Belinda Castles tells us here about the real-life family members who inspired her exquisite novel about love, war and loss, Hannah & Emil. This is such a special insight into what has inspired the creation of a novel:
The story of my grandparents, Heinz and Fay, is really a collection of many stories, as is true for all lives, but particularly those marked by war and displacement. When I began to research and write a novel about them (Hannah and Emil), I had to decide which stories I thought were defining, which episodes would suggest to readers what it might have been like to experience all the difficulties that they lived through.
Heinz, a political opponent of the Nazis, escaped from Germany in 1933, fleeing tragedy and danger. In Brussels he met Fay, a translator working for the trade union movement. They settled in England, her home, and ran a youth hostel until 1940, when Heinz was arrested as an enemy alien, sent to Australia and interned at Hay Camp in the Riverina.
Fay, a person of relentless drive, used British Labour Party and trade union contacts to follow him across U-boat infested waters. She finally had him freed for war work in April 1942, almost two years after his internment, and they married in Melbourne, having two sons and returning to England after the war.
One of the elements of their story that has always intrigued me is that Heinz left behind a son in Germany, whom he never mentioned to his Australian boys. They learned of him only when Heinz died. This boy, they discovered, fought for the Hitler Youth Army in the last months of the war. My grandmother Fay was Jewish, a fact also revealed only after Heinz’s death, and these family secrets have always seemed somehow twin poles of the family’s experience of that war.
I came across this photograph while researching the book.
Here is the German son, sitting on his father’s shoulders, a haunting kind of evidence of a boy that became a secret. I wondered what awful gap he had left in my grandfather’s life amid the continual loss and exile. And here is another photograph from the same sequence, which I believe was taken near Winchester, where my grandparents ran their hostel in the 1930s.
This one, remarkably, shows the boy with his mother between my grandparents. So here is Heinz, his ex-wife, their son and his English lover Fay. They all are together, somehow, before history rolled relentlessly on, right over the top of them.
Fiction gave me the possibility of imagining what brought them all together, and what might have driven them apart again. For me, the boy, in our family but missing from it, was the secret that kept me writing, that made me want to know, in the strange way that stories allow us to, what it was like for the people who belong to us, but who lived lives so far removed from our own.
Novelist Belinda Castles won the Vogel Award for her first book, The River Baptists, and has a Doctorate in Creative Arts from the University of Western Sydney's prestigious Writing & Society Research Group. Hannh & Emil was released in August 2012 and is published by Allen & Unwin.