Today, immigration and refugee issues continue to dominate the news. Too many people forget that refugees fleeing their homelands are not the enemy. They are the victims.
Ralph Webster – 27 April 2017
The Back Flap
The Third Reich is rising. The creeping madness in the heart of Germany will soon stain the entire world. This is the chilling account of one family as they flee for their lives.
The Wobsers are prosperous, churchgoing, patriotic Germans living in a small East Prussian town. When Hitler seizes power, their comfortable family life is destroyed by a horrifying Nazi regime. Baptized and confirmed as Lutherans, they are told they are Jewish, a past always respected but rarely considered. This distinction makes a life-and-death difference. Suddenly, it is no longer a matter of faith or religion; their lives are defined by race. It is a matter of bloodlines. And, in Nazi Germany, they have the wrong blood.
About the book
What is the book about?
A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other is the story of my father’s Holocaust journey. He and his sisters were baptized and confirmed as Lutherans yet their ancestry was Jewish. The family was well to do and patriotic – good Germans by any measure – but they had the wrong blood. When the Nazis came to power, everything was taken and everything was lost. They searched the world to find their escape. Those who survived were truly refugees from a different era.
When did you start writing the book?
My wife and I were travelling in Europe during the fall of 2015 when the international refugee crisis was escalating. People were fleeing Syria with literally just the clothes on their backs and many loved ones left behind. We viewed the news reports each evening and watched events unfold before our eyes each day. That is when I started to write the book.
How long did it take you to write it?
I usually tell people it took me 65 years to write the book – 64 1/2 years to think about it and 6 months to put it on paper.
Where did you get the idea from?
For a number of years I have considered writing the story of my father and his family but the current refugee crisis was the real impetus. Today, immigration and refugee issues continue to dominate the news. Too many people forget that refugees fleeing their homelands are not the enemy. They are the victims. I wanted to illuminate that simple truth by using my father’s story. It may have been a different time and a much different situation but the human struggles and tragedies are the same. There seems to be no end to persecution and ethnic cleansing in our world.
Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?
I was challenged but I cannot really say that I struggled. As a first-time author, writing a book was a daunting proposition. I suppose that my biggest struggle was to find the self confidence to undertake and complete a project this complex. Could I really write a book? I wasn’t sure that I would be able to write something that others might actually be interested in reading. And, at first, I was not sure what I was really trying to accomplish. Was I writing a family history or a book for public consumption? When I look in the mirror I see an old, retired guy. My career was always about numbers. I wrote software, not books. I never pictured myself as an author.
What came easily?
Writing a memoir must be much easier than writing a fictional novel. And, it helped that I knew I had an important story to share. A memoir has a framework, a timeline, and a beginning and an end. I found that if I spent enough time thinking about what I wanted to say and how, then, putting it to paper was not too difficult. For me, this became a very emotional process. I poured my heart and soul into the book.
Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?
Every person in the book is real as are the events. Since it is a look back in time, sometimes I had to connect the dots to make the story flow. There is some “informed speculation” in the book and there was a need to continually give the story context. Readers have commented very favorably on the way the book brings the personalities to life. Readers tell me that they feel they are members of the family, that they have an inside view looking out. I hope that makes the story serious, emotional, compelling, and even humorous at times. The book is meant to be a reflection of real life.
We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?
There are so many wonderful authors and so many wonderful books. As a reader I enjoy books that genuinely develop the characters – that make you feel you intimately know the personalities. Two authors that immediately come to mind are Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Both paint amazing pictures with their words.
Do you have a target reader?
Interesting question and one that I never considered as I was writing. Now that the book is published and in circulation, I find the story often being read by those who have not given much thought to either the Holocaust or the plight of refugees. Whether the reader is young or old, these are serious and important topics. I tried to craft the book so that it draws the reader in and gives them a firsthand sense of moment. I hope those who read it will feel that they have learned something meaningful, that they understand the roller coaster of emotions. One reviewer suggested it for teenagers because of the message it sends.
Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?
I can’t really say that I have a writing process although my wife would probably offer that my mind was engaged with the book the entire time I was writing. I was unable to do or think about much of anything else. Actually, I spent a great deal more time on research and gathering background information than I did on writing. Once I started writing it was an everyday grind. I felt that my head was so full I could not stop writing until the story was all down on paper.
As an aside, I had no idea how long a memoir should actually be and still hold the reader’s attention. I Googled this question and set my target for 90,000 words. Then, I set my word processor to display the number of words as I typed. I am sure that helped me stay disciplined!
Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?
I did outline a bit – mostly topics and dot points. Again, writing a memoir is much different than writing fiction. I always knew where the story was going. I just had to find a way to get it to go there.
Do you edit as you go or wait until you’ve finished?
