Q&A: Sigmund Brouwer (Thief of Glory)
This novel is about family secrets and the things our close relatives choose not to share with us. Where did you get the inspiration for this novel?
My primary inspiration came from a story that has been in front of me all my life. My grandfather was a headmaster of a school in the Dutch East Indies, and became a soldier when the Japanese Imperialist forces began to invade the islands. He was captured and eventually died in forced labor during the building of the Burma Railway. My father was just a boy when he and the rest of his family were forced into a concentration camp on the island. They survived nearly three years of desperate and brutal conditions. When the war ended, they were put on a ship back to Holland, and arrived owning only the clothes that had been given to them. My mother as a girl, during the same period, survived the Nazi occupation of Holland. I wanted to honor their stories by writing the novel.
Jeremiah finds an outlet for his secrets through writing journals for his children. Why is writing sometimes the easiest way to communicate difficult things we would rather keep hidden? Why is it the best way for Jeremiah to write the things he cannot say?
Writing is sometimes much easier because you can write in privacy, and you don’t feel the judgment that you fear if someone is in front of you as you watch them listen to your story. Writing is also a way — because it can be a slower process that also allows editing — to make sure that you are communicating with the clarity and purpose. Specifically, for Jeremiah, my main character and narrator, there is the necessity to write because he is struggling with the early onset of Alzheimer’s, and he uses a series of journals as a way to fight the loss of his memories, journals he intends to leave behind so his daughter can fully understand why he wasn’t the father to her that he wanted to be.
Did you venture into your own family's history while writing this book?
My father rarely spoke about his time in the camp. This was partly because he was so young in the camp and some of the recollections were too far back for him. It was more so, as I found out after writing the novel, because no one in his family would talk about the war and those events in the years that followed. It meant that I spent a lot of time reading accounts from other survivors, which broke my heart, because I kept imagining my father as boy in those same conditions.
I treasure the results, however. Not only did it help me understand what formed my father, but it gave me specifics to open the door to conversations about his life in the camp. Almost without fail, he would open up about things I’d never heard from him before, and share similar stories that matched the accounts of the other survivors. Through that process, I even convinced him to tell those stories on video, which are priceless now for our family and my own children. We did the same with my mother’s stories about the Nazi occupation, including the morning that soldiers took her father away for hiding a Jew in their house.
This book delves into Jeremiah's past quite a bit. Was it difficult telling his back story and weaving it in seamlessly with his current story?
At the time of writing, it was very difficult. I struggled with how to alternate past and present and it seemed too disjointed. When I finally realized Jeremiah’s true motivation for finally revealing to his daughter the secrets he had hidden from her and from the world, the structuring became much easier. So the novel opens in the present where readers see him in jail as an 81-year-old, and learn why his daughter demands the story and why he agrees to finally tell it through his journals. Those journals then take readers into his boyhood and the camp, and the novel concludes with a return to the present-day story that resolves those boyhood secrets.
What do you hope readers feel while reading this novel?
While reading it, I hope they feel everything that the women and children felt during time in camp, from the despair to the joy. And when they finish it, I hope they realize where ultimately, we can find joy in life despite all that difficulties and losses that each of us suffer.
How was this project different from books you have written in the past?
While Jeremiah faces a fictional tragedy that my own father, thankfully, did not endure, I kept seeing my own father in my mind. When I watch the book trailer (www.thiefofglory.com) it always has a tremendous impact on me, because that’s my father, playing the role of Jeremiah. So this is definitely my first novel where I felt I had a personal stake in the character because I so closely identified it with my father. I asked my father to read the first draft of the novel, and it was heartbreaking to me when he said he could only read it a little at time because of some of the memories it brought back to him.
Can you tell us about your next project?
Literally days before the outbreak of World War One, the United States completed one of the greatest engineering feats in history — the Panama Canal — a 10-year task that riveted Americans even more than the moon-landing many decades later.
Through the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most beloved presidents, it involved the biggest dam at the time, the biggest man-made lake, the biggest ship locks, the deepest excavations, all against tremendous odds that had already brought France to its knees in an unsuccessful attempt two decades earlier.
One of the key men behind beating those odds, like King Solomon of Israel, had total authority over tens of thousands, and every Sunday held an informal court in his house where anyone of any social status could bring complaints. Like Solomon, it was his wisdom and common-sense judgments that in no small part kept the necessary seven years of peace that remained complete the project.
Against this romantic backdrop and clashes of social structures — set in the era of Downton Abbey — my main character faces difficult choices as he struggles to get what he wants most in life.