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>> Friendship and hope in a bleak setting

Friendship and hope in a bleak setting
19/09/2017

Friendship and hope in a bleak setting


Inspired by the true stories of women who worked in the Auschwitz sewing workshop, LUCY ADLINGTON's THE RED RIBBON is a powerful story about friendship, hope and survival in the bleakest of settings. Here, she tells us more about her new book.

When 14-year-old Ella volunteers to work in the sewing workshop at a concentration camp, she knows that this could make the difference for her between life and death.

Ella is passionate about sewing and dreams of running her own dress shop and it is these dreams, together with the friendships she makes, that help her survive the mud, the beatings and the hopelessness of each day. But at Birchwood, the wrong move, the wrong word, can change everything in a moment...

We asked author LUCY ADLINGTON to tell us more about THE RED RIBBON:


Q: What brought you into writing for young adults? Was writing The Red Ribbon a very different experience from writing your other books?

A: I didn't know I was writing young adult fiction until my first novel The Diary of Pelly D was picked up by an agent. I just knew I had a story I wanted to tell and that it involved young people. As for The Red Ribbon, I actually hid away for a year (not literally) to write this story without any sort of editorial input. It felt very daring to me and I wanted to see if I could make a success of it before sharing with anyone.


Q: This is a difficult period to write about - why did you want to focus on the concentration camps of WWII in your novel

A: It's not always a question of what you want to write about, it's what you have to write about. Even before studying what is called the 'literature of atrocity' at university, I was reading war diaries and survivor testimonies, and trying to understand the worlds they described. Yes, it is history now in the sense that the Second World War officially ended in the 1945. However, the repercussions are with us still. They shaped people's lives long after peace was declared.

Just as importantly, historical events such as the Holocaust can help us ask crucial questions such as - What would I have done? How did this happen? Can we be vigilant in our own societies and cultures to avoid hated and persecution?

As for The Red Ribbon, I wanted to explore the fierce, brave, beautiful drive to survive that young people may have, with all the complexities this may bring.


Q: While The Red Ribbon is set in the past, how much are you responding to our contemporary political landscapes in your writing?

A: The Red Ribbon may be set in the past, and in the midst of a calamity which deliberately targeted specific groups of people, carried out in specific countries, but let's be honest - discrimination and tribalism aren't specific to one time and one place.

In our own lives we may know about small acts of bullying and abuse - at home or school or work. We have access to a web of news and views which informs us of extreme discrimination around the world, which might be caused by religious intolerance, or motivated by race or baseline misogyny.

The politics of Brexit loomed in my mind as The Red Ribbon went to print - the painful evolution from 'us' to 'us and them' in Europe. In the USA there are shock waves now as the increasingly unsophisticated messages of those in power seem to legitimise public expression of race hate, division and intolerance.

The past is always with us because it wasn't 'the past' then, it was modern times and present tense, just as we think of our lives as modern times, in the present tense.


Q: How much research did you do into this period and setting before you could start to write your book?

A: Oh my goodness - research! I am greedy to learn. Curious about people's lives. Anxious to have as clear a sense of the era I write about as possible. One of my favourite historians - Barbara Tuchman - once wrote 'research is endlessly seductive'. I immersed myself in this era for several years, simply out of interest.

When the time came to begin writing I felt I had absorbed so much I could set aside the notes and let imagination draw on past truths to create new fictions. The process of learning is ongoing. I am planning to write a non-fiction history book about the background stories which led to the novel.


Q: How do you respond to challenges that authors must have a personal or cultural link to historical events to be able to write about them?

A: This is a complex and important issue: can an 'outsider' write about a specific cultural traumas? It is often noted nowadays that as survivors of the Holocaust dwindle, the following generations are curating memories, rather than transmitting their own memories. Surely all historians (and this may include historical novelists) have an obligation to be aware of their responsibilities, both to the truth of the past and the way it is transmitted to the present?

Honestly, as I wrote The Red Ribbon, I felt as if I was typing on egg shells. I am an outsider. I am not a person of faith, nor do I have family connections with the Holocaust. I am, however, a conscientious human being who aims to be respectful and sensitive. It is vital that histories are made accessible to new audiences and new generations.


Q: Why did you call the camp Birchwood and not Auschwitz Birkenau?

