In this interview Kenneth Rosenberg discusses his latest novel, Enemies: A War Story. Based on the true story of two young men, it traces their contrasting experiences following the German declaration of war on America. One becomes a saboteur, involved in Operation Pastorius. The other is sent to the Eastern Front. Kenneth explains his research and the way that he approaches the fictionalisation of a real set of events. Kenneth Rosenberg has also authored books on other subjects, including the Natalia Nicolaeva Thrillers which are also discussed in this interview.
Enemies: A War Story is a fictionalised version of actual events. How do you balance the fact and fiction when writing this type of novel?
Whenever I read a book or see a film based on real events, I always wonder how much was actually true. I think everybody does, and it bothers me if a storyteller takes too many liberties with historical material. I always want to know what really happened. For that reason, it was my intention to stay as true to the real story in this case as I possibly could. For the few instances in which I was forced to speculate on certain events, I explain my reasoning in detail at the end of the book, so that the reader knows everything about it that I do.
There are other very well known historical fiction novels set against the backdrop of the Second World War and Nazi Occupied Europe. In what ways have these novels influenced your work?
The book that probably influenced my work the most was actually not set during the Second World War, but in 1895 France. Robert Harris wrote An Officer and a Spy about that country’s Dreyfus Affair, in which an innocent army officer was wrongly convicted and sent off to Devil’s Island prison. Harris took real people and real events and turned them into a riveting thriller. Simply by re-telling that story, Harris was making a salient moral and political commentary regarding those historical events. I was hoping to do the same with my novel.
The Second World War is probably the best known of all historical periods. Much of it is simple general knowledge. Given that readers will be fairly knowledgeable about events, what lengths did you have to go to when researching for this book? I noted that for Russia Girl you travelled extensively, was similar required for Enemies: A War Story?
Luckily, there was a whole lot of reference material to go on in this case, even though most people in this day and age have never heard of this particular story. I didn’t travel, but I did spend several years pulling all of the information together and pouring over it. The best sources were the extensive transcripts from the military tribunal and from the United States Supreme Court case that came out of this incident. Most of the major players involved gave long statements detailing their individual stories, as many as several hundred pages long, to the FBI. These statements are included in the transcript of the military tribunal. The first time I heard about this story myself was when one of the survivors was interviewed on the radio about it in 2004. I was hoping to interview him, too, but by the time I called and spoke to his wife a few years later he had recently passed away.
How do you go about planning your novels?
Generally, I like to have a pretty good idea when I start where the story is going, but I don’t like to be too rigid about it. Sometimes, once you really get to know your characters, they might lead you in a direction you hadn’t expected. You have to be open to following their lead. In the case of Enemies, it was entirely different since I wasn’t making this story up. The planning for this book was about how best to weave together the stories of a group of disparate characters who all come to the same place in the end. I decided to focus on two young Americans who were swept up in the events while interspersing chapters detailing important moments from all of the other major players.
One of the areas that my website is looking at currently is the way that history is interpreted and presented to the general public. How do you go about deciding how to portray your characters and the events in which they become involved?
This is an interesting question because every reader is going to have their own interpretation. My own view is that many of the characters in the book were the victims of a nation seeking political victories at any cost, caught up in the patriotic fervour of an exceptionally stressful moment in history. The American leadership does not come off well at all, including the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Personally, I would count myself as a big fan of his, but this book shows that he was human, just like anybody, and not immune to the fears and insecurities that can test our moral fibre. Some students of history will undoubtedly look at this story from an entirely different perspective and say that our leaders were justified in their actions. I disagree, but in telling this story, I tried to be as factually accurate and straightforward as possible, so that it is up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Your Natalia Nicolaeva thrillers are set amid a relatively recent backdrop of turmoil in Eastern Europe. What inspired you to write Russia Girl and Vendetta Girl?
I saw a documentary film that told the stories of five women from Eastern Europe who were lured abroad with promises of work and then sold into slavery. All of the women survived in the end, but what they had to endure was simply appalling. I wanted to write something about it, but I’ve also been a big fan of thrillers like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series. I decided to combine these two things. The first half of Russia Girl is taken directly from the true stories these women told in the documentary. The second half follows Natalia’s transformation into a Bourne-like character out for revenge. Vendetta Girl came out of my interest in all of the corruption and cyber-crime emanating out of present-day Russia. I figured it would be fun to get Natalia mixed up in all of that and see what happens. My third book in the series, Spy Girl, takes place in London and revolves around a group of domestic terrorists. I’m working on it now and hope to have it done by late fall.
Russia Girl is also based partly on actual events. How did you go about researching an issue that is surrounded in secrecy?
That was tough. As for the inner-workings of the human trafficking world, I relied on the documentary mentioned above and whatever other articles I could find about it. I did go to Istanbul, where the bulk of the novel takes place and walked around the neighbourhoods where it is set to get a sense of the place. I was too timid to venture into any brothels or shady-looking bars that were presumably fronts for them. After what I’d read, it didn’t seem like a good idea to go poking around in there.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing to date?
Well, as an American who grew up reading Hemingway in school, I suppose I have to give him some credit. He’s known for his stripped-down style, and I think I absorbed some of that. I was also always a big fan of writers who strive to use their writing to tell larger truths. I’d say that George Orwell probably tops the list as far as that goes. His non-fiction book Homage to Catalonia about his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War was always an inspiration to me.
Have you got any plans for future books that are in a historical setting?
Years ago I wrote another Second World War novel based on true events, but I never found a publisher and it has been sitting on my hard drive ever since. During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, untold numbers of men were trapped inside ships that were sunk just below the water level. Some were rescued in the days that followed. Others survived for weeks before finally suffocating. December follows the stories of some of those men. I’m thinking about going over it one more time and then self-publishing it. I’m also thinking about writing a historical novel about Robert Capa, the Hungarian-born war photographer whose career went from the Spanish-Civil War to French Indochina, and every major conflict in between.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
It’s a very tough business, but if you’re really drawn to it, then you’ve just got to do whatever you can to make it work. I read somewhere that traditionally, five percent of authors account for roughly ninety percent of sales. The Stephen King’s and Danielle Steele’s make all of the money while everybody else basically starves. There is still some truth to that, though modern digital publishing does democratize things to an extent. Anybody can write a book these days and publish it on multiple platforms. That creates opportunity, yet at the same time, with tens of thousands of new books now coming out every month, it is harder and harder to stand out. And, if you don’t have a major publisher behind you, you’re responsible for editing, cover design and marketing as well as the writing itself. One thing I’ve learned in life, though, is that if you want something badly enough, it’s better to try and fail than to never have tried at all. It might very well be a lot harder than you anticipate, but don’t let that stop you from giving it your all. There are plenty of success stories out there, and you might just end up being the next one.
Find out more about Kenneth’s books
The Facts Don’t Matter – radio broadcast, one hour long.