We’re speaking to Sharon Dogar today, author of the children’s novel Annexed. Annexed is based on Anne Frank, and her experiences within the secret annex. Sharon, thank you very much for joining us. Would you be able to tell us what your inspiration was for writing the book?
I don’t think there’s just one; I think were lots of inspirations so I think that there’s a kind of series of things that happened. So I suppose first of all I read the diary when I was about 12, and loved it, and I read it probably once a year from then, and I still read it fairly regularly. And at some point I began to think that I would love to know what happened next. Fairly immediately I thought that, actually. And I went on to find out what happened next, and I think that that’s true of most people – that the diary is a starting point for finding out about the Holocaust. And I suppose there is a part of me that felt quite, not cheated – that’s not the word, because it works, the ending’s very poignant – the fact that she never wrote anything else is really upsetting and an important part of the diary. But I didn’t realise she lived for another seven months, and I think that’s really important. And the older I got, the more important I thought that was, and I thought well actually, you know what we’ve got in the diary is an amazing story, an amazing piece of evidence of what it was like to be in hiding, but what happened next is actually what the Holocaust is about; it’s about the camps. And I suppose I began to think slowly over the years, well, would it be possible to combine the two somehow. And I thought not, probably not. Until my daughter read it, and came up with the same questions, ‘But what happened next?’ And I said, well go and find out, and she did, and she felt the same.
And how old was she when she read it?
She was 12. And she’s now 15, so no, she must have been younger – she must have been 10 or 11.
And how did you deal with that question as a parent?
Well I started off by saying, she was, talking about Anne, what happened to her. So I said she was betrayed, and because she was betrayed and she was Jewish, she was taken to a holding camp, and then she was sent to Auschwitz. And she said, ‘what happens, what happened in Auschwitz?’ and I said people who were there who were Jewish were worked and not fed properly until they died. So I just kept it very, very simple and told her the truth. And I think that’s my way of doing it, and I find that the best way with young… well with anyone actually, not just young people – you know that’s the truth of it. That’s what happened – I don’t… you can’t dress it up can you? You can’t make it all right, you can’t make what happened acceptable, so you might as well just tell them the truth in a way that is… bound to be shocking, but without ramming it home. I suppose that’s the thing.
Peter goes into the camps later in the book. How did you feel about writing about that?
Well I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do it, because I loved Peter by then, you know I’d been writing about him by then for eighteen months; I felt like I knew him; I could hear his voice as I thought about it by then in my head. And I didn’t want him to die, so of course I didn’t want to do it… on a purely personal level I didn’t want to do it. So then I read lots of research, and that’s when I… I knew a fair bit anyway but I started reading personal testimonies and I tried quite hard to think of a way round it, and I did hear of a book written in America where he survived – a fictional book, and actually thought, that’s the real travesty to not write about the reality of what happened. So once I had that idea and I understood that in a sense you’re reclaiming a story if you write about somebody who’s died, and the only way you can do that is by imagining it, and finding out as much as you can about it. So once I’d done that, which took several months, I wrote it very quickly, very, very quickly. I wrote the last sixty pages in about four days. And I thought the only way to manage it in terms of the reader was to keep it absolutely simple. Everything that happens in most of the book has happened – I’ve read about it happening during research, but also to keep it short. It’s at the end of the book, and it’s an intense sixty or so pages, and that’s because it’s hard to manage – for anybody to manage. And I did also try to at the end, the very end have some sense of Peter losing his life, but regaining his sense of identity. And I thought that that had to happen, because otherwise it was too brutal for anyone who’s only 12. And of course it’s true – that in Mathausen he did – there was a liberation right at the end, so he may have been part of that. We don’t know. I think that’s the power of them isn’t it? That it’s one person, that when we’re dealing with massive numbers it’s really easy to lose sight of the fact that it was individuals, and that’s why I did it that way. And in a way, although it has caused… well some people find it difficult, let’s say. I think the fact that it’s connected to a person who really existed is actually very important. Nobody can say… they can say it’s imagined within the bounds of what actually happened, but they can’t say it didn’t happen.
How did you develop Peter’s character?
It was very important to me that Peter was very different to Anne. That he was gender-different obviously, that to be a very bright, academic girl locked away with a phenomenal imagination is not the same as not having those resources. I’m not saying that it’s not a problem, clearly you can see in the diary how painful it was to Anne to not have her freedom, but I think that there’s a physical – an added physical element if you’re a boy and you don’t have the emotional and mental resources that Anne had. And Peter from Anne’s point of view, didn’t. But what I wanted to happen in the course of the book and in their relationship was for her to learn from him about what captivity meant. And for him to learn from her. And I think he did – I think he did in the course of her diary she helped him to see that you could look out of the window, you could see a tree, and in that tree was an enormous amount of life and beauty. And the tree, in her book and in my book is a symbol for life going on whatever is happening to you. So there’s an external and an internal reality within the characters, and there’s an external and an internal reality in the house and the outside world.
