When Gill Thompson’s publishers gave her a deadline for her second novel, she reached into her emotional response to a historical event in order to find the spark that ignited The Child On Platform One.
My first novel, The Oceans Between Us, came out of a chance discovery about the child migrant story whilst listening to the lunchtime news. It took me eight years to research and write the novel so I had plenty of time to build a narrative. But my publishers had a much tighter schedule for book two, and I knew I wouldn’t have the luxury of lengthy exploration. I had to hit the ground running with an idea…
When I wrote Oceans I was fuelled by a sense of outrage. Those poor children had been treated so badly, so cruelly misled, and many of their parents had been desperate to find them. I researched the topic carefully because I wanted to do the migrants’ story justice, and it was my emotions that spurred me on. How was I to tap into similar feelings to galvanise myself into action for book two?
I had a vague idea that I would write about the Kindertransport. I had been moved and amazed by the story of the late Nicholas Winton, the London stockbroker who had rescued so many children from Prague during the early months of Nazi occupation.
Once again that interest had started with an emotional reaction when I watched a YouTube clip of Esther Rantzen congratulating this modest hero fifty years after the last Kindertransport had left, surrounded, unbeknown to him, by a sea of adults whom he had rescued as Czech child refugees. It makes for poignant viewing.
That led me to research German-occupied Prague, and it was then that I read of the extraordinary events at Terezin, a camp where Jews had been allowed to paint, sing, play instruments, give lectures and act, despite working long hours on meagre rations.
That’s when the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up. For a group of people who were so beleaguered and oppressed to channel what little energy they had into creativity is remarkable.
Most notably they put on a performance of Verdi’s Requiem, ironically and subversively declaring God’s judgement on the Germans listening. I was amazed to hear that Raphael Schächter, who trained and conducted the choir, taught its members to sing the words of the Requiem by heart as he only had one copy of the score. After the first performance he had to reform the chorus completely because most of the singers had been taken to Auschwitz.
I don’t have a musical bone in my body, and I can’t dance, paint or act either, but I do seem to be able to write. As an author, I see writing as many things: a release, a source of satisfaction, even a means of earning a limited income, but most of all I see it as a way to make meaning – perhaps even to create a legacy.
I’m lucky enough to live in relative freedom, and to enjoy an adequate standard of living, so it’s hard to identify with those whose lives were limited in so many ways, but I can understand the burning ambition to create.
I read diaries and accounts by some of the people who were imprisoned in Terezin; I watched the Defiant Requiem DVD, about the Requiem performance, which I would highly recommend; I visited the camp in order to visualise my characters in their surroundings. But most of all I was spurred on by stories demonstrating the power of creativity to oppose tyranny.
Gill has also written for Historia about how she became a historical fiction writer.
Read more about The Child On Platform One by Gill Thompson.
Child boarding plane bound for Britain from film footage shot in 1939: via Wikimedia
Nicholas Winton (left, wearing glasses) with Czech children leaving for Britain from film footage shot in 1939: via Wikimedia
Memorial to Nicholas Winton by Flor Kent in Prague’s main railway station: via Wikimedia
The only known photo of Terezin inmates performing Verdi’s Requiem Mass, taken during the final performance on June 23, 1944. Rafael ‘Rafi’ Schächter is seen conducting the choir, with members of the Nazi command and an International Red Cross delegation in the audience: Courtesy International Committee of the Red Cross