Jill Swenson: Cathryn Prince, this is your fourth book of historical non-fiction. Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a featured selection for the Military History Book Club this spring, advance reviews are positive and Amazon sales rankings impressive.. How does your experience working towards publication on this fourth book compare to a decade ago with your first, Shot from the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland?
Cathryn Prince: Each book is different, of course. First there are some similarities between the first and my new book. Each examines a “smaller” event embedded in the global events of WWII. In both cases I knew that these were stories that really had to be told. I knew I would be writing about people who were wary of how their story would be received. I felt, and still feel, an incredible sense of responsibility to tell their story and to tell it well.
Both books required a lot of leg work – tracking down people and conducting face to face interviews as well as time spent in archives and libraries. With ten years between the books, I did notice real differences. More information is now at my fingertips with the Internet and more historical records have been made available so it does cut the time in terms of finding the sources. The advent of social media changed things as well. For this book Facebook and Twitter were tremendous resources when it came down to discovering sources and building on-line relationships with potential readers.
Jill Swenson: How did you find out about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff? And at what point did you know the story would be your next book project?
Cathryn Prince: Several years ago my father told me about a German ship sunk at the end of World War II. He didn’t know much about it except that “it made the Titanic look like a fender bender.” I looked it up. The worst maritime disaster in peace or war: more than 9,000 people died on January 30, 1945 when a Soviet submarine attacked the Wilhelm Gustloff, a former cruise liner turned escape ship. That’s six times more than those who died when the Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg. I knew it couldn’t be just about the sinking. It had to be about the people aboard the ship – their lives before the war and after the war.
Horst Woit was the first survivor I met. This was back in 2006. I spent a few days with him, but I knew after our first hour of conversation that his was a story that needed to be told. Too many of us are unfamiliar with the sinking of this ship and what it was like to come of age in East Prussia – caught between the Nazis first and the Soviets second.
Jill Swenson: Why don’t most Americans know about this tragic story?
Cathryn Prince: There is no single answer to that question. Nazi Germany did a good job of keeping it quiet in the immediate aftermath. Some of the survivors were ordered to keep their mouths shut. The Nazi leadership didn’t want people to know because they were worried it would cause panic among those still trying to flee in ships across the Baltic Sea. They also knew the symbolism was too great – the Wilhelm Gustloff, the crown jewel in the “Strength Through Joy” fleet had been destroyed. Later, the survivors didn’t talk about it because of war guilt and a sense of shame for the horrors Nazi Germany inflicted on the world. For us in the United States it has taken some time to acknowledge civilians of Nazi Germany suffered. Initially the Soviet Union kept the story quiet because the commander of the submarine – Alexander Marinesko – was not in good graces with his superiors. It wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 when he posthumously bestowed the Order of Lenin on Marinesko that the story really surfaced there.
Jill Swenson: Where did you travel to conduct your research?
Cathryn Prince: I traveled to Canada a few times, Las Vegas, Ascona, Switzerland and Washington, DC.
Jill Swenson: What challenges did language and national borders play in gaining access to documents to stories involving Russian, German, Lithuanian, Polish, and other Baltic peoples?
Cathryn Prince: Finding the right archive in Germany took a bit of sleuthing. I learned that while the Red Cross had kept records most were destroyed as the Soviet Army neared Berlin. It was a daisy chain of contacts until I found a researcher in Germany. I asked him to copy everything pertaining to this event and ship it to me. I’m fortunate that my husband speaks and reads German. So we spent many nights poring over documents.
Jill Swenson: You’re a journalist, historian, and author. You are also a journalism educator, writing coach, public speaker, and workshop facilitator. But I know you are also a mom to two kids who love to read and married to a brilliant and gorgeous doctor which means you’ve got your hands full. How do you find time to write? And blog? And Tweet and Facebook and LinkedIn too?
Cathryn Prince: I rowed in college. My coach always told us there is time in the day for everything you want to do. I believe that. I don’t have a research assistant, or intern. I’m lucky that my husband and I support each other in our professions and understand the demands of each other’s careers. My children are older now, 15 and 12, so that makes it easier. I usually get up at 5am, when I’m working on a book. If I’m really deep in the writing I get up at 4am. Get my coffee and sit down. After I get the kids off to school I write some more. I do make sure to get outside once a day for a run or walk – I need that fresh air and time to let what I’m working on ‘simmer.’
Jill Swenson: Any additional advice to authors writing non-fiction for publication?
Cathryn Prince: Remember that a non-fiction work needs structure and a narrative arc. It needs a beginning, middle and end just like a work of fiction. I would say that be mindful that nonfiction can be a harder sell to publishers but don’t let that deter you. That’s the writing challenge. Compelling stories will find their way.
Jill Swenson: Favorite authors/books?
Cathryn Prince: Do we have another page? There are so many. Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun,” and Antoine St.-Exupery’s “The Little Prince” are my favorite trio. I adore Alan Furst and John Sanford and Patricia Cornwell. I’m loving Ruth Septys novels for young adults (I have a daughter and we like to share authors). Elizabeth Strout, and Graham Greene.
Jill Swenson: Favorite time and place to write?
Cathryn Prince: Early in the morning, at my desk with my dogs underfoot.
Jill Swenson: Me, too. Thanks Cathryn. And congratulations.
If you want to know more about Cathryn Prince and how to bring her book into your community of readers, please click here www.cathrynprince.com