My mother recalls that one day, when I was in the 6th grade, my teacher called her in for a conference and accused her of doing my work for me. At issue was a story I had written about a gang of talking cats, who, if memory serves, were crimefighters of some kind. I had written the story during a hurricane as a way to distract myself from my fear, but my teacher assumed that the work had not all been my own. My mother loves to tell this story and I have worn that tiny badge of honor ever since.
Despite earning a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin, the dream of being a writer myself dared not rear its head for a long time. I wanted to hang out with writers, I wanted to work with them, I wanted to be in that world. But me? Write? Oh, no. Instead I worked for a publisher (Prestel Books in Munich Germany) and at a magazine (Texas Architect). I learned what it takes to get words on paper, to make them ready to be read, and what power they have. I loved it. I eventually turned that passion into a successful business writing for architects. I'm not lying when I say I have the best job there is.
My novels are inspired by her family’s circumstances at the end of World War II. My German grandmother and my mother, then just five years old, found themselves displaced and dispossessed in a strange city, with nothing more than a suitcase full of random belongings to their name. And yet, they survive. For one simple reason. My grandmother could speak English. This meant she got a job working for the American occupiers. It meant they got a roof over their heads and a glimpse of a salvaged future.
The more I learned about World War II the more I came to understand how unspeakably lucky my family was, even in their hardship. How the survivors of WWII suffered from an inherent guilt simply for having made it through the nightmare when so many had not. And, I came to understand how the forces of events shifted my family’s lives onto the trajectory that made my very existence possible.
I also learned about the work of the Monuments Men. I realized that in the face of such degradation and horror, the fact that leaders mustered the political and yes, military, will, to save thousands of works of art and of Jewish cultural heritage is more than just noble. It is essential. The Nazis understood the power of art. They knew that wiping all evidence of Jewish and “degenerate” culture off the face of earth, to sever the connections these things provide to our history, our mythologies and to each other, is a form of spiritual genocide.
The Monuments Men were flawed men and women in service of a righteous cause. Their motivations sometimes strayed off course and their focus on the mission was sometimes seduced by the sheer magnitude in value and status of the art in their care. As a nosy researcher it obsessed me a little. As a writer it intrigued me. So, my grandmother’s circumstances met the work of the Monuments Men. Vanquished German culture met victorious American ascendancy. Anna Klein met Henry Cooper.
And I became an author.