Q&A with Belinda Castles, author of Hannah & Emil

Belinda Castles chats with Jessica Au about her novel, Hannah & Emil.

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Tell us about writing*Hannah & Emil* – where did the idea start for you?

Hannah and Emil is based on the lives of my grandparents. As a child I knew bits and pieces about their lives but there were two secrets that emerged when my German grandfather died. One was that my grandmother was Jewish, and so then were her sons, and that my grandfather had had a German family before meeting my grandmother. His German son died fighting for the Hitler Youth Army. This was made doubly poignant because my grandfather’s father was murdered by the Nazis.

These facts stayed with me and later in life, when I received a batch of letters my grandmother had written to Melbourne from Kent after WWII to friends there, I felt that I had her voice. As soon as I expressed interest in writing this book, there was a deluge of papers, photographs, anecdote - a real treasure trove. It became something I had to do, a responsibility to my family and to myself

If you could choose to have written any book in history, what would it be, and why?

Well, imagine having written The Great Gatsby or Oscar and Lucinda or Wolf Hall. But in recent years the book I have been most intrigued by, or felt that it would be a wonderful thing to have made, was Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. It is so quietly written and yet it accumulates. There is such a strong sense of a memory of a place and time and of the narrator’s father, of not understanding an adult world but being so deeply affected by it. For that feeling of quiet writing that accumulates Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is also completely wonderful. I do love that quality in writing. It seems to touch on mysteries.

Which literary character do you secretly wish you were?

I love clever, capable women so perhaps Edith Campbell Berry in Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days novels. I think that my grandmother had a bit of Edith in her. I like characters for whom the world is too interesting a place for them to waste it by doing what people expect of them.

In an alternate life, what would you be if not a writer?

An interior designer or architect. I love interesting rooms. Big windows. Floor to ceiling bookshelves. Beautiful trees outside. But probably, I’m just interested in rooms I’d like to write in. I always like the idea of a nice garden shed with a desk and good light.

What was your big rite-of-passage book as a teenager?

The Catcher in the Rye. Sorry…

Hanna & Emil is now out in paperback ($29.99) and ebook ($11.99).

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