A story about survival – an interview with the author of the book Being Krystyna.
This time of the year we have many World War Two anniversaries starting with 1st September when in 1939 the Nazis attacked Poland and began the war. I think it’s the perfect time to sit with a book such as Being Krystyna – a story that connects the war times with our modern world, and two very different generations. A beautiful but also sad story. An account that gives hope even in the worst circumstances that one may find oneself.
What is one of the most surprising facts is that, had I eaten breakfast and not fainted in a gym a few years ago this book wouldn’t exist! No, the moral isn’t that unhealthy habits can sometimes be good for us. ;), it’s rather that everything happens for a reason. An ambulance was called to the gym and I met Chris Porsz, a paramedic and photographer who was born in the UK and had Polish parents. We spoke a bit about Poland where I come from and he suggested that I may want to visit his mum who lives in a local care home. He thought she would enjoy the company of a Polish-speaking person. She did still speak Polish but hasn’t used this language for years. I agreed and visited the lady a couple of times. Once I met Christ there and he said that he wrote some notes down when his mum used to tell him about the war, her move to England and life here. He said he isn’t a writer but would love someone to write this story down so it could become a book one day as he felt it’s really special and should not be forgotten. I love writing. However, I didn’t really feel up to the challenge! I knew someone who could be just perfect for this task! And that’s why and how I ended up telling my writer friend Carol all about this story. She decided to take it on.
1. Carol, what sort of books did you write before Being Krystyna and why?
I had written an epic fantasy trilogy before Being Krystyna. It came about following a day dream I had many years ago in which I saw the main characters and decided to write their story. I have always liked reading nonfiction but never thought I would write in that genre one day.
2. Was the decision to write the book about Chris’s mum surprising? I know you had doubts whether you should write this book. What has persuaded you that you felt you should do it?
I did ask several people I knew if they wanted to write a book about Krystyna Porsz, but no-one seemed interested. It seemed a shame that her story would never be told because I knew such wartime experiences were valuable and important, and something compelled me to try and write it myself. I doubted my own ability to do the story justice and you have to be very careful when you are writing about real people. It’s a completely different discipline from writing fiction – you are using the same tools but you need to approach the subject matter with much more sensitivity. It is even more important when the person or people you are writing about are dead or unable to communicate -as in Krystyna’s case with her having dementia. This was one problem that I found very daunting. I wanted to be as accurate as possible regarding the facts while also showing Krystyna in the best light as she was not only the main character but a real human being too. Fortunately, it seemed to work out really well!
3. I’m one of the characters in the book! How great an honour is that! It’s an amazing feeling that my name can be in the book out there for decades or perhaps even centuries. However, it’s also a weird feeling when I know that I didn’t really do anything special to deserve to be in such a book. Did you have the idea to use my character in the book from the beginning? If not, what other ideas did you have for the plot of this book?
It took me ages to come up with a structure for the narrative. I didn’t want to tell the story where you just go from A to B and then the end, like writing a list of what had happened in a person’s life. I felt it was very important to show the importance of the lessons of history by comparing Krystyna’s past with the present-day. I can’t pinpoint the exact day that the idea for seeing the story through the eyes of another person came to me, but it was a magical moment! The whole book seemed to create itself around that idea. It also allowed me to contrast the different life experiences of two Polish women. I think it added depth to the narrative. Using the real you, Agnieszka, also felt right because you had met Krystyna on several occasions so what followed in the book was an embellishment rather than a fiction.
4. What do you like most about writing books? Is the process or the final step – when the book is finished – the most pleasant?
Every book is different. Usually, I only write when I have inspiration. If the inspiration is powerful and I have plenty of ideas, the writing comes easily. That is when I enjoy the whole process. Getting lost in the physical act of writing is what I enjoy the most. If I lose all sense of time and even any sense of who I am or where I am, then it is the best feeling.
5. Writing a book is a great challenge! Writers get tired, overwhelmed, fed up at different stages. How was writing Being Krystyna for you? Did it take you long? And have you experienced any obstacles while writing it?
The only obstacle for me with Being Krystyna was having to go out to work! Once I had the idea for the structure of the book, I found the writing came fairly easily. I made sure I planned what I was going to write in each chapter as I like that kind of discipline. I’m not what they call a ‘pantser’ where you just start writing and see where you end up. I wrote like that when I began the first draft of my first book and it was a dreadful mess that needed lots of work afterwards. The only thing that held me up with Being Krystyna was the research for the historical details. I did a lot of reading and also studied documents and personal accounts of wartime online. These details allowed me to add depth to Krystyna’s own accounts of her life. I don’t recall how long it took me to write. Probably four months. I worked on it every afternoon. It’s a novella, of course, and I would expect a novel to take twice as long.
6. What do you feel is the most important message in the book?
Stories like Krystyna’s show us how quickly hatred and bigotry can infiltrate society, and with the resurgence of far-right ideology in the present day we need to know these lessons from the past. Krystyna always feared the Nazis would return after the war and I think she was right. That fascist mindset has never gone away and no-one should be complacent about it. Krystyna herself would say her message was ‘Just be kind’.
7. While writing the book you had to do a lot of research on WWII. You surely learnt a lot during this process. Did you find anything surprising or shocking about the war that you didn’t know about before?
I read many personal accounts that were profoundly shocking. I knew there was absolute horror in the camps but the facts are even worse. There were things I read that I’ll never be able to forget, try as I might. But there was great heroism too and time and again it surprised me how much some people can endure and yet still survive. That Europe in particular was able to rebuild itself after all that destruction and carnage amazed me – and to find that normal decent human feelings still existed even more so.
You can find more about the book in the description and reviews on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2H1Oxzx