Has your daughter read it?
Well she read it – she wasn’t meant to read it – she knew I was writing it, and she said ‘can I read it, can I read it’, and I said, ‘no, actually you can’t read it’. And she stole it; she pinched the manuscript and read it under her bed covers at night. And then one morning, I was in the kitchen making her breakfast and she came down in floods of tears and just put her arms around me and I was horrified – I thought something terrible had happened. And she said ‘thank you for writing such a good book!’ And it was an amazing moment.
And how have other people reacted to it?
I had an amazing experience recently actually, I went into Emmanuel School and I was talking to them about it; and two boys came up afterwards and they weren’t actually in the talk that I did – there was several talks going on that day – but they wanted to come and talk about the book, and they had Jewish ancestry, and they asked about what it had been like publishing it – and I spoke to them a little bit about that. And I’ve had a lot of thoughts about whether it’s worth publishing a book like this and dealing with the fact that some people think that it is and some people think that it isn’t and it arouses deep feelings – that’s not surprising – it’s a difficult subject. So I was talking to them about that and they both just said ‘well, carry on doing it, please carry on doing it.’ And they’re touched by it – and whilst that’s amazing it’s quite difficult to handle sometimes because you write a book and you’re very involved in it – you’re living it, and it’s an intensive experience. But then you stop writing it and you want to move on, and of course the people who’ve just read it – they’re absolutely still in the middle of the experience so it takes you back. Sometimes that’s great, sometimes you don’t really want to be taken back.
What has the general public’s reaction been to the book?
The truth is that there was a media reaction before the book came out, before people had read it. And that was short-lived, and personally unpleasant for me because people got the wrong end of the stick. But that passed over fairly quickly, and ever since then, people who’ve read it have been really positive about it. And I’m thrilled about that because of course I’ve had my doubts about taking such a huge part of our history on. You’d be mad to not have concerns about writing something based on Anne’s diary. And I just, I wanted to write something that was respectful. And I wanted to write something that added to a genre that’s huge already. And I hope I’ve done that, but it’s not for me to say is it – it’s for other people to say whether I’ve done it or not.
Do you think that people can read your book without prior knowledge of Anne Frank’s diary, or do you think that they should be read in conjunction with one another?
I think it’s a really hard call for me to make, because I knew the diary so well, but people who have read it independently have said it works independently. And I did ask some friends who hadn’t read the diary to read it and see if it worked. And I’ve found that it’s working in the other way. In reality people are picking up Annexed and reading it, and then reading Anne’s diary, and the really, really keen ones are reading Annexed and then reading them in conjunction very, very carefully to see if I’ve got the dates right, which I haven’t had any complaints so far.
There’s been a website about Annexed set up hasn’t there? What sort of things can people find on there?
There’s the education part of it with all the lesson plans that are geared to different key stages and suggestions for different departments in the school coming together so history and religious studies and English, perhaps working together. There’s a media studies element in terms of propaganda and during the war and also the propaganda about the book before anyone had read it. And a question really – when you approach a subject like this, if you do it very seriously, perhaps you are going to arouse people’s prejudices; perhaps it’s the nature of the subject, and what’s that about? And how do we know to manage the feelings that are evoked by subjects like this? And sometimes a knee-jerk reaction is to say it didn’t happen, because actually it’s so painful to acknowledge that it did. So there are all those kinds of things in the lesson plans.
The theme for HMD 2012 is Speak Up, Speak Out. What do you think people can learn from Annexed about speaking up?
That’s a really good question. And it’s a really hard question isn’t it, because I think that one of the questions I ask myself over and over again when I was writing this was do I really know what I would have done? Do any of us really know what we would have done? And would we have been brave enough to hide someone. Would we have been brave enough to say ‘don’t do that’. Or wear a star? As some people did. I would say that what we sometimes forget is that there is safety in numbers. And one of the things that I found really effective for children – young children, who are witnessing that type of bullying behaviour, is that if you see someone being bullied, then you don’t always have to say anything. But what you can do is stand beside them. And that can really work, you know if you actually stand near them, it’s amazing how often somebody comes and stands near you because the majority of people actually don’t like that kind of behaviour. I think that when you’re dealing with something like genocide, on a massive scale, it’s different, because that ties into something very primitive in all of us, which is who’s in and who’s out and who belongs and who doesn’t. Now, as an individual, and in schools and in classrooms, we can deal with that in individual ways like standing beside, like not going along with this idea that you’re telling – being a bad thing – actually the thing you need to do is, you do need to talk about it. You do need to tell an adult. You do need to not pretend it’s not happening. Because the chances are, if you don’t, it will go on. And eventually it may happen to you, and if it doesn’t happen to you, why isn’t it happening to you? And it might not be happening to you because you’re joining in with the bad behaviour, so it’s a complex, difficult problem, and of course people should speak up.