Today’s guest is Martin Fletcher, a Special Correspondent for NBC News and PBS Weekend Newshour and the author of four books, two nonfiction and two novels. His most recent novel, JACOB’S OATH (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne), which will be released on October 8, 2013, is about the end of World War II and a man who must choose between avenging the past and building a future.
Fletcher, formerly NBC News’ Tel Aviv bureau chief and author of The List (2011), has crafted a moving love story, a vivid portrait of a devastated and chaotic Germany immediately after the war’s end, and a remarkably insightful look into the minds of two survivors of the Holocaust. Fletcher’s style is spare and graceful, and it enhances the power of this small gem of a novel.
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When I think of the Internet, www for me means a writer’s web wonders.
The web was a revelation for me when writing my new novel, Jacob’s Oath.
I had read a passing reference to a place called the Human Laundry in the liberated concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. I wanted to start my story there, where British doctors and German nurses washed and disinfected lice-ridden survivors before sending them to the rehabilitation area. But I had no idea what it looked like. I searched through dozens of books and hundreds of newspaper reports only to find no mention of it. The survivors I spoke to didn’t remember.
Then belatedly I thought of trawling through Google images. I typed in “Bergen Belsen human laundry” and lo and behold, there they were. The only pictures in existence, as far as I know, are fourteen images in the British Imperial War Museum collection that can be found on the web, as well as one painting, which is also there.
The scene of blonde female nurses with their hair pinned back under kerchiefs drifting through the mist of steam, ghost-like, angel-like, administering to skeletal naked figures laid out on metal tables in a former stable, became the opening description on the first page of my book.
Another wonderful resource, which I first came across on the web and subsequently bought the disk, is The Complete New Yorker, which contains every issue since the first in 1925. Its great writers provided eyewitness descriptions of almost every major event in 1945 that I was interested in.
In each case their factual reports, combined with their intimate eye for detail, set me off on my own imaginings and helped make my book, I hope, as authentic as possible in a work of fiction.
The danger, of course, is plagiarism. When you come across the perfect scene or phrase, can you reuse (steal) it? A couple of times, I admit, I did. I felt half a line used in 1945 would not qualify me as a literary thief, and assured myself that if I credited The New Yorker in the acknowledgements, as I did, I wouldn’t end up with my head in a literary noose.
And as somebody wrote, stealing one line is plagiarism, stealing a lot is research.
For the temptations of the web are immense. There is so much material there on every subject that it can become an exercise in selection rather than imagination.
But the strange thing is, when it came to writing my book, I threw out almost every note I had made and the story flowed from itself, building upon itself, the characters leading the way with responses I had not anticipated and making funny or trenchant comments that certainly didn’t come from my own head.
Jacob and Sarah, my main characters, took over the story. Another character, Isak, wasn’t even in my outline, yet he became a constant and key presence in the plot and its resolution. Where did he come from? Not Google images or The New Yorker, but I hope from the authenticity they inspired.
Do you use the Internet in your writing—as a jumping-off point, for research, or in a totally different way?