Debut Author Spotlight: Heather Morris

Posted by Goodreads on September 1, 2018
Heather Morris' debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, started with a simple question: Would she like to meet a man who had a story to tell?

Morris' meeting with Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov would change her life. Sokolov was a Slovakian Jew who was transported to Auschwitz in 1942 and became the person who tattooed Nazi identification numbers onto the arms of fellow Jews. One day, he held the arm of an 18-year-old girl, dressed in rags, her head shaven, and his life changed. The story he wanted to tell Morris was his love story with that girl, Gita. Morris spent the next three years interviewing Sokolov for the book that details the pair's time together in Auschwitz-Birkenau, documenting how they fell in love while enduring unimaginable hardships and atrocities.

Morris talked to Goodreads about her friendship with the real-life inspiration for her debut novel and how she first imagined the story as a screenplay.

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Goodreads: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

Heather Morris: I was an avid reader in childhood, not having access to television until I was 12 years old, and I was always drawn to true stories, to autobiographies, to memoirs. Life intervened—work, family—and it wasn't until my children were young adults that I decided to pursue my desire to write.

I studied screenwriting, finding that it was a medium I felt comfortable with. This story was first written as a screenplay by me. It was only when I realized getting a screenplay developed was nigh on impossible that I decided to write it as a novel. My stubborn idea that it had to be told on-screen stopped this story from being told for over ten years.

GR: The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov, the Slovakian Jew who tattooed concentration-camp numbers onto the arms of newly arrived prisoners. How did you discover this story?

HM: I had written several screenplays based on real events and interesting people that I'd had the privilege to meet. While having coffee with a friend one day, she casually mentioned she had a friend whose mother had recently died and whose father had asked him to find someone to tell "a" story to, and that person couldn't be Jewish. Knowing I wasn't Jewish, she asked me if I would like to meet the gentleman. I said yes.

GR: Why was it important to Lale to find a non-Jewish person to tell his story to?

HM: It was essential to Lale that whoever he told his story to had no baggage, no family connection to the Holocaust. He wanted someone he could tell his story to who could hear it with an open mind. I told him I would be researching as much as I could what he told me. He told me he wouldn't tell me his story if I didn't do my own homework in checking out who he was and what he did in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

GR: I've read that you spent three years recording Lale's story before he died in 2006. Tell me what that experience was like for you.

HM: One of the most humbling of my life, and I'm no spring chicken. That this man who was, let's face it, living history ended up trusting me to tell his story… To get it right. To reveal the evil and horrors he had witnessed and experienced. To tell the world about the girl he fell in love with and then spent 60 years with.

As our relationship changed from ghost writer and subject to friends, we started going out to movies. After all, Lale had to find the perfect actor to play himself. (He settled on Ryan Gosling; he had already decided only Natalie Portman could play Gita.) And he took me to social events, where he would often introduce me as his girlfriend. I attempted to pull him up on this on one occasion, saying in front of others, "Lale, you can't keep calling me your girlfriend, you know I'm married." His face dropped, his sad-puppy look, and he quietly said, "OK, she's not my girlfriend." He peered up with a cheeky grin and continued, "She's my mistress!"

Lale became part of my family. My husband welcomed him into our home and life, and my three adult children fell under his spell. I even let him flirt with my daughter. I took the time to get to know Lale, and importantly he got to know me and my family, and so he opened up. My experience with him is one I will treasure always. I had his story well and truly after 10 to 12 months, and the remainder of our time together was that of friends. I introduced him to a film company, which optioned the screenplay from me, and wonderful times were had by us all as we strove to develop the script. Sadly, it didn't happen in his lifetime. However, stay tuned, as they say.

GR: Why did you decide to write this book as fiction? How does your story differ from the love story between Lale and Gita?

HM: To write the book as a memoir or biography, I would have had to leave out Gita…other than the times she and Lale were together. I wanted to weave their love story into the events, tragedies, and horror that are factually documented from their time in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Lale couldn't remember the names of some of the prisoners he interacted with, and I didn't want to refer to them as Prisoner One or Prisoner Two. I wanted to give them names, so the reader could visualize and relate to them as people. I am lucky to have a videotape of Gita talking of her time in the camp. I have also met a friend of hers who was with her in the camp. So, between the video and Gita's friend's stories, I could write about the pain and suffering the girls endured—something I could not have included if writing it simply as Lale's memoir.

