Jeffrey is joined by author Heather Morris, whose debut historical novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz became a No 1 New York Times bestselling book. She’ll reveal which book and which TV series she believes are ‘unputdownable’. The conversation covers everything from isolation and the writing process to giant statues and Heather’s plans for her next book. Has she revealed a little more about the content of that book than her publishers would like?
Jeffrey: Hi, I’m Jeffrey Archer, and welcome back and thank you for joining me for another Unputdownable. If you’re not familiar with how this podcast works, you’re even more welcome! So here we go! For the uninitiated, I’m joined each week by someone, who has a great knowledge of books, a great knowledge of culture, but wants to share with me their two recommendations.
One a book and one artistic, cultural event or person. After they’ve picked their unput downable works, I will offer my own recommendations. Today we welcome a woman who did something quite remarkable. Her first book went to number one on the New York Times bestsellers list, and there’s only a handful of people on earth who can claim that. She is, of course, the author of that amazing debut historical novel, the Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Will you welcome Heather Morris. Tell me, Heather, what you were doing before you discovered this very old man who told you this remarkable story, frankly, which about half of it I would have believed, but it was so remarkable, I would have wanted to write it myself. So fill us in.
Heather: What I was doing was living the ordinary life of a mother, three children, hoping a couple of grandkids would come my way soon. But more importantly, in some ways, I was working in the social work department of a large hospital here in Melbourne. Now, for 20 years, I spent every day dealing and talking with people, suffering tragedy and trauma. I was, well, I think, prepared to meet Lalle. Of course, I didn’t know I was going to meet him. That was pure happenstance, being in the right place, the right time.
Having a cup of coffee with a friend who just casually said, I have a friend whose mother has just died, his father has asked him to find somebody he can tell a story to. That person can’t be Jewish, and you’re not Jewish. Do you want to meet him? And on that day, yes, you can say, my life changed, because a week later I walked into the apartment of Lale Sokolov. Now it took me from 2003 to 2018 to finally get his story written as a novel, because it existed as a screenplay all those years. Because I was so stubborn. I kept thinking, this is a movie. I want to make this into a movie. And so, yes, that stubbornness. Maybe it was a good thing. Maybe the time was just right when I finally did write it as a novel, when I should have actually been considering retirement.
Jeffrey: But did he say, I have a story to tell you? Or did you work that out as you went along? And what took you 15 years?
Heather: Well, I’ll answer the second part first, because I was stubborn. I promised him I’d make it into a film. He’d even chosen the people to play himself and to play Peter. Well, here I was, hanging onto this promise. And by the way, that promise was reiterated two hours before he died. It was the last thing I said to him that I would never stop trying to tell his story. So there was the hang up. It was all me, not him. But what was lovely was for three years, as I had written his story he was working with me and some producers and directors trying to make it into a film.
So while he never read the novel he read many drafts of the screenplay, which is my adaptation, the novel from my own screenplay. He wanted the world to know about this girl, this girl called Gita whose arm he held when she was dressed in rags and headshaven and unbathed and stabbed those numbers into her arm.
He wanted the world to know about her. It was almost like his part as being the tattooist, or the tattooera, as he called himself, was secondary. Tell the world about Gita and tell them what happened in that place so that it never happens again.
Jeffrey: Right. So you’re someone who obviously loves stories and loved picking up this one. But in this program, Unputdownable, I ask you to select a book that you considered to be unput downable and tell us why.
Heather: It’s one of the few books that I have read many, many times. I keep going back to it. That is unusual for me. So, absolutely it has to be Unputdownable because I must have read it a dozen times.
Jeffrey: Why have you read it a dozen times?
Heather: Derek Hansen, who wrote this incredible story called Soul Survivor most of his novels are set in Europe, but he wrote this one. It’s set in New Zealand. I’m a Kiwi. So maybe there’s an element of relating to the time and place because set in the 1960s and clearly, if you could see me, which you people listening to this can’t but I was around in the 1960s, and those events that were happening into New Zealand at that time I remember very vividly. I was part of them. We’re not the story that he fictionalized, but the backstory to it, which was the invasion of the Japanese fishing fleet coming into New Zealand waters and raiding them. So that’s the backstory.
