Author Patricia Walkow thinks of a blank page as a canvas that can become anything she imagines. She has written magazine articles and newspaper columns, and currently writes memoir, essays, short stories, and longer fiction. Her debut novel, The War Within, The Story of Josef (2016), is historical fiction based on the life of her Polish father-in-law. You can find Patricia on Facebook and her website, as well as her SWW author page.
When readers turn the last page in the book, what do you hope they will take away from it?
Heart to heart, there are no enemies.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
This story is a fictionalized account of real events that happened to specific people in Nazi Germany during WWII and the post-war years. Some of the people in the story are still living, and their remembrances of an event are not always identical. I had to determine which one to incorporate into the story and let the people know which I was using and why.
Furthermore, I interviewed family and friends in both Germany and Poland, and there was a language barrier. Interviews took place in the form of a list of questions, as well as face-to-face via Skype in some instances. I was able to use software to convert my questions into either Polish or German, and then convert the interviewee’s responses into English. Software also read my questions aloud in German or Polish. I learned to keep my questions simple! I never completely trusted the software to properly translate complex sentences into another language.
How did the book come together?
I first thought of writing Josef’s story a long time ago. Josef was my Polish father-in-law. In 1969, on a hot summer day in New Jersey, my boyfriend (now my husband, Walter) and I were visiting his parents at their weekend cottage. I asked Walter why his father wore long pants on such a sweltering day, and he said it was because his dad had an artificial leg. He had lost his left leg during the war, not because he’d been in the Polish military, but as a result of an accident in the factory where he worked as a slave laborer in southern Germany. Josef was Catholic, captured from Poland at about age fifteen, and sent to work throughout Germany and its conquered lands. It was the first time I knew people other than those of the Jewish faith were targeted for slave labor and that all Poles (regardless of religion) were considered sub-human.
I tucked Josef’s story away for a long time. Over the years, Josef and his wife, Ella, revealed snippets about their lives during and after the war, and I squirreled those away, too. They never dwelled on the past and always looked to the future. The war was a topic I thought they preferred to forget. Once I retired, after Josef had died and Ella had descended into dementia, I thought earnestly about writing their story.
When I joined the Corrales Writing Group in 2012, I wrote a very short story about the subject, and it blossomed into The War Within, The Story of Josef, which I started writing in 2013 and published in 2016. Members of the group were instrumental in making the book both readable and real. I could not have done it without their insights, critiques, and encouragement. Thank you, Don Reightley, Leon Wiskup, Sandi Hoover, Tom Neiman, Chris Allen, Jim Tritten, and Maureen Cooke.
Tell us about your main characters.
Josef’s ability to face any situation with dignity and ingenuity inspired me. Ella’s steely persistence blossomed in the story, helping the family survive in the post-war years. Willie was the young German man who saved Josef’s life. He took a big gamble helping a slave laborer, breaking every rule a German citizen could break to help the teenager.
What was the most rewarding aspect of writing the book?
I enjoyed the research. It greatly expanded my knowledge of World War II. Besides, it was a good excuse to buy books. I can deduct them on my taxes, too.
Any surprises while doing research for The War Within, The Story of Josef?
Yes, there were surprises. 1) There were relatively “few” casualties for the Americans (about 500,000) compared to the Russians, Germans, and Poles, each of whom endured enormous losses of both military and civilians—tens of millions of deaths for each country. The US experienced fewer than 2,000 civilian losses. In other countries, the civilian losses far exceeded the military losses. 2) Many Polish slave laborers were reluctant to be repatriated to Poland after the war. Their country had turned Communist, and they did not want to live under Communist rule. 3) I had thought the Marshall Plan served a primarily humanitarian purpose, but during my research I realized its primary objective was to prohibit a starving, decimated West Germany from turning to the east—the Soviet Union—for food and assistance in rebuilding, turning Communist in the process. The Marshall Plan did offer direct aid in terms of food, but also worked with the West Germans to rebuild the defeated country’s agricultural, industrial, and commercial infrastructure, and thus sowed the seeds for a robust economy.
If you suffer from writer’s block, how do you break through?
Regarding the writing process itself, sometimes I just need a break…a few weeks off, for example, to let things gestate in the background.
What are you most happy with in your writing?
In The War Within, The Story of Josef, I am most happy with offering the reader insight into a little known aspect of WWII: slave labor. I have learned many people do not know there was another holocaust—against all Slavic people. In addition to the 6,000,000 Jews killed by Hitler, there were over 5,000,000 non-Jews who were also killed, often through work-to-death programs.
What is the most difficult aspect of writing historical fiction?
One difficult aspect was the many revolting things I had to read about from this particular period in history. I often wound up with an upset stomach. Another difficulty came in writing dialogue. Much of The War Within, The Story of Josef tells the story through dialogue. It’s really the fictional part of the book. What would Josef say, and how would he say it? Same with the other characters.
Why do you think people like reading historical fiction?
Historical fiction roots the reader to the past. It lets us understand how people lived in a specific era, or how they dealt with very real events in human history.
What typically comes first for you: a character, an era, a story idea?
It depends. For The War Within, The Story of Josef the story came first, with Josef in the lead. For my novel in progress, The Far Moist End of the Earth, a writing prompt started the story. I wondered where the story could go with the prompt. Well, it took me to the early 20th century in Southeast Asia…who knew?
What’s on your to-read pile?
I have some books I’m using for research for The Far Moist End of the Earth about making paper, the history of various countries in the region, Buddhism, and the challenges of missionary work. I recently enjoyed Corran Harrington’s Follow the River Home. The two books I am currently reading are Mark Steyn’s After America and JJ Amaworo Wilson’s Damnificados.
What writing projects are you working on now?
The Far Moist End of the Earth is my novel-in-progress. It’s set in a Protestant mission in Southeast Asia during the early 1900s. Do you think people are missionaries just to spread their religion? Think again. The first chapter of the novel won third place in the 2016 William Faulkner Literary Competition (short story entry). The novel is about sixty percent written. Projected publication is 2018.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.