Every time I stand up in front of a crowd of readers, no matter where I am or what book I’m flogging, I invariably get asked one question: Where do you get your ideas? This question isn’t unique to me. All writers are asked some version of this, and most writers dread it. Stephen King is famous for answering the question with a single word: Utica. As in Utica, New York, land of brilliant ideas. In all seriousness, though, the reason we hate this question is because the answer is often so lame. In the case of Love and Treasure that’s especially true. Here’s where the idea for Love and Treasure came from (drum roll, please). Google.
Yep. I googled three words and found my story. The words? Holocaust, Hungary and Art.
Though that is, I know, a very lame answer, the story behind each of those search terms is a little more interesting (perhaps).
I knew when I finished Red Hook Road that it was time for me to attack a topic that has inter-ested me since I was a kid - the Holocaust. There was a time in my life when I was truly obsessed with the topic. When it was time for Scholastic Book ordering, other kids filled their forms with requests for Nancy Drew or biographies of famous Americans. Mine was just one long slog through Poland circa 1944 (Escape from Warsaw, Night) with the occasional brief forays into the home front (Summer of my German Soldier). Though I eventually expanded my literary repertoire, it’s still true that nothing will attract my attention on the New Fiction table like a novel about Auschwitz.
Frankly, I’m ashamed of this. It feels voyeuristic and ghoulish. But when a writer is obsessed, they really have no choice but to try to write their way out of it. I was terrified, however, that I’d end up writing something exploitative, that I’d add to the horrible pile of Holocaust Kitsch. (Angel at the Fence, anyone?). Though I could never approach his skill and profundity, I wanted to be W.G. Sebald, not Roberto Benigni (I’m sorry, I hated that stupid movie. I love dark humor, but clowning your way through Auschwitz? Blech.)
So there I was, desperate to write about the Holocaust, but not sure how.
Which brings me to my second search term: Art.
You know the old adage, write what you know? It’s a great adage. A wonderful guide for young writers. It can also result in a lot of dull fiction. Writers, if they actually get their work done, are by definition dull. All we do all day is sit alone in a room and stare at a computer (unless you’re one of those precious souls who only writes in pen on a yellow pad, or on scraps of parchment with a quill). Either way, the literary life is astonishingly prosaic. Some writers solve this problem by periodically burning down their personal lives, to give them something to write about (need I name names?). But I have a husband I adore and four wonderful kids. Moms aren’t allowed to destroy their families just to find material.
Having exhausted the subject matter of myself (writing a memoir - Bad Mother - did that pretty quickly), I prefer the adage (that I just made up) Write What You Want to Know. I try with every novel to write about something I’m curious about. So in Red Hook Road it was music (and boxing, and boat building). And in Love and Treasure it’s art.
Why Hungary? I hate even to admit this, but essentially, it was a tax dodge (a totally legal one). I had a friend who was appointed ambassador to Hungary, and I really wanted to visit her. I figured if I set my novel in Hungary, and I spent the trip doing research, I could deduct the expense from my taxes. It was a brilliant idea, except that I got so consumed with research that I was a terrible house guest.
When I Googled the words Hungary, Holocaust and Art, I found the story of the Hungarian Gold Train, and I immediately knew I’d found the topic for my new novel.