Profiles in Printing: Bryna Hellmann

Profiles in Printing is a series of short interviews conducted by Espresso Book Machine operator María Minaya with people who have self-published their work with us.  Featured today is Bryna Hellmann, author of The Time Between, In the Children’s Country and This Is Me, Becca.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m 86 going on 95 – yes, really, I expect to live a little longer.

I was born in the United States, and I lived there until I was 29. I grew up on the East Coast, went to college there, and then I went out to California because someone told me there were a lot of eligible men in San Francisco.  This was in the 50s, and I did indeed meet an eligible man.  We went to Germany to meet his parents and decided to stay when he got a job in the aircraft business.  In 1970, he was transferred to Fokker Aircfraft, and we came to Amsterdam.  I’ve lived here longer than any place else, and I intend to die here.  My kids can dump my ashes in a “gracht”.

For twenty years, I taught English Writing at The New School for Information Services, which I started in 1987.  I retired aged 78.  I’m gone, the college is still there.

How long have you been writing?

I started when I was about 8, so it’s 78 years. As soon as I could write, I started with little stories and my dad loved that. He encouraged and helped me.

What is your writing routine like?

I don’t write before I’ve done all my daily chores.  Then I sit down and write until I’m absolutely exhausted and it’s time for dinner.  Sometimes I’m so busy writing that I look up at the time, realize it’s four in the afternoon and I haven’t had lunch.

When I’m working on a book I do research ahead of time, to make sure I get the details right.  Then I try to write every day, at least three hours at a stretch.  I like to finish the scene I’m working on if I can.  The next day I’ll go through it and make the necessary editing changes.  Which means I might throw the whole thing out!

Please tell us about your book, The Time Between: 1940-1945.

I began with the idea of three different kinds of Jewish girls during the German occupation in the Netherlands.  I gave them names and backgrounds.  Pam is an assimilated Jew; her mother is not Jewish. Jo’s parents are very orthodox and have to hide in an attic. Jo, however, has curly blond hair, so she lives downstairs as “niece” of the people they’re staying with. Because she can pass for not-Jewish she joins the Resistance.  Hannah and her sister come from Berlin to Utrecht to live with an uncle, leaving their parents behind. Hannah gets recruited by the Germans via an SS officer who becomes her lover.

I started writing and discovered what their lives were like. The book writes itself; once you start you have characters that you have to be true to. You can’t have them doing things that they wouldn’t do if they were real. In this way, the plot evolves, and gradually comes together, in this instance via Pam’s brother Adriaan.

For the research, I visited the NIOD, the Dutch war archives, the Verzetsmuseum (Resistance Museum), the Jewish Historical Museum library and the city archives, and I spoke with 3 women who had been teenagers in the Netherlands at the time.  I know it sounds as if the book is more like history than fiction, but, honestly, 90% of what I found out was just to be sure that what I imagined was true to life.  It’s really a novel.

Why did you write it?

I taught English at a private Dutch high school in the 70s and 80s. I was amazed that the kids knew almost nothing about life in World War II other than Anne Frank, “the girl with red hair” and Soldier of Orange. My intention was to write The Time Between and get English teachers in the Netherlands to assign it or recommend it for the final exams. I want the book to be something students could identify with (girls particularly, of course), and that it be easy to read. There’s a lot of dialogue, but there’s also a lot of information woven into the story.  It is accessible to readers aged 14 and up, I think, and adult friends who’ve read it enjoyed it.

Another reason why writing this book was important to me is that my husband was German. He grew up in Nazi Germany and hated it. His brother wanted to join the SS, so he investigated the family tree as far back as 1732 to prove there were no Jews in the family.  My husband went to the United States in 1947, never intending to go back, and then we did after all.

How has the book been received?

I have given it to family and friends and people who’ve read it have loved it.  The best compliment about the book came from one of the three women I talked to as part of my research.  She asked me, “How did you know?”  She said it read as if I had lived through it.

I found 18 teachers here in Amsterdam who do final exams with their pupils and I sent each of them a copy of the book with a letter explaining why I had written it. Of the 18 teachers I got only one answer, from an Englishman! Not one Dutch teacher even bothered to say: “I got your book. Thank you, but we are not interested.”  I’d rather have a  “no” than no answer at all.

I also sent a copy to the Holocaust Archive in New York. The director wrote me back that the he was thrilled to get it, because they did not have anything about the Netherlands; not one single book.

How did you hear about self-publishing with ABC’s Espresso Book Machine?

I’m a long-time customer at the American Book Center. I saw the machine and I asked about it. I had already read about Jason Epstein, the man whose intellectual brain child the EBM was, and I was thrilled that Lynn had bought one. I’m a great believer in self-publishing.