This year's "One Book One Jewish Community" selection is NBC special correspondent Martin Fletcher's first novel, The List. The story begins at the close of World War II in London, where the main characters, Georg and Edith, a young married Jewish couple, have found refuge from Nazi Europe. They are eagerly expecting their first child. Still, all is not tranquil. Georg can't get work, Edith has already lost one baby, and anti-Semitism in England is rearing its ugly head. The story also includes a potential terrorist plot that ensnares Georg unknowingly and touches other refugees in their circle.
Rabbi Phil Warmflash and Debbie Leon of the Jewish Learning Venture, which oversees the One Book program and the year's worth of events tied to it, explained that the novel was chosen because it touches on themes the program hasn't approached yet: the immediate post-Holocaust world and the pre-Israel world.
Warmflash, the group's executive director, said that when they choose a book, they are also selecting a course of study that will engage a broad spectrum of readers. "Because of its subject matter and how it's written, The List opens up a new area of learning for the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community," he said.
The kickoff event this year will feature the author speaking at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen on Sunday, Oct. 30, at 7 p.m. For more info, see www.jewishlearningventure.org/onebook or call: 215-320-0386.
Fletcher, the British-born former Tel Aviv bureau chief for NBC, spoke to Jewish Exponent Senior Editor Robert Leiter by phone from his home in Israel.
Q: Here you are, someone who's been in TV news for 40 years, mostly reporting from dangerous war zones, writing a story steeped in facts. So why did you decide to write it as fiction and not as history?
A: The bottom line was that I always wanted to write a novel, but the only kind of stories that have ever interested me were the ones with some history to them. I knew when I began the book that I would have to do lots of research, but I also understood that the more I knew about the real part of the story, the better the novel would be.
I also wanted to draw attention to the period, the time right at the end of the war in England. And the subject does relate to the work I've done as a journalist. I would go to all these places and report on these horrible events. And yet, though the events may have been terrible, the people I met in every area were amazing. So I began to realize that the stories I've always wanted to tell have been about the aftermath of terrible events — the rebuilding of lives after tragedy. And that's the kind of story I'm telling in The List: How my parents — or people like them — rebuilt their lives after the tragedy of the Holocaust.
Q: Was it difficult to switch from writing news to fiction? And how did you work to get the blend of fact and fiction that's so seamless in the book?
A: Going from TV writing where you do a story in 350 words, then to writing two non-fiction books — well, trying fiction was scary at first. But I knew I wanted to write an emotional story and also try to do a novel.
But I also understood that if I was going to tackle, for example, the anti-Semitic speeches that were delivered in Britain back then, I had better be right about them. All those parts of the book are taken from things that actually were said. I didn't have to invent anything. There was plenty of nasty stuff, but I did have to do the research to find it all.
And yes, I was always trying to find the way between fact and fiction. But I realized that if you did this story solely as non-fiction, you could easily get the facts right, but what would you have told about the people? That's why I wanted it to be fiction. I wanted to tell what that time in history was like for people, like my parents and others.
Q: You say at the very end of the novel that the two main characters have your parents' names, but that this is not their story. Still, these characters are so clearly seen that they had to have some of your parents in them. How much of the story was based on their lives?
A: I struggled with that a lot. My father was a lawyer like Georg in the book, and my mother did stitch up stockings to make some extra money, as Edith does. I even used their real address at the time. I did want to tell their story, but in reality I don't know it. They never talked about it. I did read their letters from that period and I knew where they lived and what they did during the day, but I never knew what they thought or how they felt. So I spoke to other refugees and read memoirs and tried to piece things together.
But a character like Anna, Edith's cousin who appears suddenly in England and has been in the camps — she's totally fictional. I wanted her to be so damaged that she couldn't talk about herself. I did want her to be a major figure but not a protagonist.
Q: In the end, what do you want readers to take away from your book?
A: First of all, it's an incredible honor that it was chosen as the 'One Book' selection. I'm over the moon about it — I just wanted to say that.
For me, the key to the story is, as I said, the rebuilding of lives. Now that sounds like a tragic story, and it is for the most part. But I wanted the novel to have a happy ending.
Someone once said that the Jewish revenge for the Holocaust was to create a family. Maybe that was what guided me to my ending. I saw the baby born to Georg and Edith — as much as to their crowd of refugee friends — as the beginning of a new life. No matter how much death was behind these characters — and they'd all lost so many relatives — that child stands for the rebirth out of tragedy.