Catherine Hokin writes World War II novels inspired by her favorite city, Berlin. After earning a degree in history, she worked in teaching, marketing, and politics while waiting for a chance to do what she really wanted, which was to write full time. She is a lover of strong female leads and a quest and is an avid reader and a cinema lover.
In this post, Hokin explains how she took her competition-winning short story and turned it into her latest historical novel, The Fortunate Ones, and much more!
Name: Catherine Hokin
Literary agent: Tina Betts, Andrew Mann Literary Agency Ltd
Book title: The Fortunate Ones
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Release date: July 13, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: After a brief moment of connection in their youth, two star-crossed lovers find themselves on opposite sides of a war in this heartbreaking historical page-turner.
What prompted you to write this book?
I originally wrote The Fortunate Ones as a short story that went on to win a competition. The idea behind it was exploring what makes a ‘monster.’ Short stories are usually complete worlds but this one wouldn’t let me go and I wanted, in particular, to spend more time with Inge. I knew that however I developed her as a character, she would be a challenge to write in a sympathetic manner. In addition, I was intrigued by the idea of following the arc of a story in which the protagonists spend the bulk of their time physically apart.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication?
From the first publication of the short story to the final novel was about two years: there was a lot of research to be done, and a lot of drafts. The constant was a café in Berlin, ten years or so after the war, and a meeting between a beautiful woman with a secret and a man in thrall to a dream, whose paths had fleetingly crossed once before at a concentration camp. The original Felix was badly broken from his experiences and Inge was an unrepentant Nazi, a far crueller character, and a subversion of the usual gender pattern in this type of villain/victim scenario. While much has changed in the novel, the initial theme (what defines a monster) is still central to the characters’ far deeper development.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
Every step of the publishing process is a learning experience, for every book you write. The most valuable one for me with The Fortunate Ones was learning to let go of a character and, through this, allowing them more space to develop. In the original draft, my Inge was not active enough in her own story and this was acting as a brake on it. I had a number of conversations about her with my very perceptive editor. This enabled me to give Inge more agency while still being true to the constraints of the times and her situation. It was a great collaborative experience.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
The surprises, and the shocks, came, as they often do, through the research process. I am lucky to be able to spend a lot of time in Berlin—my son lives in the city—and it is a place I love. Despite all my visits, I hadn’t, however, been to the Sachsenhausen Concentration camp, which is in the suburban town Oranienburg on the outskirts of Berlin, until I began writing this novel. I wasn’t prepared for the reality of its location. As quickly became clear when I made the short walk from the station, the camp was irrefutably part of the community which surrounded it. What I have written about shutters closing and townspeople turning their backs as the prisoners were marched through the streets is fact. One of the guard towers at the camp has a display directing visitors to a small window—this looks over what would have been a sprawling SS housing estate backing straight onto the camp, an estate many local girls lived in when they married SS officers. Without wishing to pass judgement, ignorance, in this case, must have been hard-won.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
That is such a difficult question! Once a writer’s words are out in the world, we have no control over how they are received. I do want readers to care about Felix and Inge and what happens to them. I don’t expect everyone to be happy with the end of the novel and I don’t mind that: I wrote what I think is a realistic trajectory for the two of them. I would be happy if people take some hope from the story: terrible things happen but there is also love and strength, and a sense that the world, in its new and battered post-war shape, will keep turning and that is a good thing.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
I am always very hesitant about ‘writing rules’ as writing is such a personal process. I think it is essential to find your own way of working in whatever shape that comes (mine involves detailed planning and writing character back-stories, most of which are for me not the book) and constantly learning your craft. It can be a very difficult thing to share your work but you inevitably grow too close to it and you need, trusted, eyes on it before you submit, be that via a critiquing buddy, beta-readers, or an agent. Listen to what they have to say and try out their tweaks. This letting go is an important stage: If your work gets to an editor, it will then become a collaborative effort and that should be a reason to cheer, not to panic.