I was asked some fabulous questions by blogger Abby Fairbrother, so find out more on her blog
Q) Firstly, for the readers can you introduce yourself and your novel?
A) Thanks, Abby, my name is S.D. Mayes. I’ve been a human interest journalist for nearly twenty years, and Letters to the Pianist is my first historical suspense novel.
Q) WW2 fiction is one of my favourite historical fiction genre’s. What is your research process for your novel? Is it difficult to bring war torn London alive on the page?
Yes, it is a tough call, but what inspired me to write the book was finding my mother, Ruth’s memoires after she died three years ago. She wrote about how her family home was bombed in the blitz and the subsequent evacuation to stay with relatives after she and her two siblings were left orphaned. I had a real eye opener into the turmoil of that time. Ruth the protagonist is inspired by her and the bomb scenes are based on real events that she described.
I also did a ton of research, reading endless online accounts from people who lived as children during that time. I also watched many documentaries on Hitler and the aristocracy, which was a fascinating learning curve.
Q) The novel revolves around the Goldberg family; can you tell us a little more about them? And the inspiration behind this family?
A) Yes the Goldberg’s are, Rose and Joseph Goldberg and their three children, Ruth 14, Gabi, 12 and Hannah, 10. They all live in a terraced house in Hackney, East London. And they were inspired by my mother, Ruth and her two younger siblings, Derek and Shirley. Rose is based on my grandmother Rose and the complex fractious relationship she and my mother Ruth had. Joseph the father, is completely fictionalised.
The weird thing is, I recently had a Facebook friend offer to look into my ancestry, and discovered that my Grandmother’s Rose’s maiden name was actually Goldberg. I really thought I’d chosen the name at random. How weird is that?
Q) Your novel has quite a young central protagonist Ruth Goldberg. She is 14 years old at the opening of the novel and then the novel picks up just four years later. Do you think there is also an added YA appeal to the novel? And If so do you think the novel would work well in education settings, to add a real life feel to world war two history coursework?
A) Yes the novel spans the years, 1941 to 1946, so we see Ruth age from 14 to 19 during the course of the story. Thank you for asking this, as I definitely feel that many schoolchildren could relate to the young ones in the story, and could learn about the war from what they go through – little ones clambering onto the train in the evacuations, split up from their families, and learning to live with relatives they don’t know, or far worse, complete strangers. My daughter has studied the Nazis and WWII in her GCSE’s and she agrees that this story would help in their understanding of the turmoil of that time. I’d absolutely love my novel to be added to coursework. That would be a dream come true.
Q) The novel also deals with the tricky subject of a character’s amnesia. Did you have to do medical research into this and the available resources in 1941? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
A) I did so much research on amnesia and Savant Syndrome which is explained in the story, when Joseph Goldberg’s severe concussion, after the family home is bombed, enables him to play the piano as beautifully as many of the great maestros. I studied a man in the US who hit his head on a shallow swimming pool after diving in, and acquired savant syndrome with the incredible ability to play the piano. It is a fascinating symptom which was first discovered over a hundred years ago, and doctors to this day still cannot fully understand it.
I’m not sure we’ve move on much over the years. I learnt from talking to doctors, that the brain is incredibly complex and to this day the medical profession still only understands 10 % of how it works. So in over a hundred years, medically we are still no further on in establishing the issues with amnesia and when memory will return, or anything to do with the mysterious savant syndrome and why the brain rewires itself as a consequence of concussion or from a neurodevelopmental disorder. Yes, we have gone from X-rays to CT scans and MRI scans, so we can take a picture of the brain, but that’s it!
I don’t feel that this is an insult to the medical profession; more that our brains are incredibly complex and we are beautiful fascinating instruments – with more potential than we could ever imagine.
Q) Ruth’s father Joe, is a pianist in the novel. What was the inspiration behind this element of the novel?
A) I’m not really sure what inspired me about the character becoming a pianist. It just came to me. But I enjoyed choosing and listening to the classical pieces he played. I also asked a friend who played the piano, for information.
Q) Due to the pianist theme, I can imagine this novel to have a beautiful soundtrack. Did you write to any music, in particular?
