It has been almost two decades in the making but this month Elisabeth Gifford has released her latest book, The Good Doctor Of Warsaw.
Based on a true story of some of the rare survivors of the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, it features the inspiring story of Dr Janusz Korczak, who has been described as a “sort of Polish-Jewish Dr Barnardo”. He defied the Nazi brutality by creating an oasis of kindness and happiness for children.
Here’s the blurb:
Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom.
Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha’s mentor, Dr Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage.
As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls.
As the noose tightens around the ghetto Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone.
They can only hope to find each other again one day…Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.
I am thrilled Elisabeth agreed to let me interview her for my latest Behind The Book post.
Here’s what she had to say:
You’ve written a biography and three historical novels. How did you come across the stories and what grabbed your attention and made you want to write about them?
When I come across a mystery or a question I’d like to find out about then the book is my way of answering that question. A fascination with the actual history behind the many mermaid sightings around Scotland last century turned into Secrets of the Sea House. I’m also keen to look at how we can have happier lives and relationships, and the books often have those themes bubbling in the background – does your past define you, how to be a good mum, honesty and intimacy in relationships, what children need to feel safe and loved.
Can you talk about how you first got into writing? What made you believe you could write a book (or four)?
I’ve always written but with three children and a teaching post it got put on the back burner for some years. Gradually I gave more time to it, poems and short stories and then I joined some writing courses as a treat to myself.
As you mention, you’ve studied creative writing. What made you want to go that route and how did that help you develop? Would you recommend it?
When I got to the point that I was boring strangers at bus stops with my plot ideas I did a diploma and then an MA in creative writing to have someone to share my obsession with. I love the craft side of writing also so I was thrilled to have access to a library of books about writing at Oxford for the diploma and then Royal Holloway for the MA. I found the other students very supportive and inspiring and enjoyed their company a great deal. I built up a body of writing as a result and at a reading for the MA group and agent offered to take me on. I’d say if you want to spend time developing your writing and enjoy it then consider a writing course. An MA is quite a commitment. Try some shorter courses first perhaps. There are so many good ones.
Your latest book, The Good Doctor Of Warsaw, sounds like an amazing tale (I can’t wait to read it), were you ever nervous about writing about it and making sure you got it right?
Yes indeed I was very nervous about attempting The Good Doctor Of Warsaw. It took me almost two decades between wanting to write about Korczak and the novel being published. It involved a lot of research and rewrites and a very patient and supportive agent and publisher. I met Roman Wroblewski who is the son of Misha and Sophia. They worked with Korkzac and were among the 1% out of a million to survive the ghetto. He was kind enough to share information and anecdotes from his parents’ lives and we Skyped a lot over the years. He was also very strict about accuracy and picked up on any errors, which was fantastic.
How much research is involved in your books?
You need to do enough research to inhabit the world you are writing about, but then let the story breathe and tell itself through the characters’ lives.
You’re a full time writer, do you have a set writing day? How do you avoid getting distracted?
I try to write in the morning and do research or emails in the afternoon, but I’ll write longer as the book progresses. It does however depend on getting a good night’s sleep so you feel mentally fresh, and I can’t really drink and think so I avoid the wine or gin and tonic. And it is true that walking helps the brain so I try to get active for part of the day.
What sort of books do you enjoy reading?
I enjoy evocative prose or poetry and also fast paced thrillers. I love biography and history. Writing involves so many different layers. Different books offer different pleasures.
Are you working on anything at the moment and can you share?
I’ve just begun a historical mystery set back in Scotland again. Part of my family is Scottish, so it’s a place I visit often and love writing about. In the new book, a newly wed woman moves to a large house with her husband’s family and becomes obsessed with finding out the identity of a woman who was written out of the family history some years before – while wondering if she is really welcome there or whether she is imagining sinister things.
How do you feel come publication day? Are you excited? Relieved? Worried?
Publication day is exciting – I can’t quite believe it each time, but I get very anxious until I get some feedback that shows that the story has gone down ok with people.
Do you have any writing tips you can share please?
Read lots of course. That’s how you get an ear for what works on the page. Write something every day if you can. Try and join a group of friendly writers to workshop each other’s prose. And don’t stop until you’re done. A novel can take endless re-writes so don’t get discouraged.
I’m so pleased Elisabeth finally got to write the book she always wanted to. The Good Doctor Of Warsaw is getting some wonderful feedback on Amazon so it was obviously worth making sure it was absolutely right. What fabulous writing tips too.
Thank you very much to Elisabeth for taking the time to answer my questions. I’ll have another Behind The Book post for you soon.