Welcome back to this month’s Teachable Moment featuring author Robert Sharenow‘s The Berlin Boxing Club. As you read in my review I enjoyed this book a great deal and think it is ideal for the classroom. More than that it’s a book that appeals to a wide audience by spanning both age and gender. I’m excited to be able to share some insight into the book and author by providing you the brief interview below. Please join me in welcoming Robert Sharenow to Galleysmith!
MF: What appeals to you most about writing historical fiction?
RS: I’ve always been interested in the emotional lives of historical figures, and how there was always a deeply felt human story going on behind the headlines of world events. George Washington, the father of our country, had no biological children of his own. JFK suffered from crippling back pain and Addison’s disease. Hitler was a failed painter. These personal insights make history so much more real and dimensional to me. And I try to give this kind of authentic context to the people and events I write about.
MF: As a producer for A&E you’ve created content for a largely adult audience, why did you choose to write for a younger demographic instead?
RS: I actually don’t tailor my writing for a younger audience at all. Both of my books were written for adults or teens. Each features an adolescent narrator, which is the main reason they attracted a YA publisher. When I was in high school, I liked to read “adult” market books. So I don’t feel a need to soften or simplify anything. Teens are amazing readers and can handle whatever a grown up reader can. It’s been amazing to write for the YA market, as there is a wonderful infrastructure of librarians and teachers out there who want to support good literary fiction.
MF: What inspired Berlin Boxing Club? Were you more interested in the boxing side of the story or the focus on historic Nazi Germany?
RS: I first got interested in the subject when I was working as a writer for the History Channel and wrote a story about the Louis vs. Schmeling fights. And I became more of a boxing fan as I researched the book. I certainly had an interest in Nazi Germany as well. When you’re writing historical fiction you have to be inherently interested in your subjects or you lose interest in doing the research. For me, it was easy and actually fun to delve into the worlds of boxing, cartooning, art, and WWII.
MF: Can you explain a bit of what went into the process of writing Berlin Boxing Club?
RS: All told it took about ten years from conception to publication. I researched for several years before I actually sat down to write anything. I write relatively quickly, so I think I wrote a first draft in approximately a year. And then I spent at least a year revising. Part of the challenge of writing this book was that it takes place over several years, with more than a dozen characters, so I had to track their stories over time.
MF: In the story Karl is shown as “less” Jewish (in appearance and, in part, in faith) than other boys his age. What factored into your decision to portray him as such?
RS: Great question. I’ve wanted someone to ask me that. I created Karl’s physical appearance and lack of religious background very specifically to demonstrate just how completely unfair totalitarian regimes can be. Despite not having any Jewish education, religion, or looks, Karl is labeled a Jew. It was a way of magnifying the pureness and blindness of the Nazi’s hatred. But also, I wanted Karl to feel unfairly labeled. I think most adolescents, myself included, desperately want to be able to define themselves. The fact that the Nazi government defined Karl’s identity against his will is one of the central themes of the book.
MF: If you could choose another point in history to write about what would it be and why?
RS: There are so many. I’ve always been drawn to Colonial America and the birth of our democracy, which I consider one of the most miraculous stories in history with such a great collection of characters, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton. The current book I’m working on takes place in the 1900s in New York. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m also drawn to Biblical times and I’m intrigued by the challenge of writing about the world during that era. It’s fun for me to think about characters like Moses or John the Baptist as real men, who had everyday lives like we do. As I said earlier, its those connections that excite me about history, that give me a sense that we are all part of the same story.
As you can see, Mr. Sharenow is a very dynamic man! I’m certainly interested to read any of the work he puts out as his passion for history is evident. I also encourage you to do the same. Please grab a copy of The Berlin Boxing Club it’s a greatly emotional (and educational) read.