Writing is a Great River by Greg Johnston

Posted by on Apr 21, 2014 in Featured Book, Historical Fiction Influences, World War Two | Comments Off on Writing is a Great River by Greg Johnston

The-Skin-of-Water185x280aThe Danube, Tiber, Nile, Thames, Derwent, Ganges, Hudson, Seine, Euphrates, Amazon

Writing is a great river.  From a dribbling source in a mountain range, some small spring that any other day may have caused a writer to shrug and turn away, drips and drips.  As the drops coalesce, collapse, overcome the surface tension between them, merge, pond, fracture and cling together, they start to run.

On the cusp of starting a new novel, I’ve been pondering the source of The Skin of Water.  Peeling back the layers, I arrived at a paragraph, a hundred words at most, in a manuscript I was editing.  It spoke of a wealthy Hungarian industrialist family who after the German occupation of Hungary in 1944, bribed the Gestapo to fly them to neutral Portugal.  I remember being surprised by two things – that a family could be THAT wealthy, but more over that the Gestapo could be bribed.  But of course they could.  It’s one of the few things that made them human.

So the spring began to run.  Small tributaries joined the flow.  From a literature review, I corroborated the event, found dry details of the family, hardly the constructs of a novel.  But as the search went on, I found many small memoirs, written by people who’d lived through this horrific period.  It amazed me how many there were.  Flung Ovid-like by the post-war diaspora to safety in the United States, Latin America or Australia, as far as they could get from Europe, they’d taken the time to write down their experiences, often in intimate detail.  Some were badly written, some badly translated, some wandered far from a thesis but all contain small, sustaining drops.

With these writings, a turbulent stream began, water warbling over rapids, augmented by slim tributaries, carving the riverbank, water crystal clear.  I walked the streets of WWII Budapest.  I went to the Arizona night club, far more bohemian than today, I read of a gossip newspaper The Pesti Post, I crossed the Chain Bridge, I bathed in the warm healing waters of Hévitz, I escaped Auschwitz, from lake Balaton I heard the Tihany echo.

All these things carried me on to the mouth of the river, in this case, the Danube.

So today I’ll return to the springs, the Liffey or Tiber perhaps, and start searching for these humble endeavours, these little volumes privately published that often no library or archive bothers to store.  They’re tossed with the dross on to second hand sites, les bouquinistes of the internet, the junk of family estates.  Who knows if the new idea is buoyant, buffeted or drowned in the rapids, torn by the floes?  Still waters often run deep.  Let the rivers run.

G. S.  Johnston, April 21, 2014