Girl in the Blue Coat, Monica Hesse’s debut novel, is the story of Hanneke, a teenager in 1943 Nazi-occupied Amsterdam who keeps her parents and herself fed by selling black market goods to those who can pay for the service. After one of her customers asks Hanneke to search for Mirjam, a 15-year-old Jewish girl under her care who has mysteriously disappeared, Hanneke finds herself desperately trying to save a girl she has never met. Here, Hesse talks to PW about the relevance of historical fiction, how her background as a journalist for the Washington Post informs her writing, and how she immersed herself in Dutch history and culture to research her book.
Why did you write Girl in the Blue Coat and why did you set it in the Netherlands?
Like a lot of people, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, again and again and again, when I was growing up – I’m still completely felled by what an astounding book it is. And as a teenager, I did a lot of reading about concentration camps and the vast horrors of the war. When I got a little older, I realized I knew a lot about 1940s Europe from the perspective of the people who were persecuted or in hiding. I didn’t know as much about what life would have looked like outside of Anne Frank’s annex, for average Dutch citizens, and I deeply wanted to.
How much of this novel is based on actual historical events, real places, and people who actually lived? Such as the Schouwburg Theater – does that place really exist and was it used for that purpose?
The people are entirely fictional, but the places and historical events are entirely real. The Schouwburg was a theater that was taken over by the Nazis and used as a deportation center – now it’s a museum and memorial. It was a hideous example of the atrocities being carried out literally alongside daily life. But it was also the site of some fairly incredible resistance work. The characters in my book draw a lot from the Amsterdam Student Group, an organization of young people who worked to rescue children from the Schouwburg and place them in safe homes for the duration of the war.
With rare exception, everything that happens in Girl in the Blue Coat could have happened exactly that way in real life. I wanted it to be unimpeachable in terms of research.
How did you go about doing your research?
I think a lot of times, people think of research as being just about trekking to the library. I like to think of research as a multi-sensory experience. I ate a lot of Dutch food – almost all of which appears in the book in one scene or another. I listened to historic news clips on YouTube. I watched Dutch movies: I don’t speak Dutch, but I wanted to get a sense of how the language sounded, and how the people interacted with each other. I called historians, and photography experts, and native Dutch speakers. I’d already been to Amsterdam for a long vacation a year or two prior, and that was a huge help in mapping out the city and the events in my brain.
I did trek to the library, of course, a lot. I live in Washington, D.C., which is an incredible research capital. The Holocaust Museum has a research library on its top floor – I visited at least four or five times, sitting down with stacks of books: personal memoirs, war pamphlets, textbooks, and encyclopedias. Librarians are wizards, and libraries are just about my favorite places in the world.
How did being a journalist prove to be an advantage in writing Girl in the Blue Coat? Were there any disadvantages to a background in journalism rather than, say, an M.F.A.?
Fiction writing and journalism, in my experience, are really excellent training grounds for each other. In fiction, you learn about pacing and how to build tension – which is something you want in a really good nonfiction feature article as well. And in journalism, you’re so focused on getting quotes right that you become really attuned to how people talk. Most people interrupt themselves, or go on tangents; being aware of those common rhythm patterns is really useful when writing dialogue in fiction. Historical fiction, especially, felt very comfortable for me, because it’s so research-based. Journalists are good at tracking down obscure experts, and checking and re-checking their facts. Even though Girl in the Blue Coat was fiction, I wanted it to feel as true as any story I would write in my journalism career.
What do you want young readers – to whom World War II feels like ancient history – to take away from reading Girl in the Blue Coat?
As odd as it may sound, while I was writing this book, I regularly forgot that I was writing historical fiction. One of the things that became really clear to me while I was researching this novel, and reading a bunch of historical accounts, is that human emotions are a constant. People throughout time have grieved, have fallen in love, have fallen out of love. We are sometimes petty and sometimes heroic, and we have been that way forever. I didn’t think of this so much as a novel about the past – I thought of it as a story about people whose normal feelings got swept up and magnified because of a terrible war.
Any plans on writing another novel?
Yes! The book that I’m finishing right now is nonfiction. But once I’m done with that, my next work will be another novel set in World War II – I’m already so excited about it.
The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse. Little, Brown, $17.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-316-26060-2