Book Chat: Catherine Bauer
Catherine Bauer is a journalist, media advisor and award-winning author from South Australia. Her latest book, Tulips for Breakfast, tells the story of Lena, a Jewish girl in hiding in Amsterdam during World War 2. It captures not only the hardships of this time, and the heroic risks taken by many to shelter targeted groups from the Nazis, but also draws a moving portrait of Lena dealing with these challenges as she comes of age.
A very warm welcome to Book Chat, Catherine, and congratulations on the publication of Tulips for Breakfast. It’s an incredibly impressive feat of research, storytelling and indeed truth-telling that will play an important role in keeping alive the legacy and stories of so many people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, as well as many who risked their lives to protect those targeted for persecution, particularly Jewish people.
Firstly, I’d love to learn a little more about your own journey as an author. I believe it started at quite a young age!
Thanks for having me on your blog Cameron. My journey did start at an early age – I was about eight years old in fact! My parents were great readers and had a wonderful library of books including some of my Mum’s illustrated fairytale books from her childhood. Dad used to tell us stories about growing up in southwest Germany during WWII. So, this was all good fodder for sparking my imagination.
I used to write stories and illustrate the pages. I convinced Mum to post one to the UK for me – it was a mermaid stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean. After what felt like an age, I received a very kind and politely worded rejection – but one that also encouraged me to keep going with my writing ambitions.
What began the specific journey of writing Tulips for Breakfast?
I’ve always been interested in history – maybe learning about my Dad’s childhood experiences was a spark for that. At 13 – a very impressionable age for most of us – I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I was struck by Anne’s maturity, her outlook despite the isolation and growing up in hiding. I felt very connected to her. In addition, my father shared a story as I was growing up about his hardworking parents – not Nazi sympathisers – who somehow got their hands on a German officer’s overcoat. It was made of the best fabric and my grandmother dyed it and used it to make clothing for my Dad and his older brother. They were a poor family with five kids and forced to be thrifty. The story symbolised that something representing evil – the coat – could also be transformed into something useful. I think those things were the basic ingredients to the seed of my story.
Thank you. I’d also love to know about the process you went through in the drafting of Tulips for Breakfast. Had you decided how things would ultimately pan out for Lena and her family before you began writing your manuscript?
Yes and no. I had a general idea, but as I wrote, the characters often seemed to dictate the direction things took.
Tulips for Breakfast is clearly the fruit of a vast amount of research. Did your research lead to any unexpected plot turns or revisions as you embarked on the drafting process?
Indeed, my research was vast and far reaching. I think one thing that emerged was the lengths that people will go to in order to survive. I feel that the human race by and large, is extremely resilient. The concept of Frau Achterberg – potentially being a collaborator, was born from learning more about those who felt that in order to survive, in order to protect themselves and their families, they needed to collaborate with the Nazis.
And the idea that parents chose to surrender their children to strangers, trusting others to care for them and keep them safe, was something I initially found hard to understand. But in speaking to children who had been given up, I gained more insight into this very difficult decision made my so many Jewish parents. These ideas did inform my characters’ reactions and behaviours.
One of the many things I admired about Tulips for Breakfast was that although Lena was living in confinement for much of the book, you managed to bring the outside world into the story in believable ways. Was this difficult to achieve?
I don’t think it’s something I did particularly consciously. I love the outdoors myself and would hate to know that I was going to be stuck inside for an unknown period of time. I am sure that in the same situation, like Lena, I would find a way to sneak out to get a dose of fresh air and nature.
For me, another of the strengths of Tulips for Breakfast is that it is written in first person voice, and gives the reader deep insights into Lena’s thoughts and feelings, as well as a sense of her increasing maturity as the months and years go by. Did you find any particular advantages or challenges in presenting Lena’s story in her own voice, albeit from an older perspective?
I’ve always been in touch with my inner child, or my younger self – maybe that’s part of having a lively imagination and feeling things quite deeply. It wasn’t at all difficult writing in first person for me – many of Lena’s feelings were my feelings. I was a bit awkward and uncertain growing up – until I grew into myself and found my own voice. I vividly recall those confused and self-conscious years and not knowing what lay ahead in life and how to navigate things. Combining all that uncertainty with the fear and all the unknowns that must come with war, separation from loved ones and new environments, was probably something that put flesh on the bones of Lena’s character.
Can you offer any advice to writers dealing with the Holocaust or other dark periods in history, particularly in regards to presenting these times and their associated themes to younger readers?
I think it’s helpful to try to think like a young person and ask, ‘How would a child react to this situation?’ ‘What would they say?’ ‘What questions would they be asking themselves and others?’ Put yourself in the child’s shoes – how much are they actually exposed to? Do they accept more easily than adults?
I often used the idea of a news service or news on the street as a filter for sharing some of the horrors of this period, so that it wasn’t too graphic.
I think a lot of writers are tentative about attempting historical fiction due to the challenges involved in negotiating fictional elements in a specific historical context. It’s a responsibility that you obviously take very seriously. Can you offer any advice to other writers as to how to strike a believable and respectful balance between fictional and factual elements in a historical novel?
It’s so important to read primary accounts or where possible to speak with those who have lived experience. I corresponded with Hannah Goslar Pick, who recently passed away at her home in Jerusalem. Hannah was one of Anne’s best friends and saw her not long before Anne died in the Bergen Belsen camp.
Research is essential – whether it’s history books, visiting an historic location, watching acclaimed documentaries, or speaking with experts in the field. Once you have a good understanding of the period, you can start to place your characters into the time, walk with them through the streets, converse about topics of the time and so on.
That's great advice. Thank you. So, what’s next for Catherine Bauer?
I’m always working on something – and one of those is a sequel that takes Lena from Europe to Australia after war.
That's wonderful news. I'll be very interested to read about Lena's next chapter. In the meantime, where are the best places for readers to find you online and get hold of Tulips for Breakfast, as well as your other books?
Book shops including Dymocks, Collins Booksellers, Abbey’s Bookshop, QBD Books and on line at Booktopia, Angus and Robertson and Ford Street Publishing.
Many thanks for taking the time to chat, Catherine. It’s a great honour to help spread the word about Tulips for Breakfast – a book that deserves and needs to be widely read, now more than ever.
Thank you for your interest in the novel and how it came into being – great questions!
Thanks again, Catherine. It's been an absolute pleasure.
This post is part of a blog tour for Tulips for Breakfast, presented by Books On Tour PR & Marketing. Please keep following Catherine's journey on all of the fine blogs and sites below.