GR: Can you recommend books set during World War II that helped influence the writing of your book?

HM: I deliberately stayed away from academic-based books. The following gave me insight and touched me in different ways, and I would recommend them unreservedly as powerful stories to be read and remembered: Night by Elie Wiesel, My Two Lives by Lotte Weiss, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

GR: What do you hope readers take away from reading your debut?

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HM: Never forget. The Holocaust happened. There were survivors. In my story, I have told readers of the love, the hope, and the courage of two people who survived the worst humanity could throw at them. I am lucky that I have a happy ending. A Hollywood ending. A true ending.

Try and live by the motto Lale spent his life living by: If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.

GR: This book was published earlier this year in Australia and the U.K., where it has become wildly successful (it currently has a 4.39-star rating on Goodreads, with more than 25,700 reviews). Now it's coming to North America. Why do you think this story is resonating with readers?

HM: In April this year, I spent three days in Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau with the young Jewish students attending the annual March of the Living. I spoke with hundreds of young people from Australia, North America, the U.K., and South Africa. They were spending a week learning about the price their forebears paid at this particular death camp.

Many of them told me that listening to me talk about Lale and Gita resonated more with them than the statistics being given to them. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. One-and-a-half million were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau alone. I was telling them a story of just two people. Gita was their age, and they told me that through this microcosm they could somewhat relate to what had happened in the camp. They could picture two people. Feel their pain and deprivation. The history of where they were standing became more real to them. I like to remind people that I have not written the story of the Holocaust. I have written a Holocaust story. The story of Lale and Gita.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

HM: I am currently reading a debut novel by my editor, Angela MeyerA Superior Spectre. I know I will be highly recommending it when I am finished. The other book I am recommending is also a debut novel, by a young English woman, Kim SherwoodTestament.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

HM: So many people have written to me, wanting to know about one of the characters in my book—Cilka. Here is a preview from my next project:

Her beauty saved her life, and condemned her.

Cilka is 16 years old when she is taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in 1942. The commandant at Birkenau, Schwarzhuber, notices her long beautiful hair and forces her separation from the other women prisoners. Cilka learns quickly that power, even unwillingly given, equals survival.

After liberation, Cilka is charged as a collaborator, and sent to Siberia. But had there been choice in her actions? Where do the lines of morality and dignity lie if you are imprisoned in such a place, and still essentially a child?

Entering the Gulag, women are stripped and made to wait, naked, in the snow. Cilka's turn comes, and she is roughly searched. The guard looks at her too long. How can she be back in the situation she was in before? This time, her long hair—all the hair on her body—is shaved off.

She does not realize she will be here for a very, very long time.

But in this unimaginable darkness, this terror beyond terror, she will find endless resources within herself.

Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)

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message 1: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Thompson Fantastic and so interesting, looking forward to reading Cilka's story.

message 2: by Christine (new)

Christine I cannot wait to read the next novel about Cilka. I had so many emotions reading Lale & Gita’s story. I was taken in at chapter one. I recommend this book to everyone. It’s one of my favorite of all times so I’m excited with anticipation for the next novel❤️❤️

message 3: by Sharni (new)

Sharni Alexander I loved reading this interview, it makes this wonderful book even more so. Heather, I just loved Lale and Gita’s story and can’t wait to read Cilka’s!

message 4: by Pat (new)

Pat G. Really enjoyed reading reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz and would love to read the story of Cilka. Heather is an excellent writer. I was so interested in her book I ordered it from Book Depository so I would not have to wait for it to publish in the US.

message 5: by Eternalknitter (last edited Sep 05, 2018 08:24PM) (new)

Eternalknitter I loooooved The Tattooist of Auschwitz and cant wait until I can read Cilka’s story. It will be just as much of an emotion tug on the heart strings as Lale and Gita’s. These stories need to be told.

message 6: by Helen (new)

Helen I loved The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I spent most of it either in tears or smiling. Lale's manner and personality reminded me so much of my Dad, I can just imagine they both shared the same twinkle in their eyes. Can't wait to read about Cilka.

message 7: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Gleeson The Tattooist of Auschwitz was one of my favourite reads this year, really looking forward to reading Cilka's story now.

message 8: by Mark (new)

Mark Heath The Tattooist of Auschwitz was a brilliant book and looking forward to Cilka's story.

