Ottawa writer Natalie Morrill lived in Vienna, Austria, as a young girl.
She remembers a large Jewish cemetery in the city that was surrounded by walls, littered with leaves and broken glass and protected by barbed wire. She did peek inside and wonder about this abandoned place of rest.
That image would become the signature one of her first novel The Ghost Keeper, which tells the story of Josef Tobak, his wife Anna and the rest of his family.
The Tobaks are Jewish. In the years before the Second World War, Vienna, and all of Austria really was not a safe place for Jews.
Austria was the birthplace of Adolf Hitler and in 1937, Hitler took the country of Mozart and Haydn over in what is known as the Anschluss, or the annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany in 1938. A great many Austrians turned out to welcome the Nazis when they rolled into Vienna.
For the Jews of Vienna, it was the beginning of many hard and deadly years.
For Natalie Morrill, that old Jewish graveyard was a compelling memory.
“I remember one of my parents lifting me up to see over the wall. All of the gravestones were toppled over and covered with vines. It was explained to me why no one was looking after it and why it was surrounded by barbed wire. That was around the time that I started to understand what the Holocaust was.” The family was in Vienna because her father was in th foreign service.
“It was striking image, those neglected graves. Thinking about the cemetery and what it would mean to look after the dead were the seeds of the story.”
The idea was resurrected when she was studying creative writing at the University of British Columbia.
“I wrote what has become the prologue for the novel during one of my fiction workshops. For me I started thinking I could potentially pull it off because when I started writing that section the voice of Josef felt fully realized.”
The response of her classmates was positive and that led her to consider turning it into a novel for her Masters thesis.
“It was a book I was hesitant to feel qualified to take on. I don’t think I would have done it without the supervisor I had for my thesis. Her names is Rhea Tregebov.
“She was very encouraging and that was a big factor. She was also could speak to the Jewish content because that is her background. She has edited a lot of memoirs. She was really good on the one hand of encouraging me and also demonstrating whether I was doing the subject matter justice. On my own might not have done it.
“When I started MFA, I imagined I would be doing a series of short stories as my thesis. But very clearly this story had to be a novel.
“The character of Josef appeared first. It became clear early on, that he would be haunted by survivor’s guilt, and that the struggle for him would be his separation from his family.”
Morrill did do a lot of research. There are memoirs that one can find relatively easily. These gave her a sense of how people remembered major events.
“None of my characters are based on real people. They have elements of real people, but none are taken from life.
“I had questions about them in terms of, for example, how far can forgiveness reach? What do you do with those memories? What is the possibility of living a meaningful life after something that traumatizing?
“I don’t know that I craft haracters to serve a purpose. My sense is that I want them to seem to be real. The ideas arise from that.
She said she believes the cemetery at the centre of the novel is a place of reflection, rest and a sanctuary.
“I don’t mean for it to be a dark place. I guess one way of thinking of it is that death is a fact and the cemetery is a place with meaning.”
“For the survivors of the Holocaust, they don’t really know where their loved ones are at rest. That last bit of humanity was taken from them.”
When you think about that a cemetery is a hopeful place that represents the continuity of a community.
“Graves take on deeper symbolic meaning. In the end Josef finds a way to exist with the burden he carries.”
Writing the novel “required me to sustain a reverence for the material and not be to overwhelmed by it.”
There were many drafts, all with the goal of getting the voice right and making sure characters were clear.
“I wanted to satisfy myself that I was dealing with the subject matter appropriately.”
The Anschluss was “shameful and horrific,” she said. How people survived it and dealt with the aftermath is the story of this book.
Morrill remembers that as a child some of her Jewish friends “experienced anti-Semitism in ways that were shocking to me.”
She believes that Germany and Austria have dealt with the responsibility for the war differently. Austria sees itself as more of a victim.
She did get her degree. In fact her thesis won the 2015 HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction. And essentially that’s how The Ghost Keeper became a book.
HarperCollins had teamed up with UBC in 2013 to start working with promising young writers.
Merrill showed the publisher’s editors her manuscript in 2014. They made some suggestions and she returned in 2015 to better success. She won the award and then signed contract for the novel in the fall of 2015. The book came out in the spring of 2018.
It felt like forever,” she said. But today “I think I was really fortunate.”
While working on the book, she paid her bills by teaching, first at Laurentian University in Sudbury and then at Algonquin College where she teaches creative writing and editing.
Morrill was born in North Vancouver, but she went to high school in Ottawa at Notre Dame. She says Ottawa feels like home.
By the time The Ghost Keeper was published, “it was ready to live its own life. It means a lot to me and by and large people have been responding well to it.” She has recently won the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for fiction.
“Where my creative life is right now is definitely with new projects. I’m working on another novel, it’s also historical fiction, from earlier time period.” She won’t say more for now.
The Ghost Keeper (Patrick Crean Editions)
In Town: The author will be on a panel hosted by ARTSFILE with Alix Hawley and Wayne Grady on Oct. 28 at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. For more information: writersfestival.org.