About The Author
Natasha Solomons was born in 1980. Her first job, aged nine, was as a shepherdess, minding the flock on Bulbarrow hill. Since then, she has worked as a screenwriter with her husband, and they are currently working on the film adaptation of her first novel, Mr Rosenblum's List. She is also researching a PhD in eighteenth-century poetry. She lives in Dorset. Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler interviewed Natasha on the publication of Mr Rosenblum's List, which was shortlisted for the Galaxy National Book Awards, and is a pastoral comedy about an immigrant trying to find his way in England after the Second World War. Her second book, The Novel in the Viola, looks at the impact of war on a Dorsetshire village and in particular at young Elise Landau, an immigrant from Vienna who is sent into service in England in order to escape the war. Frances was delighted to catch up with Natasha again on the eve of The Viola's publication.
Questions & Answers
The Novel in the Viola
When we last spoke you intimated that The Novel in the Viola, like your debut Mr Rosenblum's List, draws on real people and events from your family. Were any of your relatives sent into service in England as a way of escaping the war in Vienna?
When I write I often start with a grain of something true, and then layer it into fiction. The story of Tyneford is based upon the ghost village of Tyneham on the Dorset coast, which was requisitioned during the Second World War and, despite Churchill's promise to the contrary, never returned to the villagers. My family were from Berlin rather than Austria. My grandparents escaped in the mid 1930s, and helped my great-aunt come to England a few years later, on a 'domestic service visa'. She worked as a 'mother's help' like so many refugees. It must have been very difficult for her, as my grandmother's family (the Landaus) had been wealthy with servants of their own.
How typical do you think Elise's experience was? In many ways she fell on her feet but was it far worse for some other refugees?
I think Elise's story is both ordinary and unique, so many women and girls escaped Germany and Austria to become servants. While Elise is lucky in that the family she works for are kind and not anti-Semitic, she is still desperately homesick and isolated.
What I have found remarkable from speaking to many women, who worked as maids during the 1930s, is their stoicism. They acknowledge that their lives were hard, working as a servant was often exhausting, degrading and miserable and yet, they shrug off the memory of discomfort - it could have been so much worse. They arrived in London all alone as teenagers, leaving their entire families behind. Many of them never saw those families again.
Did your family manage to smuggle out of the country items of great sentimental or symbolic value, such as the viola in the title?
Many of the treasures in the book belong to my family. The portrait of Elise as a young girl is actually based on one of my grandmother (who was quite a beauty). I have always loved the picture and wondered what she must have been like. Anna's pearls were also my grandmother's, and are now mine. (I borrowed them from my mother and somehow forgot to return them...)
It must have been extremely hard for people who considered themselves assimilated Jews - if they thought about their Jewishness at all - to then come over to England and find themselves almost completely defined by their religion?
I think it was difficult, but I think it was worse in Austria and Germany. In great cities like Vienna and Berlin, Jews considered themselves to be Berliners or Viennese. They loved and lived in these cities, and then to be deprived of citizenship overnight - I can't imagine what that must be like. It must be even worse to be exiled and excluded from your home than defined as 'other' in a foreign country.
Love of the Dorset countryside, the sea and of classical music permeates the book - do you share these passions with your central characters? Were they, ultimately, what kept Elise going?
I love Dorset - the landscape here is just so beautiful. I never tire of trying to capture it in my writing. Having just written a novel about the Blackmore Vale, I decided to travel south and set something by the sea. I wrote parts of 'Viola' while staying beside the sea, and it's a strange experience. The sound of the sea pervades everything - I wake suddenly in the night, wondering what the noise is - and it certainly enters my writing. I'm actually a very bad flute player (I can't play if I think anyone can hear me). While Elise's discovered love of Dorset and the sea gives her solace, I think it's love that sustains her. There is great sadness in her life but there is also great joy. She still loves and is loved.
In many ways, the worst of the war is kept at arms' length. Did you feel it has been sufficiently documented that the reader could imagine what was happening in Vienna to Elise's family and friends, or was it important for the reader to share Elise's sense of not-knowing?
This is a book of silences. The silence of things unsaid, of letters that don't arrive or are lost. We need to share Elise's sense of those silences. This is a novel about things that happen around the edges of war. Elise feels that history is happening elsewhere, and she is left wondering in the dark - the reader needs to feel that too. But, I do also think that we know so much about the war now, that we are able to project onto those silences, much as Elise must have imagined and wondered.
How is the film adaptation going of Mr Rosenblum's List? When might we see it on our screens, and is this novel also destined for televisation or a film version?
My husband, David, and I have been working on the script for Film 4 and Cowboy. We're now happy with the draft and are starting to look at attaching a director. I think The Novel in the Viola would be a great film or TV piece - it's influenced not only by books but great films like Brief Encounter, Rebecca, Atonement' and the TV series of 'Brideshead Revisited.
Mr Rosenblum's List
How much of your protagonists' experience was based, or at least inspired by personal history?
My imagination is a messy scrapbook filled with story fragments, some true, and some sort of true. I like to use snippets of personal history in my writing. I'm intrigued by memory, and the ways we choose to remember, and I remember through writing - several of my characters are named after old family friends, and some of the story is inspired by my grandparents' journey from Berlin into the Blackmore Vale. My grandparents, Paul and Margot, were refugees from Berlin, and like Jack and Sadie they arrived in Britain in the late 1930s. They similarly arrived with nothing and, within a few years, Paul had built up a very successful textile factory. Yet, inevitably details shift as they are spun into fiction.
