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  Curled Up With a Good Book
An interview with C.F. Yetmen, *The Roses Underneath*

 

What inspired you to write The Roses Underneath?

It was a collision of several ideas. The experiences of my grandmother and my mother after the war had always interested me, but I only knew little snippets of information. I knew my grandmother and mother were displaced, separated from my grandfather and that my grandmother got a job working as a secretary for an American officer. That idea had been floating around in my head for decades. In my day job, I work with architects, writing about their work and helping them communicate their value to the public. And, I am a working mother. When I stumbled on the documentary The Rape of Europa one night on TV about five years ago, I was completely fascinated by the Monuments Men. I had never heard of them or their work. Many of them were architects, so that resonated with me. A few days later I was on a walk and pondering ideas for a novel. I asked myself, what do I know? All those ideas converged in a flash and I had my setting. Stephen King describes just such a flash of seemingly unconnected ideas coming together beautifully in his book On Writing. That’s how I got the idea.

How did you research the book?

I read books about the war, about Germans—especially women’s perspectives and experiences, diaries of German soldiers, and, of course, The Monuments Men and Rape of Europa. Walter Farmer, the director of the Wiesbaden Collecting Point, wrote a memoir that I tracked down, which had great information about the workings of the Collecting Point. I also traveled to Wiesbaden and went to the actual museum where the Collecting Point had been located, and walked the streets around the area. And, I met with the city archivist who spent a good chunk of time going through photos with me and talking about the history of the city. Also movies: lots of documentaries and movies. I love research.

How is your book different from the Monuments Men movie?

The book picks up where the movie leaves off. I was really interested in finding out what the Monuments Men did after the war. How did they safeguard, catalog, restore, preserve all the art they had rescued from the Nazis? And then how did they decide whom to return it to, because of course, art provenances are wrought with intrigue and greed. To me, that was the most interesting part. How do you do the right thing and finish the job honorably? And I know it wasn’t easy. There were a lot of influences and opinions swirling around their work, trying to sway their decisions. The stakes were very high.

Is anything in your book based on real-life experiences?

Only very tangentially. My mother was born in 1940 in Germany and after the war my grandmother took her and my great-grandmother and fled west to escape the Russian occupiers in the eastern part of the country. My grandmother had to rebuild her life, and one of the things that saved her was her ability to speak English. Because of that, she was plucked off the street and hired to be a secretary to a colonel. She often said this saved her life. That’s where the real-life inspiration ends. I thought what if instead of working for a colonel, there was a woman, displaced with a young daughter, who worked for the Monuments Men?

Do you identify with any of the characters?

I suppose as a woman and a mother I identify with Anna’s instinct to protect her child. I also identify with Cooper’s perspective as an American. I guess to me, the thing I connect with most strongly is the space between them, between the German (or non-American) experience and the American one, since I often feel that I straddle that space myself.

What did you learn from writing the book?

I learned that writing a book is a lot of work! But also a lot of fun.

What larger or universal themes does the book explore?

I was interested in exploring the experience of ordinary German women in World War II and, of course, the idea of collective guilt that is so often talked about. I was also thinking about how you put something back together that is so totally broken, as Germany was in 1945. Where do you start? How do you move forward? What do you carry with you and what do you let fall away? The work of the Monuments Men puts this in unique context. They are dealing with priceless art, which represents the very best of human accomplishment. But why is art worth saving, especially when so many lives have been destroyed in the most barbaric ways? And what is art’s true value?

When did you first start writing?

I wrote a lot as a child, but at some point it kind of fell away and I got a “real job.” But I have worked with writers and writing nearly all my professional life, even before I became a full-time writer myself. I didn’t return to creative writing until I began thinking about this book.

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

Yes, but it’s usually a sign that I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. I had to learn to have the courage to admit that and to go back and find where it happened and try something else. If you know what you are trying to say, the writing will flow. For me, it’s when I have no plan that I get in trouble. Also I’m a much better reviser than drafter, so if I can just get something – anything—down, I will happily go back and fix it.

Do you work with an outline, or just write?

I like to pretend I know where I am going. With this book I started with an outline and then veered off with abandon, but kept the end in sight. Then I re-outlined the third act to make sure I ended up where I needed to. For my next book I am working with a more detailed and clear-headed outline. I think.

Can you talk about your experience of switching from writing nonfiction to fiction and what that was like for you?

That’s a good question. I will say, some of the comments I got on my first draft were that it was too literal, too close to actual historical events, so I definitely had to loosen up and let the characters live their own lives. In my day job I write about place a lot, so the setting of the novel took on strong characteristics, because for me place is always an important part of a story. In that sense, my brand of non-fiction writing helped me. Of course, in 1945, the place became a character all its own, setting up all kinds of problems and challenges for the characters. In the end writing fiction was very liberating, once I got used to the feeling—but that took a while.

Talk about the publishing process.

