It’s not my m.o. to do book reviews along with interviews. But how can I not? When author Ellen Marie Wiseman, my friend and fellow Book Pregnant author, sent me her ARC, I started it one night, read it the next night, then picked it up the next morning and walked around with it (just ask my daughter) until I was finished. This is a a World War II story of love, family, everyday and extraordinary heroism and, yes, downright evil. No book about Germany during the Holocaust is going to be all pretty and or is it all going to read easily. But, the unique point-of-view of a young German girl seeing the war and its atrocities was new to me. I found it compelling, the writing lyrical and descriptive, yet it was page-turner as well.
Why does this fall under the umbrella of Women’s Fiction? To me, it’s the story of a young woman, her life, what she believes is right and wrong, what she is willing to do, what she has to do, on behalf of her family and someone she loves. Her journey in this book is as much about finding and keeping love as it is about finding and keeping herself. Well, if that’s not women’s fiction–what is?
Please welcome my dear friend Ellen Marie Wiseman to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Debut Author Ellen Marie Wiseman Writes Heart And Harrowing Insight Into Her Historical Novel, THE PLUM TREE
Amy: Ellen, can you give WFW readers a little bit about THE PLUM TREE and how you got the idea for the story?
Ellen: I’d love to, Amy. Thank you so much for having me on your wonderful site!
The idea for THE PLUM TREE came to me after years of listening to my family’s stories about what it was like trying to survive WWII in Nazi Germany. My mother grew up during WWII, the eldest of five children in a poor, working-class German family. When war broke out, my grandfather was drafted into the Wehrmacht and sent to the Russian front, where he was captured and sent to a POW camp in Siberia. He was a foot solider, not a Nazi or SS. During the four years he was gone, my grandmother repaired damaged military uniforms to bring in a small income. She stood in ration lines for hours on end, made sugar out sugar beets, and bartered beechnuts for cooking oil. She cooked on a woodstove, made clothes out of cotton sheets, and raised chickens and vegetables to keep her children fed. Under the cover of night, she put food out for passing Jewish prisoners and listened to illegal foreign radio broadcasts—both crimes punishable by death. She put blackout paper over the house windows so the enemy wouldn’t see their light and, night after night, when the air raid sirens went off, she ran down the street to hide with her terrified children inside a bomb shelter. Eventually, my grandfather escaped the POW camp, but for two years, my grandmother had no idea if he was dead or alive until he showed up on their doorstep one day.
Then, when my mother was twenty-one, she came to America alone, by ship, to marry an American soldier she met while working at the PX outside her village. Just over a decade had passed since WWII, and Germany was still rebuilding. Her family was dirt poor, and the lure of an ideal American life was powerful enough to make her leave her family and marry a man she barely knew. Alas, her American dream was no fairy tale. The American soldier turned out to be dishonest and cruel, and my mother had nowhere to go for help, living on an isolated farm twenty minutes from the nearest town with no car and no driver’s license. Somehow she persevered, giving birth in quick succession to my sister, my brother, and me. Eventually, my parents divorced, and my mother took us back to Germany, hoping to start over. But it wasn’t meant to be. My father insisted she return to the States, even though he had no interest in being part of our lives. Luckily, my mother met and married a caring man who took us in as his own. I grew up traveling to Germany to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, longing to live in their beautiful world full of tradition and culture.
Then, when I was a sophomore in high school, I learned about the Holocaust. To say it was difficult to wrap my head about those atrocities happening in my amazing, beautiful dream-world would be an understatement. WWII was our history teacher’s favorite subject, and he was obsessed with teaching us as much as possible about what happened to the Jews. It didn’t take long for some of my classmates to start calling me a Nazi, saluting and shouting “Heil Hitler” in the halls. That was when I began to understand the concept of collective guilt. But I was too young to understand or explain to my peers that being German doesn’t make you a Nazi, that protesting something in America is easy compared to protesting something in The Third Reich, or to ask them what they would have done if they had to choose between someone else’s life and their own. My American father had taught me that evil has the ability to reside in the heart of any man, regardless of race, nationality, or religion, but I didn’t know how to make those points. I didn’t know how to tell my friends that collective guilt as opposed to individual guilt is senseless; that retrospective condemnation is easy.
Then, over twenty years later, after another conversation with a close friend (ironically one of my former high school teasers) about how much responsibility the average German held for bringing Hitler into power, inspiration struck. I needed to write a novel about what it was like for an average, working-class German during the war, while still being sensitive to what the Nazis did to the Jews. But I also knew my book needed a twist if I wanted to sell it. Then I remembered how James Cameron used a love story to tell the bigger story of the ill-fated Titanic. That’s how the romance between Christine, a young German woman, and Isaac, the cultured son of her wealthy Jewish employer, was born.
