Heather Morris (2021) three SISTERS.

I’m a reader. When I open a book magic happens. Or in Heather Morris’s case magic doesn’t happen. When God said to Moses, you cannot look—directly—at me, but when I pass you might see my glory. When I read a book if I don’t see God’s face, I’m not too disappointed. After all, even international and bestselling authors are only human. I’ll wait for the glory to pass.  And I don’t go very many places. The best writers transport you.

Where are we?

The three sisters, Cibi, Magda and Livi, sit in a tight circle in the small backyard of their home. The oleander bush their mother has tried so hard to coax back to life droops disconsolately in the corner of the small garden.

Livi the youngest, at three years old, leaps to her feet: sitting still is not in her nature.

‘Livi, please, will you sit down?’ Cibi tells her. At seven years old, she is the eldest of the siblings, and it is her responsibility to chastise them when they misbehave. ‘You know, Father wants to talk to us.’

‘No,’ three year-old Livi pronounces and proceeds to skip around the seated figures, giving a pat on the head as she passes, Magda, the middle sister, and five years old…

This is the prologue to three SISTERS. The reader knows who they are. They’ve been named. And the reader has been told twice Livi is three-years-old.

I ask again. Where are we? What are we?

‘Just keep walking. Livi. Stay in Line,’ Cibi murmurs to her sister.

Once they are through the gates, the girls are led down a tree-lined street, the first flush of sapling leaves waving in the cool breeze. Heat emanates from the harsh overhead lighting and Cibi is ironically reminded of a warm summer evening. They pass a grey concrete building, meeting the blank stares of young men and women who gaze back at them, expressionless, from the window.’

The first paragraph of the book has a tag attached, so the reader doesn’t confuse it with somewhere else, somewhere interesting: Vranov and Topl’ou, Slovakia.

The second tag tells the reader, what year it is, because it could be anytime, but it is June 1929.    

The second paragraph transcribed, Chapter 7, Auschwitz, April 1942.

The narrator is Cibi, as she takes a stroll through the gates of Auschwitz, the gates of hell. She tries for irony, but finds only repetition, ‘blank stares,’ and ‘expressionless’ faces.

I do not see God passing. Nor do I see fallen humanity. Take out all the tags and I guess we could be in California, sunning ourselves on the beach, before nipping off to the local supermarket, which happens to be in a rundown part of town.

Heather Morris, international bestselling author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Her other works include Cilia’s Journey, which I’m glad to say is a journey I’ve made in abbreviated form, and Sources of Hope, which I have read in fuller form, is a writer who bumps along on the page dragging cliches behind her. But she must have something. I’m not quite sure what. I’ll not be reading any of her work again. You might think differently. Feel differently. Read on.  

Heather Morris (2020) Stories of Hope: Finding Inspiration in Everyday Lives

Heather Morris’s debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, sold around six million copies. I think I even had two copies floating about in my house at one time. I’ve still got one. The stories in the title. Lale Sokolov (he changed his surname, years earlier to make it sound less Jewish) was transported to Auschwitz from Bratislava with his family. His sister Goldie survived. He did too. His job as a tattooist, inking all those consecutive numbers on the wrists of inmates, kept him alive. His concentration-camp number was just over the 30 000 mark. Anybody with such a low number that survived had to win life’s lottery every day. Morris, working for the social work department in a large public hospital in Melbourne, was introduced to Lale Sokolov as a writer. He didn’t want the writer to be Jewish, for some reason I never quite got. He died 31st October 2006, three days after his ninetieth birthday.

 She was lucky. Few debut authors ever go from obscurity to international acclaim, with their work translated into Hebrew, and get to pick up a copy on their novel in a bookstore in Israel in its original English. I’d say that odds of that happen mirror the number of books sold about 6 000 000/1.  This is the book about the book, how she did it—and how it made her a better person. And it can make you one too.

I didn’t think her writing was great. I don’t think I finished either of my two copies of her best-seller. But I know it had a happy ending.  She admits that bad reviews hurt. I know that too, but she’s lucky here again, because nobody ever reads what I write. When I’ve written it, I rarely look back either.

Jealousy? Yes, like Yosser Hughes, in the Boys from the Blackstuff, I’m looking over her shoulder saying, ‘I can do that.’ (Most of you won’t know who that is.)

Instead of going back to my copy of the book, I can flick forward to the end of Stories of Hope. ‘Livia’s Story’ is just over three pages, and is her next novel. When you send your novel away, the potential agent or publisher only reads a page or two. That’s enough. It’s often a matter of taste. You don’t need to eat a whole cow starting with its tail to tell it’s a burnt sausage.

‘A death march through the countryside of Poland during the winter of 1945. The German soldiers marching the prisoners start to flee, aware the advancing Red Army is very close. Thirteen young girls break away from the group, leaving the columns of struggling, dying young women behind.

As night falls, they hold hands and run…’

Morris described herself as a screenwriter before becoming a novelist and converting Lale’s story from FinalDraft to Microsoft Word. They’d already agreed Ryan Gosling would make the perfect leading man when the film came out. Lale saw something of himself in the Canadian actor. I see screenwriting jargon, not fiction in the text.

If somebody had sent me the above passage from the start of their novel, I’d have messaged, ‘good start, but let’s bring it to life’.  Alexander Starritt, We Germans, for example, dealing with much the same period, does just that. Have a look and get back to me.

If I look at other copies of books about writing books, I can pick up Drew Gummerson’s slim volume, You: From Pissed to Publication.  He doesn’t tell me to listen, or pay attention, and give me (or you) bullet points on how to do it. Perhaps he does, but I wasn’t listening or paying attention. These are the kind of books I can read while drinking tea, watching telly and picking my toenails, turning pages with my long nose. But it is a signed copy, you might say. 33/200. I translate that as 200 copies printed. I got inked copy 33. That’s £2000, split into publisher and author’s share.

Heather Morris sells her books in the tens of thousands a day. Although her dad was Scottish, one of sixteen of a family, who emigrated to New Zealand, we live in different worlds. I’m glad she got lucky. But the real world for you is Pissed to Publication—and usually not publication—small presses, trying to make a difference with unheard voices.  Read on.