Great interview with Heather, enjoyed it

message 9: by Marion (new)

Marion Roux Thanks so much for this interview. I was absolutely smitten by 'The Tattooist of Auschwitz" and loved hearing more detail about Heather Morris's research for the novel. Excited to hear there is another of her books in the offing!

message 10: by Roberta (new)

Roberta Wonderful interview and cannot wait Cilka's novel!

message 11: by Sandra "Jeanz" (new)

Sandra "Jeanz" The Tattooist of Auschwitz was an amazing book to read, it showed how in the face of horrors that the prisoners of the camps held hope. Looking forward to reading Cilka's story

message 12: by Aghaby (new)

Aghaby Mileka Insightful interview! Can’t wait to read Cilka’s story, im sure it will be a beautifully told as The Tattooist of Auschwitz!

message 13: by Richard (new)

Richard Hawn Just finished Tattoo Artist. What a great read! Moving, heartbreaking, thrilling all at the same time. Will look for Cilka’s story with great anticipation.

message 14: by Sibylla (new)

Sibylla Phoenix with all due respect I do wish, deeply from my very own blood as the grand daughter of a woman who did not survive deportation by Stalin that people could also turn their interest, compassion and tears towards the other half of the ethnic cleansing of Poland. The stories of the Gulags seem to be so few and the Nazi Death CAmps so plentiful. Every single story ever written needs to be told but please don't forget the deaths in Katyn and the slow starvation and icy misery of those in the Gulags.
I am not comparing the two miseries but there is a clear disparity between those willing to point fingers at Germany and those who point the finger at Russia... and the sad truth is because Russia was considered an ally as they went in to 'bat for' America against the Germans. But before Germany attacked Russia they were exterminating thousands and thousands of Poles. And people forget if their stories are not heard. The political foreground somehow has blurred and obscured the atrocities.

message 15: by Joy (new)

Joy Lilley Hello Sibylla.

Thank you for pointing out this most important fact.
I am a writer,have 3 novels published and one soon to be.
I hope to do some research into the matters you speak of and perhaps a novel will come from the work.

With all good wishes,
Joy Gerken pen name Joy M. Lilley

message 16: by Diogo (new)

Diogo Finished the book yesterday. Powerful story told in a brilliant way. Their experience is truly heartbreaking and I am thankful Heather Morris took part of her time and life to share it with all of us.

message 17: by June (new)

June I read this wonderful book here in the UK some time ago. It's very powerful, and I did not know till the end that it was a true story. I've read many, many Holocaust stories over my long life, and this one was truly one I will think about often.

message 18: by Heather (new)

Heather Morris Sibylla wrote: "with all due respect I do wish, deeply from my very own blood as the grand daughter of a woman who did not survive deportation by Stalin that people could also turn their interest, compassion and t..."
I couldn't agree more with you Sibylla. My next book is about a young girl who survived 10 years in a Siberian Gulag. I have a researcher in Moscow getting me as much information as exists to be tell of the conditions so many suffered under and I will pull no punches and telling it how it was. I do hope other authors will pick up on what you say, do the research, find the people to talk to and tell their stories. All the best, Heather

Donald F. Jacques I read the book in 2 days. I found it intense. The love story between the two showed love can survive even against all odds.

message 20: by Linda (new)

Linda Beautiful and touching interview. I’m looking forward to reading The tatooist of Auschwitz and awaiting Cilka, with anticipation. Thank you Heather, brilliant writer!

message 21: by Dawn (new)

Dawn Hawes Cilka's story is £16.99 zaffre.( according to Nathan Harding editor of the Sun newspaper ) I can't find it on sale yet, personally

message 22: by Haley (new)

Haley Craig One of my absolute favourite reads of 2018. I enjoy ww2 history whether fact or fiction but this really was wonderful! I cannot wait to read Cilka's story!!

message 23: by Bine (last edited Jan 05, 2019 11:45AM) (new)


I would like Heather to reply to this article - and please not just a repetition of the publicist’s statement.

Reading the article made me downgrade the rating

message 24: by Dyana (new)

Dyana I want to read this story so badly!!

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