The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, not only ushered the U.S. into World War II, it also altered Robert Arthur Neff’s life forever. At the time, Neff was a 10-year-old American living in Cuba with his mother and father, an oil refinery consultant on the Caribbean island. By the end of that fateful December day, Neff was a 10-year- old living on American soil.
In his family’s new home, Neff spent evenings eavesdropping on his parents’ conversations about wounded and sick soldiers. As he grew older, his connection to WWII only strengthened. In college and then law school, Neff came face-to- face with veterans who shared with him their stories from the war. Later, a job in Western Europe gave Neff the opportunity to meet with men who’d served in Germany’s Wehrmacht and to visit towns that had been occupied by the Nazis. But it was a job in management at an international airline with daily flights to Germany that finally made Neff realize he wanted to write about WWII.
“Most of the ground employees on our German staff were veterans—or spouses of veterans—from the ‘other side’ during WWII,” Neff says. “That’s when my personal bucket list first was augmented with the promise of one day writing a historical novel about the second world war. The hook was set.”
Approximately three decades later, in 2016, at the age of 85, Neff fulfilled his promise by publishing his first novel, Über Alles. The historical novel charts the romance of two German Jewish musicians: Dieter Meister, a piano jockey, and Sofie von Seigler, the daughter of a WWII German general. Both Dieter and Sofie become fugitives from the Nazis. One ends up in a German concentration camp while the other ends up singing with guitarist Django Reinhardt.
“No other period of history is as well documented as is WWII,” Neff says. “I did not want to try to expand upon the huge reservoir of facts about the numbers of fighters and casualties. Rather, I wanted to emulate Margaret Mitchell’s iconic Gone with the Wind by looking at the war through its effects upon noncombatants who begin as apolitical but are eventually sucked into the storm and become unwilling participants.”
In January 2020, Neff will publish his sequel to Über Alles, a novel titled After All: A Gathering Storm of Romance, Revenge, and Espionage in Postwar South America. The book continues the story of Dieter and Sofie as they live in postwar Brazil.
While real-life conductor and com- poser Rafael Schächter, who founded the Prague Chamber Opera and died in 1945 after being transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, inspired the character of Dieter, Sofie is a composite of “all the great vocalists who traveled and performed with the big bands of the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Neff says. “They were courageous and talented young women who had to absorb affronts from many sources but still step into the spotlight on cue and deliver flawlessly. I mention several of the best in both books, but perhaps my vision for Sofie was that of Michelle Pfeiffer singing atop a grand piano in the 1989 movie The Fabulous Baker Boys.”
And while both books were clearly passion projects for Neff, he says that writing two novels—one based in Europe between 1939 and 1945 and the other based in Brazil between 1945 and 1948—required plenty of hard work and research. “Manipulating fictional characters and a love story through that terrain requires taking great care that the historical fabric is not misrepresented,” Neff says. “I visited the locations about which I was writing and spoke to many who had been present there during the period covered.”
In addition to Gone with the Wind, Neff found inspiration in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Specifically, Neff admired Brown’s ability to use a fictional work as a way to teach readers. “I wanted to impart that same ‘discovery’ quality to my writing,” he says. “That has been a guideline in my compositions.”