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How a father inspired a book

My latest novel was released last spring. On Father’s Day, I was acutely reminded who was the inspiration for the first of my trilogy…

 

My father on his 80th birthday.

Here’s an obscure Father’s Day recollection: my dad once told me that the Hungarian Nazis in Budapest were even more vicious than the common German variety. Why, you might wonder, would I possibly remember this on this past Father’s Day of all times? For that I need to offer a little perspective.

I lost my dad—a long-reformed chain smoker and one-time cancer surgeon—to lung cancer two year ago. Dad was never a big fan of Father’s Day. But, in his defense, Dad wasn’t much of a believer in any religious or secular holiday.
My father was a complex man. He was intensely private, extremely proud and stubborn beyond pigheaded, but he was also generous, principled, fiercely loyal and very funny. He once ordered a pizza to be delivered to an Italian restaurant whose manager told him that the kitchen was too busy to make pizza that night!
But back to the war… as a Jewish teenager, my father survived Nazi-occupied Hungary largely thanks to his wits and a big dollop of luck. He witnessed horrible things during those years and was reluctant to ever discuss his experiences; his comment about the Hungarian Nazis was one of the few exceptions. I think Dad believed that he had lived through a uniquely evil period and saw no use in dredging up that past.
I dedicated my latest novel, THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY, to the memory of Dad. Partly, because I had just lost him but mainly because he inspired my story. Bizarrely, I didn’t realize he was the inspiration until after it was written. Even then, it took my cousin to point it out to me.
My novel’s hero, Dr. Franz Adler, is a widowed secular Austrian surgeon who is swept up by the tidal wave of anti-Semitism that swept Vienna after Kristallnacht. Desperate to find sanctuary for his handicapped daughter, he escapes to the only place that will have them: Shanghai. There, Franz finds a burgeoning German Jewish community who faces a unique set of challenges in arguably the Twentieth Century’s most eclectic, cosmopolitan and fascinating city. He also falls in love with a Eurasian Shanghai native, a nurse who understand what it means to be a fish out of water, but that’s another story. Well, the same story but you get it…
After my cousin read the draft, he asked why I had chosen to write about my father. I told him that was nonsense—that I never base fictional characters on real people and my novel recounted the amazing, yet little known, history of the Shanghai Jews, not my family’s experience. Then my cousin began pointing out parallels: my dad’s name was Frank, he was a surgeon like Franz, they shared the same stubborn temperament and brave personalities and they were both considered dreamy by their nursing colleagues. At that moment, I realized: holy crap! Of course Dad was the template for my fictional hero!
I am forever grateful that my father did have a chance to read the first draft of the manuscript. He told me he loved it but Dad (never being one to offer unconditional praise) also said that he’s not sure he would have been interested if he wasn’t a Jewish doctor himself. Maybe Dad, too, had seen himself in the role, but he never said as much to me.
Father’s Day reminds me acutely of my loss. I think of the many little running jokes, observations and the pearls of wisdom that Dad used to toss out. And oddly, today I just thought about the murderous Hungarian Nazis whom he managed to outwit.

Comments

  1. Daniel, I had suspected that the story had been contrived somewhat from family background. I am very glad that you are an excellent writer and that the topic was enthralling for the reader. A trilogy, great. I have been awaiting the sequel that you had spoken of and now stand pleased to await its publication and part three.
    All the best fro the holidays and the new year.

    Jeff

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