It may not be ideal to launch a new novel in the middle of a pandemic, but there are worse things. Like being a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Paris in WWII. Dee White’s new middle-grade novel, ‘Beyond Belief’ introduces us to Ruben, who is living that troubled life.
So, I invited Dee to come along and answer some questions about the writing of ‘Beyond Belief’. But because it’s my blog, I get to tell you a bit first. 🙂
In Paris, 1942, 11 year-old Ruben is hiding from the Nazis inside the Grand Mosque in Paris. His parents have fled south to Spain, but it’s too dangerous for a child like him to travel with them. For now, Ruben must abandon his Jewish heritage and take on a new identity. He must learn to be Muslim while he waits for someone called ‘the Fox’ to fetch him and take him to his parents and his sister. But it’s taking too long. Each day, life becomes more dangerous for him and for the community hiding him. When the Nazis raid the mosque yet again, Ruben can no longer wait for the Fox to arrive. He flees Paris, determined to find his family.
There are many, many novels written about WWII, but ‘Beyond Belief’ tells a less-familiar story. Based on a true story, Dee White constructs a compelling narrative about good people resisting and fighting evil. Though their faiths might be considered very different, the people of this Muslim community put their own lives in danger in the protection of Jewish children. This is a story of secrets and dangers, of sacrifice and kindness. Ruben moves from childhood innocence to adolescent understanding, from the safe world of his immediate family, to a larger global family determined to help those who need it and to do the right thing. ‘Beyond Belief’ is a captivating story about compassion and bravery. Published by Omnibus Books
Okay, now it’s Dee’s turn.
This is not a story that is well known, or perhaps it is more accurate to say I’d never heard about this story. How did this story find you? What was the impetus and/or entry point?
I was working on a middle grade historical adventure called Paris Hunting (still a work in progress) and was doing WW2 research and I stumbled across the story of Muslims at a Paris Mosque who saved Jewish people during and after the Vel D’hiv roundup in July 1942. It was such a fascinating and inspiring story and I had to tell it. During my research I discovered a number of instances where Muslims had saved Jews during the Holocaust. I was very moved by these stories of people helping people regardless of race or background.
Once I’d found the premise, I needed a character. My father had escaped Nazi occupied Austria with his parents and we had talked often about his WW2 experiences so this could be why Ruben appeared as a boy in my mind, and claimed this as his story.
Apart from Ruben, who is your favourite character and why?
That’s a tricky question, like asking a parent to name their favourite child. All the characters are special in their own way and they became like family as I was writing their story. But I must admit that Amra holds a special place in my heart. She’s a lot like me at twelve. She’s clumsy and exuberant, a bit like a bull at a gate sometimes. But she’s clever and courageous and I love her sense of humour.
You spent a month in Paris researching ‘Beyond Belief’. Can you talk a little about the research process for this story – both in Paris and at home?
The month in Paris was amazing. I walked in Ruben’s shoes. I spent three days at the mosque but I didn’t speak French or Arabic so although I could immerse myself in the atmosphere and tapestry of the mosque, I wasn’t able to talk to the people there about the history. Then I went on a tour of the Paris sewers and was given an amazing interpreter, Laetitia who happened to be Muslim and also spoke Arabic. She was fabulous. She helped me to verify the historical authenticity of the story. She also knew a Rabbin so was able to get me into a synagogue. But it was very opulent and not at all like I’d imagined Ruben’s synagogue. In my last week in Paris an orthodox Jewish man came up to me and asked if I was Jewish. I explained to him that my grandparents were married in a synagogue but I hadn’t been raised in the Jewish faith. He showed me his synagogue, ‘the 17’, the oldest one in Paris and as soon as I walked in there I knew that this was Ruben’s synagogue.
I also did a lot of research online and connected with a group called, I am your protector who share stories of people who have saved or been saved by someone who would have been a ‘traditional enemy’ and it has completely changed their attitude towards that race.
I found this myself … that stories like these can really change people’s thinking. I spent some time at the Holocaust Centre in Melbourne and they were very helpful and interested in the story I was writing. They connected me with two Paris Holocaust survivors, Esther Wise and Paul Grimwald who spoke to me about what it was like to be a Jew in Paris in 1942. They both read my manuscript for cultural and historical accuracy and provided some important details. At first, Esther couldn’t believe that Muslims would have helped Jews, but my story completely changed her thinking.
Does research stop when writing begins? What sort of planning/drafting process did you follow?
No, I don’t think the research ever stops until the novel is written. You constantly have to find things out, and check and recheck details. For instance, I had to find out what vegetables would have been grown at the mosque in summer and autumn of 1942. I needed to know when Ramadan was and Rosh Hashanah. I needed to make sure that Ruben’s escape from Paris was plausible in the weather conditions of the time. I needed to find out which way the Seine flowed and where the sewers went under it. Every part of the journey for my characters involved more research. But I loved immersing myself in it.
Once I discovered the historical story of the Muslims saving the Jews, I had to create a character to ‘tell’ that story. Ruben is purely ficttitous, but was inspired by a number of people in my life. I think his story was inspired by my father, but his personality is a combination of my eldest brother and my two sons. This was a very emotional book to write. Some of the research was heartbreaking. At the Shoah Memorial in Paris and at the Holocaust Centre in New York which I visited, the magnitude of what was done to these people is overwhelming. And to see photos of young children who were taken to concentration camps is heartbreaking. I wanted to capture this innocence and vulnerability with my character, Ruben.
The historical story came first and then the character, Ruben and then I planned his story, but only in general terms. I think I knew how it would end quite early on, but how Ruben got to that point did change a little. Some things changed as a result of new information I uncovered during the research process. Other things changed because of the actions of the characters and how they responded to what was happening to them.
Rosa, Ruben’s sister is based on an actual historical figure so her journey didn’t change a lot.
Once I had a rough plan, I just sat down and wrote … and rewrote. There were probably about ten drafts of the story. I got it to a certain point, with all the essential elements and then my fabulous editor, Kristy Bushnell helped me shape it into the finished book.
How is writing historical fiction different to writing contemporary fiction like ‘Letters to Leonardo’?
To be honest, I don’t think it was that different. Letters to Leonardo involved a huge amount of research as well because I wanted to accurately represent the mental illness suffered by Matt’s mother and the consequences of it. I also did heaps of research into the works of Leonardo da Vinci so that I could incorporate them in my story. I guess that’s how I write though. I love to do in depth research and hang my story on the gems that I uncover.
How long from idea to book?
Four years. The idea came to me in 2016.
Who do you think is the ideal audience for ‘Beyond Belief’
Booksellers are shelving it as a 12 + book. It’s something that could be read and discussed as a class novel or at home. But adults are really liking it too, which is fantastic! One adult reader wrote to me and said, “I loved the book: despite the suffering and loss experienced by the children, there was such courage and an underlying spirituality and wisdom passed on to them by their parents and the Muslim community. This imbued them with amazing strength.”
I didn’t really think about the age of my readers when I was writing Beyond Belief. I just wanted to create something that might change the way people think and make them question their own preconceptions.
Thanks for stopping by, Dee. I wish you the best with getting ‘Beyond Belief’ into the hands of many readers.