Inspired by an overseas trip, Ralph Webster set about taking his family history and turning it into two books, which feature topics not only important to him personally but also the world in general.
His first, A Smile in One Eye: A Tear In The Other, which tells the story of his father’s flight from the Holocaust, was nominated for Best Memoir/Autobiography in the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards.
His second, One More Moon, which is due to be published next month, tells the true story of his grandmother’s desperate journey from Naples to America as countries across the world closed their doors to Jewish refugees fleeing the spread of Nazi evil.
I couldn’t resist asking Ralph to be my latest Behind The Book interviewee and was thrilled when he agreed to answer my questions.
Here’s what he had to say:
I know that becoming an author was never really in your grand plan but the tale of how you came to write your first book is inspiring. Can you tell us about it please?
Thank you for asking that question because it really goes to the heart of what I am trying to do with my writing. A little more than two years ago my wife Ginger and I spent eight weeks in Europe travelling. We are retirees and have the luxury of being able to take off for big chunks of time. This was a pleasure trip. We were taking trains, backpacking, hiking, and biking. I suppose you could say we were celebrating the good life. We started in France and ended in Stockholm for their jazz festival.
Ironically our trip coincided with the escalating refugee crisis in Europe. Refugees in large numbers searching for safety, security, and economic opportunity were fleeing Syria and other areas under siege with literally the clothes on their backs. At night we watched the news reports on CNN and BBC. And, by day, we encountered groups of refugees on trains, at train stations, in cities, in small towns, and at border crossings. Right before our eyes we watched mothers, fathers, children, and groups of young men literally just trying to survive. We saw conversations and confrontations with authorities – some civil, some heated. We saw people being removed from trains and taken away by police officials. We recognised the difficulty and frustration in trying to communicate across the medium of different languages. It was easy to see that these were people simply looking for a hand up, not a hand out.
This touched our hearts and brought tears to our eyes. I hope we all feel compassion for those forced to leave the lands of their mothers and fathers through no fault of their own. Watching this I realised that this is what my family must have experienced when they had no choice but to leave their homes. It may have been a different time, a different circumstance, and a different generation. But I am certain that the feeling was much the same – the anguish, the loss, the confusion, the uncertainty, the isolation, the fears, the unknown, the way others reacted.
That is what inspired me. This is the story I want to tell. Far too often, particularly in the United States, refugee and immigration issues have become involved in the politics of fear. I wanted to do my part to shine a light on this issue. I want others to understand the personal depth of this humanitarian crisis. Mine is not a plea for money. It is a plea for compassion, respect, and dignity. I want us all to recognise that refugees, those forced to leave the lands of their mothers and fathers, are the victims. They should never be made to be the enemy.
How much research was required before you started writing? Did you have any family files to help you? How much involved talking to people and how much was spent in archives or online? How much is fiction and how much is fact?
Wow! That’s a lot of questions! I really can’t say that there was a great amount of research required before I started writing and that was true for both of my books. I did have to take stock of the items that we had in our possession. This meant checking in with other family members which can sometimes become complicated. They were curious to know what I was doing. Some wanted to become part of the process and they had their own opinions of various situations. I was resistant to share too much with others because I was still trying to get my arms around what I was really trying to do. I needed to complete my vision before I was ready to share. We had some items – mostly copies of official documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses. For my second book, One More Moon, I had a few pages my grandmother had written about various times in her life. As for talking to people, too many years had passed. Memories were lost and people who had been around then were no longer alive. For my first book, A Smile in One Eye, I had some communication with the British Archives and had to petition for the release of my father’s World War II records. As for what is fact and what is fiction? Both books involve real people, places, actual events, and pretty specific timelines. Connecting the dots between them often involved some informed speculation and conjecture. Admittedly, like a stage play, sometimes there are moments that need to be more expressive than real life. Sometimes fiction is more interesting than fact.
One other point and I think it is important. I wasn’t interested in family trees and ancestry research. Those are stories for others. I was trying to tell a very specific story of one generation (actually for a very specific time in our history). My focus has been on the story and personalities. I want the reader to intimately know my family – for the reader to feel that they are on the inside looking out.
