I was going through my office two weeks ago — looking for the little information I had collected about my grandfather Wilms. Unlike, my maternal grandfather, whom I based my book The Grain Fields on, I didn’t get a chance to speak to him about his time during the Second World War. He died of Alzheimers when I was quite young. I have begun a new project recently, with him in mind, and I am just starting to do my early research (stay tuned to future posts about the work I have begun).
Anyways, amongst the hand written notes, computer-typed interviews and timelines I stumbled upon a blurry, poor quality photograph of my brother, grandfather Giesbrecht (maternal) and me walking down a dirt road in Ukraine. On the back of the photo — the date — July 2003. I sat there for a moment and was awestruck by the passing of time. It is silly and probably a little cliché at this point, because I have written about this topic numerous times in my blog and in my book — I discussed this very thing countless times with my grandfather — the tricks our brains play on us when reminiscing about our past. But it is still so strange to run your fingers over a crinkled photograph and see the person you once were — to see my brother and his long curly hair — curls that he shares with my grandfather. My Opa’s weighted stance, hands by his pockets — trying to hide his limp from old war wounds.
For myself, I remember this trip being an early spark, a little snippet, or an early step so to speak — in the development of my research of my maternal grandfather’s story and the beginnings of my project The Grain Fields.
While sitting in my office, holding this photo, my finished work (The Grain Fields) all around me, my mind began to reminisce of the events that led me to where I was in that moment — of what steps my grandfather and I took to piece together his story from such a pivotal time in world history. And then subsequently what became my story — the sharing of our conversations, his struggles during the war, the close relationship of grandfather and grandson and the importance of him to me.
So today I want to share some of those steps or decisions with you. Some of them were wonderful and some of them were painful, but as time always does it allows us to reflect. And I find myself wanting and needing to share some of them now.
Research, Research, Research
When creating this list, this was the first thing that I wrote down. I then crossed it out, because I thought it too obvious. But research is everything. It is the excitement — the foundation — the best part. It is where you uncover the shards of glass that were once the windows of our lives.
My undergrad degree at the University of Winnipeg was specifically chosen because of the stories my grandfather had shared with me. I wanted to know more. I searched out classes and instructors that would give me the knowledge and background I needed to properly understand the time period in which my grandfather and family grew up in. And then after I completed those courses, I searched out topics in history that I found influenced my grandfather’s time period.
History: if you want to understand today, make sure you read about yesterday and if you want to understand yesterday, you better read about the day before that.
I don’t know where I would be in this project without the writings of Tony Judt and Professor Christopher Browning. And of course the instruction and guidance of Dr. Catherine Chatterley
Now I am not saying you have to get a degree to write your project, but you have to go down the rabbit hole. It may seem dry at times, but you never know when you might stumble upon a gem.
In my final year at the university of Winnipeg I was doing some reading about analyzing old documents and the proper procedures for handling, preserving and or restoring them (I know, exhilarating). It was in the conclusion that I found one of my research gems. It talked about the importance of blowing up photographs — even if you think there is nothing to note.
It might seem somewhat obvious today, but computers can brighten and alter a photo and bring your eye to find some detail you never noticed. I didn’t check right away, there wasn’t this sudden euphoric moment, but at home in my own time I thought about old photos of my grandfather in uniform. Early on in my research a big problem was that I had nothing to correlate his stories to an accurate historical timeline. The stories all made sense, but I needed that ‘piece’ to attach the personal stories to historical fact. A lot of my research focused on ‘connecting the dots’ so to speak. I took my photo into a print shop and had it digitally enhanced and printed. And sure enough as I am examining a photo I have looked at a million times, I spot it — at the bottom left a stamp — SCHINDLER BYSTRICE 1944. Now, my heart jumped. I looked at the original — nothing. Back on the blown up image it was clear as day. A stamp that was only visible under microscope not only told me the date of the photo, but also gave me the name of the shop and the location where it was taken. This little detail stamped specific stories and memories into the historical timeline I needed. It came from reading perhaps the driest of books. An important step.
You have to spend the time. Research or proper research is what provides your story with legitimacy. It gives it meat and leads you in different, but important directions. When you think you’ve done enough reading, say to yourself, ‘nope, not so much.’ No one will fault you for too much research. And like all my professors and instructors hounded us for — use a wide range of sources — variety.
