The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
Anne Blankman (AB): World War Two has fascinated me ever since I read Anne Frank’s diary as a seventh grader. A few years ago, after having a baby, I realized I was going to be home a lot and wanted to keep my brain well-fed with interesting books. I started reading a nonfiction book by Ronald Hayman about Geli Raubal, Hitler’s half niece who once shared his Munich apartment. Long after I’d finished it, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. What must her life have been like, growing up within the fledgling Nazi Party?
The lure of writing about a girl close to Hitler was irresistible. I wanted the freedom of a fictional main character, though, so Gretchen Müller, my protagonist, was born. She’s a seventeen-year-old student: sensitive, smart, tough, and, at the story’s beginning, a Nazi. Although she calls Hitler “Uncle Dolf,” he’s actually a beloved family friend she’s known since she was little. The set-up seemed easy. But how, I wondered, can I make Gretchen realize what her cherished “uncle” really stands for? How can she break free? I decided that she needs to be confronted with something she cannot ignore—a murder mystery that she must solve, and whose investigation forces her to see certain truths about her family and the Party.
TWM: Please describe your research process.
AB: Fortunately, I had written my college honors thesis on Adolf Hitler, so I started this project with some knowledge of the subject. I love doing research, and read everything I could get my hands on: biographies, memoirs, psychological profiles, essays, you name it. I studied Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, and his early speeches. Understanding his ideas and his method of presenting them was vital. To immerse myself in Gretchen’s mindset, I read Nazi children’s stories such as “The Poisonous Mushroom,” and 1930s articles from Der Stürmer, an anti-Semitic newspaper. Primary sources, such as maps and photographs, helped me envision the setting. I watched lots of old video footage, too, including the Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” One of my coworkers at the public library branch where I work part-time is the head of our inter-library loan department, and she tracked down several sources that proved to be extremely helpful.
I type all my research notes, dividing them by subject and source so I can easily check details later. Only when my research is complete do I actually begin writing. For Prisoner of Night and Fog, I had about three hundred pages of notes—they were almost as long as the book itself!
TWM: How was the novel vetted?
AB: HarperCollins has a wonderful copy editing department. My copy editor, Kathryn Silsand, is amazing—she verified countless historical details. I also frequently consulted with a psychology professor, who advised me on the psychological components of my story. For example, at one point my main character is attacked. This professor helped me create the perfect psychological storm of events that would provoke her assailant to lash out at her.
TWM: What was the greatest challenge in writing this? (I can’t imagine it was easy writing about Hitler.)
AB: Writing Hitler as a character was incredibly difficult. It would have been easy to reduce him to a caricature. I felt a responsibility to portray him as accurately as possible, not just because he was a real person, but out of respect for his millions of victims. So I chose to show his many sides that the children of high-ranking Nazis like Gretchen saw in real life: the indulgent honorary uncle, the charismatic manipulator, the rabble-rousing public speaker.
As I mention in my book’s afterword, there is little consensus on Hitler’s personality or his motivation, not even among noted Hitler biographers Ian Kershaw, Joachim Fest, John Toland, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and Alan Bullock. Some people think Hitler was evil and believed genocide was right and just, while others think he was a fraud who latched onto the Jews as a convenient scapegoat to band his supporters together and catapult himself into power. Before I began writing, I knew I would have to come to my own conclusions about Hitler or I wouldn’t be able to portray him at all. The more I investigated, the more I became convinced that Hitler was “deliberately” evil—I say deliberately because I think he understood the consequences of his actions.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction in writing this novel?
AB: There’s nothing as exciting as hearing from readers! Just last night, I got an email from a man who read Prisoner of Night and Fog with his teenage grandchildren, and he thanked me for writing a book that appeals to multiple generations. It doesn’t get any better than that.
TWM: What were your favorite books as a teen?
AB: Hmm, do you have an spare hour to listen to me go on and on? I have lots of favorites! If I had to narrow down my choices, though, I’d have to say anything by Philip Pullman; Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Bleak House by Charles Dickens; the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling; The Giver by Lois Lowry; and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.
TWM: Who have been the greatest influences on your writing and how/why?
AB: My mother, Lynn Blankman, has been a source of inspiration for me. When I was growing up, I watched her struggle to get published, but she never gave up and after several years of hard work, she achieved her dream and became a middle-grade author. To this day, mom is always my first reader.
TWM: What is your writing process?
AB: With a preschooler, I have to be disciplined and take advantage of every spare minute! On most days, I get up very early and run. That time alone, listening to my book’s playlist, helps me write out the next scene in my head, brainstorm, whatever I need to do that day. I write while my daughter’s at preschool and at night. I know there are writers who can churn out 100 pages in 2 days, but I tend to write smaller amounts 5-6 days a week.
TWM: Goethe’s poem, “Der Erlkoenig”—how did it influence the novel? How/when did you come across it? (It’s my favorite poem of all time. I learned it in my freshman year of high school German and can still recite it by heart. I was a German major undergrad.)
AB: Barbara, I love this poem, too! I stumbled across it while working on my senior thesis in college, when I learned about the Nazis’ infamous “Night and Fog” decree of 1941. According to this decree, Nazis could arrest resistance agents in occupied countries and bring them immediately to special courts in Germany. Essentially, Nazis could whisk away their enemies into “the night and fog,” just as a supernatural being abducts a little boy in “Der Erlkönig,” which is how the decree got its nickname. My editor and I thought the phrase “night and fog” captures the sense of menace and manipulation that we associate with the Nazis—that idea that Hitler, through skillful propaganda, can trick you into no longer seeing what is really there.
TWM: Kristin, let’s now turn to you. What attracted you to this novel?
Kristin Rens (KR): Oh goodness, there was so much that attracted me to this story: The way Anne seamlessly weaves together the historical themes and setting into a compelling mystery thriller. And the way the romance between the protagonists evolves so believably over the course of the book—even though one of them is a Nazi and one is a Jew, and being together could literally get them killed. And of course Anne’s writing, which is lovely and assured—she really has an incredible gift for creating atmosphere (and suspense!). But what made this book truly special, for me, is that it offers a unique perspective on this era—as we all know, there are a ton of books out there set in this place and time. But Prisoner of Night and Fog felt like it was really bringing something fresh and interesting to the table—the story was told from a point of view that we haven’t really seen before. When the story opens, Gretchen is a Nazi, and embraces Nazi beliefs. And Anne accomplishes the unthinkable: She makes us understand and care about this character.
TWM: I understand there’s a sequel. Was that part of the deal? What prompted it?
KR: All the credit there goes to Anne, I’m afraid! She already had ideas for future stories about Gretchen, which her agent shared with me when Prisoner of Night and Fog was sent on submission. Over the course of Prisoner, readers come to care for Gretchen and Daniel so deeply that it felt natural that Anne’s next book would be a sequel.
TWM: What has been the reaction to the Prisoner of Night and Fog?
KR: The reaction to the book has been very enthusiastic thus far—it’s received several very positive trade reviews, including a star from Publishers Weekly, and also received a BFYA nomination. And just this month Anne was just named one of PW’s Flying Starts, which is very exciting! Too, it seems like the word of mouth on Prisoner has been very strong, with bloggers and other readers who have read and loved the book telling others about it—which is what we always hope for in a book!