But the three characters who the story is about, they play out against that. I love the setting. Great Barrier Reef. An island off Auckland. I relate very much to the one female protagonist. I always thought I was a little bit like her.
The sole thing about this story, hers and the other two main characters is this need to survive. And in their case, survive alone. I guess at one point I thought I could be a hermit. I’ve probably changed my mind on that. But, it’s just a beautifully written story by Derek Hansen, full of emotion. It’s got it all. It’s got adventure, it’s got drama, even a little bit of love story.
Jeffrey: I can understand why it appeals to a New Zealand lady. Explain to me why it would appeal to an English man.
One of the characters in it. Well, he’s a cranky old Scotsman, but okay we’ve brought one of your kin into the storyline already. Also, the other character is a survivor of the Burma Railway Second World War.
But these are two areas of which, of course, people in the UK should relate to a little bit. Maybe not so much the 6th, the generation right now, but those people who know stories, who then combine with this young doctor from Auckland and how they combined and really have the same goal, which is to survive on this island. Minimal interference, please. They want bureaucracy. They want everybody to go and leave them. However, their livelihood is threatened by, as I say, the Japanese trawlers that suddenly appear off their beautiful beaches.
For you – look at the story. It’s an adventure story. That’s what it’s all about.
Jeffrey: I understand. And I’ve chosen because you choose a book, and I chose a book. But I’ve chosen a short story by an author I’ve admired all my life, F.Scott Fitzgerald. It always horrifies me that a man who was really one of the great writers of the last century actually only sold in the year before he died, around 200 books. He died in poverty, he died a drunk, he died in pain. And his whole life towards the end was remarkably sad. And when you think The Great Gatsby is unquestionably a masterpiece. And as I say, it’s lucky to sell 100 copies a year at the end of his life.
But I have chosen a short story. It’s a ridiculous short story, but because it’s been written by a genius, you just live with it. It’s about a school, about a boy who goes to a very posh prep school in the United States of America and mixes only with the rich.
And he goes on holiday with one of them, one by one, aware that he can’t take them home to his house because they wouldn’t believe anyone was that poor. And his final trip is to spend time with a friend who claims his father is the richest man in the world; and he therefore is going to try and find out why. And when he gets to his home, he finds that in the garden is a mountain of diamonds bigger than the Ritz Carlton. And the story is called A Diamond As Big As The Ritz. And it’s just fantasy and rubbish and brilliance all mixed into one, which you can only get away with if you’re F. Scott’s Fitzgerald.
Heather: I have read it, so I know where you’re coming from. That obsession with describing obscene wealth, the tapestries of the palms everywhere. It is, as you say, only something he could have written and gotten away with, because it’s quite obscene, really.
Jeffrey: Yes, but he’s such a beautiful short-story writer and we live in an age, sadly, when short stories are not treated with the respect they were 50 years ago, when I was a child. H. H. Monroe, Mo Passon, O. Henry. Somerset. Maum. These were giants and their short stories were read. And, of course, F Scott Fitzgerald himself. He wrote six sets of short stories, so he took it very seriously indeed. And I recommend anyone listening to this, if you’ve never read a Scott Fitzgerald, go and get a set of short stories and that’ll hook you for life.
So that’s my choice. We now know your choice and my choice. But, Heather, we’re then allowed a cultural choice. And as you can imagine, with the amazing guests I’ve had, we’ve had some pretty amazing cultural choices.
But first we’re going to ask you, Heather, with all your chance of picking opera, music, theatre, television, films, what have you chosen?
Heather: This was tricky for me, I have to tell you, because I did go through a whole variety of particularly classical music, which I love to go and hear, and I’m thinking about my favorites always Ravel and Tchaikovsky.
And I’ve been to some amazing concerts and some amazing… around the world, but once again, and I thought about what is it that I again continually watch? And it’s weird, guys. It’s an American TV series, The West Wing.
I watched this when it came out every week, religiously, for seven years. When it was finished, I bought the box set and watched it again. Last year during COVID I watched it again. And every December, as we head towards Christmas, three or four days before it, I will get out season one, and I will watch one episode. It’s episode ten of season one. It’s called In Excelsis Deo. I watch that every year just prior to Christmas. It has immense personal meaning to me, that one episode, because it’s about Christmas time and the death of a Vietnam veteran. My husband is a Vietnam veteran.