A: Auschwitz is one of the most evocative words in history. It has come to symbolise a great deal, and carries a great weight of meaning. I didn't want The Red Ribbon to carry this weight, not from the start. I wanted it to feel fresh and immediate to the reader, so that they can hopefully gain a fearful sense of, what if this happened to me?

Birkenau was a significant and sinister part of the vast Auschwitz concentration camp complex, where most women were imprisoned and where the infamous gas chambers functioned. It can be translated as birch wood or birch meadow, so that's what I chose to do. Doesn't it sound innocent?


Q: Where did you find out about the Commandant's wife setting up a sewing workshop at the camp and why did this capture your attention as the source for a story?

A: I was researching women's lives in the 1940s when I came across a reference to the Auschwitz sewing workshop. I was just flabbergasted. Yes, I knew that Nazi dignitaries often enjoyed luxurious lifestyles thanks to their theft of valuables from the victims, but the cynicism of enjoying fabulous fashions in the midst of mass murder and degradation really stood out for me. What a contrast between the clothes made for the elite, and the humiliating inadequate outfits worn by the slave labourers.

I went on to read accounts of the actual girls and women who worked as seamstresses in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. They were literally wielding a needle to survive.


Q: How much of the incident in the story is drawn from accounts you have read? What were your most useful source(es)?

A: Once I'd begun reading survivor accounts I found overwhelming evidence of the importance of sewing for survival, as well as the insatiable greed of guards and officers' families. The most important sources for me were testimonies from the Auschwitz workers collected by a woman called Lore Shelley, who was herself an Auschwitz survivor. My copy of this book is very precious too me. I did not follow any one biography or any one account. My characters are fictional. They are drawn from a multitude of sources and inspirations.

After the book was finished I also came across a newly-discovered diary (found in the ruins of Auschwitz by a Soviet doctor who took it back to her home in Russia, where it remained until this century). It is the diary of a teenage Jewish girl in Lodz ghetto, who learns to sew so she can support her siblings. It is called Rwyka's Diary.


Q: Why did you decide to make the focus of the story the friendship between two young women, Ella and Rose?

A: Across the accounts by survivors you see the importance of friendship. In the vile disruption of normal human society that was the concentration-camp system (for all the Commandant's wife might have wanted the normality of fashionable clothes) it was inevitable that self-interest and a desperate will to stay alive would override gentler human interaction.

And yet... there are so many acts of love, generosity, selflessness and warmth between prisoners. Having someone to care for, and someone to care for you, was often key to staying mentally healthy. Loving friendships cannot cancel out the horrors all around but they are amazingly powerful.

Ella learns that survival for its own sake would mean nothing without love. Besides, I very much like stories which feature a range of different female characters, rather than one token plucky heroine, or one token love rival. Incidentally, Ella Rose was my grandmother's name.


Q: Ella, the main character, is passionate about dress making while her friend Rose copes with conditions in the camp by telling stories. Why did you give them these skills and passions?

A: Many survivors have spoken of the power of escapism. Mostly this involved food fantasies, as a contrast to extreme starvation. Storytelling was hugely valued in the camps. It reminded people of the outside world - books they'd once loved and plays they'd once seen.

We know that imprisoned people want to keep a sense of identity and humanity even when they are being treated as subhuman. Ella in particular is savagely determined that she will be a person not a number. For her, this means escaping into a world of fashion and dressmaking. Asserting her talents is asserting her desire for life. This culminates in the creation of the wonderful, defiant Liberation Dress.


Q: How difficult was it to pace Ella's transition from naive teenager to young adult survivor?

A: I began with a very close focus on Ella, arriving for her first day of work. I wanted the reader to feel as bewildered and ignorant as she did. What is this place? What's going to happen? Gradually I introduced elements of reality - such as the client arriving for a fitting and leaving her whip in the corner, as casually as if it were just an umbrella. Even when Ella has full knowledge of the mass murder around her, I kept things subtle.

Reality has to be filtered in young adult fiction... and often in portrayals of the Holocaust for adult audiences too. Implication has to be sufficient, because even skilful literary descriptions fall far short of actual experiences.

Ultimately I didn't want Ella to become too corrupted and too cynical by her experiences. She is full of the need to start life again. She is one of the lucky few to have this chance. She turns towards the City of Light.


