In The Pact (Red Deer Press), Amanda West Lewis tackles difficult historical subject matter in the context of a compelling story about a young boy.
Peter Gruber is a War Child — a German child pulled into the horrifying events of the Second World War. As Peter struggles against the indoctrination and propaganda of Nazi Germany, The Pact delves into the complex and troubling history of children on both sides of the most deadly war in modern history.
Amanda joins us on Open Book today to discuss The Pact as part of our Lucky Seven interview series. She tells us about the real life neighbour who inspired The Pact, how the book reflects young people around the world being pushed into conflicts still today, and the importance of anchoring a great book in a great character.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Amanda West Lewis:
The Pact takes place in Germany, during the Second World War. In 1939, Peter Gruber is a ten-year-old boy with a booming black market business in Hamburg. His resourcefulness has always been a point of pride. But world events destroy everything he has ever known. Childhood is left far behind, and Peter’s adolescence becomes a period of constant reassessment as his values and morals are tested.
The story of how The Pact came into being is an important aspect of the book, I think. The novel is inspired by the early life of a neighbour of mine, Hans Sinn. I’ve known Hans and his work as a peace activist since 1988, but I knew nothing about his history or background. Then one day around 1998, we were sitting together beside a lake, watching our children play in the water. The children were singing songs and playing games — the kinds of things kids learn at camp. My husband (writer Tim Wynne-Jones) innocently asked Hans if he had ever gone to camp. Hans replied, with a sad smile, “Ya. Hitler Youth camp.” It was quite a shock! He then went on to describe his escape from an SS training camp in Denmark. It was an amazing story, and perhaps even more striking to hear it while we were sitting beside a peaceful lake in Canada.
However, it wasn’t until 2012, after finishing my first novel, September 17, that I decided to delve deeper. September 17 told the true story of a group of British children as they were evacuated during WW2. After writing that book, I wanted to explore the war from the other “side.”
Until recently, the German War Children were not encouraged to tell their stories. Because they were German, they grew up believing that they were to blame for the war. Many grew up feeling an enormous weight of guilt for a war they did not cause. Hans has worked in the peace movement all of this life, and had never spoken publicly about being a War Child. He knew about my first novel, and he knew that I was interested in children’s experiences of war. This prepared the way for him to talk about his own experiences. As he began to tell me about his life before, during and after the war, I was struck by the impact that the German war had on that generation of adolescents.
Is there a question that is central to your book?
I wanted to write a “coming of age” story where the reader could see how circumstances influenced the character’s decisions. It wasn’t until after I finished that I understood that individual children respond differently to the process of indoctrination, to propaganda, institutionalised racism, and xenophobia. They are still individuals and so much depends on their background and other circumstances in their lives. The other realization that I had was that these issues are very contemporary. I may have been writing about children during the 1940s, but there are young men, in particular, dealing with these issues on a daily basis all over the world.
Central to the book is my belief that children have an innate sense of morality. But they will believe what we teach them. If we drench their lives in a poisonous ideology, and give them no chance to develop a sense of empathy, they will grow up believing in only their own version of truth and act accordingly. But how much blame can you ascribe to the child you’ve raised to hate?
After I finished the book, I thought about how horrifying it must be to realize that everything you have been told is, not to put it too finely, a lie and an unspeakable evil. I began to mourn for those broken children.
Did the book change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
When I started, I thought I was going to write a fairly short adventure story that centered around Hans’ escape from the training camp in Denmark. But as I wrote, I kept pushing back the time frame until I was at the start of the war. It was the only way that I could really understand the impact that the war had on the children.
Also, in almost every interview with Hans, he mentioned the death of his friend Eugene. Eugene died almost 80 years ago, yet the effect of that death has lingered into Hans’ old age. This loss became a secondary theme in the book, and a way for my character Peter to understand his journey.
I spent a year interviewing Hans, and doing background research. Then I spent a year and half writing and re-writing.
What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I need mornings. Lovely quiet mornings with no email programs open. I try to begin each writing day with a 40-minute walk where I focus on my environment. I listen to the riot of mating birds in spring; smell the sweet tang of wildflowers in summer; fill my eyes with the fire of autumn colours in fall; and taste sparkling ice flakes on my tongue in winter. I try to start each day with a good pen in hand. I eventually turn to my computer, but initially I need the pace, rhythm, and texture of pen on paper.
What do you do if you feel discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
My main coping strategy is walking. I also write a lot of poetry, working with various poetry prompts. Writing poetry helps me to get deeper into my work and the world that I am creating. These aren’t poems for public consumption — most are pretty ghastly — but there is a great joy in abandoning the critic on my shoulder and just writing.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
Wow. This is such a subjective question! For me, I think it is almost impossible to have a great book without a great character. That character needs to have a setting that influences him or her. A setting in which something happens. The books I have truly loved have given me a way to look at life and what it is to be human. As far as fiction goes, the His Dark Materials, trilogy by Phil Pullman is right up at the top with Winnie-the Pooh.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the middle of doing a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. This is giving me the opportunity to work with amazing mentors, to read a lot more widely, and to write in many different genres. I’m currently working on a picture book biography of the Polish writer and pediatrician Janusz Korczak, as well as a series of non-fiction poems about bugs, planets, and dinosaurs. I’ve just started working on a middle grade novel of verse and vignettes, and have been sketching out a YA novel about drafters in Toronto. So there are many projects on the go. I’m looking forward to bringing them to fruition!
Amanda West Lewis has combined careers as a writer, theatre director, calligrapher, book artist and instructor. In her theatre career, Amanda has focused on work with young people, directing and teaching extensively. As Executive Director of The Ottawa School of Speech & Drama, she founded the "Our Stories" program, a theatre program for disadvantaged youth; and the "Red Kite Project", a performance piece for children on the autism spectrum.
Currently the Artistic Director and Founder of The Ottawa Children's Theatre, she has spent her career working in the arts and arts education, a passion she has translated into her books for young people. Amanda lives in Ottawa with her husband Tim Wynne-Jones, and the two have three grown children.
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.