• Sheryl Gwyther

Beyond Belief - a new novel by Dee White

Updated: Apr 4

It gives me much pleasure to help launch my friend, Australian author Dee White's new novel via cyber-land, and into your hearts. Beyond Belief is a special book; a much needed book in our fraught times ... a book of hope, generosity, love and courage.

Inspired by the true story of Muslims who saved the lives of Jewish children in the Second World War.

In 1942, in the Grand Mosque in Paris, 11-year-old Ruben is hiding from the Nazis. Already thousands of Jewish children have disappeared, and Ruben’s parents are desperately trying to find his sister.

Ruben must learn how to pass himself off as a Muslim, while he waits for the infamous Fox to help him get to Spain to be reunited with his family. One hint of Ruben's true identity and he'll be killed. So will the people trying to save him.

I interviewed Dee this week ... a behind the scenes view of writing an historical novel. We both love the fascinating process of writing stories set in the past, (my latest novel, Sweet Adversity is set in the Great Depression. My two works-in-progress are set in 1715 Venice, and in 1920 in Far North Queensland.)

Our chat proved to be interesting, revealing, and totally pulled me into the story of young hero, Ruben ... I can't wait to read Beyond Belief.

Dee, how did you get inside the head of your young protagonist - a boy, as well as being from another culture and era?

To be honest, it didn’t feel that hard. I guess because my father was a boy in Europe during that time. Also, having kind and caring sons of my own, I felt like I knew how they would respond to what was happening around them.

Ruben being a cat whisperer is a trait taken directly from my eldest son, who love cats and they adore him back. And my father had spoken to me about the fear of fleeing Europe, the terror of soldiers discovering that their identities were fake and them being arrested. So I drew on that too.

Setting a story in historical times often means the physical setting is nothing like a modern era. How did you deal with describing Beyond Belief's settings?

Great question, Sheryl. Being Paris, a lot of the setting was the same. I imagine the sewers are a bit more fancy these days than they were in 1942 because they are designed to cater for tours now, but I bet the smell is the same.

I spent a lot of time at Museums in Paris and looking at old photos and films. Although many of the buildings are the same today, the street life, what people wore and the cars they drove were quite different – and of course there was the presence of soldiers and police everywhere – and fear and tension.

The actual mosque was pretty much unchanged too. I found the oldest synagogue in Paris ... it was perfect for Ruben, and just around the corner from where I imagined that he lived.

The Bercy Wine market, where Ruben climbs into a barrel to try and get out of Paris, was quite different but I found old photos and that helped me with the descriptions.

Part of my research involved cruising down the Seine at night so I could see what it might have looked, smelled and sounded like for Ruben, floating down the river in a wine barrel. The things you have to do for research!

The part I wrote about the kids in the wine barrels must have been quite realistic because one of my Jewish-sensitivity readers (a Paris holocaust survivor) was hiding out at a convent during the war and she remembers two children turning up there in wine barrels just like I described.

There’s nothing like being in a place when you’re writing about it. I walked on the cobblestones and imagined what Ruben’s feet sounded like when he ran from the soldiers. I saw how the light hit the mosque in the afternoon, and I smelled the trees and flowers in Jardin De Plantes.

In some of Sweet Adversity’s scenes when my two young characters faced terrible danger or loss, I felt it deeply within my heart and mind. Your story must’ve been even more poignant to write. Tell us the ups and downs of your emotions while writing the story?

I was just saying to someone the other day how I got so involved with Ruben, he was like my third child. He was in my head all the time. He was at the dinner table with me and in my thoughts all the time. Even though I was the one putting him through it, I felt his pain. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about how you felt writing Sweet Adversity.

As you know, my father fled Hitler-occupied Austria so I have a personal connection to the story. Some of my research involved delving into that.

It was really hard at times. I walked a lot to allow me to process things. But I also have another coping device. When I’m writing an emotionally difficult story like Beyond Belief and it becomes a bit too intense, I put it aside and work on something more light-hearted like my Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Parent Training (coming out with Scholastic in May) which is clearly a completely different book.

What was the hardest scene you had to write?

It’s tricky to be specific because I don’t want to give too much away, but I think it was probably the scene where Ruben discovers what happened to his parents.

Music and Shakespeare play large roles in my novel, Sweet Adversity, especially the songs and melodies from the late 1920. They became Narrative Devices. Where you able to use Narrative Devices in your story … whether objects, or buildings, or from the arts?

This is a really interesting question Sheryl, and I remember you doing that in Sweet Adversity. I definitely did this with art in Letters to Leonardo.

I think the cedar tree is a device I used in the story. When Ruben’s mother drops him at the mosque, she tells him he must be strong like the cedar tree, and this theme carries right through the story. Ruben’s love of cats and the fact that they love him are also a thread throughout the story, representing kindness and unconditional love.

(Totally get the Cedar Tree connection, Dee! It's such an evocative tree ... its history, the smell of the leaves and the bark's texture, its healing qualities and the mythology ... from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Celtic Druids, from the Bible to Native American legends.)

Your own family history would have rung deeply in your mind as you wrote. Do you think it helped or hindered your freedom of expression?

To be honest, I think it helped. As I mentioned earlier, I drew on this family background. It helped me to put myself right in the story and to walk in my characters’ shoes.

In Sweet Adversity, I needed to keep the sense of it being set in 1930 ... so different to modern Australia. Hence, I was careful about the dialogue and expressions my characters used. Did you find that to be significant in your writing too?

It wasn’t a deliberate choice for me. It was just part of who my characters were, that they spoke differently from contemporary Australians. Here again, I think coming from a European background helped as I had dialogue and expressions already in my head. I think when I imagined Ruben and the others talking, I was drawing on memories of my own relatives conversing.

What about your antagonists? How did you get into their heads, especially knowing you wouldn’t want to be in their head-space?

I actually did lots of research into this because I wanted to understand what would make people do such appalling things. There are a certain percentage of people who commit these acts because they have a personality disorder of some kind, but many of the French Police didn’t want to be involved in the Vel D’hiv roundup but their families were threatened if they didn’t comply. Some went early on the morning of the roundup to warn Jews that they were coming back to arrest them, to try and give them a chance to escape.

Well, that's it from Dee and me! Hope you enjoyed reading this blog. Share it widely! And go buy Beyond Belief !

Thanks for having me on your blog, Sheryl. I’ve enjoyed visiting. I think my boy, Ruben and your girl, Addie in Sweet Adversity would have been pretty firm friends.

I think so too, Dee! :)

Now you've read to the end, you'll get the chance to enter the BOOK GIVEAWAY competition. COMMENT TO THIS LINK and say why you would like to win a copy of Beyond Belief. Competition is only open to people living in Australia.