I continuously edited and refined, often rewriting a previous chapter after I finished the latest chapter. With a memoir, facts and context are always being re-worded and redefined. Repetition can become a problem. Consistency and wordiness are always challenges. It helped to have a framework. Reminding myself that I was writing for the reader kept me editing all the time.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to write a memoir or a biography when the principals are still alive. It helped that I was writing about the past and that many of the characters were no longer in a position to criticize my work. Yet, I did ask family members who lived the story to edit and fact check my work. With a few exceptions I tried to leave that until the end. I needed to get the story written in its entirety before sharing too much with others. I needed to go forward. Too much review would have made me go backwards.
Having said that, there was always a push and a pull. Often, I needed to check with other family members on questions as I was writing. I just did not want them to react to what I had written before I was done. I guess I needed the freedom to say what I wanted to say before they made their suggestions.
Did you hire a professional editor?
I did, and that was essential – but my first and most critical editor was my wife. Early on we realized that it was not particularly useful to ask her to edit each chapter as it was written. Everyday we talked about what I was writing. And, I am certain, from her viewpoint, far too intensely. Once completed, she read the book through several times – first to get the overall gist of the story and to look for the missing pieces, the order and organization, and the redundancy; and, second to do very specific copy and line editing.
We then shipped it off for professional editing. The editor’s response was the biggest surprise. The edits were minor and he was very, very enthused and supportive. That is when we realized that we were about to publish a real book for a real audience.
Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?
That’s a funny question. I could not listen to anything. It would have interfered with my work. I can only concentrate on one thing at a time. I needed to get the words out. Whether I was asleep or awake, while I was writing the book, my fingers were always tapping!
Did you submit your work to Agents?
I thought about it but rejected the notion. Honestly, I am a 66 year old guy. This is my first, and perhaps, only book. It is a memoir – not a novel or a series. This is not sci-fi or romance. I am not a sports star, rock star, politician, or movie star.
What made you decide to go Indie, whether self-publishing or with an indie publisher? Was it a particular event or a gradual process?
Early on I knew that I would have to go the Indie route if I wanted to publish my book. For me, the bigger question was whether this was really to become a book, that it would actually be put into public circulation.
Many people write memoirs. Most simply become family treasures – family histories passed from one generation to the next – a way to share old stories with the grandchildren. That, in and of itself, is a great reason to assemble written pages into a book. Chances are a book will outlast its author. The truth is that most memoirs have very limited circulation. I have been fortunate. My book has been widely read. The downside, my wife would suggest, is that sometimes private moments get widely shared.
When I started down this path it took a while to sort out what I really was trying to accomplish. I had a vision but was not altogether confident that I could make it a reality. Once it became clear that my idea was actually morphing into a book, I knew that the best way for me to get my book into circulation was to self-publish.
For me, actually seeing it in print was the end game. The real question remained whether anyone would want to buy it and read it. Every day brings a new surprise on that front. Thousands of pages are read every day. I never imagined that A Smile in One Eye: a Tear in the Other would become a 2016 Goodreads Readers Choice Semi-Finalist for best memoir! Who would have thought that my book would be listed on a page with Bruce Springsteen, Anderson Cooper, and others!
Did you get your book cover professionally done or did you do it yourself?
We have had lots of discussions about the cover. My sister is a highly regarded artist and a major character in the book. She crafted the cover. She is a professional. The cover is stark, simple, and appropriate. It makes its own statement and makes the book stand out in a crowd. Some may disagree but we have received many positive comments, primarily because it is so different. Book covers can be a complicated topic!
Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?
I suppose the answer is all of the above. Without question, if one wants to gain literary and commercial success with a book, then marketing is absolutely essential. I’m not certain that everyone who writes a book does so with that objective in mind but I know that I certainly did. I wrote a story that I hope others will read. To get readers requires marketing.
My primary approach thus far has been to market the book through book clubs. We have been very pleased with the results. Topically, the book is very appropriate for book club discussions. The public debates about refugees and immigration makes the book contemporary and relevant. Experiences associated with the Holocaust always draw readers in for discussion. In many respects, the book breaks new ground with a unique perspective – a baptized Lutheran family with Jewish ancestry being persecuted and running for their lives.
The book club approach has been slow and steady. Each new book club meeting brings new readers. If they like the book, they tell friends and family – often in different geographic areas. They write reviews. They spread the word. This seems to be an effective approach.
I have worked hard to get the attention of book bloggers and reviewers. Everything contributes. Creating an audio version of the book has also made a difference.
The marketing “plan” continues to evolve. I keep trying new things, keeping what works, discarding what doesn’t. Of course, in the final analysis, it is all about the story. Readers are very savvy. They choose carefully. Reading a book is a commitment of the reader’s personal time. Successful marketing must start with a good product. Reviews make the process very transparent!
Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?
It is a big commitment. Know what your goals are. Jump into it with your eyes open. It is a large fishbowl and we are all little fish. If you have a story in you and you have the desire, then write a book. Enjoy the process even if it keeps you awake at night! For me it has been one of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life.
End of Interview:
Ralph enjoys connecting with readers throughout the world. He is available to meet with book clubs sometimes in person and always by Skype. His book is available in softcover, Kindle, and audio-book.