Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Accidental Memoirist

 I don’t know if it’s part of being a writer that draws it to me or if it is what made me into a writer, but for as long as I can remember people have been telling me their stories. Mostly people much older than me who have experienced interesting lives or great challenges, such as living through World War II in Europe.

The true value of these stories didn’t hit me until a few years back when I'd finally found the perfect way to tell my mother’s stories which I’d carried with me for years with the intent of writing them down. This led to first a short story being published and then a novella, Tales from the Fountain Pen. You will find that about 60 to 75% of the events in those stories are true. I’ve just woven a satisfying story around them.

After that novella was published I finally began to see these ongoing gifts of stories I was receiving. Just by taking the time to listen to people whose lives did not play out in the ephemeral realms of FaceBook, or some other social media site that asks you to be a witness to every moment of members’ lives (as if perhaps a life has less value unless it is witnessed).

Just a couple short years ago I started working on a novel, which I now see will be a trilogy, set in Strasbourg, France, during WWII. I contacted a friend who lives there and he very happily set out to gather information from his octogenarian patients who frequented his medical practice. It’s where I learned many of the little details of daily life during the occupation/annexation, which I’ve put in the story.

But then one day I got a different email from my friend. He’d sent me a picture of the back of an envelope with an address in Washington State (where I lived at the time) and asked if I knew where this was, and could I contact this person as she was the cousin of his best friend who had just died. His purpose was two-fold. First to let her know that he had found a case under his friend’s bed filled with pictures of her as a young child that he’d like to return to her, and second, he wanted to get in contact to somehow maintain a link to his best friend.

After a couple of days of solid online research and with the help of I was able to track this cousin down and learned she lived only 10 minutes from me. I contacted her and we met for coffee. I brought my laptop and a flashdrive with all the pictures my friend had copied and emailed to me. Within a few minutes of meeting we were fast friends and I learned of her incredible life story, which started in 1939 in an area known at the time as Bohemia, from there into refugee camps, on to France, and finally to be reunited with her mother who in the 1950s had emigrated to the US with the help of an CIA agent who’d fallen in love with her.

There are volumes I could write just from that first encounter with my new friend, but the best gift was still to come. 
My French friend emailed to say he had found a hidden suitcase that had belonged to someone they had assumed was his friend’s grandfather, but was in fact not … or was he?

He started sending me copies of old tintype photos and newspaper clippings of this man of mystery. A former pilot for the Austro-Hungarian military during WWI when he’d only been in his teens and people flew airplanes made of canvas, wood, spit and bailing wire. Then followed pictures showing him as a dandy, a fashionable young man about town, a musician, an actor, a tailor. A dashing figure of mystery.

But the final pieces that kept Karl Feix in my mind all these years were copies of a series of travel documents all issued in 1939 but at different locations in Germany, each listing his occupation as something different, and each giving permission to visit a different country.

There was also a copy of part of a letter he wrote to someone who might have been a lover, but she left for New York in search of a rich husband, and to get out of Germany as the Nazis were rising to power. Who was she and how did she fit into the story?

But more intriguingly … how did a man who appeared most likely to be a spy of some sort between the wars, come to be the surrogate father for my new Seattle friend? He helped her grandmother raise her in France after he arranged for them to get refugee status there. He was not related to them nor was he in any kind of relationship with my friend’s grandmother – who was at least 30 years older than him.

These intertwined stories and mysteries continue to haunt me as I search for information and the means to deeply research and write them … Ideally as a satisfying fictionalization, though even as pure biography their stories would make for compelling reading.

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