A) No, I didn’t write anything. That would be a bit beyond my skills. But there is an example of music in this paragraph: ‘On stage, illuminated by the spotlight, Edward bent over the imposing ebony Steinway, his fingers swift and sure, dancing lightly and then crashing across the ivories. He played plays Mozart’s Overture from ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ with such ferocious passion, his body twisted and turned, his face contorted and his eyes rolled wildly. Then he eloquently changed key and with tender emotion played Liszt’s, ‘Dreams of Love’ …
There is one song that runs through the novel, the old time classic, ‘You Made Me Love You’ first recorded in 1913 and written by James V. Monaco, with lyrics by Joseph McCarthy.
Q) Since your novels release, what has been your favourite moment of being a published author?
A) I think actually receiving copies in the post in published form, bound and printed with a beautiful cover – which was designed by the publishers, but thankfully, I absolutely love.
Q) Who is your support network when you are writing?
A) Support .. hmm I think my support comes from online bloggers and reviewers such as yourself. I don’t get much support at home. Everyone wants attention and my cat, Saphy always plonks herself down on my laptop and paperwork, and then refuses to get off.
Q) Finally, what is planned next in your writing career? Will you continue to write in the ww2 fiction genre?
A) I do plan to write a sequel to Letters to the Pianist – which is about the Goldbergs five years on – called ‘The Silk Swastika’. I have an entire plot synopsis. I just need to write it!
I love the WWII era and my favourite books are Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally.
There’s a Goodreads giveaway of a signed paperback, that ends on the first day of Hanukkah, December 12th, in honour of the Goldberg family in the book. Here’s the giveaway link:
Goodreads giveaway: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/263008-letters-to-the-pianist
I hope you enjoy this book extract from my 1940s suspense novel, LETTERS TO THE PIANIST – set in Britain, during and after WWII.
This extract is taken from a third of the way into the story, when Edward is visiting his father-in-law’s country estate in Shropshire with his wife, Connie. The family and some mysterious guests have just eaten game for dinner, after taking part in a rather sinister pheasant shoot, and Edward has just seen the entire table, including his wife, raising a toast to Hitler. Confused and overcome with nausea he covers his mouth with his hand, and staggers towards the door.
This gives you a snapshot of the central theme of the story – how the protagonist, Edward – a Jewish man with no memory of the past, is attempting to make sense of the strange family he has married into.
Stumbling into their bedroom, Edward flopped down onto the four-poster bed. Connie swept through the door after him, her signature Chanel permeating the air like a scented breeze. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he felt her stroke his forehead, feeling the coolness of her fingers contrast with the heat emanating from his brow.
‘How are you, darling?’
He wrinkled his forehead. ‘I don’t feel well.’
‘But you must eat, Eddie. Are you going to join us later?’
He groaned. ‘I’ve got one of those awful migraines. Do apologise for me.’
Connie leant over and kissed him on the lips, stroking his cheek as he turned his face away.
‘Is everything all right, darling?’
‘I just didn’t think you were an Adolf fan?’
Connie pouted and folded her arms. ‘Oh, so that’s what this is about. Honestly, Eddie, you are being silly. I merely raised an innocent glass of claret to a dead man. We must all learn forgiveness for the damned, and I can’t sit there like a party pooper. Daddy would have thought me terribly improper for disrespecting his comrades.’
‘Forgiveness,’ said Edward, staring at her blankly.
‘Yes, Daddy’s philosophy has always been to raise a toast and bless your enemies. It’s a family superstition … in case you meet them in hell.’ Connie giggled.
He closed his eyes, feeling more confused than ever.
‘Do come down when you’re hungry, darling.’ She stood up and smoothed down her dress. ‘I can tell chef to fix you something light, perhaps some scrambled eggs and smoked salmon?’
‘Thank you,’ he said wearily. He waited for the door to shut, relieved to be left alone. Family superstition. Could that really be true? Despite the many times he tried to whitewash it, there was something about his father-in-law’s nature that was deeply disturbing. It was like hearing a violinist play a rapturous melody that lifted your spirits until, without warning, there was that one shrill, discordant note, so unbearably, piercingly out of tune, that it made you want to scream for it to stop.
*Huge thanks to S.D Mayes for taking the time to complete a Q&A and be part of a post on my blog. I wish you every success with your writing career.