Combined, his books have sold more than half a million copies worldwide. Like his popular “Young Underground” youth series, Wildflowers of Terezin was inspired by stories Robert heard from his Denmark-born parents and family. When he’s not sailing or enjoying the outdoors, Robert often travels the country speaking to school and writers groups.
What led you to the career choice of becoming a writer?
About my writing journey… I was a voracious reader when I was little, and always wanted to write things. In the third grade I put together a family newspaper and started writing essays just because. But I was a typical boy, too, and liked being out on my bike just as much as anything else. So I didn't really start getting serious about writing until I was in intermediate and high school.
Before I had a chance to write novels I was a news reporter and editor, advertising and PR writer, college administrator and pastor. Today I still write marketing kinds of writing. I have a degree in communications and Bible from Simpson College in San Francisco and an elementary teaching credential.
I started writing books when my own kids were young, and penned the first draft of my first book in longhand, riding to and from work on the bus. And here I am, 56 books later! Whew!
What are some of the spiritual themes you like to write about?
The story is about faith in the face of deadly opposition, about choosing the right thing and making love work when it’s hard. It’s a challenge to complacent faith, and a contrast between those who seek safety and those who just do the right thing, period. Where is the safest place, really? I think we can all relate to that kind of challenge, even if we’re not living in a war zone or a prison camp.
What three things do you know now about the publishing world that you wish you knew when you first started?
Ah-ha! The perfect place to spring out one of my favorite quotes, this one by the British novelist W. Somerset Maugham:"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
How did you decide on your current project? What have you learned about writing and yourself since you started it?
This is actually the first grown-up novel concept I had, years ago, and it was suggested to me by my writer friend Bill Myers. After the success of the “Young Underground” World War 2 series for kids, Bill asked me, “Why don’t you turn this story into a novel for older readers, Bob? It would be a natural.” It took several years of playing with different scenarios and characters, but I knew that Bill was right, and that a conflict in 1943 revolving around the Jewish deportations would be the perfect crucible for a powerful story.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
My Danish heritage has flavored my interest in writing historical fiction, and I’ve always been interested in history. Perhaps it’s that way with children of immigrants. There’s a strong tie back to the old country, and when my parents and my grandmother told stories about their life in Denmark, I knew there were things there I had to pass along somehow. What was it like during the occupation years? What was it like to be a student back then, a kid? Were there lessons for us that we need to remember today? I wanted so much to tell these stories, both in the “Young Underground” novels for kids, and now in Wildflowers of Terezin.
What has been the hardest part of writing your latest book and how did you overcome it?
Probably the most difficult parts were the bleakest days for Hanne in the Terezin death camp. I won't give it away, but I have to say these were scenes where Robert Frost's quote came to mind: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." I have to say those were emotional scenes to write. I didn't really "overcome" that difficulty; it was simply part of the process.
What would you tell an aspiring writer?
I do a bit of mentoring through the Christian Writers Guild, and have enjoyed leading a lot of writing workshops at Christian schools. I tell students not to give up, and not to choose a life path based on how much money they think they can make. Please! Even if they don’t end up making their primary living as a writer (most won’t) God still wants us to tell our stories to the world, and God still looks for people who will communicate hope through stories and writing. If not us, then who?
How much of your own experiences influenced your characters? What aspects became traits that were theirs and theirs alone?
I identify with elements in both the Steffen and his brother—the bold one and the safe one. And I also identify with Hanne, the courageous, compassionate nurse. All of them inspire me in different ways, and I’m hoping readers will be inspired similarly.
How do you do the research for your historical books?
My favorite sources have always been those accounts that are the closest to the actual events. Because even if they lack perspective or the ability to place history in larger context, they bear that immediacy that I value above all. Eyewitness accounts are of course ideal, but they only reach back a limited number of years. So I will use historical books written decades after the fact for outlining and fact-checking, but their perspective may or may not be accurate. It may be colored by the retelling and the distance from the actual events.
In the end I return to the newspaper accounts, first person accounts, and diaries for the real meat of my research. In my case, I’m fortunate that I can read Danish, so I was able to use a lot of first person accounts and books that were written right after World War Two as major sources. Similarly, when I was writing a series about Australian pioneer days, one of my best sources was a journal written in the 1860s. Journals are gold, especially because of the personal flavor and perspective that so closely lends itself to good storytelling.
Tell us about the story of Wildflowers of Terezin.
Wildflowers of Terezin is a sweeping historical novel set against a backdrop of danger. A Danish Lutheran pastor’s complacent faith is stretched to the breaking point during World War II when he meets a young Jewish nurse Hanne Abrahamsen and becomes deeply involved in Resistance efforts to save Denmark’s Jews from the Nazi prison camp at Terezin, Czechoslovakia—also known as Theresienstadt.
Challenged by his activist brother and swayed by his own attraction to Hanne, Steffen abandons his formerly quiet, uninvolved life and hesitantly volunteers to help smuggle Denmark’s Jews out of the country before a Nazi roundup. Steffen finds that helping his Jewish neighbors is the most decent, spiritual thing he has ever done. As he actually does God’s work, rather than just talking about it, Steffen’s faith deepens and he takes greater risks in his sermons.
When things go terribly wrong and Hanne is sent to Terezin, Steffen finds his heart fully engaged. He undertakes protests and rescues that are more and more dangerous, never imagining where it will lead him, or the ultimate cost of his decision to get directly involved.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers?
Did I say how excited I am about Wildflowers of Terezin? Maybe you’ve heard other writers say about a story that “this is the story I was born to write.” Well, this is probably the story I was born to write. My heart’s all there in this one, along with my roots, my passion, and everything I know about crafting a story. I held nothing back. It’s the best I can do at this point in my career. And this is, as Romans 12 puts it, my “spiritual act of worship.” Please read it.
Where can we find you on the web?
Thanks for visiting with us, Robert.
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