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.