'My last words to Lale were I’d never stop trying to tell his story' - Author Heather Morris on her bestseller 'The Tattooist of Auschwitz'
Author Heather Morris on her friendship with the tattooist of Auschwitz, and his story of love and survival amidst the horror that inspired her bestseller
In 2003, Heather Morris was asked to meet a man with a story to tell. A social worker, Morris's day job was in a large, acute Melbourne hospital but for years, she had been writing screenplays on the side, going to workshops and seminars, studying the craft. She agreed to meet the man - her friend's friend's father - whose wife had recently died.
Lale Sokolov answered the door with his two dogs, brought Morris coffee and began to speak. Not everything he said made immediate sense but as she listened, she knew she wanted to hear more. Over the course of three years, as she and Sokolov became friends, she heard much more.
A Slovakian Jew, Sokolov had been the tattooist of Auschwitz, scratching numbers on to the arms of new prisoners - those not immediately sent to the concentration camp's gas chambers. Morris's first novel - called The Tattooist of Auschwitz - is the result of her conversations with Sokolov who died in 2006, days after turning 90.
"It might be my book but it's Lale's story," Morris says on the phone from the London offices of her publishers. "I wanted the reader to have no idea who had written it. They were not to hear my voice; they were to hear Lale's only. When I was writing it I could hear him over my shoulder, growling at me: 'Not like that, I don't want you to write that.' He'd been very clear on how the different vignettes or stories had played out."
Sokolov was 26 when he was transported to Auschwitz. Streetwise and a risk-taker, he spoke several languages and had more than one brush with death. As 'Tätowierer' he had certain privileges - extra freedom and food, his own bedroom. One day in July 1942, he tattooed and fell in love with Gita, who he eventually married.
As well as telling Morris about life in the camp, he was telling her a love story. He hadn't wanted to speak publicly about the war while Gita was alive, in case he'd be labelled a collaborator and she would suffer by association. He was clear he was not a collaborator; he did what he had to do to survive and would do it again.
Since Morris's background was in screenwriting, she distilled his story into a screenplay, but despite a series of promising starts, it didn't get made. When her sister-in-law suggested she turn it into a book, it was a "light bulb" moment. She wrote the novel and the Kickstarter campaign she launched to fund it caught the attention of a local publishing house in Melbourne.
Commercial rather than literary fiction, the novel is told in the present tense, in short, sometimes flat, sentences, but though the writing might lack finesse and subtlety, hundreds of thousands of readers have embraced the story. Since it was published in January this year, The Tattooist of Auschwitz has sold more than three quarter of a million copies and has been a fixture on bestseller lists.
The novel's success is difficult to process, Morris says. "It's a massive surprise but it enables me to be sitting here in London and talking to you. That's pretty incredible.
The fact that I get to talk to people in so many different walks of life, from school children to Jewish communities in synagogues, and do you know where I was this morning? I was in a men's prison in south London talking to a group of prisoners there. They invited me; they'd been reading my book in their book club."
Originally from New Zealand, Morris is a straight-talker. Her conversation displays the same mixture of enthusiasm and openness that led her to Sokolov in the first place. She's also extremely tenacious ("stubborn", she says). Her determination to let the world know about Sokolov's wartime experiences never wavered.
"The last thing I said to Lale, two hours before he died, when I kissed him goodbye for the last time, was that I would never ever stop trying to tell his story," she says.
By that stage they were part of each other's lives - he knew her husband and three adult children; she knew his son and many of those in his social circle in Melbourne, including other Holocaust survivors. The two of them would go to the cinema together - he had strong opinions about who'd play him in the movie of his life - and to other events and celebrations but, at first, it wasn't always easy to deal with what he had to say.
"I was hearing the trauma and the pain, and seeing it, on his body and his face," Morris says. "Many times he would weep and his hands would shake, and I was going home from being with him and clearly not being the person my family knew me to be, and it's only when I was talking to a colleague at work and she just said, 'Oh for goodness sake, Heather, it's a classic case of transference. Get over it.'
"I had to shake my head and go, yeah, this is not my pain. This is not my trauma. I don't get to own it, how dare I even think I can?"
Other difficulties involved choosing what to include in the screenplay and then the novel. "If I never got a second piece of evidence or proof that what he had told me, had happened, it didn't make it in," she says.
She was also careful about how she wrote certain Nazi figures, especially Mengele who performed sadistic experiments on prisoners and who appears in the book. "I didn't want to give oxygen to the horrors that they had been responsible for... I sure as heck wasn't going to make it about them."
Morris is currently at work on her next novel - based on a real woman who saved Sokolov's life in Auschwitz and was charged as a Nazi collaborator after the war. And while there are no plans afoot for a movie, a UK production company is making The Tattooist of Auschwitz into a miniseries.
"They've gone and got themselves a proper screenwriter," Morris says. "I'm fine with it." And she does sound absolutely fine.