Amy: We talk often on WFW how Women’s Fiction is a broad umbrella. TPT, to me, is historical fiction but it’s also women’s fiction. Was it a conscious choice to make sure that your main character Christine had an emotional journey worth following in addition to the love story and the historical details?
Ellen: Hmmm…that’s an interesting question. I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I think Christine’s story came out the way it did because I’m an emotional person. When I wrote The Plum Tree, I wanted readers to feel what it might have been like to live through that time, to ask themselves what they would have done under similar circumstances. I wanted them to imagine how experiencing all the things Christine experienced would have changed them as a person, whether they were male or female.
Amy: How did you conduct your research for TPT?
Ellen: I’m lucky because my mother willingly repeated her stories while I asked a thousand questions. I also gave her a questionnaire about everyday life during the war and how she felt in certain situations. Every time I asked her something, it seemed like another memory surfaced. To get a broader perspective and compare my mother’s experiences, I pored over every civilian survivor account I could get my hands on. I read books about the allied bombing campaign, including the methods used to build bigger and more destructive bombs. I read about the Holocaust and the concentration camps, and learned all I could about Nazi laws and propaganda. Then, during a trip to Germany to visit family, my aunt asked if I wanted to interview an old man she had been taking care of for years. I nearly keeled over when she said he was a former SS doctor! Like most people, when I hear the words “SS doctor” I automatically think of the doctors in the concentration camps. When we arrived at the doctor’s house, my heart was in my throat. I wondered if I could ask the questions that needed to be asked. But then, as he talked, I realized he had been on the front lines, operating on wounded soldiers. He showed me his photo album from the war, pointing out pictures of him standing near Hitler, of him drinking schnapps with other officers in front of a huge Christmas tree. He showed me a letter he’d sent to his wife from the Eastern front, and a hand drawn postcard with the image of a giant officer stepping over mountains into Germany, a bouquet of roses in his arms. He recalled the horrible conditions on the battlefields, operating on the wounded in a tent with mud floors, not having enough bandages and morphine. His eyes filled, remembering the men he lost. Because part of my intention in writing THE PLUM TREE was to try to get people to stop painting all Germans with the same brush, it was a good lesson for me about not making assumptions.
Amy: Many writers plot and outline, others write by the seat of their pants. Where do you fall? Has how you write changed since you started TPT?
Ellen: I wrote the first draft of THE PLUM TREE in three days, in long hand on a legal pad. I had no idea what I was doing and it was dreadful. But the plot was there. During revisions, I wrote an outline when I got stuck. It helped tremendously. For my second book, my editor requested an outline, so I had no choice but to do one from the beginning. It was hard to outline an entire book, but now that I’m working on it, I’m glad I have a map. I might not follow it to the letter, but at least I have a pretty good idea of my final destination.
Amy: What’s your definition of women’s fiction–no matter what other genre it overlaps?
Ellen: To tell you the truth, until I sold my novel and learned more about the publishing industry, I’d never heard the term before. If I have to define women’s fiction, I’d say it’s a story that involves a main female character who faces difficult, confusing, or important issues, and overcomes or grows as a result of facing those issues. In other words, stories about life that involve the entire population of our planet! I guess the term doesn’t make sense to me because women’s issues and problems have an effect on both sexes. I think a lot of men would enjoy novels that have been labeled women’s fiction if given the chance. THE PLUM TREE can be labeled women’s fiction or romance, but at its heart is an attempt to put a face on the countless destitute German women and children who lived and died under Hitler’s regime, most often as victims of their government’s actions, during a war caused by… men. And let me just add that both my agent and editor are men.
Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
Ellen: I know it’s been said a thousand times, but never give up. Read everything you can about the craft. Study your favorite novels to see how it’s done. Find someone to give you feedback. Exercise your writing muscle because, like any other muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it will get. As far as getting published, it took me two years to find an agent. During that time, we were forced to close the business my husband had poured himself into for over thirty years. We lost our jobs and our financial security. We had to sell our home of twenty years and my sister died. Through it all, I finished two major revisions and kept sending out queries. It all comes back to never giving up.
Ellen Marie Wiseman was born and raised in Three Mile Bay, a tiny hamlet in Northern New York, A first generation American, Ellen has traveled frequently to visit her family in Germany, where she fell in love with the country’s history and culture. She lives peacefully on the shores of Lake Ontario with her husband and three dogs.
If you’d like to read a lovely review of THE PLUM TREE by the Jewish Book Council, click here: REVIEW
You can read an excerpt of THE PLUM TREE by clicking here: THE PLUM TREE COPYRIGHT ELLEN MARIE WISEMAN