Q: There is a strong message in the book about what individuals will do to survive, and the reader is left with questions about why certain characters did certain things. Was it difficult to develop this level of ambiguity in the characters and why did you feel it was important to have this?

A: I once went to a psychology conference in Berlin which examined the ways in which people collaborate and resist. It defied the usual easy division between 'evil' and 'good' to explore the complexities of our moral choices. Yes, at the extremes there is evil in people's behaviour, but once you make someone an evil monster you can almost dismiss them as unique - like a supervillain. I wanted my characters to be more rounded human beings.

Marta is harsh, but she has her reasons. Ella is essentially a good person but she knows she has darker qualities. I find Carla the most interesting character - so young, so lonely, so ignorant, vain, abusive, violent...

I hope readers will enjoy wondering, why did she do that...? How would I behave...?


Q: The ending is more hopeful than much of the story suggests, did you always have this ending in mind?

A: Should stories for young people always give hope? It's clear that books and film about horrors such as the Holocaust often focus on poignant heroism and an ultimate theme of hope. While hope was destroyed for most victims, I do feel it is immensely important to have a world in which hope can still exist. Otherwise, what would be the point of aiming for a better life, a better society, a kinder planet? We have to believe these good things are possible.

Yes, I do think hope is a vital ingredient of young adult fiction and children's literature generally. Children already know about pain, frustration and fear in their own lives. They must have hope, love and vibrancy as antidotes and aspirations. My heart soars each time I read the apple-tree scene in The Red Ribbon. Perhaps I did not always know the particulars of how the story would end (it evolved so much as I wrote it) but I knew there would be hope.


Q: What would you like today's young readers to take away from The Red Ribbon?

A: I would like readers to do lots of thinking about the serious side of the history, about their own interactions in daily life, about the power of friendship. Mostly I would like a reader to close the book full of emotion and hope, and perhaps with after-images of Birchwood colours.


Q: Your background is in costume and history. What are your top tips for young writers in using what they are passionate about in writing their own stories?

A: Passion shows. Authenticity shows - in fact, authenticity shouts out. How can young creatives communicate their passion? They need tips for sharing what makes their hearts glow. This may be with words or art or dance or music.

I'd say, look inside. What do you love? Why do you love it? If you can explain these things to someone else you can start planning how to use characters and fictional scenarios to represent how you feel.


Q: Will you follow up on Ella and Rose or do you feel their story is told?

A: I'm currently writing a story about one of the characters in The Red Ribbon and what happens to them after the war. There will be little echoes of other characters. I have no plans (as yet) to visit the dress shop in the City of Light...


Q: Are there other periods in history that appeal to you as a writer?

A: I'm very much immersed in the 1940s at the moment. I have written a young adult novel on this era previously - Burning Mountain.


Q: What are you writing now and where is your favourite place to write?

A: Right now, at this exact moment, I am writing in bed, in my PJs. Why not? Sometimes, if I get really engrossed, I forget to get dressed. (I never forget to eat). I also write on the sofa, at a desk, on trains, planes and patios. My dream 'writing shed' wouldn't be a shed at all, but a grassy slope overlooking wide water and high mountains.


Q: In the story, Ella's grandmother's sewing machine was her most treasured possession. What is yours?

A: Wow. That question actually made me stop in my tracks. I collect books, photos, magazines, antique textiles, vintage costume... I have supreme amounts of special 'stuff'. And yet to choose one object, one talisman, that really makes me think. I love how objects hold memories (I'm stalling here...!) and how even the simplest things can have a powerful personal connection. While my baby laptop is a semi-constant companion, I know it's only a gadget that can be replaced. Most treasured possession? The thing I would rescue from the farmhouse where I live (after the farmer and the cat)? No. I cannot choose.


Q: Ella loves sewing - What is your creative passion?

A: Writing. Reading. Reading. Writing. Sometimes a bit of sewing. Mostly reading. And writing.


Q: What is your favourite escape - Can you describe your ideal day?

A: I can't give you an ideal day, because that is so often dependent on mood, rather than on what happens. I love mountains, especially volcanoes. When I'm not up to a hike I like simple pleasures - bimbling around car boot sales in the sunshine with friends, chatting with my lovely farmer, annoying the cat, eating fabulously tasty food. Can I confess that one of my favourite things is actually working? I love my job.
 
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