In her book Motherlode, Carolyne Van Der Meer both documents and re-imagines her mother's childhood in Nazi occupied Holland, a childhood surrounded by German soldiers, steeped in poverty and living in fear of air raids. (Van Der Meer's mothers family were part of the resistance and helped to hide Jewish families from the Nazis.)
The research for the book led the author on a journey to Holland and to collaborations with dutch immigrants of her mothers generation - which are also documented in the book, along with photographs, poems, memories, stories. I'm really delighted to have Carolyne over today to chat about Motherlode and her experience of writing it.
Welcome to the blog Carolyne. Motherlode is part memoir, part fiction, part poetry and it’s very much a personal journey, albeit one with much wider implications, what was the most important aspect of creating and publishing it for you?
First, let me say thank you, Niamh, for having me on your blog. And my congratulations once more on The Herbalist. It was, for me, one of those books that never quite leaves you. I think every writer wants to write a novel whose characters stay alive long after the book is finished. And you have done it!
As for Motherlode, it explores the experiences of my mother and other individuals who spent their childhoods in Nazi-occupied Holland or were deeply affected by wartime in Holland. And you’re right, it was a very personal journey. Personal because it’s largely about my family and for my family—but also personal because I reinterpret the anecdotes and memories I have heard through poetry and short stories. As you will probably agree, Niamh, poetry is probably one of the most personal ways of writing.
But the most important aspect of creating and publishing this book was, first of all, was preserving my mother’s story. I really didn’t want this legacy to be lost. My son had often asked me about my mother’s experiences and while I knew certain details, they were surface elements. I couldn’t go into any depth. The other thing I realized as I was researching was that for some, it was a great release to talk about their wartime experiences. For my mother, it was very painful but for at least two of the people I interviewed, it was liberating. I recorded all the interviews and gave the recordings to my subjects. I know that the desire in both cases was to be able to share these interviews with their children. So not only did I get to preserve my mother’s legacy, my interviewees also got to preserve theirs. It was incredibly satisfying to provide this outlet and I am so very grateful to the people who shared their stories with me.
Do you feel you accomplished your aim/aims?
For the most part, yes. Given there are so many books documenting WWII history, I wanted to approach this project in a different way. Retelling the stories told to me by my mother and my interview subjects through poetry and short stories was an enriching experience. It allowed me to lose myself in their memories and try to inhabit those memories, in a way. I was able to focus on capturing their emotions rather than documenting history—which has been done by so many before me.
How did it feel to hand a copy to your mother? What did she think?
She was thrilled. I don’t think I have ever seen such a look of delight on her face. When she first read the manuscript, she told me it evoked her past so powerfully that she couldn’t sleep for a few nights. As much as I felt badly about that, I took it as a compliment.
I'm always curious about other writers schedules - how about you? Do you have a set writing time?
Because I work full time in public relations, I have to snatch writing moments when I can get them. I take the train to work every day, which gives me a total of 80 minutes a day with virtually no distractions. That’s when I tend to write. And oddly, I write best when I’m in a moving vehicle. I think it’s the momentum that helps me get into the right headspace.
What about a favorite quote that keeps you on track writing wise?
The American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg said, “To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.” I think he’s so right. Forget about who might one day read your work and just get it down. Whenever I am stuck and think I can’t possibly find my way, I remember this and push through.
And finally, any other advice for emerging writers?
When I was studying literature as both an undergraduate and as a graduate student, countless people asked me what I planned to do with my education. Some didn’t even insinuate that they thought it was useless, they told me point blank! But I knew that I wanted to be a writer and I knew that if I read a lot, it would make me a better writer. So my advice is, if you want to be a writer, believe. Stay focused and you’ll get there. Don’t let anyone discourage you. And read! Read as much as you can. And I agree with Ginsberg: don’t think about the people you hope will eventually read your work. Just keep writing.
Spot on advice! Thank you for that, and for taking the time to come over and chat. Carolyne's book Motherlode is available to buy - Here