Having read and been blown away by Testament I was thrilled when Ana McLaughlin at Quercus and riverrun books gave me the opportunity to interview Kim Sherwood.
My thanks go to Kim for this frank and absorbing interview.
I have just read Testament and at the risk of sounding sycophantic I was blown away! I couldn’t believe such an accomplished book was the work of a debut novelist. Could you tell us a little about your journey into writing?
Thank you so much, that’s really kind. I’ve been writing all of my life – like most people, probably, it started with books I’d stick together and illustrate in masterful crayon. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I studied Creative Writing to undergraduate and postgraduate levels at the University of East Anglia. When my grandfather died, I turned to writing – as I always had – to help me articulate my feelings and sense of loss, and that’s where Testament began. I was fortunate enough to win the Bath Novel Award in 2016, an international prize for best unpublished manuscript. The judge, Sue Armstrong at C&W, became my literary agent, and then I signed with riverrun. I’m really lucky to have an incredible group of people around me.
Exceptionally difficult, to be honest. Testament took six years to write, and that was six years of thinking about the Holocaust, reading about the Holocaust, writing about the Holocaust, dreaming about the Holocaust. There’s a T.S. Eliot poem, ‘Marina’, where the same words appear four times in a stanza: meaning death, meaning death, meaning death, meaning death. That’s how I felt. After a while, everything I looked at it seemed coloured by all I was learning in my research – history always seemed to be erupting into the present. Writing about it gave me a space to articulate and, in a way, contain those feelings.
Thank you, that’s really quite the compliment! Yes, it was my intention from the outset. I saw Jószef Zyyad – a young Hungarian Jewish man trying to survive, yet to become the artist Joseph Silk – and his granddaughter Eva, a documentary filmmaker, standing either side of a dividing line, looking each other in the eye across the decades. And, in that look, making time shake. I wanted to explore how our histories rupture into the present, whether in family narratives, or today’s politics.
It does surprise me, in a way, because I wasn’t writing intentionally towards a hopeful ending, but a lot of people have told me how hopeful the book is for them. I didn’t actually know how the book would end. Eva has to make a decision – whether or not to make public a witness statement her grandfather made in 1945, or whether to keep it secret, as he would have wanted, after a lifetime of trying to remove this trauma from his identity. I didn’t know what she’d decide until very near the end of the first draft, or how Eva’s relationship with her father would resolve itself, or not. I’m glad what happens reads as uplifting, because I think that’s what Silk would have wanted for his granddaughter.
I was careful not to write my grandmother’s story, because of course that’s her story to tell if she wishes, or not, as she wishes. But her story was absolutely the seed for Testament, because when she broke what had been a kind of family silence, and told me about her experiences as a child, I started researching the Holocaust in Hungary in order to try and understand all she was telling me. The novel grew from my research, and my horror at all I was learning. A lot of my research took place in archives and libraries – the Weiner Library, the British Library, the Open Society Archives, the Whitechapel Art Gallery Archive. I’d then try and follow my research into the real world, following the route of the death march through Hungary, for example, that Silk is forced to take. I spent a lot of time in Berlin, Budapest, Belgrade, Prague, the Lake District, London, trying to get myself into the skin of the places I was writing about.
It felt important to me to visit the sites I was writing about, and to try and experience them through my characters’ eyes and bodies – not that I can know what the people who were interned in such places felt, but in order to try and better understand my characters’ experiences. I went to Sajmiste, the site of the former camp on the edges of Belgrade, where people now live in the wreckage of the administration and torture buildings in makeshift homes. I visited two mass graves in Hungary, one at the Great Synagogue in Budapest, and one an anonymous forest in Sopron. I visited Theresienstadt, a fortress town that was turned into a ghetto and camp outside of Prague.
This is a hard thing to tackle. Recently in the States, some teenagers turned a family’s menorah – which was out in the front garden – into a swastika. Part of their sentence was to sit down and talk with a Survivor. I think people who deny the Holocaust are usually doing so because for some reason it is too difficult to accept as truth – because it clashes (rather paradoxically) with their own belief in fascism, or because it makes them view the other in a new way. In teaching we talk about threshold concepts – how challenging it can be to move people through a barrier into new understanding. I think it could be of value to put Holocaust deniers in conversation with Survivors. However, Survivors shouldn’t be called on to repeat their stories in order to persuade people of their suffering. I think it would require the kind of structure Nelson Mandela gave reconciliatory conversations between victims and persecutors after Apartheid. All of that said, I think our main responsibility as a society is to ensure that sympathisers or deniers aren’t allowed into power – that they are kept away from school curriculums – because education is often the foundation to these issues.
How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals?
I don’t know if you’ve read the 1960’s Peter O’Donnell crime caper series, Modesty Blaise? Modesty always says it’s important to sleep whenever you can, because you don’t know when the opportunity will next come up. I approach my writing like that: I write whenever I can, in snatched moments or free afternoons, and try not to worry about habit or ritual, because they’re too hard to maintain in the face of everything else, for me. I do like to have a cup of tea when I start writing. That’s a ritual.
I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?
It’s very hard to make me cry with a book or a film, I don’t know why, but on a rare occasion it does happen. I do remember the first time. Funnily enough, it was the last Modesty Blaise story. I won’t spoil it, but I remember a steel trap falling down over my heart in an effort not to cry, and crying anyway! The first book to make me cry properly was Primo Levi’s If This is a Man – for what he’d been through, and what he revealed about humanity.
And finally having enjoyed this novel so much I am bound to ask when we can expect another new one! And is there anything you can tell us about it?
I am about two thirds of the way through a first draft of my second novel. It’s about the literary and maritime history of the South West, and explores issues of gender and genre. I’m really enjoying writing it.
Thanks so much for these thoughtful questions, I’ve really enjoyed this interview.