When writing novels, one never knows where inspiration will strike. A few years ago, I was well into my research for a book on the ways that Jewish artists managed to create art during the Holocaust, when I overheard a story at the local hair salon about a couple who were separated at the beginning of the war with each of them being told that the other had perished. Sixty years later, they miraculously were reunited at the wedding of their respective grandchildren. When I overheard that story, I felt like I had been struck by lightning. My mind was filled with so many questions: why had this couple each believed the other had died? What was their initial love story? What were their second love stories that produced the children who were now the parents of the grandchildren getting married? And most importantly, how did they each survive World War II?
This story would end up being the bookends for my novel The Lost Wife, into which I invented the lovers’ histories both before and after their separation.
I wanted to draw in my readers by evoking the same questions that I had after initially hearing that story. I wanted those questions to propel them into the same journey I too would undertake while crafting the body of the novel.
The inspiration for my new novel The Garden of Letters, also began after hearing a story that ignited my curiosity. While at a dinner party, a friend shared with me the details about how her father had escaped from Hungry through Italy during WWII with forged papers that their family had spent their entire life savings on. When my friend’s father arrived in Portofino, German guards were scrutinizing everyone’s papers so carefully that he was sure he was going to be arrested.
Suddenly, out from the crowd, a big barrel-chested Italian man cried: “Cousin, cousin, I’ve been waiting for you all week. Thank heaven’s you’ve come!”
He was able to whisk my friend’s father away and take him back to his home on the cliffs of Portofino.
When my friend’s father asked this man why he had saved him, for clearly he wasn’t his cousin, the man replied: “I try to come to the port every month. I try to save the person who looks the most afraid.”
When I heard that story I immediately thought it would make an amazing beginning to a novel. I imagined the two people whose lives intersect at this occupied Italian port. One fleeing and in need of shelter. The other a person who sees that fear and sets upon helping him. “The Garden of Letters” opens with my young heroine being saved from the Germans at the Portofino port by a doctor.
As in all my novels, I wanted my main character to possess a creative gift. With The Lost Wife, I explored how art could be used as a form of Resistance against the Nazis. In The Garden of Letters, I explore how music could be used.
My main character Elodie, is a young cellist who sends coded messages for the Italian Resistance through her performances. And the book explores the many creative ways essential information was transmitted during the war.
When I traveled to Italy to meet with partisans and female messengers who were involved in the Resistance, I was introduced to a person who shared with me another unusual way information was sent during the war. Giovanni Pellizzato, whose grandfather was both a bookseller and an active member of the Italian Resistance, described how codes were cleverly hidden throughout the pages of a book, and how within the back shelves of his father’s bookstore many of the books had their paper carved out to create a space where pistols were stored inside. This information was so intriguing to me, it inspired the character of the bookseller, Luca, in The Garden of Letters.
As storytellers, we’re responsible for crafting narratives that bring our readers into a world that transport and hopefully inform. As writers, however, we must also be open to all the stories that surround us, for everyone has a unique history to share.