I went through the agent query process twice—once when I thought the book was finished and then again nearly a year later when I again thought it was finished. The second time I was getting lots of bites—requests for partials and even fulls—but no offers. Then The Monuments Men movie release got pushed up by a whole year to Christmas 2013 (this was in January of 2012) and I decided I couldn't miss that window, which I would have, if I had gone the traditional publishing route. I hired an editor and did major rewrites to the third act. When I was happy with it, the odyssey of publishing began —cover designs, proofreaders, ISBN numbers, websites, and on and on. There was something new to learn every day. Luckily I had great, talented and enthusiastic people working with me, helping me get to this point. It was in no way a solo effort, which was good because it was also a little scary.

If you had to go back and do it all over, is there any aspect of your novel or getting it published that you would change?

It was great learning experience for sure, so I wouldn’t change any of it. I hope to not repeat the same missteps next go around, and I hope it made me a better writer, so I am happy to have had the experience.

What was your favorite chapter or part to write and why?

I liked writing the opening scene with Anna and her daughter, Amalia. At the time, my daughter was about three or four years old and the problems of working motherhood and the reliance on trustworthy childcare were new daily concerns in my own life. And I liked seeing them set off on this journey together.

How did you come up with the title?

The book originally had another title that I loved but absolutely everyone else hated. So when I changed it, I wanted to tie the title to The Snow Queen fairy tale, which is a thematic undercurrent of the story. I was playing with the imagery of the flowers being dormant underground and then speaking to the little girl in the fairy tale, to encourage her not to give up her search. To me they were the symbol of Anna’s own rebirth. I was throwing around ideas about flowers being in the ground when my husband looked up from his iPad and said “The Roses Underneath.” And that was that. All credit goes to him.

What project are you working on now?

My next novel in the series.

Are there certain characters you would like to go back to, or is there a theme or idea you’d love to work with?

I love all the characters (okay, maybe not all of them), but the one that got to me the most was Oskar. That kid surprised me completely. He didn't do anything I thought I wanted him to do and he ended up changing the story significantly.

I deliberately had the timeframe of the first book cover only about three weeks in August of 1945. It is such a turbulent time, with things changing almost every day – new discoveries, confessions, uncovering atrocities, trying to rebuild and to serve justice. They are such big themes that I wanted to keep the story manageable and not try to take on too much at once. Anna still has a lot of things in her own past and in her country’s past to reconcile, and there is lots going on at the Collecting Point, too. I look forward to finding out what happens next.

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?

The thing I learned, possibly the hard way, is that getting honest and constructive criticism is a gift. Knowing that what your reader or editor is telling you is the truth, and not just something to spare your feelings, is very helpful, even if it’s not easy to hear. In the end it makes you a better writer and it builds your confidence.

The best compliment is whenever someone reads the book and connects with it in some way.

Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?

I am not sure I am in a position to give advice to anyone, but I would say keep writing! Just keep going. Write every day. Figure out a way to do it even when you don't feel like it. For me, it helped to make myself a schedule and set deadlines, but that’s how I work best. Otherwise I might have tinkered with it forever.

If you gave one of your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves, what would they say?

I think the characters do a pretty good job of speaking for themselves in the book. But, if given the chance, I think all of the main characters would say something about trying to survive extraordinarily tragic events not of their own making. Maybe they would say that war is hell, no matter what side you are on.

What books have influenced your writing?

Probably every book I’ve ever read has influenced my writing in some way. But I’ll pick just one of the many that directly influenced the writing of this book: John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. I am in absolutely no way comparing myself to John Steinbeck, but he is my favorite writer and when I read this book I was slogging through about the third draft of my novel and feeling discouraged. I took real inspiration from his account of his writing days, his own slogs, his complaints about the washing machine being too loud, his attempts to find a title. He has a wonderful, dry sense of humor, which cheered me up. It was all quite familiar and I felt better about a difficult process that even the greatest writers went through.

How do you work?

I have learned to work anywhere, anytime. Usually I work in my office at home, but I’ve been known to write on hotel bathroom floors (while my family slept), in my parked car, on planes, in coffee shops. I’ve staked out clients’ conference rooms for uninterrupted quiet time and I’ve done quite a bit of writing next to the tennis court during my daughter’s lessons. But my favorite and best time to write is very early in the morning, first thing. I’d say most of this book was written in the hours before 6 am.

What do you do when you are not writing?

The usual daily juggle: wife, mother, friend, self-employed person. My day job is writing too, so I get to write most of the time, even when I don’t feel like it. I am lucky that way.


C. F. Yetmen is a writer and consultant specializing in architecture and design. She is co-author of The Owner’s Dilemma: Driving Success and Innovation in the Design and Construction Industry and a former publisher of Texas Architect magazine. The Roses Underneath is her first novel. Visit C.F. at http://www.cfyetmen.com.


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