How My Characters Came to Life in The Forger of Marseille
The characters in my novel The Forger of Marseille danced into my imagination in different ways. Mr. Lieb, a luthier and adoptive father of Sarah, a young Jewish woman in Berlin, was brought back to life from another novel from twenty years ago. I loved him as a sweet, gentle man whose greatest joy was playing the violin, teaching young students, and working in his luthier studio to fulfill his love of creating stringed instruments that vibrated with soul. He’d haunted me for the last twenty years and kept asking me when I’d bring him to the page again. Mr. Lieb had been trained as a luthier by his father and grandfather and they had a spiritual relationship with the forests that provided the trees. I loved him, too, because he was inspired by a violin teacher I met when I was nine years old who changed my life.
César, a Spanish Republican who’d survived the Spanish Civil War, made himself known to me as I stood on the border of France and Spain on a summer day laced with the aromas of dry grasses sprouting on the foothills of the Pyrenees. Around me, the last coastal town in France, Cerbère, glittered in the sunlight. On the other side, the first town over the border in Spain, Port Bou was tucked down by the sea.
The place where I stood overlooking two countries whose history was seared into the earth was located on edges—the boundaries between countries. Things happen on edges, and much had happened where I stood. I believe that the earth contains memories of what has transpired and I was standing in a place where the past was reflected in memorials and monuments before me. They showed pictures of the flight, the Retirada, refugees escaping Franco’s forces.
César whispered that he had been on that road, that he had lived that history. He told me that I needed him in the book I hadn’t committed to yet, and that I should write it. He said what he’d lived through was important and that Sarah, my Jewish protagonist from Berlin, needed him. Well, when a character starts whispering in your ear, what can you do but take his advice. Write the book! Put him in it!
Arriving in Paris during the Sudetenland crisis, Sarah soon discovers that France is not the safe haven she’d imagined, but she was relieved to no longer be a Jew in Nazi Germany. At first Paris charms her, and she makes friends and laps up hot chocolate at Café Angelina. She meets César and through him she learns about the real dangers in the war about to descend on Europe.
The “real life” heroes who inspired my interest in France 1940 were at the forefront of my mind as I read a few hundred books and combed through memoirs of the era that offer specific details that history books don’t. I was transported into the real life and death struggles of Varian Fry and Donald Caskie, men who saved lives in France at the risk of their own.
Varian Fry came from America dedicated to save refugees destined for death under the armistice agreement called “Surrender on Demand.” That meant if the Germans wanted to arrest the refugees who’d sought safety in France, Vichy had to comply. Hundreds of thousands of anti-Nazi artists, writers, politicians, musicians were trapped due to the swift fall of France. Fry’s memoir lists the names of those he tried, and sometimes failed, to save. He talks about political people, including President Roosevelt, who did nothing to save the lives of refugees. His memoir Surrender on Demand is a heartbreaking rendering of what he lived through, and how it changed him forever.
Donald Caskie, a Scottish pastor who escaped Paris as the Germans marched in, made his way to Marseille. In his memoir The Tartan Pimpernel, he says that God guided him to stay in France and try to help. In Marseille, he set up an illegal mission to save the British soldiers who escaped into Vichy France, despite the red posters of nooses and a warning that death would come to anyone helping to save them. As France was falling, he’d been offered a ticket on the last ship to leave France, but he refused, hearing God speak to him, telling him that he had work to do in France. In The Tartan Pimpernel, you can almost hear his Scottish burr coming through the pages.
My novel the Forger of Marseille was forged, you might say, from the spirits and dedication of real people. My fictional characters served to bring the reader into the story of true history, into the bodies and minds of characters who dedicated themselves to the task of saving refugees—just as real people did during that era. In Marseille at that time roamed Nazis, the Gestapo, and the Vichy police, all of whom were dedicated to serve Hitler and the collaborationist government under Phillippe Petain. It was a time of darkness, when a few people tried to shine light and offer compassion, empathy, and courage to save people in danger. In my writing, I stuck to what really happened and followed specific historical moments so readers could feel into the era and empathize with the courage of both the fictional and real people who made a difference. Who took a stand for democratic principles. And made history.