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Friday, 9 September 2016

The challenges of writing non-fiction - Jenny Harrison

I’ve just finished writing what has proved to be the most fraught book I’ve ever tackled. It was the story of a Jewish family living in Poland at the time of the Holocaust. Not only was the subject painful to research but the surviving family members were quite naturally sensitive to anything that impinged on their long-held beliefs.

I didn’t know when I started that my research would throw up such challenges. As I progressed, sometimes naively enthusiastic, I think the family began to feel threatened. They were often reluctant to accept my findings and, at one stage, they pulled out of the project completely. I could use the story, they said, but I had to change the names so they would not be identified with what I had discovered. It wasn't what they had been told.

Changing names of those who died in a German death camp felt like a betrayal; a betrayal too far. With a deep sense of sorrow I changed the names as requested. Then the family read my research and the first draft of the book and there was a change in the climate. ‘Your research is impressive and has integrity,’ they said. ‘You have found out stuff we never knew. We acknowledge your honesty and ask you to use our real names.’ So the names were changed. One son was not able to accept my work and asked for his name to be disguised, so another name change. A few weeks later he came back to me saying his siblings had reverted to their real names so he ought to as well. So, there was a further name change. I think there were five different name changes before the end.

I doubt they will ever totally accept my findings and that’s okay. I remember when I wrote another bio, The Lives of Alice Pothron, there was a constant rumbling ‘but that’s not what my mother told me’. Writing a book about family will constantly throw up arguments and contradictions. Memory is fallible, reputations easily damaged; time-cemented beliefs can crumble. You have to be adamant and rely on history, not family memories.

The book Out of Poland, when the best revenge is to have survived will be available in September 2016 from your local book store (you may have to ask them to order it) or from my website

Jenny Harrison


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