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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Douglas Wellman shares what inspired him to write his new book, A Teenage Girl In Auschwitz, about Basha Freilich.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Douglas Wellman about his life and career, how the life of Basha Freilich inspired him to write his new book, A Teenage Girl In Auschwitz, and his creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am happy to say that I have had a long life with many interesting vocations and avocations. I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but when I was twenty-seven, I moved to Los Angeles and established a long career as a television producer-director, frequently working in comedy. I was eventually offered the opportunity to work at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, and spent sixteen years there, ten years there as assistant dean.
I also engaged in numerous side careers, which opened a wide world of sometimes strange things. I spent four years as a visual consultant to a government investigation agency, two years as a part-time private investigator while researching for a potential television series, and spent six years at night as a chaplain to the Los Angeles homeless.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I knew I wanted to be a writer shortly after I learned to read. I made regular trips to the library on my bicycle and became completely engrossed in the written word. When I was eight or nine years old, I found an ancient typewriter my father had stored, and I began to pound away at it. My parents saw the handwriting on the wall, and gave me a new typewriter for my fifteenth birthday. I was the editor of my college’s literary magazine, and continued to write, focusing on comedy.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I have written since I entered college, where I became editor of the literary magazine. As a producer-director in Hollywood, I frequently wrote material without screen credit. Later in life, a major general I met while working for the government brought me a fascinating story which became my first book, Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes. After that, the stories just kept coming.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Almost all the research for the first edition of Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes had already been done by the general when he brought me the project. The story is quite complicated, so it took me about a year and a half to organize the material and write the book. After publication, new information continued to come to us, so I wrote a second edition. That took about a year.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
My just released book, A Teenage Girl in Auschwitz: Basha Freilich and the Will to Live, took somewhere around two and a half years to research and write. I deliberately stopped keeping track of time. I feel that this book is an extremely valuable addition to the historical record, and I also became totally consumed in the emotion of the story and working with Basha’s family. Basha was a remarkable young girl. Her story is an amazing example of the indominable quality of the human spirit, and an inspiration to all.
Focusing on your latest release, what made you want to write A Teenage Girl In Auschwitz?
I have been a historian of the World War II period for over forty years. A Teenage Girl in Auschwitz began when someone read one of my previous books, Surviving Hiroshima: A Young Woman’s Story, and put me in contact with Basha’s daughter, Evelyn. When I told Evelyn that I was interested in writing her mother’s story, she told me she had been looking for someone to do just that for over thirty years. I began immediately.
Initially, it was my intent to write this moving story to add it to the historical record of this low point in human existence. I did not get very far in my research before I realized the remarkable spiritual strength of Basha, and how her story could have a positive impact on many people– perhaps everyone. From that point on, I was completely emotionally committed to bringing Basha’s story to the world.
What were your biggest challenges with writing A Teenage Girl In Auschwitz?
Basha recorded two postwar testimonies of her life, which I obtained and used to structure the book. It was everything else that was problematic. Today, many are unaware of Naziism and the Holocaust, so I had to tell that historical story along with Basha’s, and I had to do it in a manner that would clarify Basha’s situation, and not interfere with her telling of the story.
What was your research process for A Teenage Girl In Auschwitz?
Basha’s testimonies gave me a very strong structure and timeline for the book. However, if one is not familiar with the sociopolitical elements of Nazism leading up to and through World War II, the actions of the Nazis, and the Holocaust in general, are particularly hard to understand. Even with a decent understanding of the times, one is still likely to shake their head in unbelief as the story is told.
How did you plan the structure of A Teenage Girl In Auschwitz?
Basha’s story must be told chronologically. Between the historical record and Basha’s own testimonies, the basic structure was created by the historical events themselves.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did A Teenage Girl In Auschwitz need?
This was another difficult area. In order to meet the publication date I wanted, I submitted the manuscript to my publisher unfinished, promising her that I would get it done. I have done several books with her so she took me at my word, but it was not very pleasant for either of us. I would never do that again if I had any possible other choice.
In my first draft of the book, the one I submitted, I included the historical elements in the same text as Basha’s story. I knew that was a terrible idea, since it obviously got in the way of clearly expressing Basha’s struggle. I did not know how I was going to fix that, but it had to be fixed. I had two very good editors on the book, and we worked through several ideas to find the best way to include the historical context–which I refused to delete–and still focus on Basha. I ended up putting most of the explanatory historical context in sections at the end of each chapter, so the reader can quickly check if there is something they do not understand. All the usual source citations appear in the endnotes, as with any other book.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Just sit down and write something. It does not have to be good, and likely will not be. Until you put your thoughts into the manuscript, good or bad, you have nothing to work with. As you write, thoughts and ideas will come to you. Writing can be like a firestorm; it seems to grow from within itself.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you are planning to write?
Finding especially good, first-person historical stories from the WWII era is very difficult. I do not currently have one to work with. I have considered returning to my comedy roots for a comedic novel, and I have many notes, but I have yet to make the decision to pursue it. When the right idea comes around, I will know it. The only bit of advice for future works came from my publisher. She said, “Please Doug, no more Nazis.”
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
On the train station platform in Auschwitz, Basha promised her mother that she would live to tell their story. Basha did live, and I am grateful to be the one to finally tell the story. My hope now is that many people will see the enormous inner strength of Basha, and realize that they too have that within them.
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