Author Interview with Stephen Deutsch

Welcome to my website Stephen. Thanks for taking part in an author interview.

Please tell us a little about yourself

I’m Stephen Deutsch, novelist, composer and filmmaker.

I was born in New York and moved to the UK in 1970, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1978. I was trained as a pianist and composer, spending the first part of my career composing music for concert hall, theatre, television and film. I have been a lecturer in film sound and music, and have edited a journal on that subject, The Soundtrack, and later The New Soundtrack. My first novel, Zweck, a historical comedy about music, was published in 2016. I am the co-author of a coming book – Listening to the Film: A Practical Philosophy of Film Sound and Music. I have written plays for television, broadcast on the BBC.

Thank you. I’d love to know more about your writing process and inspiration. For example, do you like to reflect a sense of place in your stories? If so, how?

As I write historical fiction, a sense of place and time is essential. I try to immerse myself in the lives and times, the locations and events through which the characters lived. Researching this gives me much satisfaction.

What’s your earliest writing memory?

I seem to remember singing a song with made up lyrics in school. I was about six years old. The teacher took it down and put it in the school yearbook. I can’t remember it now, but I think it had to do with rain.

If you were encouraged to write/create – who encouraged you and how?

My mother groomed me to be a famous musician, encouraged to perform, play and sing. Not to write. It didn’t quite work out the way she imagined.

What was your favourite childhood book and why? And do you still read it?

I loved Alice in Wonderland. I was lucky enough to compose music for a TV adaptation some years ago. But the book is far better, I still read it from time to time.

What did you get in trouble for at school?

Talking too much.  Nothing has changed.

How do you keep yourself motivated when your writing doesn’t flow?

I trick myself. I come to the desk thinking that I would just review the previous day’s work, and before long, ideas begin to arrive. Even though I know that this is a subterfuge, I fall for it every time.

Can you visualize your characters? If so – which actors would play your two favourites?

I do visualize my characters, especially because they were real people and I know what they looked like. Any casting, however inspired, would distort their reflection.

How much of yourself is in your stories?

Hard to say. I write every single word, so my own voice must penetrate through…

Do you like town or country?

Both

Why did you pick your genre?

The cliché is ‘it picked me’, but clichés become clichés because they are most often true.

If you like to write to music – what do you choose and why?

I never write to music. Either it’s too interesting, so it distracts, or it’s simply banal, which distracts me even more.

If you had to pick five pieces of music to sum up you and/or your life – what would they be and why? 

  1. The B minor Mass by J.S. Bach, because I simply can’t imagine the mind that created this monumental, overpowering  work.
  2. “Hit the Road, Jack” as sung by Ray Charles. Part of the music which resonated in my childhood.
  3. “Here comes the Sun” by the Beatles, reminding me of the happy two years I lived I San Francisco.
  4. Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto as played by Yuja Wang. Reminding me of what I aspired to, and how sensible it was for me to stand back and let a real genius play it. I also would never have been able to carry off the frocks as she does.
  5. My own String Quintet. Because it’s the best music I have ever composed and I’m proud of it.

What makes you happy?

Work. Thinking, reading, talking to friends.

If you could go anywhere (real or fictional) – where and why?

I’d like to revisit Orvieto, Italy when the plague ends.  The most magical place in Italy, especially at sunset.

What could you not live without?

Optimism.  Fortunately, I still have some lying around somewhere.

Who are your two main characters in your latest book Champion?

Herschel Grynszpan was a slightly built lad, 17 at the time of the assassination, he had dark hair and deeply-set eyes. As an undocumented Jewish adolescent living in Paris just before the war, having left Germany because of the persecution he felt as a Jew, thinking to emigrate to Palestine (as it then was). In October 1938, he receives a postcard from his parents – they had recently been bundled with 25,000 other Jewish residents of Hanover, put on a train – but not in the same way as Jews were later transported to the Ghettos and the death camps; they were in 3rd class compartments – then dumped in the rain on the Polish border.

Herschel was so enraged that he bought a gun and murdered a minor German official at the German Embassy in France, and this act was used as the excuse for Kristalnacht. He was arrested and was being prepared for trial, when the Germans invaded. And his adventures after that form a big part of the story.

Max Schmeling was a Nazi icon, not altogether wholeheartedly. And especially after his spectacular defeat of Joe Louis in 1936, he was feted everywhere in Germany, even having tea with Hitler and watching the fight film with him. His wife, Anny Ondra, who had starred in Hitchcock’s Blackmail – as well as many German films – was also similarly celebrated as part of this ideal Aryan couple. 

Like many Germans, Max was uneasy about the regime – so many of his friends, artists, writers, musicians had disappeared, so much of what the Nazis stood for went against the sense of honour with which he had been raised. But ethics and morals, however resolutely he held them, did not prevent him from capitalising on his fame. But he was not a racist, of this I have no doubt. He defended his Jewish manager and was a major benefactor of Joe Louis in retirement – as well as after his death. During Kristalnacht Max sheltered two young Jewish lads in his hotel room until the violence subsided.

Will there be a sequel?

Hope not. Not by me, in any case.

Where can we find a copy of Champion?

Champion can be found at Unicorn Press – https://www.unicornpublishing.org or Amazon UK or Amazon US or can be ordered from good bookshops.

Thank you Stephen. I wish you every success with Champion, which is a great book: well researched and beautifully written. 

