Five years ago, at the age of 65, Heather Morris published her debut novel. It had been 15 years in the making, from its origins as a conversation with an elderly Holocaust survivor called Lali Sokolov, through her failed attempts to write his story as a screenplay, and finally, a novel. The book was called The Tattooist of Auschwitz and it went on to become one of the best-selling books of the 21st century, selling more than 16 million copies worldwide. It is currently being adapted into a six-part Sky television series starring Harvey Keitel as Lali, the tattooist of the title.
When Morris and I meet over zoom to talk about her new book, Sisters Under the Rising Sun, she looks every inch the warm and friendly grandmother that she is. Open and easy, her colourful clothing and bright red lipstick are the perfect outward expression of an apparently vivacious personality. “Lippy is my thing,” she laughs. “I’ve always got lippy on.”
Sisters Under the Rising Sun is Morris’s fourth novel and, as with her previous three novels, it is based on the incredible real-life stories of survivors of the second World War. Norah Chambers was an English musician and Nesta James was an Australian nurse tending to Allied troops when, in 1942, they found themselves fleeing Singapore on a merchant ship that was bombed and sank off the coast of Indonesia. When they made it to shore, they were captured and held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, where they worked together to survive and helped the other women in the camp survive too.
Raised and educated in New Zealand, Morris was not familiar with the story when her Australian publicist suggested she look into it as a possible book. “I was having lunch with a couple of ex-colleagues and I thought I’ll try it on them and see if they know more than I do, and when I brought it up my friend said, ‘One of those nurses was my cousin, Nesta.’”
Alongside Nesta, another name kept cropping up in Morris’s research – Norah. “I never dreamed that I’d be able to find a family member, but my researcher found this article in a local paper on the island of Jersey, a small article about Norah performing in the church there. She got in touch with the church, and they said, ‘Oh yes, Sally [her daughter] comes here every Sunday.’”
I was told when I was in Israel that there is no Hebrew or Yiddish word for history. All our stories must come from the memories of those who lived it
Having escaped Singapore with Norah’s sister, Sally spent the remainder of the war with her father’s family in Tyrone and believed that she was an orphan until she was reunited with her parents when the war ended, after which they relocated to Jersey. Morris met and interviewed Sally, who died in May this year, as well as the Australian nurse Nesta’s surviving cousins in Cardiff. What difference does direct family testimony like theirs make to Morris’s stories?
“For me, there’s only so much I want to learn from the history books. To get to know the characters makes a huge difference because I’m going to hopefully tell their stories as remembered by them or as passed down to their family.”
Morris received some strong criticism for factual inaccuracies in The Tattooist of Auschwitz. A report for the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre cited errors in the novel, including Lali’s wife Gita’s prisoner number, and it said the novel risked blurring the authenticity of the true history of events. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, meanwhile, said that the novel was “an impression” of Auschwitz and “almost without any value as a document”. At the time Morris defended the book saying, “I have written a story of the Holocaust, not the story of the Holocaust.” She also pointed out that the book was not an academic or historical piece of non-fiction.
Now she says, “I always come back to the notion that I was writing Lali’s memory. There were no two people who were in the Holocaust together who would tell the same story. When I wrote the book Three Sisters I was in Israel with Livia and Cibi who were together for three years in Auschwitz, side by side, and they were telling totally different stories. In the end I put it down to age, life experience and what they brought to witnessing something. A 15-year-old and a 19-year-old were interpreting the same thing differently. That has got to be the case with all of history. That’s why for me it’s about memory. I was told when I was in Israel that there is no Hebrew or Yiddish word for history. All our stories must come from the memories of those who lived it.”
I can never get over that last night I was with Lali Sokolov, knowing he was not going to survive and wake up the next morning, and I made a promise to him that I would not stop trying to tell his story
Why is she so drawn to these stories of suffering and survival so particular to the second World War? “I’m just drawn towards how we don’t know what’s inside of us until we test it. I’ve got to tell you, the bravest people on earth who I’ve ever met don’t include these families I’ve written about. They are the parents of a child with a terminal illness.”
Morris was a social worker for 20 years working with parents whose children had died. As well as her four novels, she has written a book of stories on the art of listening and I wonder if her time as a social worker developed that skill in her. “I actually learned how to listen from my great-grandfather,” she says. “Growing up, I was the only girl with four brothers and very much in a rural setting in New Zealand where girls really were bottom of the pile – we had no future other than breeding – and my great-grandfather seemed to take it upon himself to look after me because he knew my parents were too busy and my brothers were too loud, so I would go and sit with him every afternoon on my way home from school. And he’d say, ‘Now, what can you hear?’ And this was a rural area so I would say ‘nothing’. And he’d go, ‘You’re not listening, what do you hear?’ Then I’d say, ‘Oh, I think I can hear a tractor somewhere,’ and he’d go, ‘Okay, whose tractor…’”
Not only was her great-grandfather teaching her how to listen, he was also teaching her how to attach meaning, narrative, story to the sounds. “You’d hear a dog barking at the cows, and he’d say, ‘He’s going to get a boot up the bum from your dad for barking at the cows, isn’t he.’ There was noise all around – animals, nature, tractors – but we shut it out. We call it white noise and we shut it out. I listen to white noise. I like white noise,” she says with a smile.
I wonder how Morris stuck with the story of The Tattooist of Auschwitz for so many years with so little success. “I can never get over that last night I was with Lali [Sokolov], knowing he was not going to survive and wake up the next morning, and I made a promise to him that I would not stop trying to tell his story. I promised a dying old man that I would keep going.”
Five years on, she is a publishing juggernaut. Sisters Under the Rising Sun is her fifth book in as many years and she is already working on the idea for her next novel. “It’s a story that is part of my present but goes back historically.” Despite her success, she never thought she was capable of writing a novel. “When I did write The Tattooist I didn’t know how to write. My publishers learned that lesson really quickly,” she laughs. “In the end [my publisher] said, ‘Oh for goodness sake, just go and write the story the way you want it to be told.’ When you’re 64 you kind of go, well, I don’t have any training in writing, so all I can do is sit there and imagine the words and write them. And that’s what I did.”
Has her life changed much since then? “There’s no denying that. I should have been retiring and putting on a cardi and taking up knitting for the grandkids. Now I get to travel and meet incredibly interesting people. What I miss out on is not being around for my grandchildren who I utterly adore, and they all live nearby. Is it for the better? It has to be because I’m having an incredible time and living the dream. Does it come at a cost? Yeah, of course it does. It comes at the cost of family.”
Sisters Under the Rising Sun is published by Zaffre