Travel to the places you write about
This can fall under research, but travel gives a writer context. Don’t miss this most important step. If you are writing about the Vietnamese jungle, but have never been, how can you portray this to your audience? How can you describe the moisture, heat or the noises? What gives you credibility?
It allows you to get inside your subject’s head or understand a certain topic — it gives your writing clear articulate descriptions. Let me give you a couple examples.
I spent my undergrad degree learning about the Holocaust. We read about the camps, the hatred and the systematic murder — six million. But the more and more I read about it, the number of six million became less and less significant. I couldn’t put it into context. It wasn’t until I walked onto the grounds of Auschwitz — went through the camp and found myself staring at the thousands of pairs of glasses, countless suitcases and the mounds of human hair — that this number truly affected me. I could understand the lives lost — it became quantitative — the writing on the suitcases — Sacha from Bucharest, Anna from Warsaw and Peter from Germany. It all became real to me. You cant get that feeling from a textbook.
Another example — perhaps one of the most important to me. During my university classses I would read about the ghettos and the deplorable conditions. I also read about the number of concentration camps — nearly 100,000. With so many ghettos and camps across Europe I wanted to know what an everyday Ukrainian/German knew about what was going on. At first the answers from my grandfather were pretty straightforward — short answered. “we didn’t see much.”
Later as our conversations matured — he talked about Lodz and arriving there in 1943. During my studies we learned about the Litzmanstadt (Lodz) Ghetto, which was the second largest during the war.
Still the answers weren’t very descriptive. It wasn’t until I had been there and walked the streets of where the ghetto once stood that I saw answers. The ghetto was in the middle of the city dividing it into two portions — to get to the other side one had to go through check points — through the ghetto. There was no way to not see it.
When I returned, I was able to communicate with my grandfather on a whole new level. We talked about the check points — getting his hair, shoes, clothes checked for contraband. He suddenly opened up to me about seeing the starving and sick — seeing the yellow star. Though this information was difficult to share I could see the release in his eyes — the not worrying or holding back. Our conversations became intimate. Seeing what he saw had a tremendous effect on him. By talking about it I could see his fear washing away. We had created a level of trust and I would never trade that connection for all the money of the world.
In 10 years I went numerous times overseas to trace my grandfather’s steps. Travel gives you context — don’t miss out.
Plan your interviews, but don’t be afraid to go off course
I remember being in a interview with my grandfather. This interview we had set aside time to talk about his adventures with his friends swimming in the Dnieper River. I wanted to get a feeling for the jovial, day to day interactions he had with his friends. He kept on telling me how the sun, the wonderful Ukrainian sun, tickled his skin. After countless tales of his shenanigans along the river banks, we decided to take a 10 minute break to get up and stretch. We were seated in the living room of his Charleswood home and he got up and walked toward the window. It was in March, winter was putting up it’s last fight of the year — a fresh snow fall and -20c temperatures.
He was silent for a few minutes while looking out the window. Finally, hands in his pockets — rocking from heals to toes like he did, he said, “You know, my guy, it was this cold when we set out from Bonn for our attack during the Battle of the Bulge.”
I remember my back stiffened. I was still on the couch going over the summer stories of splashing water, wild fruits and summer sun. Such a change in setting was somewhat startling. I still had numerous questions I wanted to return to, but something had triggered my grandfather’s memory. Still to this day I have no idea what made him switch gears from something so happy to something so violent. The snow? the moisture in the corner of the windows? Or was it the pain of grenade shrapnel he still felt in his knee from the fighting? But you can bet that I had follow up questions. Our interview changed focus. Some thing had bumped a shard of a memory close to the surface of his mind and I didn’t want to lose it.
I usually planned my interviews with basic questions and then as the subject matter began to be recalled with ease I worked my way to the centre of the story or memory. My plan or process for interviews was kind of like those circular mazes you’d find in those activity books growing up. The interviews cannot just start with the most complex details — there is too much dust on the memories to pull them up that quickly. You have to ease into it and a question asked too early might delay the most accurate answer you are looking for.
This was a process that worked well for me. When my grandfather would have an off chute memory or emotion from our originally planned subject matter I would just start a new mind maze — with questions created on the fly or sometimes I didn’t need questions at all and would just let him share the story.
Fact or Fiction?
Make this choice — don’t over look it — it is a tough one. But an important decision to make. When telling the story make the difficult decision of whether you want to tell it as a non-fiction or fiction. Both of them are wonderful choices — they have so many positives. Both allow you to pour out your heart on the pages and leave it there for interpretation. But there are differences that can cause pain — especially if your story is about someone close.