Hiding Places

Two years ago, I started a story about a little girl hiding in a house.

I am fascinated by houses. Perhaps because I moved a lot as a child, perhaps because I see how they reflect the personalities of the people who live in them, perhaps because in my early childhood I knew several homes with rooms and attics full of potential treasure: stuffed animals, old gramophones, books, stacked photographs.

Homes seem to me to have a personality of their own. When my husband and I were house hunting twelve years ago, we would walk out of a property and say “that’s a happy house” or “that’s an unhappy house” even though there was nothing visible to indicate a difference between them.

My story started innocently enough but as it wound its way from muse to keyboard, the child in the story stopped being carefree. She became someone desperate, unhappy, lonely; hiding in a perfect, neat, cold house. I wrote it for a competition and hadn’t quite finished it when a friend told me a story about her mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany and somehow a little of that was woven in too. My story is set in an unspecified world in which there is persecution for being different. I’m not publishing it here for the moment as I hope to publish it elsewhere but this is about what happened after it had been written.

Once I’d finished and refined it, I entered the story into a local competition run by the Rotary Club and it was short-listed for the Mayor’s prize. In October 2016, I went to the Corn Exchange (our local equivalent of a town hall) to read it out.

Odd as it may sound (since I was the one who’d written it) I found it hard to read aloud because although I knew what was happening, I still got choked up. I tend to speak quietly and quickly even when I’m not nervous. The acoustics in the building are not very good and I had to read while holding a microphone and also conscious of the fact that I would then have to clamber back down some steep steps without a handrail in heels and somehow try not to fall (give me a staircase and I will fall down it). I could feel myself getting angry on behalf of this imaginary little girl, caught up in the political machinations of adults and my voice started to crack. I ended with tears in my eyes. There was applause, I got down the steps without making a fool of myself and then found I had to climb back up because I’d won.

After all the prizes had been handed out and I was safely back on ground level again, a lady in her late seventies or early eighties came up. She said her hearing was poor and she’d been sitting at the back and not quite been able to make out everything I’d said. She asked if I could drop round to her house and give her a printed copy of some of my stories so that she could read them for herself.

The following weekend, I found her house (which had a wonderful door as if it would lead into a magic realm) and as she wasn’t in, popped the stories through the letterbox, leaving my address but forgetting to leave my phone number, meaning to go back a few days later.

Life was busy and it went out of my head.

A week or so afterwards, as I was in the kitchen editing photographs one Sunday and my mother, who’d come round for the afternoon was sitting with me doing embroidery while dinner burbled away in the oven, the lady arrived at my front door, having walked maybe a mile across town to do so. I invited her in for a rest and something to drink before driving her home. She said some lovely things about the stories I’d given her but then she asked about the inspiration for the one about the hiding little girl.

I explained that part of it was imaginary and the other part was inspired by stories friends of Polish and German descent had told of hiding Jewish fugitives and from reading a book called “My Hundred Children” by Lena Kuchler-Silberman and books by Corrie Ten Boom.

Over a cup of tea, the lady explained that she was Jewish. In 1938, while she was still a baby, her parents had escaped Austria but her grandparents, uncles and aunt had not been able to leave. There is now barely a trace of them.

She knows one uncle died in Dachau and one grandfather was beaten to death before even getting to a camp (the Viennese Nazi authorities kept good death records – don’t you love bureaucracy?). Her parents told of people just getting a knock on the door and being given half an hour to get themselves down to the town hall.

“Can you imagine, the Corn Exchange is our town hall,” she said, “so they come to your house and they pick on you because you’re Jewish, or Catholic, or Protestant or Muslim or immigrant or you name it, and you have half an hour to get to the Corn Exchange and you don’t know what will happen to you and maybe no-one will ever find out.”

The lady who took the trouble to bring me back my story now lives in a nice town in a peaceful country with children and grand-children of her own living in other nice towns. She sat, telling me her life, drinking tea with my mother, calm and friendly.

My mother is just a few years younger. The only separation she experienced during the war, was when my grandmother moved to be near family in Scotland with her two small children, away from the risk of bombing. They left my grandfather (too old to join up and in a reserved occupation) to carry on working in London and living in the empty family home. My mother’s family tree has all its branches in the last century at least.

The other lady’s family tree, like so many, had branches hacked off and destroyed.

All that potential, all those nearly people. All those children who maybe couldn’t hide quite safely enough. Her life now may be pleasant and safe, but her parents’ desperate flight, the loss of their loved ones are engraved on her.

I know her story is not news. I know, even worse that that, it’s not old news. The Nazis weren’t the first to do it and they weren’t the last.

It is going on right now, somewhere in the world, as I type this.

Religious grounds, ethnic grounds, racial grounds, political grounds, gender identity, sexuality, how many generations your ancestors arrived – somewhere someone is justifying a reason for the humiliation, discrimination, disenfranchisement, dehumanisation, persecution and death of other human beings just because they are different.

I wish it wasn’t true. More than anything, I wish I didn’t know there are people in “civilised” countries who are right this moment looking forward to starting it up again.

God forgive us for never learning and for the capacity for hatred in the human heart.

The evidence is right in front of us. And don’t assume you could be safe because we may not know the criteria. Watch out, because any one of us may be summonsed to the town hall one day and the hiding places may yet run out.

hiding

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission