Posted on June 29, 2015 at 12:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
Author Julian Gray and his siblings knew their mother had lived through World War II as a English expatriate in Austria.
What they didn’t know, until they found her application to become a British citizen again, was what she had to do to survive.
The interrogation papers in that citizenship file inspired Gray to write a novel based on his mother’s experiences under a pseudonym. Interrogating Ellie has received considerable acclaim and recently was among Amazon UK’s top-selling 100 Kindle books.
Gray spoke with us about the discovery and the process of memorializing his mother.
SADYE: Did you ever suspect that your mother had this much more to tell?
JULIAN: She died when I was seventeen. I always knew there were things she hadn’t told me — and perhaps didn’t want to tell anyone — but I didn’t dwell on it.
If she had lived longer I wonder whether she would have wanted to tell me everything about her experiences. Some things might have been too traumatic, or too embarrassing to discuss with her son, or which, rightly or wrongly, made her feel ashamed.
On the other hand, she might have welcomed the chance to unburden herself.
SADYE: How long did it take you to decide to write “Interrogating Ellie”?
JULIAN: I had the idea of writing about it a week or two after reading the file, but had to decide whether to write it as a novel or as a nonfiction book. In the end I went for the fiction format, finally deciding on this about two months into the project.
SADYE: How hard was it to research and write such a novel?
JULIAN: I found some amazing resources, including eyewitness accounts written by American and British intelligence officers.
As well as telling me a lot about the conditions these men encountered in occupied territories, these were also very revealing about their own political and moral attitudes.
These had a direct bearing on how my mother was judged by the people processing her application to come home to the UK.
... I could visit the places where she lived, now that I knew where they were. That led to some surprising and revealing conversations with people I met. And I could talk to people in my family who remembered her.
In some cases she had told them things that I hadn’t known, or that they had been reluctant to discuss with me up until then. Working out how to deal with sensitive family issues wasn’t always easy, and I hope I got it right.
But overall, I wouldn’t say it was hard. It was a gripping journey of discovery and many readers have said they go on that journey too as they progress though the book.
SADYE: Have you been surprised by the success of Interrogating Ellie in the Kindle marketplace?
JULIAN: At first I had no way of knowing whether the book would be popular, since novel writing and marketing is all new to me, so when I saw the sales figures climbing so steeply it felt great.
She is buried in an unmarked grave, and we children have sometimes talked about raising a headstone there. In a way, this book is my own memorial to her.
People who never met her can learn about her extraordinary life and times. That’s what pleases me more than anything.
SADYE: How do you think your mother would react to the novel?
JULIAN: She might be delighted about a sympathetic treatment of her difficult journey through life, and the courage and energy she displayed in overcoming adversity. Or she might be embarrassed at her secrets and some of her failings being revealed.
She might laugh to think that I imagined things were like this, when really she remembers them as so different.
She might be pleased, as a self-educated woman, who loved literature, art and music, whose own formal schooling was rudimentary and halted at the age of 14, to feel that her son could write a novel.
She could react in all of these ways and more.
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Categories: Author Interview