All Sadie's recipes are taken from my grandmother's cookery book, while smaller details like Jack's penchant for a glass of whisky is an homage to my grandfather. However, in terms of character Jack and Paul are very different. Paul was an elegant man who liked to paint, listen to opera and was a talented pianist. He would not have approved of the wildness of Jack's scheme nor the way he risks his family's happiness. But like Jack, my grandfather was a firm believer in the woolly-pig.
It would have been quite unusual for Jewish immigrants to end up in Dorset as they tended to go for London and the big cities. How did it happen in your grandparents' case?
My grandfather wanted his grandchildren to experience the pleasures of the countryside. As a child he'd enjoyed idyllic holidays in rural Germany and he wanted that for my brother, sister and me. Many years after the war, my grandmother received restitution money from Germany in consequence of having been fired from her job as a ticket clerk on the railways due to 'racial reasons'. They put this money towards buying a thatched cottage in Dorset.
Your novel hangs on the real split between the need to adopt the host country's customs while not losing one's own heritage, and an ambivalence about wanting children to blend in but turning them into strangers in the process. Do you think these tensions can ever be reconciled?
This is a huge question - one that takes a whole novel to explore. The simple answer is no. I don't think there is any perfect balance that can be achieved. I can only speak about my own family experience - my grandparents wanted my mother to be English. They didn't want her to speak German and only spoke it when they wanted to discuss secrets without the children understanding. They never went to synagogue, and ignored the Jewish holidays. And yet, my mother always felt set apart from her English school friends.
A generation later, I feel no less confused. My upbringing was totally secular, and yet I feel acute discomfort at any church service or assembly. This is only matched by my unease during any religious Jewish event. I'm still not quite sure where I belong.
Jack makes many mistakes in his attempts to access English culture.
Do you think it is easier or harder for immigrants today to find a way in to English society? Could a Helpful Information booklet such as the one Jack uses, ever be of any use?
I don't think Jack's booklet really helps him either. I expect that immigrants today face many of the same prejudices as Jack, in addition to a cacophony of new ones. The leaflet Jack receives was really given to new Jewish refugees, and it now makes uncomfortable reading with its insistence on 'gratitude' and subservience to the British. But, the English are quite a peculiar bunch and explaining some of our more unusual habits might be useful to a new arrival.
Many Jewish immigrants thought the route to being accepted was to become invisible. What would Jack have made of our multi-lingual information leaflets and all the many campaigns for recognising the various rights of different groups?
Ultimately the vision of England that Jack comes to embrace is friendship and a kinship with people and the landscape ¬- something that transcends language or cultural barriers. It's quite hard to imagine Jack's reaction to modern events - he's a man of his time and is already baffled by the modernity of 1953. However, he was made a refugee as a result of the Holocaust, so I am sure he would be a fierce advocate of the rights of other groups.
Names are significant indicators of heritage in the novel, and signify who belongs and who doesn't. Do you think it is important to preserve what Jack calls the 'chain' of names?
My grandfather and his brother split their family name, Schwartzscheld, in two, taking one half each: my grandfather becoming Mr Shields and his brother Mr Black. They were pragmatic men, relieved to have English names in post-war Britain and I am not aware that they experienced any great nostalgia for the broken name. Yet, it always made me feel incredibly sad. Names are important in Jewish culture and, in a way, I felt cut off from my family's past by the splitting of the name.
The book starts off with gentle humour but becomes increasingly sad, even tragic in places. Did it become darker during the writing process or had you always envisaged it going that way?
In an early draft of Mr Rosenblum the breaking of the name was actually the very first scene I wrote so I always envisioned the novel having this sadness at its heart. I think that some of the saddest things are also the funniest - I like using comedy and tragedy at once. The list itself is both comic and rather sinister.
Jack's wife observes that 'despite everything... he was an outsider'. Is it ever possible to fully belong? Is it desirable?
I always feel like an outsider, but then I think most writers do. I'd always rather be the person lurking at the edge of the party.
What writers have inspired you?
I love writers who make me laugh. I think books should be a pleasure to read. I admire Nathan Englander hugely as the humour in his stories makes them bearable to read even though the subjects are often tragic. When I'm writing, I tend to read more non-fiction as I find it distracting to have another writer's voice in my head. So, I'm really looking forward to reading Siri Hustvedt's new memoir The Shaking Woman - she is such a shrewd psychologist in her novels, I am fascinated to read what happens when she turns that gaze inwards. At bedtime I like to read cookery books. I always hope they will inspire delicious dreams.
What are you working on next?
I have actually just finished the first draft of my second novel (codenamed 'Fred') and feel rather bereft. Like most writers, I am a magpie and have filched various family stories to weave into the narrative. 'Fred' draws more upon my grandmother's story and that of her sisters, and all the paintings and jewellery in the novel are real, as are some key events. However, the joy of fiction is that all these things are transformed by the imagination and spun into something new.
The project I'm working on now is the film adaptation of Mr Rosenblum for Film 4/ Cowboy Films, which I'm writing with my husband, David. I'm really enjoying spending some more time with Jack - it's like visiting an old friend.