Last month I read a truly amazing novel, one that has really left a lasting impression upon me. That novel was The Hollow Bones, and today it gives me quite a thrill to welcome the author, Leah Kaminsky, to Behind the Pen.
What provided the initial inspiration for The Hollow Bones?
I was reading about the role of doctors in the Nazi war machine, as part of the research for my first novel, THE WAITING ROOM. Doctors and scientists were enthusiastic followers of ‘racial hygiene’ theories, which held that some races were far superior to others, and participated in some of the largest atrocities. They were committed to curing the ‘bacillus’ of the Jew, homosexuals, Romani and those with physical and mental ailments, from the Volkskorper, or body of the ‘pure’ German people. Much of this was hushed up after the war and the majority of perpetrators not only escaped punishment but went on to pursue thriving careers. I came across the crazy notion of World Ice Theory, a pseudoscientific notion that the world was made of ice, which became the ‘scientific’ platform of the Third Reich. Every time I searched, Ernst Schäfer’s name came up, a young German zoologist who specialised in Tibetan birds and had led a team of German scientists on a hare-brained expedition to find the origins of the Aryan race in the foothills of the Himalayas. I became fascinated with this Faustian character, who had been a hero in his day, but had almost disappeared from history. The story spoke to me of the incongruous way we try to control nature by capturing and destroying it, a mirror of what was happening to human beings during WWII.
How would you describe The Hollow Bones if you could only use 5 words?
Indiana Jones meets David Attenborough!
I found Panda to be an exceptionally powerful voice within this story. Was Panda always intended to offer a perspective or did he come on board during the writing process?
Thank you, Theresa! I’m thrilled you love Panda. I first met him on a visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, when I was on book tour for THE WAITING ROOM. I knew my protagonist, Ernst Schäfer, had worked there after two joint German-American expeditions to Tibet. In 1932, the forests of Kham, he shot a baby panda – the second Westerner to do so after Teddy Roosevelt – and brought it back to the museum, where it was mounted in a diorama. I saw the infant panda when I was there doing research for THE HOLLOW BONES and was mesmerised. With time, his little voice emerged on the page and became the beating heart of the book for me, a plaintive call from the wild to pay attention to the way we treat animals.
Herta was another significant character in The Hollow Bones. I felt she was an excellent example of a reluctant ‘Pure Aryan’, but I noted from your extra details within the back of the book that there was not much historical information about her. What shaped and influenced her character creation?
Herta, whose name means ‘from the earth’, was the only character I could find no trace of in the archives. It was as if she had been wiped out of history. All I knew was that she was married to Ernst before he went on the German Tibet expedition, sponsored by Himmler, and then she simply disappeared from his story. As the manuscript went to typesetting, my husband, who is an amateur genealogist, found her death certificate. This gave me the leeway as a novelist to create a character that would challenge Ernst Schäfer’s slip into the murky world of Nazism and the corruption of science under the Third Reich.
The Hollow Bones brings attention to an aspect of the Nazi regime that is not so commonly known. Do you think this history has been deliberately repressed or are there just so many far-reaching horrors to catalogue that we are still nowhere near knowing everything about that era?
Rachel Seiffert, the British novelist, who explores her family’s Nazi background in her wonderful novels, once said to me ’WWII is the war that keeps on giving’. It sounded odd at the time, but I think there are still so many things we can learn from those dark times and so much left to uncover. Sadly, so much of what went on is still relevant today. My particular interest as a physician coming from a science background, is the morality of scientists and what can happen when they get into bed with politics. I think the most horrific part of the research for me personally was finding out that so many scientists and doctors, who had been the lynch pins of the Nazi machine, got off scot free. Many went into hiding and adopted false names, but a huge number climbed the ranks of academia and went on to have wonderful careers. Meanwhile, the millions of victims murdered in the name of such ghastly research such as eugenics, vanished, remaining forever nameless in the archives of history.
If you had to pinpoint only one take home message from The Hollow Bones, what would it be?
Rob O’Hearn encapsulates the essence of my book it in his review at the Booktopia Blog, better than I ever could: ‘The Hollow Bones speaks to us of Faustian bargains and the corruption of innocence, but it is also a timely reminder of how society and science can be too easily co-opted to dark pursuits, not all at once but bit by bit. Humans are cautioned to be vigilant and mindful of our place in the natural order.’
If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with and what would you ask them?
I’d like to meet Rosalin Franklin (1920-1958), the scientist who made the original X-rays of DNA and was on the brink of discovering the molecule’s structure. A colleague in her lab at King’s College, showed her images to James Watson, and he and Francis Crick got all the credit for the discovery of the helical structure of DNA. Their research relied heavily on Franklin’s work, but she was never acknowledged and died of ovarian cancer in 1958, four years before Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize. I’d ask her how it felt to be a woman scientist back in the day, whose work and glory were stealthily stolen away from her, from right under her nose.
Is there any one particular season of the year that you find more creatively inspirational than the others?
I think I’m probably more productive during winter, when I can sit rugged up, surrounded by books and not feel like I’m missing out on anything. I find it hard to settle down to write when it’s a glorious sunny day outside and the birds are singing. Come to think of it, each book I’ve written has a signature cardigan that I wore during the entire first draft (I did wash them!). And my cat, Kotzy, is certainly my muse during the winter months.
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
I love ducks and cockatoos. I’ve even been known to flap my wings and squawk or quack when I spot one, much to my children’s horror.
What authors and types of books do you love the most? Which ones have stood the test of time for you? Are you more of a print, e-book, or audio book fan?
Poetry has always been my first love. I’m fairly eclectic, but I read more fiction than anything else. I definitely prefer print books, and every shelf in the house groans with them. So many favourite authors, how to choose – Anne Michaels, John Banville, David Grossman, Anne Enright, Geraldine Brooks, Anthony Doerr, Isabelle Allende, Kazuo Ishiguro. And Australia has some wonderfully unique writers – Bruce Pascoe, Mireille Juchau, Lee Kofman, Melanie Cheng and Ashley Hay, to name but a few. Above all though, I adore Kafka. He wrote: ‘Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.’
The Hollow Bones
The Hollow Bones implores us to pay careful attention to the crucial lessons we might learn from our not-too-distant history.
‘I remember you once told me about mockingbirds and their special talents for mimicry. They steal the songs from others, you said. I want to ask you this: how were our own songs stolen from us, the notes dispersed, while our faces were turned away?’
Berlin, 1936. Ernst Schäfer, a young, ambitious zoologist and keen hunter and collector, has come to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, who invites him to lead a group of SS scientists to the frozen mountains of Tibet. Their secret mission: to search for the origins of the Aryan race. Ernst has doubts initially, but soon seizes the opportunity to rise through the ranks of the Third Reich.
While Ernst prepares for the trip, he marries Herta, his childhood sweetheart. But Herta, a flautist who refuses to play from the songbook of womanhood and marriage under the Reich, grows increasingly suspicious of Ernst and his expedition.
When Ernst and his colleagues finally leave Germany in 1938, they realise the world has its eyes fixed on the horror they have left behind in their homeland.
A lyrical and poignant cautionary tale, The Hollow Bones brings to life one of the Nazi regime’s little-known villains through the eyes of the animals he destroyed and the wife he undermined in the name of science and cold ambition.
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Released 5th March 2019