Friday, August 22, 2014

Stretching the Boundaries with Memoir Fiction

Sigmund Brouwer is the best-selling author of nearly thirty novels, with close to 4 million books in print. He speaks to over 80,000 students a year at schools all across Canada and the United States through his Rock And Roll Literacy presentations. Sigmund is married to recording artist Cindy Morgan and they have two daughters.

NR: You have been known as a suspense writer (over 30 novels), yet your new book Thief of Glory is historical. Talk about the title of the book, and tell us what it is like to switch genres and write something new. 

SB: Jeremiah Prins, the main character, is near the end of his life. In memoir style, he finally reveals to his daughter why he has been so emotionally distance from her all her life, aware that time is about to take away from him everything that matters. Because the story was also inspired by my father’s boyhood in a Japanese concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies, my primary goal was to tell a story that honored my father’s past. So it was exhilarating to focus totally on the story, without any self-imposed expectations about genre. It was also exhilarating to feel the story begin to flow, once I understood the motivation for the main character — Jeremiah Prins — to finally reveal to his daughter the single act of horror in his boyhood that shaped who he became as a father to her, and in so doing, overcome the emotional distance to her that was his greatest regret in life.

NR: When writing this book, you had to feel the specialness of it. Was writing Thief of Glory an emotional writing experience for you?

SB: Every day, writing from the viewpoint of Jeremiah as boy, I saw the world through my father’s eyes as a boy. It was the first time I was this emotionally invested in a character.

NR: Thief of Glory has been described as memoir fiction. How did you incorporate truth and fiction in this story. 

SB: I think too, the important things in a memoir are to share the emotional memory of an event, and that choosing what to leave out of a memoir is an important as what you choose to reveal. With that in mind, I wrote this story as if my father were describing his boyhood to me. He endured many of the events in the novel. The fictionalized part was the relationship with Jeremiah and his mother, and what Jeremiah had to do to try to keep his siblings alive.

NR: Do you do your research first, or begin to the story first?

SB: Both! I’m thinking of story as I begin the background research necessary to understand the setting of the main character’s life. As I write and get immersed further into the story, it leads me to more research questions — and more research to answer those questions — which in turn leads me deeper into the story. It’s a wonderful repeating cycle that lets me live a different world for months.  Right now, for example, I’m in the romantic post-Edwardian era of Downton Abbey, battling the heat and humidity of Panama among the giant steam shovels and mud slides as my main character begins to realize that the visit of President Teddy Roosevelt to the Panama Canal will threaten everything that matters to the woman he loves and . . . sorry, got lost in story again!

NR: Talk about your research for this story. You had your own family history with your father, and you also went deep into the history of Jappenkamp and the war.

SB: Because my father was only seven when he entered the camp, in comparison to teenaged girls or mothers who later wrote survivor accounts, his  memories weren’t as articulate. (At, I list those accounts.) I discovered that once I knew enough of the background from those accounts, I had enough situational specific questions for him to bring back many of his memories. It’s so sad to lose stories when we lose a generation, that I went ahead and formally interviewed both my parents on video, so that their grandchildren and great grandchildren will always be able to hear those stories.

NR: Readers will be in for a surprise at the end of the book, you have author's notes and also photographs. Why was it important to include these in Thief of Glory. 

SB: My mother was a young girl in Nazi-occupied Germany, and remembers the pain and horror when Nazi soldiers took away her father for hiding a Jew in their home. I wanted Thief of Glory to be a testament to what enduring love can be, despite life difficulties. Through the photos, I hope that readers might understand better what life was like in that era.

NR: What is the role of faith in your book? How important was faith in the life of your characters during this time.

SB: In today’s American culture, it seems that Christianity seems to be very polarizing, but during the Second World War it was much different. The faith element is integral to the time and the situation, and I hope readers see how practicing this faith can make such a different in horrible conditions.

At 70 years old, Jeremiah Prins is seeking redemption by journaling about everything he could never share with his children—including his time in a Japanese POW camp and his abandoned marriage engagement. But when an online encounter puts Jeremiah in touch with his wartime fiancee, his secrets risk destroying everything that he loves.