AusRom Today Book of the Month: James Moloney’s The Love That I Have
In three words, describe to us your novel:
Heartrending wartime romance
The Love That I Have is a delicately written novel that focuses on an almost naively idealistic Margot Baumann, a young German woman working in the mailroom of Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin in 1944. Having had brothers in the war, including one who was captured and held prisoner at Stalingrad, Margot is dismayed by the fact that prisoners’ letters to their loved ones are routinely destroyed by the Germans, a task she is quickly enlisted to perform. Against the rules, Margot secretly smuggles letters from the prison and forwards them on to the prisoners’ families and in doing so connects with a prisoner Dieter Kleinschmidt. How did you arrive at this particular concept for the basis of the story?
Long ago, when I was little older than the characters in this story, I watching a film about a Romanian peasant deported to Germany as slave labour. Desperate to let his wife know he’s alive, he scrounges enough to buy paper and a stamp, but in a brilliant piece of film-making, when he drops his letter through the mail slot, the camera switches to the other side of the wall in time to see a soldier set fire to the overflowing barrel of letters. I gasped at the cruelty – to extinguish those words of love and hope, not just one letter, but thousands, seemed particularly callous. The image and the emotion stayed with me for decades. In The Love That I Have, I’ve finally turned them into a story of my own.
This novel encapsulates with empathy, vulnerability, and compassion the difficulties faced by both the prisoner, Dieter, and Margot who by all accounts is ‘free’ in that she is not imprisoned. Yet you’ve masterfully shown that through the division of WWII there was no freedom for anyone, imprisoned or otherwise. What aspect of your research was the most harrowing for you?
I have read a lot and seen many films and documentaries about the suffering of Europe’s Jews. It rightly overwhelms all other stories of that period. Yet there were other stories. The most harrowing part of my research was discovering the ferocious treatment metered out to anyone the Nazis didn’t like – priests and protestors, homosexuals, even Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t marked for the gas chamber, but instead were beaten, starved and worked to death in camps like Sachsenhausen. Ordinary Germans knew that if they stepped out of line, in word or deed, they would immediately be thrown into a camp, just as Dieter is. You are right. There was no true freedom either inside or outside the concentration camps, which is what makes Margot’s actions courageous and exceptional.
You’ve woven a timeless and utterly heartwarming yet heartbreaking love story into The Love That I Have. One that has certainly stayed with me long after I’ve finished the novel. What was the inspiration behind this element of the story?
I didn’t set out to write a love story. I began with a young woman who is as disturbed by the callous act assigned to her as I had been when watching that film long ago. I wanted to find out what she would do. In that sense, Margot is me. It seemed inevitable that she would read some of the prisoners’ letters. That threw up the idea that she might become attracted to one prisoner in particular. Is it possible to fall in love with a man purely through his words on a page? And how strong could that love become, especially when I found my Margot growing stronger as a person with every chapter. I was equally horrified by what the invading Russians did to German civilians in the final days of the war, a story no one cared about at the time. If the love between Margot and Dieter is both heart-warming and heart-breaking, it’s because Germany in 1945 left few lovers unscathed by sacrifice and loss.
What makes Australian romance fiction unique?
Australian romance fiction is unique because we are more optimistic than other nations, especially our women. They want to see our world made a better place and they expect to stand at the centre of this better world, as women who love and are loved. Australian woman and the way they are presented in our romantic fiction are more proactive in the way they see themselves, and in their willingness to act. They believe love will become part of their lives by living a life, rather than thinking they will only get a chance to truly live once love has ‘found them’.
What led you on the path of storytelling?
To be honest, I’m not much good at anything else. But I’ve always been drawn to strong narratives, which is why my books are renowned for giving readers a great story to lose themselves in. Isn’t that why we read? Challenge and fascination are other factors. Just as I like my readers to become engrossed in a story, I love to become so enmeshed in creating characters and plot lines that I can’t think about anything else. Pity my wife when I’m totally absorbed. My body might come to the dinner table, but my mind is absent. Fortunately, she knows I’ll emerge soon enough and she’s always the first to read a manuscript when I’m done.
The Love That I Have
Margot Baumann has left school to take up her sister’s job in the mailroom of a large prison. But this is Germany in 1944, and the prison is Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.
Margot is shielded from the camp’s brutality as she has no contact with prisoners. But she does handle their mail and, when given a cigarette lighter and told to burn the letters, she is horrified by the callous act she must carry out with her own hands. This is especially painful since her brother was taken prisoner at Stalingrad and her family have had no letters from him. So Margot steals a few letters, intending to send them in secret, only to find herself drawn to their heart-rending words of hope, of despair, and of love.
This is how Margot comes to know Dieter Kleinschmidt – through the beauty and the passion of his letters to a girlfriend. And since the girlfriend is also named Margot, it is like reading love letters written for her.
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