This is the third author talk I’ve organised with the Friends of West Barnes Library and it was particularly special. As I said to the audience of about 50 people (our biggest so far), it’s lovely to introduce them to authors I know but especially so when you’ve known them for more years than you care to admit to. It’s been wonderful to see their careers start and flourish over time. So who were our guests? Rhidian Brook, author of The Aftermath, now a feature film starring Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård. And Elisabeth Gifford with her book, The Good Doctor of Warsaw, my top read of 2018.
There are similarities with both novels. The Aftermath is set in Germany at the end of WW2 and, as the title suggests, The Good Doctor of Warsaw is set in Poland during WW2. But the key thing with these stories is the element of truth running through them. I suggested to them that Rhidian’s book is fiction inspired by a true event whereas Elisabeth’s is a fictionalised account of a true story. Both are remarkable.
The true story behind The Aftermath is a very personal one to Rhidian. He knew his grandfather had been out in Germany after the war but it wasn’t until his father sat him down and told him everything, that he sensed the possibility of a story. As in the novel, Rhidian’s grandfather, Walter Brook, was in charge of putting Hamburg back together again. And just like Lewis Morgan, Walter Brook suggested to his family that they share the large requisitioned house with its Germany owners. Apparently Mrs Brook was a bit hostile towards the idea. And that conflict sparked the beginning for this fantastic novel. Rhidian visited the house out in Hamburg as part of his research as well as grilling his aunt and uncle over their experiences too.
Dr Janusz Korczak is a figure that Elisabeth Gifford has long admired and she knew she wanted to write about him. As he died at Treblinka, she searched for others who may have known him. She managed to find one of his helpers, Misha, but he died before she could speak to him. She contacted his son though, Roman, who told her not just about Korczak but also about his parents’ incredible story of how they survived the Warsaw Ghetto. Only 1% actually survived.
I asked Elisabeth how she managed to translate the true story into fiction and the kind of responsibility she felt. Initially the book was quite factual and read more as a biography. So her publishers suggested she rewrote it as fiction. There was a huge responsibility to get it right, particularly with Misha and Sophia’s story. Where there were gaps in the narrative, Elisabeth had to ask Roman if she could make a few things up to ensure the story flowed. Thankfully he agreed!
For Rhidian it was easier as he was making up a story but he was keen to include things his family had told him. For example, the Rubble Kids, who were hung upside down over railway bridges to knock coal off the tops of goods trains down to the women below who would catch them in their skirts.
As their books contain themes such as forgiveness and reconciliation in The Aftermath (or redemption and hope as Keira Knightley put it in a recent TV interview) and dignity and hope in The Good Doctor of Warsaw, I asked how much their Christian faith influences their writing. Elisabeth said she’s managed to put a vicar in most of her books and no one has minded so far. For Rhidian, his earlier books had a more obvious Christian slant in comparison to The Aftermath, which is more thematic. His latest book, The Killing of Butterfly Joe, (which is set in 1980s USA at the height of tele-evangelists) has a character who’d like to be the American equivalent of the Pope and point out hypocrisy in the Church.
Now, as we had a rather large poster from The Aftermath film behind us, (thanks to Premier for providing us with publicity materials), we had to talk about the movie! Rhidian had already told me it was like watching someone else parent his child. The Aftermath was initially commissioned as a film before it was a novel. But it seemed sensible to write the book first. Rhidian did write a screenplay with more characters from the novel but was told it would be too expensive to make. So the storyline was pared down to the three main characters of Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) and Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård). I confessed I enjoyed the film better on second viewing as I was no longer looking to see what had been included from the book and what had been cut. Rhidian felt the same! (For my review of the movie click here )
My final question was about their current works in progress. Elisabeth is writing a novel set on the Scottish island of St Kilda where there has been no permanent population since 1930. Sounds intriguing! Rhidian has written the screenplay for The Killing of Butterfly Joe and he’s now working on something Crime related. Since he has previously written for Silent Witness (and in my opinion wrote excellent police officers) this could be very interesting!
A huge thank you to the Friends of West Barnes Library for their help in setting up the evening. And also we were very honoured to have photographer Colin Hart come and take photos for us, along with my daughter. A few weeks ago, Colin took photos at The Aftermath premiere so it was lovely he came to our much smaller event. Thank you Colin! So we have two slideshows – one from Colin (just above) and one from my daughter (further up). But biggest thanks of all to Rhidian Brook and Elisabeth Gifford for thoroughly entertaining us.
And we’re back again in May! This time it’s TUESDAY 14th May at 7.30 pm so a change of day. We’re staying in Europe (for books at least) as we welcome David Young and Daniel Pembrey who will tell us why they’ve set their novels on the Continent.