Hartov’s latest novel, The Soul of a Thief (Hanover Square, Apr.), is based on his family history and follows a Nazi soldier who conceals his Jewish heritage.
How did you learn of your family’s connection to the Nazis?
I’ve known about my family’s background since I was a child, but some details came out over time as I grew up. I don’t think they were hiding things so much as that they weren’t proud of it. Things sort of eked out as people stated to talk more. It’s not something you want to brag about.
Which parts of the story/book needed the most fictionalization?
I would say it was probably the relationship between my protagonist, Shtefan, and SS colonel Himmel. That was something I had to extrapolate from my own relationships as a youth with older mentor-type adults. I don’t know if you consider that fictionalization or character exploration, but that was probably the most creative aspect of doing this, because how many Nazi SS colonels do we know? I had to pull from my creative background to create the relationship with this man who is obviously a villain.
Did you feel the need to leave anything out?
I don’t want to compare myself to really fine, famous writers, but Hemingway used to say that “It isn’t what you put into it so much as what you leave out.” Reading a book is, in itself, a creative experience, and every reader of your book is part of your writing team. So, when thinking about my readers, I always try to leave out judgments; I try to leave out my own opinions about what people, or relatives of mine, did in the past and let the reader make those judgments for themselves. I think that adds power to good fiction.
Did the experience of writing this book affect the way you think about your family’s history?
Writing a book that utilizes the personal characteristics of people we know intimately always changes how you feel about them and their history. But I would say that, if anything, writing this book made me much more sympathetic to the actions various people in my Austrian family took to survive the war, pretend it wasn’t going to happen to them, or heal themselves afterwards. As we grow older, we become a lot less judgmental about what other people have suffered, have done, or have not done. It probably, in a way, made me much closer to people who have unfortunately passed.