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THE EARTH IS SINGING by VANESSA CURTIS (published by Usborne) is an intense, chilling story about one girl's struggle to survive the horrors of the Holocaust. While the story is fiction, it is based on the facts of the Riga Ghetto in Latvia. We asked author Vanessa Curtis tells us more about her writing and what inspired her latest book.
Q: Writing isn't your first career, is it?
A: No, I started off in music. When I was in my 20's I had a lot of fun in rock / pop bands, playing the keyboard. I've also played other instruments including the church organ, harpsichord, flute and violin. I still teach the piano today. I realised I could earn some money from it and now I do that and my writing from home. I teach two afternoons a week and I've the rest of the time free for writing and my public relations work.
Q: What kind of books do you like to read?
A: When I was younger I'd probably have enjoyed Enid Blyton's books but they were forbidden in our house; they weren't considered to be great literature. My parents were both English teachers and were passionate about English literature. When I was a teenager I enjoyed MR James's ghost stories and Virginia Andrews's novels. I still read a lot although at the moment it's mainly for research for my books, including German history in the 1950s and the holocaust. I really enjoy reading non-fiction.
Q: What inspired you to write The Earth is Singing, which is based on what happened to the Latvian Jews during WW2?
A: Writing this book came about after a chance remark by my mother about her grandmother having been Latvian; I thought my family had always lived in Ilford and Essex but then I also found out that my great grandfather was from Poland, so I had all this Eastern European family history that I was unaware of.
I started reading up about the Riga Jews as I found out that my great grandmother was from that area; she was from Talsen, just outside Riga. She came here to the UK in 1905 and got married to my great grandfather who was a Polish Jew and they worked as a tailor and seamstress. Because all the local records of families in Riga were burned by the Russians, I've never been able to find out more about the rest of her Latvian family and what happened to them.
Q: Did you feel you needed to visit Riga to help you write the book?
A: I went to Riga for a five day holiday and went back to the area of the Jewish ghetto. The roads and many of the buildings from that time still exist. It's very run down and there's a lot of poverty but walking down those streets really coloured how I wrote the book.
What stayed in my head was the Riga Ghetto Museum and the photos of those who perished. There were so many children and school children, I felt I needed to tell their stories. That also coloured my main character Hannah's story. I took her name from a list of those who were in the ghetto and there is hope at the end that she will survive, because I wanted her story to have some light.
Q: Your story about Hannah is based on true events that took place at Riga, so how did you plan it?
A: I got some historical information from the Riga Museum but most of my material came from books and memoirs written at the time about The Jews of Riga.
I drew up lots of charts marking key events during the war in Riga which I had pinned to my desk so all the events are based on true happenings, plus I researched Jewish foods and festivals and the key dates in 1941.
It's all factually accurate including some of the buildings that I saw during my visit to Riga. The prison was a horrible, foreboding building, so many awful things happened there and lots of people have been buried around it. I had a list of places I wanted to see and all of them were more horrendous than I had expected, places made more awful by the terrible things that had happened there.
Q: Have your family helped inspire any of the characters in your book?
A: The women in Hannah's family, her mother and grandmother, are very strong. They were inspired by the Jewish women in my mum's family who were all quite strong. I had that image of them sitting and talking and overshadowing the men and forcing food down their family; of course during the war the food ran out.
Many of the Latvian men were sent off to camps in Siberia by the Russians, after they invaded. In my story, Hannah's father disappeared because he, too, was sent by the Russians to a labour camp. We never find out his fate because I wanted him to be there as a beacon of hope for Hannah, for her to have the hope that he hadn't perished at the camp.
Q: Why do you write Hannah's story in the first person?
A: I always write in the first person, I have tried to write other ways but I like the immediacy of seeing it all happen through Hannah's eyes. At the beginning she's innocent but by the end of it she is far older than her years.
Q: This is the first historical fiction novel you've written; how different is it from writing fictional novels?
A: I like things that are based on reality and that I can use as the framework of the story. As a child I didn't have that love of history at all, I didn't do very well at my exams and my love of history came later through reading and watching television programmes and documentaries.
Writing the novel was very stop-start because of all the research you need to do and double checking street names and so on, but the hardest part to write was the murders in the forest. I wanted to convey the horror of what had happened there without having been there. I didn't want to write it badly because of the people who had died there; 30,000 people in the space of eight days. At the end, there were just 150 Jews who survived the massacre.
Q: What are you writing next?
A: The next book you'll see from me is a ghost novel, set partly in the present and partly in the 1890's. I also plan to write a book about the aftermath of WWII. That one will be set in 1950's Munich and will explore what happened to the children who were stolen under Himmler's plan to take children from their Eastern European families to be brought up as Germans. That book is still in its early stages.
Q: How does your writing day go?
A: There are lots of things going on now. I normally try to go to my desk and write 1000 words a day; some days I write more and others I write less. Once I've got the whole draft done and planned, my agent and editor tell me what changes they want.
Q: What do you do to escape?
A: For Christmas we stayed at a haunted castle near Dorchester; I'm quite interested in the paranormal (which is why I wrote The Haunting of Tabitha Grey) and we decided to stay there just for something different to do for a holiday - although I was quite nervous about doing so....
I also work as a literary consultant, getting debut novels into shape, which is something I can do from home.
Q: What's your worst distraction when you're writing?
A: Definitely social media - twitter, facebook and browsing the internet....