Thursday, September 14, 2017

Interview historical novelist C.F. Yetmen

Novelist C.F. Yetmen joins me today and we’re chatting about her new historical fiction, What Is Forgiven.

C.F. Yetmen is the author of The Roses Underneath, which received the 2015 IPPY Gold Medal for Historical Fiction, was named a 2014 Notable Indie Book by the Shelf Unbound Writing Competition, and was a 2014 Finalist in the Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. She lives and works in Austin, Texas.

Welcome, C.F. Please tell us about your current release.
What Is Forgiven is the second book in the Anna Klein trilogy, which began with The Roses Underneath. Anna has been working with the Monuments Men for a few months and continues to struggle to put her life back together. In this book, she confronts the Holocaust and her complicity, as a German citizen, in the atrocities the Nazis committed. Because the Nazis stole the property of Jewish collectors, the art now under the Americans’ control must be restituted. But she learns that when the stakes are this high, people rationalize their greed and crimes to protect themselves, their reputations, and their loved ones.

What inspired you to write this book?
The book is inspired by the circumstances of the German half of my family at the end of World War II. Although no one worked with the Monuments Men, my grandmother, who was displaced, along with her mother and my mother, then five years old – was lucky enough to get a job working for the American Occupation Forces, which changed her life. Many of the Monuments Men were architects, which interested me because of my work as an architectural writer. Those two ideas collided and created the premise for this series.

Excerpt from What Is Forgiven:

The man’s pale face was cracked, the scars of his ordeal revealed under the ribbon of sunlight streaming through the dirty window. Just under his chin, a ridge of pink paint hinted at the jowls that told his age, but the same paint gave a youthful rosiness to his cheek. He looked at Anna with near-black eyes, his expression defiant and expectant, as if they were engaged in conversation and it was her turn to reply. A light warping torqued the canvas in its frame and a small tear was visible at one corner, but it was nothing that wasn’t fixable. Anna lowered her face toward the painting as it rested on the swatch of cloth the conservators used to protect the precious inventory, and when she was sure no one was looking, she ran her hand across the rough paint, feeling its texture on her fingertips. She knew she shouldn’t touch it, even with gloves, but the temptation was too great. The familiar sounds of army boots squeaking on the waxed floors and the low rumble of American voices continued in the near background, and the sun illuminated the dust in the air. She inhaled the distant oily scent and exhaled it for a long time, sending a cloud of tiny particles swirling toward the ceiling. She considered what the Man in a Green Jacket had endured in order to arrive here, into her care. Months in a damp cellar wrapped in bed sheets alongside a few dozen of his fellow travelers had not diminished the gleam in his eyes nor weakened the set of his shoulders. It was a painting that told of another time. What would the man say, if he could speak?
“Let’s get you back home,” she said. “You’ve been very patient.” She turned the painting over on the work table, which was really just one of the old oversized doors from the back of the building balanced on a pair of smaller folding tables.
She was so engrossed in reading the gallery and exhibition labels on the back of the painting that she didn’t notice Cooper step into the workroom.
“Frau Klein? Can you speed this along, please?” He stood in the half-open door, rolling the sleeve of his uniform down his arm. “The new hire will be here soon. Let’s meet up in my office.” Captain Henry Cooper was her immediate superior—she his translator and assistant, he an architect assigned to safeguard Germany’s damaged monuments and restitute its stolen art for the Monuments Men unit Anna had fallen into a job with. It was no small task, for sure, and one made all the more interesting by Cooper’s penchant for ignoring the military’s protocols.
“I’m almost done here.” She turned back to her work, adjusting the table lamp to get a better look at the hodgepodge of stamps, labels, and numbers that told the painting’s story. Anna knew by now the familiar stencils of the ERR, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, Hitler’s ruthless art thieving unit. She made a note of the markings on the condition report part of the long and repetitive intake form, following the established protocol. This canvas, an oil painting of a seated man looking over his left shoulder, likely belonged to the same collector as the dozens of others she had catalogued over the last few days. The Nazi cataloging stamps on the back told that it had been taken from a Jewish family in Frankfurt. Thanks to meticulous Nazi record keeping, the Americans had already made good progress on connecting the paintings with their rightful owners. The only problem, and it was a big one, was finding those owners, if they were even still alive. Of all the Jewish collectors whose paintings they had identified, the Americans had not found a single one yet.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m working on the final book in the trilogy I always knew there would be three in this series, because once the rebuilding of Germany took hold, the setting becomes less interesting to me, and the work of the Monuments Men became more bureaucratic. I am most interested in the chaotic time right at the end of the war. The first book takes place in August 1945, the second starts in October of that year, and the third will start in early 1946.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I always liked writing but it was never a serious career consideration for me. I worked in publishing and marketing for a long time but when my daughter was born I shifted focus to writing because I do it anytime for the day in any state of dress and hygiene. I turned in an article two weeks after she was born and thought, “This can work!” I first considered myself a writer when people began paying me a living wage to write.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
My day job is writing about architecture, so yes, I write full time. I devote the most optimal, uninterrupted hours of the day (5am-7am) to the hardest project at hand, so when I’m working on a novel, those hours are reserved for my fiction. Writing for a living has given me the discipline to sit down and gets words on paper whether I feel like it or not. It has removed the mystery of the process and revealed it for what it is: steady consistent work, even on days when it’s really, really hard. The Scrivener app’s goal-setting feature – a kind of FitBit for writing – allows you to set a deadline and a word count and then tells you every day how many words you need to write to stay on track. Once I hit the daily mark, if it’s too hard to keep going, I sign off and congratulate myself. Then get to watch Netflix totally guilt free. That made a huge difference for me.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I can't write in coffee shops or public places because I have to talk to myself while I’m writing. I didn't actually realize this until I tried to work in a cafĂ© one day and caught myself talking out loud. I have written in my parked car, in clients’ offices between meetings, in empty conference rooms, on terraces with beautiful views, and on hotel bathroom floors while my family sleeps. But never in public.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Although I was always told I was a good writer, at various stages I wanted to be a flight attendant, a lawyer, fashion designer, and journalist. I didn't dare to dream of being a writer!

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I think like many writers, I spend a lot of time thinking of the words on the page and about my characters. It’s easy to forget about your readers when you are heads-down in the middle of the manuscript. But I once gave a talk to sixth grade writing students at my daughter’s school. About a year later one of the girls nervously and earnestly approached me in the parking lot to tell me how much she she liked my book. That was truly the most gratifying experiences I’ve had as a writer. You never know how your work will affect someone. I’ve met so many interesting people who have told me their own stories about the war and the aftermath, which fascinates me. Also, once I joined a book club to discuss my book and the host commissioned cookies iced with the design of my book cover. That kind of memory will keep you going through a bad 5am slog and proves that this is a pretty great job.


Thanks for being here today, C.F.!

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