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Sonja Herbert, Memoir Writer, on Life in the Circus During the Holocaust

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Do you recall how your interest in writing began?

I have wanted to write for as long as I can remember. I don’t remember when I first heard my mother talk about having to hide in the circus from the Nazis, but I knew I wanted to write my mother’s story even when I was very small.

Tell us a little bit about your life in the circus.

My father owned a circus, but lost it after the war

Most of the animals had died of hunger, or were eaten in the last stages of the war. The galloping inflation that ran amok in Germany after the war took the rest. The new government issued new money, and Father had just enough to buy an old merry-go-round and the materials for a shooting hall.

The shooting hall was a booth, like they have in the carnivals here in the U.S. Every week in a new town, my father could put up both the shooting hall and the carousel in less than an afternoon.

I was raised in a caravan trailer, which was a bit like today’s motor home, but with much less comfort. The caravan home had solid rubber tires, and three compartments&#8212the kitchen, the living room and the bedroom. We had no bathroom, just a curtained off section of the kitchen, where we relieved ourselves in the offal bucket.

What are your current projects?

I’m working on the revision of my memoir about growing up on the carnival circuit. I’m also looking for representation for my biographical novel, the story of my mother’s youth, Tightrope!

My mother originally worked as an in-store model and a fashion expert in Berlin, Germany, but had to leave because she was half-Jewish. About that time, she also broke up with her fiancé, who started stalking her. Luckily, she was accepted as a ticket taker in a circus, and left Berlin, the Nazis, and her ex-boyfriend behind. She stayed in the circus until the end of the war, and this is where she met my father. Father owned a Polish circus, but the Nazis took it from his family, and they had to work as common artists until the end of the war. The German owners later returned the circus to them.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

I’ve always had trouble letting my emotions flow. So it comes as no surprise that I have to work on displaying the emotions of my characters.

Has writing been therapeutic for you?

Being able to put myself into my mother’s shoes has helped me to see why she was the kind of mother she was. Also, writing my childhood memoir was very healing. My family members are glad someone is writing about our unusual past. I’ve gotten nothing but support from them.

Have you researched the time period, or do you work strictly from memory?

For both, my novel and the memoir, I had to do extensive research, so I could flesh out the background of a tormented and war-torn Germany. I have an excellent memory, which helps a lot, but some things have to be researched to make sure I’ve made no mistakes. That’s part of the reason it took so long to finish the novel about my mother’s life.

Do you fictionalize your real life characters to make a better story?

In the biographical novel about my mother’s life I did. But in the memoir I don’t, because it is creative non-fiction. I reconstruct some of the details if I can’t remember them exactly, and dialogue can’t be remembered word for word. That’s about it.

Do you think your memoir is of interest even though the person in the narrative is not famous?

Very much so. I think this is the first time a “carnie” told the story of her life. And, like Frank McCourt, I hope my writing is good enough for the readers to feel for the main character and understand her situation.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

I love Frank McCourt’s memoirs. He actually breaks most of the conventions of writing, and still comes up with an amazing piece of work. I also admire Ursula Hegi’s work. She is great at choosing the perfect details to draw in the reader and let her story flow.

Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?

I have already written an outline for a fiction story. I’m also presently writing shorter pieces, articles and stories. You can read one of them at nebpublishing.com, and another is coming up at Green Prints.

What lessons can we learn from your book?

Perseverance pays off. Mother strove for a normal life for years, and accomplished what she set out to do. She only wanted to marry and raise children without fear, and without feeling inferior and hated.

If you never experienced publication, would you keep writing?

Yes. I’ve always written diaries and journals, and I’d just keep writing for my children to read what things were like.

You can read the first chapter of Tightrope! and of Conversations With Margot, on Sonja’s website at http://sonjaherbert.myeweb.net.

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About Parker Owens

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Another great author interview, Parker! We’ll look forward to seeing the memoirs in print…

  • SFC SKI

    Sounds like a very interesting story.

  • http://germanwriter.com Sonja Herbert

    My memoir, Carnival Girl, is slated to be published in June 2012. Check it out!