Earlier this year I had the great good fortune to review an astonishing debut novel: People Like Us by Louise Fein. You can read my review here, where I describe this as a heartbreak of a book. It’s so much more, and I recommend you read it too.
People Like Us is being released worldwide this month, and I’m thrilled to have Louise on board in this special Something to Say post. Here she isto tell us a bit about the background of the novel and how is came to be published.
Welcome, and congratulations on your novel, Louise. It must be exciting to finally have it launched, even into a world filled with strangeness. Can you tell us a bit about the process and the story behind the story?
Louise: I’m delighted to announce the publication of my debut novel, People Like Us (in the USA, it has a different cover and the title Daughter of the Reich). Like so many authors, having a book published has been my ultimate lifelong dream. As a child, my ambition was to become an author and I spent many hours writing stories, usually based around the subject of ponies. But then I grew up, needed to earn a living and the appeal of ponies dwindled (well, only a little), so the writing took a back seat for a while.
The appeal of ponies never really dies. But you did get back to writing?
The writing bug never left me, and over the years I wrote ideas for novels, poems, diaries and stories, in and around work and family commitments. But I never fully committed to writing a novel until I finally took the plunge and began a master’s degree in creative writing at St Mary’s University, London. It was then that I began work on People Like Us. My idea, initially, was that I would have the novel finished alongside the MA in a year. How naïve I was!! The first draft took around two years to complete, after I ditched the first attempt half-way through my MA year. But it was just that. A first draft. It required a lot more work, many re-drafts, and a good deal more research, until finally I had a manuscript ready for submission to agents.
I haven’t found the agent road an easy one to travel. How did you get on with it?
It took essentially another year to find an agent. There were many rejections, but I also had interest from some and that spurred me on to keep going and keep submitting. I carefully selected agents I would really like to represent me, and I was very lucky that one of my favourite agents liked my work. Much of the agenting and publishing world works very slowly, but sometimes it moves at the speed of light. I sent my manuscript to the agent who is now my agent one Friday afternoon, and I heard back from her the very next morning that she loved my book. The same process happened when I went on submission to publishers. Within a week there was interest from a publisher in the UK and then I went on submission to the US and there was interest the same afternoon. In the end the book was pre-empted by William Morrow (imprint of Harper Collins).
That’s such a great story! Rejections to instant acceptance – definitely the stuff of dreams.
My dreams had more than come true, they had exceeded all my imagination. On top of that, I have also had some wonderful foreign translation deals (eight to date) and these really have been the icing on the cake. So what I would say to any unpublished authors out there: Keep going: keep improving your work, keep submitting. What feels like an impenetrable wall can be breached. I was hooked off the slush pile and knew nobody in the publishing or agenting world at all. It is all possible, but it’s a long game.
That’s such an affirming story, thank you, Louise. Now about the book…
So, a little bit about People Like Us. It’s a story of forbidden love, set in the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Leipzig. The novel is told from the point of view of Hetty, a young girl who has grown up on a diet of Nazi propaganda and is hungry for a part to play in Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Until, that is, she encounters Walter, a friend from her past, a Jew. As the thirties spiral ever deeper into anti-Semitic fervour, Hetty and Walter’s developing relationship puts her beliefs into stark conflict and danger forces them to make choices which will change their lives forever.
I believe you have a family connection to this story?
The book was inspired by the experiences of my father’s family, Leipzig Jews, most of whom fled Germany for England or America during the 1930s. Whilst the story and the characters are fictional, the setting is authentic, and it is based around real events. My father died when I was only seventeen and he never spoke of his experiences of living in Nazi Germany.
Instinctively, I knew the book should be fictional, but its form and content were shadowy. I read Mein Kampf and learned about the experience of growing up under Nazi rule; I travelled to Leipzig and met with experts; devoured family papers and listened to the memories of survivors. The characters of Hetty and Walter came to me, and with them their story. The more I read, the more interested I became in trying to understand how a democratic, civilised nation could, in just a few short years, overthrow democracy, demonise the Jews (and others), and descend into a violent, fear-filled fascist state who aimed to exterminate the Jewish race. I felt my story would be powerful if told from the point of view of a young, innocent girl, brought up to fear and hate perceived difference. What could possibly change her beliefs?
It’s a story of the fragility of freedom, and the ease with which one group can de-humanise another to the extent of un-imaginable horror. But it is also the story of friendship, hope, and above all, the power of love.
It’s a very important book, I think, and I’m so glad that you wrote it. Thank you for telling us about the release, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon about how it’s going. Stay safe, Louise!
You can discover Hetty and Walter’s story here: