While on maternity leave in 2010, Anne Blankman, a public librarian in York County, Va., found herself craving a particular kind of read. “All I wanted was nonfiction because I needed facts to keep my brain from dissolving while I was home full-time with a baby,” she says. She’d been an English and history major as an undergrad at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and wrote her thesis on World War II, so she dug out some old books including Ronald Hayman’s Hitler and Geli, which examines the passionate, doomed relationship between the future dictator and his much-younger half-niece. Geli’s tragic story “set my mind on fire,” Blankman recalls.
“She’s just a footnote in the history books, but I could not stop thinking about what it must have been like to be a teenage girl in [Hitler’s] inner circle at a time when the Nazi Party was rising to power,” she says. So intrigued was Blankman that in the months that followed, she created a stand-in for the real Geli: Gretchen Müller, the main character in her debut novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, May).
“I knew I needed the freedom of a fictional character in order to tell the story I wanted to tell,” Blankman recalls, “but it didn’t hit me until I started revising what an ambitious project I had taken on. Because so many of the characters were real people, what I wound up having to do was write between the lines of history.”
In the novel, Gretchen is a “favorite pet” of “Uncle Dolf,” who befriended the family after Gretchen’s father took a fatal bullet meant for Hitler during the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Although Gretchen grows increasingly uncomfortable with what’s happening within the party, it isn’t until Daniel Cohen, a handsome Jewish reporter, suggests her father was not a hero but a murder victim, that the scales fall from her eyes.
Blankman felt the manuscript was ready for submission in 2012 when she learned her “dream agent,” Tracey Adams of Adams Literary, would be offering critiques at an SCBWI conference in Arlington, Va. Blankman got the last time slot of the day. “I thought, even if she doesn’t take me on, she’ll give me good advice,” she says.
Adams, meanwhile, read the pages Blankman had submitted for critique and says she had to practice her poker face. “It was immediately gripping and different. A YA from the point of view of a girl who is a Nazi?! And she’s hiding a knife behind her back, as she heads out to secretly meet a Jew, who claims to have important information regarding the death of her father!” Adams recalls. “I tried hard to be calm while I asked some important questions about the manuscript—she had all the right answers—then begged her not to give me any spoilers—did she have the full manuscript with her, and could I read it immediately? It did not disappoint, of course.”
Three weeks later, Blankman and Adams had a three-book deal from Balzer + Bray senior editor Kristin Rens. “I realize how incredibly lucky I am,” Blankman says. “Even if you’ve written a great novel you might never find the people who will appreciate it, and this happened so quickly.”
A sequel, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke, which finds Gretchen and Daniel in Berlin right after Hitler is named Chancellor, is scheduled for release in spring 2015. Blankman is now at work on a third, a standalone novel. She credits her mother, Lynn Blankman, who published several middle-grade mysteries when Anne was growing up, with helping her to succeed.
“When I was a child I didn’t want to be a writer because my mom was a writer and I wanted to forge my own path,” Blankman says. “But she listened to my idea for this novel and got so excited for me. She was the one who gave me the encouragement I needed in order to believe I could do it.”