It wasn’t just a passion for music that led Julie Thomas to pen The Keeper of Secrets: it was also a desire to educate against the horrors of anti-Semitism.
Zola: In The Keeper of Secrets, Nazis loot precious musical instruments. This piece of history isn’t typically outlined in textbooks—how did you come across that information? What kind of research went into writing this novel?
Julie Thomas: I originally found a magazine article written by journalists who worked for the Chicago Tribune. That newspaper has covered this subject in some depth. At the time I was researching for a film script on Nazi looted art, about which there is much more written and known. I have a musical background and music is a passion so the article caught my eye and I started researching the subject. It took seven years to research and write the novel because I was working full-time. I read numerous books and internet articles, survivor stories, and watched historical footage and listened to over 200 pieces of violin music, the most well-known pieces played by a variety of different violinists.
Zola: In the “Insights, Interviews & More” segment in your book, you mention that you were born with a serious congenital heart defect that kept you in bed for the first four years of your life. During that time, your mother read to you for hours each day. Do you remember any of the books you were most impressed with? Did you ever think as a child that you’d like to become a writer?
JT: I remember Paddington Bear, Swallows and Amazons, Biggles, Secret Seven, and Famous Five. I tired of picture books very quickly so she read me adventure stories and then taught me to read so I could read them for myself. The day after my operation she read me a book called Snowy the Mouse and she was crying and I became impatient and said, “Read it properly, Mummy!” I was four.
I started writing when I was eight, short stories and the first chapters of novels. I used to say that if I didn’t write, I’d ‘burst.’ I knew from a very early age that I would write all my life.
Zola: In your acknowledgements, you mention that the roots of this story run back to your childhood when a close friend warmly welcomed you into the home of her Jewish family. What did you learn and experience through her family that became pivotal to the life of your book?
JT: I just absorbed the traditions and the culture and the food and the importance of family. Her father had moved to England from Europe as a small child, post-war, and the history was front and centre. When we were adults she moved to London and married and had a family. I stay with her when I am there and she has taken me to see her beautiful local synagogue and we eat kosher. Her mother was my basis for Elizabeth Horowitz. I have a strong Christian faith and we have always had marvelous religious discussions!
Zola: Daniel, one of the central characters, is an extremely talented violinist, but feels conflicted by his love of baseball. Similarly, your interests have covered TV, film, and now novel writing. Did you ever feel like your passions were conflicting? Was there a pressure to give one up in favor of another?
JT: It was more of an organic flow through my career, I started in radio as a copywriter then became a producer of programmes, moved to video as a scriptwriter and then on to television and to film as a writer/director/producer. I have gone back to radio as a producer on a couple of occasions because I love it, radio people are wonderful. It is usual for people in those industries to be multi-functional and the lines are often blurred. I have taken jobs because I loved the project, what I actually did on it was less important. It is a high-pressure, deadline-driven industry and can be very stressful, but it is also full of laughter and passion.
Zola: What originally drew you into writing historical fiction? Is your next project historically based as well?
JT: It wasn’t a conscious decision. I enjoy reading it, but I enjoy reading (and writing) crime as well. It was the nature of the subject matter and the fact that part of the story was historical. I am passionate about this story and I believe that it needs to be told so that humanity, as a whole, remembers what happened during World War II. What began as a convenient common enemy for an economy in trouble escalated into genocide and that must not be allowed to happen again, especially on that scale. I think it is a time that fascinates writers because there are so many stories based in fact that seem so incredible.
Yes, my next project is similar in structure, based in the present day and also in WWII Italy. It centres on war brides, women who married service men and moved to a foreign country with very little support. It is based in fact but is a fictional account about fictional characters and involves a family across several generations.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.