Non fiction tells the story based on fact, real events and real people. Fiction too can be based on fact, real events and real people — all the interviews, research and time that you spent cataloguing someone’s experiences have inspired you to write what you wrote, but it is just how you portray it that changes whether you can call your story non fiction or fiction. By choosing to call something fiction or non fiction doesn’t take anything away from the all encompassing process of writing the story. It doesn’t belittle or lessen your work and accomplishments. In my humble opinion — fiction or writing something that is inspired by true events is there to protect you — much like a disclaimer in a movie. It is there to protect your heart from attack.
For myself, I made the choice to blend the two — a creative non fiction or a meta fiction. I don’t regret it, but I know now I would have done some things differently. I found I wasn’t prepared for the emotional and even angered response my story — about my grandfather and I — would cause for some people. Some times the stories mean different things to different people and when it involves history it will always be interpreted differently.
I thought I was prepared. I had done my homework. I had spent the hours in libraries, interviews and travelling through Europe. I had spent the time with my grandfather. I poured my heart and soul into the pages and when it was met with differences of opinion — even unfounded and unfair differences — I felt like I had failed. I cannot stress how damaging it was to my character and for a long time I struggled with this great accomplishment I had made. One thing you must never forget — writing, collecting and publishing someone’s stories is an amazing accomplishment! Don’t ever lose sight of that or let someone convince you otherwise.
I read a beautiful article on the BBC called, My Father fought the CIA’s secret war in Laos. The title is pretty self explanatory, but the article focused on the son’s steps in uncovering his dad’s story.
“When researching family history, you think you are prepared. But it is always an emotional minefield… A story frozen in amber and each time we conjure them, we distort them.”
The emotions after writing and sharing the story can sometimes be tougher than the actual journey. Or better yet, the sharing of the completed work is part of the journey and might be the toughest test. The decision between classifying it as fiction or non fiction can help that.
Share Your Writing Along the Way
During my book launch and in interviews a popular question was asked — “did your Opa know you were writing this pretty open-look at your relationship and his time during the war?”
The simple answer is yes. He knew — we spoke regularly about my writing. And if you read the book it is easy to see — because of the way our relationship was and the way I portrayed it in the book. I constantly shared my interpretation of his stories with him. I also made the choice to share them with anyone willing to read them as I was writing the book. A year before I published, I posted many of them on my blog — for anyone and everyone to read — including my grandfather. It made me proud that he could follow along with me on my journey to write about his time during the war and the closeness we shared.
I also liked getting feedback from him about the subject matter. I liked hearing from him about what he was thinking and feeling as he read the work. I wanted to know a. if he approved, but b. if there was something I was missing or had got wrong from his memories. I don’t need to say it is important as a researcher or a writer to get feedback on your work — it is a given.
He died before he could read the bound version — something I wish I could have shared with him, but not only was it invaluable to have him review my writing, but it made me proud to know he approved.
I remember after his death going through his home office and finding drawers and drawers full of my writings, blog posts and emails we had shared. Some of them had his hand written notes on them — there were countless duplicates, which tells me he reread them and then read them again. It is one of those heart warming moments that I will always treasure. There was this feeling, sitting in his old office chair, with him having shuffled off this mortal coil and feeling his hand on my shoulder — “I am proud of you my guy.”
Sharing before the publication can be quite a beautiful experience.
Find an editor as passionate as you are
Your editor is kinda like your mother. She or he is there to scold you when you are just not getting it, to encourage you through the rewrites, and to sell your story when they are just so darn proud of you.
A good editor can sometimes make or break story. What I mean by that is, they will pick up on some detail or underlying emotion or trait from your writing and ask you to explore it — bring it to the surface — “allow the reader enjoy and savor it.”
I found it kind of funny, but when looking for editors early on — the good ones would sometimes be interviewing me. By this I mean they were working their own mind maze, trying to unravel the details of my story and the process I took to writing it. The good ones beforehand researched me, they researched the subject matter and then interviewed me. I could see their passion in the questions they asked and the way they had prepared themselves. They wanted to understand me and my manuscript. Noting these details is important — this is your baby after all — your blood, sweat and tears. You cant just give it to anyone.
This process definitely created a connection and level of comfort for me. It is important to have that connection with your editor.