Jeffrey: Well, I will tell you, Heather, I think The West Wing is arguably the best television series I have ever seen in my life. And I also think that Aaron Sorkin is one of the great writers of the modern day. In fact, he’s right up there with anyone. Now, I saw every episode, and we have something else in common. I decided to do it again during COVID and so I’ve seen the whole of The West Wing twice. I remember the episode you’re referring to, and it brought me to tears. Those few people who haven’t seen The West Wing, get it now – it’s so much better than any of the rubbish they’re showing on television at the moment. It’s absolutely fantastic. And the episode you’re referring to, so moving. When a member of the president’s staff decides he will honour a veteran and doesn’t fully inform the President quite how far he’s gone to give him an Honour Guard, I was moved to tears. And it was a lovely, lovely episode. Of course, it gave Aaron Sorkin the opportunity to show us what actually happens when an official Honour Guard honours a brave soldier from the American Forces. And that’s where Sorkin is brilliant. He not only has a script to die for, he gives you detail after detail that you think you know about, but in fact, you don’t. And I’m with you, Heather. I’ve no doubt this is the finest series I’ve ever seen. I recommend it to everybody.
Heather: Can I tell you that I did a masterclass with Aaron Sorkin.
Jeffrey: Aah, lucky lady.
Heather: It was an online masterclass. That’s how much I am so so in awe of that man and his talent. I will watch any movie he has made regardless of who’s starring in it.
And I know there’s one coming out just soon. Called The Ricardo’s with Nicole Kidman about Lucille Ball. Now, he’s written and directed that, and I will go and see it because it’s an Aaron Sorkin film regardless of who’s in it. The man is the most brilliant screenwriter of our time.
Jeffrey: I quite agree. Quite agree. Now, Heather – you’ve had this massive success, far more than you deserve! What a lucky woman you are!
Heather: As Lalle would say, lucky, lucky, lucky! He always said it in threes.
Jeffrey: What are you doing next?
Heather: What am I doing next? Well, I just I’ve had a book just come out this month or last month in the UK, and it’s coming out in dribs and drabs around the world.
Yesterday in Spain, tomorrow in Slovakia, and of course, the US. And the UK. Australia, South Africa. I want to spend some time now, but now that Qantas have agreed to get back in the air, took a bit of persuading… I want to come and now travel, which I love doing. Speaking to people about my stories. I’m the lucky writer who got to tell us these stories. But with my stories, there’s a story behind the story. The story of how I got them, the story of the people who I write about. I want to take a slow, long book tour. Not only enjoy talking about my stories – no, they’re not my stories, Jeffrey. They’re not mine. They’re my books. They’re never my stories. But then also enjoy the places I go to. So when you take me into Prague and you throw me in front of a television set in the morning and an event in the afternoon and another one that evening and then I wake up the next morning and Budapest and I do it all over again. I’ve asked, can I slow it down this time, please? And let me enjoy some of my travels.
Jeffrey: Have you already traveled extensively or is this a wild dream?
Heather: No, I’ve traveled extensively already throughout Europe, the UK, the US, South Africa.
Jeffrey: Which is your favourite country?
Heather: That’s a toughie. It’d always been New Zealand, because that’s my home country.
Jeffrey: No, I meant outside of New Zealand!
Heather: I know!
Jeffrey: New Zealand’s not the only country on earth. Where else?
Heather: If I have to pick a country, then I’m actually going to say the UK. My Dad’s a Scotsman; was a Scotsman. I have incredible family and friends there. And I will be back there in January
Jeffrey: So what is now? You want to travel the world, which you’ve already done. But what then?
Heather: Well, I do have another book deal being offered to me and accept it. So I better write another one of the puppies, hadn’t I?
Jeffrey: Have you got the book in your mind already? Or have you signed a deal without a book in your mind?
Heather: Signed a deal with half a book in mind. How’s that?
Jeffrey: Half a book in mind.
Heather: Half a book in mind. Jeffrey, I cannot create stories like you. I don’t have that brain that can fictionalize and create an entire story on its own. You’re the master blaster at this. For me, I find a snippet of a story, and then I want to follow that up. So once again, it’ll be historical fiction.
Probably it is set in the Second World War, but in a different theatre of the Second World War. How’s that?
