“I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the tiny moments that our lives turn on,” muses children’s author Liz Kessler as she sits aboard her narrowboat moored on the Macclesfield Canal. Over the course of a successful 20-year writing career penning multi-million copy bestsellers about mermaids, fairies and time travel, this was a story in her DNA: “I never consciously decide what I’m going to write about, I find it comes along and chooses you, but this book was a passion project ten years in the making.”
Inspired by a fleeting moment of coincidence in her father’s childhood, involving him nearly scuffing a woman’s dress which led to a chance conversation. The thank-you letter his father received following a day spent together was the only thing that got the family out of Czechoslovakia in 1939, saving them from a terrible fate: “My father turned 90 this year, he’s very proud his story has been told and I’m delighted to have shared the journey with him.”
Liz set out on an extensive research trip across Central Europe, visiting concentration camps, museums and synagogues, reading archives and speaking to Holocaust experts: “The details, historically and emotionally, were tough to process, but I believe it’s all fed into a work that honours my history and feels respectful to the truth.
“I felt it seeping under my skin in a way that I had never experienced. Standing at the end of the tracks at Birkenau where 12,000 Jews each day filed past on their way to the gas chambers, gave me a strong emotional connection to key scenes in the novel that take place there.”
Making the book age appropriate presented Liz with challenges, but she believes it’s important for young people to understand the events that took place in order to ensure history does not repeat itself: “I would never want to see this book in a primary school, because I don’t shy away from the brutal reality. It’s not a cheerful read, but I hope an ultimately life-affirming one, with hope, friendship, family and love as a backdrop.
“This isn’t a history book, and these are themes that are sadly relevant today. I’m a firm believer that once a book is released into the world, you lose control over its reception, but I hope teenagers might read the novel and reflect on the world as it is today.”
Set in pre-WWII Vienna, the novel follows the interweaving viewpoints of three friends as Europe is consumed by war: “There’s one character called Leo, and his story was inspired by my dad’s, where he has a chance encounter that helps him flee Austria. Elsa doesn’t have that lucky moment and Max, whose father is a Nazi, joins the Hitler youth and subsequently each of their lives takes a very different path.”
Set for release ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, the novel is the first piece of Jewish fiction Liz has tackled, bringing her unexpectedly closer to her Jewish roots: “I was brought up in a Reform Jewish family, and though I’ve never been especially religious, my Jewish identity is extremely important to me. I’m still on a quest to actually figure out exactly where I belong in its history, and that’s part of the nature of being Jewish in some ways.
“I don’t think I intended it to be, but writing the book felt like quite a personal process of discovery. All the research I did strengthened a lot of my feelings about my heritage, even if at the end of it, I found myself thinking: ‘why does our identity revolve around us being driven out of countries for millennia?’ In a way, I don’t want such a negative thing to define this connection with my culture, but it’s the inescapable truth.”
When the World was Ours by Liz Kessler is published by Simon and Schuster and will be released on 25th January 2021.