Your first book was a Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards Nominee for Best Memoir/Autobiography. How did it feel to find that people were connecting with your story?
That is always especially gratifying. I think that is what we all hope is accomplished with our writing. What sometimes gets lost in the book description is that there really are two parts to A Smile in One Eye: A Tear in the Other – actually two stories that are married together into one book – two voices. The first is my father. He is telling the story of his journey from Germany to America. Remember his was a Lutheran family who were informed of their Jewish roots. They considered themselves Germans through and through. They had a difficult and emotional journey. The second voice is my own. I tell the story of the last eight weeks of my father’s life and how our family dealt with this family crisis. Every family at one time or another has to deal with the passing of a generation. I always receive comments from readers about this, especially when I meet with book clubs. It is a connection we all share and it is deeply personal.
You are about to publish your second book, One More Moon, where you go back another generation to your grandmother. Both books are important in terms of your family history but also for the wider world so we don’t forget what happened. Did it feel important when you were writing it?
Absolutely. I wanted to convey my message by telling a story. Isn’t that what all storytellers try to do? I want the reader to feel that they are in the moment. I suppose that gets to the heart of the difference between trying to write a family history to pass on to family versus a book which one hopes to share with a broader audience. When you write for a broader audience there is a certain commercial aspect to it. Afterall, what purpose does it serve if no one finds the book interesting enough to pick up and read all the way through. I want to write books that readers don’t want to put down. I want readers to stay up all night to get to the end. Those are the books I like. You don’t have to consider that when you write a family history for family members. The other thing that comes to play in all of this is defining the line of what is personal and what can or should be shared with others. I suppose that is a reflection of our personalities. Some of us are extremely private – others want to tell it all. Writing a book for others to read about real people within one’s family can become very complicated. My wife Ginger and I had many conversations about that very issue. I think she was aghast when she realised what I was doing. Consider that a forewarning for others who might attempt it.
On that same note, are you ever tempted to write about current refugees? You say “we must remember that refugees are the victims, not the enemy” something I that I think some people have forgotten. Do you think your books are a reminder of that?
I truly hope they are a reminder. If little else is accomplished with all of this I hope all of our children and grandchildren embrace this as an important value and a way they look at the world they live in – a world where some have more and some have less. As for writing about the current refugees, I honestly believe that is a story for others to tell. I believe I write with passion and emotion because I know my family’s story. Readers would recognize the difference. I think a good story has to be told from the depth of the heart.
How have you found promoting your books, being interviewed, and speaking at book clubs?
I love it. Apart from being good for the ego, the books have become a wonderful platform to express some values I find important. Even more than that, I have learned so much from the stories of others.
What about the technical side of publishing? Can you talk about the route you have taken with your books?
My gosh! I have learned so much and continue to learn so much everyday. Writing a book and getting it noticed is quite an adventure. Fortunately I don’t have to make a living doing this. Perhaps that gives me some freedoms that others don’t have. I can write for the pleasure and for my purpose. Of course I value my time and I want something in return. That is where the readers come in. I want them to read my book. And when they do, when they leave a review or send me a note, whether it is good or bad, that is my joy.
It didn’t take me long to realise that I wasn’t a rock star, a controversial politician, a talented sports figure or an extremely imaginative writer. I am an older guy who wrote a book or two. I was not embarking upon a series or trying to build a brand. I took the self publishing route. I chose not to invest the time in searching for an agent or a publisher. I wanted to get from point A to point B as quickly as I could so I could be here to see the finished product and enjoy the mystery of what might result. I suppose that adventure is the word that best combines rewarding with frustrating!
Are you working on writing anything new at the moment?
No. I am taking a breather. I think I have exhausted all of my dead relatives. I know my family agrees.
Do you have any writing tips you can share?
Make the story your passion. Remember writing begins with the reader. Always find an editor. Be humble and have a thick skin.
Thank you very much to Ralph for answering my questions in such detail. I love the way he was inspired to write and hope, after a well earned rest, he carries on (maybe he can find another family to write about?).
I’ll have more Behind The Book posts for you next month.