Jeffrey: What do you mean by a different theatre?
Heather: Well, Europe wasn’t the only place that the baddies were causing us grief. Think about the Pacific.
Jeffrey: Aah. And have you one particular human being that you’re centering this story on?
Heather: No. Three.
Jeffrey: Three human beings.
Heather: And I’ve probably told you more than my publishers want you to hear, but never mind.
Jeffrey: Captain of a great destroyer, his wife and his mistress?
Jeffrey: Or two others.
Jeffrey: Not going in the right direction. Wrong, Jeffrey. Useless. Ha ha ha…Now, here we are. So, Heather, you have chosen my favourite television series.
And I am going to introduce you to, though I suspect you already know, arguably the greatest sculptor England has ever produced. If there is a greater one, I can’t think who it is. I once heard him described by none other than the late Kenneth Clark, as in the five greatest sculptors that had ever lived.
And I am, of course, referring to that blunt Yorkshire-man, Henry Moore. And I have chosen in particular, I suppose it’s weak of me to choose what is probably his most famous sculpture, King and Queen, which he did in three sizes. Great, great, great big one, massive. One that I would call normal size and maquettes. And they are greatly admired and collected throughout the world. I had the privilege, Heather, of meeting the great man.
Jeffrey: I went to see him in his home in Much Hadam, and he took me to his workshop and talked to me about how he worked. And then, of course, the great man died. And I learned afterwards a very cunning thing he did. And I don’t know if we credit the Henry Moore Foundation with this amazing piece of cunning. You will know that several of his pieces, not least Reclining Nude, are massive pieces. I mean, absolutely massive.
So he’d do nine, an edition of nine, and then if you stand outside the Washington National Museum, the National Museum of the United States of America, you’ll see a massive Henry Moore. And he gave it to them as a gift. Now, they’ve plonked it down in front of the front door, they’re unlikely to move it. He did the same in Chicago. He did the same right around the world. Whoever was doing his public relations was outstanding and brilliant.
That was one of the most cunning ways of making sure the rest of us keep seeing Henry Moore, for which I am entirely grateful. As you look out of this window. Over the top of the ridge. There is a Henry Moore on the embankment that I see every single day.
But this is one of my favorites, King and Queen by Henry Moore. Now, have you ever seen an original or even a picture Heather?
Heather: Seen the pictures and, hey, guess what? I’m going to be in Pasadena in January. There’s a gallery there that has got one of his, it’s got King and Queen, got one of his copies.
Jeffrey: They’ve got a King and Queen.
Heather: Yes. In Pasadena.
Jeffrey: Where is it, Heather? Where is it?
Heather: It’s the Norton something gallery in Pasadena in California.
Jeffrey: Oh, how wonderful. How wonderful.
Heather: And so I’ll be there in January and I will go and see a…
Jeffrey: Good enough reason to go to Pasadena.
Jeffrey: Now, what are you doing in Pasadena? It’s hardly the center of the book trade.
No, but it’s a lovely place to have a break and to just watch – go round the many galleries there and the Huntington Museum, just a beautiful place to relax. I’m going there for three days of R and R.
Jeffrey: Well, clever old you. Because The Huntingdon is one of the great museums on earth. Yes, clever old you. And with a great history of how he put that collection together and how it survived in one place, despite many of the family trying to otherwise, but still. So enjoy.
Heather: I will.
Jeffrey: As we have, Heather, very much enjoyed having you on my podcast. Extremely kind of you to come on. We wish you luck when you return to this country, we wish you luck when you go to Pasadena and most of all, we wish you luck with the other half of the book you haven’t yet filled in the gaps on.
Heather: Stay tuned!
Jeffrey: And we hope we’ll have the chance to meet you. That would be wonderful. I would love that. Thank you so much.
Heather: My pleasure.
Jeffrey: So thank you to my special guest, Heather Morris, and thank all of you for listening to Unputdownable.
This is the vulgar bit that my publishers insist on every week. Are you ready?
Over My Dead Body, my latest book in the William Warwick series is now out in hardback, ebook and audiobook. And that is the last in the series of Unputdownable. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and it’s brought happiness and memories. But much more important, you might have discovered a book you might never have read, a sculpture, a film, a television series, a theatre you might not have considered, as I have, from my guests.
Thank you for listening.