwitz and walked past the SS officer designated to do the ‘selections’ each day, survival often came down to the mood of the officer, the weather, any unknown element. No Jewish person had a say in their selection. You could say that today we are lucky to live in a place and time where we can contribute to making our own luck.
Question: Why do you think it’s so important to tell the stories of Holocaust survivors?
Answer: Academics and historians have told the story of the Holocaust for decades and we should all be so grateful to them. However, I think hearing individual stories, the memory of one, or in the case of Three Sisters, 3, provides storylines which readers, particularly young people, can relate to. The evils of the Holocaust must never be forgotten, and never be allowed to happen again. Only through education and stories can we hope this is the case.
Question: Have you learnt any life lessons from the people you interview? The reason I ask – they’ve been through unthinkable situations and yet showed incredibly feats of courage and determination.
Answer: Absolutely. How could I not. The resilience and bravery of the young people who I got to meet as elderly men and women is difficult to comprehend. Not a lesson per se, all survivors I have met talk of the love of family and needing to find their loved ones and learn of their fate, being the driving force in their putting one foot in front of another each day. For Lale it was romantic love, and the need to have a life with Gita and bring her to his birth family, notably his mother. For the sisters, it was being separated and the need to be united and to honour their promise to their father, that strength is unbreakable in the love of family, that kept Livia and Cibi going each day. For Magda, being separated from her sisters she loved more than life, was the driving force for her to survive. No success my books may have compares to my love and need to be surrounded by family who for me, are the reason I want to wake up every morning; after all in the words of Lale – if you wake up in the morning it is a good day.
Question: Do you find the stories like Lale’s inspiring? If so, how have they inspired you? Answer: Spending time with Lale, knowing I was in the presence of living history had me in awe of the man that was, and the man he became. He, and many others survived one of the darkest, most evil periods of recent history. Not only survived but went onto have long, loving, lives not letting what they had experienced and witnessed define them, determine how they would live. I no longer take my comfortable, secure life for granted. I am inspired to recount as many stories, both written and in talking around the world, I can. Lale, the sisters and their families, have trusted me to tell their stories. Many others have written to me telling me incredible stories of survival during times of tragedy and trauma. I am humbled and will continue to talk to whoever will listen about the need to take everyone in your life, who you meet, sit next to on a bus, for who they are and to never judge anyone for the decisions they make in their life.
Question: What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve received in your writing career?
Answer: Honour the memory of the person whose story you are telling. Even when their memory and recorded history don’t always agree, or their storylines cannot be supported by other evidence. From the many, many survivors I have met, they all tell me, in writing Lale and Gita’s story I have told their story. I think the phrase -different but the same – applies.
Question: Where were you when you were told that you made the New York Times best-selling list? And how did you feel once receiving this news?
Answer: Lale’s story was released in the UK and Australia in January 2018 but not in the USA until September 2018. I was in London when my UK publishers told me it had debuted in the US in the top 10, within 2 weeks it was #1. I have been told it was # 1 for a total of 32 weeks and in the top 20 for over 100 weeks. I find it difficult to process the significance of this success. I am so grateful to readers in some 55 countries who have purchased and/or read Lale’s story.
Question: What’s next?
Answer: I am currently researching and drafting a new novel, again historical fiction based on true events, times and places during World War 2. It is not Holocaust based.
For further details and tickets: www.pioneertheatre.com.au.