Multi-published author Germaine Shames talks about her book You, Fascinating You, and her journey towards writing it in today’s post at Daily (W)rite. Take it away, Germaine!
You, Fascinating You is at this moment rolling off the presses. Yet its seed was planted more than twenty years ago, when I first met Cesare Frustaci.
Reflecting later upon that meeting, I identified Cesare’s defining feature: regardless of where he made his home, he was unplaceable. He spoke with an accent, not Hungarian exactly, but not Italian either. Unlike his fellow émigrés, he had no wistful memories of Hungary, nodesire to return.
As we got to know each other, details of his childhood began to emerge—the malnutrition he suffered during World War II, the “shoes” he fashioned for himself from horses’ feedbags, the corpses alongside which he would awaken each morning… He seemed to be describing the perils of an orphaned waif abandoned to his fate, yet he was the son of Pasquale Frustaci (aka “the Italian Cole Porter”), a composer and conductor whose star, while the war cast Europe into darkness, had never shone brighter. How then, from the age of seven, did Cesare end up alone on the battlefronts of provincial Hungary in the midst of the worst carnage the world has known?
The answer would arrive in my mailbox fifteen years later: a videotaped oral history Cesare contributed to Yale University. It told the story of his mother Margit Wolf, a Jewish ballerina who fell in love with a dashing Italian maestro and bore him a son—a ballerina who inspired an international anthem to longing only to fade from history without a trace. How to resurrect her? How to make her story palpable to a modern audience?
Each time I set out to write a new novel, I feel as if I am standing at the foot of Mt. Everest, craning my neck for a glimpse of the summit and daring myself to begin the ascent. I have written half a dozen novels, and yet somehow the climb does not get easier. You, Fascinating You nearly sent me back to “base camp.”
Like climbing a sky-high peak, there is no simple, practical or unassailably rational reason for writing a novel. Conversely, there are plenty of reasons not to. Here, by way of example, are some that I encountered while writing You, Fascinating You.
–Twenty-thousand miles. The distance I traveled retracing the trajectory of my heroine’s journey through Hungary, Italy and Germany.
–My ballet recital at age four. Okay, so I froze center-stage as the curtain rose—hardly a stellar foundation for writing a novel set in the world of classical dance.
–Rejection, Rejection, Rejection… I made the mistake of trying to land an agent on the basis of a partial manuscript and was treated to a resounding chorus of nays.
–Enigma. Although based on a true story, You, Fascinating You presented a welter of mysteries; none more cloaked than my protagonist herself, whose very survival hinged on secrecy.
–Tears. I cried writing this book. I raged. Such a relentless tempest of feeling may have benefitted the writing, but took a toll on its author (and, by extension, on the author’s friends and family).
Yet I did complete the book—and all the books before it. Why? Drawing again on mountain climbing, in the words of Rene Daumal, “What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen.”
You, Fascinating You, my highest peak so far, gave me a window on the world at its brightest and at its darkest. A window more stunning for the exertions demanded to reach it. I have seen.
In the final weeks of 1938, in the shadow of Kristallnacht and imminent war, a heartsick Italian maestro wrote a love song called “Tu Solamente Tu.”
Its lyrics lamented his forced separation from his wife, the Hungarian ballerina Margit Wolf, in the wake of Mussolini’s edict banishing foreign Jews from Italy. The song, first recorded by Vittorio de Sica in 1939, catapulted to the top of the Hit Parade and earned its composer the moniker “the Italian Cole Porter.” The German version, “Du Immer Wieder Du,” would be performed by Zarah Leander, the foremost film star of the German Reich, and its English counterpart, “You, Fascinating You,” by the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band.
Twenty-two years would pass before the maestro and his ballerina again met face-to-face.
You, Fascinating You begins as a backstage romance and ends as an epic triumph of the human spirit.
Available from Pale Fire Press
Germaine Shames scours the globe in search of compelling stories. Shames is author of Between Two Deserts, two earlier nonfiction books, and three feature screenplays. A former foreign correspondent and contributor to Hemispheres, More, and National Geographic Traveler, she has lived and worked in such diverse locations as the Australian outback, Swiss Alps, interior of Bulgaria, coast of Colombia, Fiji Islands, and Gaza Strip. With You, Fascinating You the author returns to her roots in the performing arts to reveal a hidden story painstakingly researched across three countries over the course of five years.
Author Websites: http://germainewrites.com, http://sitekreator.com/germainewrites
Publisher’s Website: http://palefirepress.com
Dear Janet, Alex and Caryn,
Thanks for these thoughtful comments. A story this rare and compelling merits preternatural effort. I have no regrets.
All the best!
Wow! Sounds like an amazing story! I’m sorry that writing it was so traumatic, but it sounds like you got something wonderful out of it.
Wow, what a story! I can understand why it took so long to come together. Congratulations, Germaine.
Thank you for this interview. The book sounds really fascinating and heartbreaking. I hope it does well. You have one reader already.