Interview: Steve Berry with Andrew Gross on THE ONE MAN

Andy, I know THE ONE MAN was a very personal story for you. Can you talk a little about what the inspiration was?

Sure. My father in law came here from Poland in April, 1939. Six months later, the war broke out. As it turned out, he was the only member of his family to survive the war. In fact, he never learned the fate of any of the family that was left behind. Like a lot of survivors, he never talked at all about his family or even about his life backing Poland before he left. It was just too painful. In 1941, after America entered the war, my father-in-law signed up to serve his new country, and because of his facility with languages, was placed in the Intelligence corps. He never divulged a word of what his role was there either. His whole life he seemed to carry around a weight of guilt and regret, despite his successes here, and everyone pressed him to find out just what was behind it. THE ONE MAN is the story of an escaped Polish Jew who is convinced to go back to the place where his parents were murdered in order to rescue the one man who the Allies believe can ensure them victory in the war. So in some ways, I set out to write the story I thought my father-in-law might tell.

That man is an atomic physicist, is he not? Alfred Mendl. Is he a real figure? Where did you come up with him?

Mendl is not a real figure. But he’s based on them. In looking into my father-in- law’s past, I came across the story of the Jewish community in Lvov, (now Lviv in Western Ukraine). Then it had the third largest Jewish population in Poland and was home to a leading university, where, in 1941, the Nazis systematically eliminated the Jewish intelligentsia, killing thousands of doctors, artists, and professors, or sent them off to Auschwitz and Treblinka. From there, it wasn’t such a leap to imagine that among them, some person of great learning and expertise might take their knowledge with them to the grave. Perhaps a noted professor of physics, who specialized in atomic theory, with a proprietaryknowledge that both the Allies and Germans could use in the race forthe decisive weapon if they only knew.  

Mendl’s life’s work is destroyed before his eyes in the camp, but he keeps trying to record things, knowing what he knows would be crucial if it ever got out. But, of course, he’ll never get out, he’s too old and sick. But then he meets someone.

Yes, prior to him being sent to Auschwitz, the Allies tried desperately to smuggle him out of Europe, but the plan failed. But in the camp, Mendl observes a chess match one day, and the new champion is a sixteen year old boy, Leo Wolziek, with the most exquisite mind and detailed memory skills Mendl has ever encountered. And he realizes that this is the one chance he will have to preserve his work, which he knows the Allies desperately need. So Mendl forges a friendship with this unusual boy, desperate to teach him everything he knows.

And somehow into this hell comes Nathan Blum. The young, escaped Jew from Krakow now a lowly decoder of messages from Poland for the OSS who is sent back to the place he escaped from? And he has what,only a couple of days to sneak in and find Mendl, amid thousands of prisoners, and then get themselves out.

Yes, seventy-two hours. And every hour is a life and death challenge to survive. It’s an impossible mission, he knows. But he has left his parents and younger sister in Krakow before the war where they were executed by the Nazis, so he feels this inner need to make amends. Like an aliyah, in the oldest Jewish meaning. Even finding Mendl in there would be a miracle, if he’s even still alive. But getting him out, in the time they have left—there is a plan, of course-- is even more daunting odds. And then a few things happen in there that change the stakes completely.

And of course there’s an adversary. There is in all great thrillers. Someone who suspects Nathan has ben sent in and traces him to the camp.

Yes. A disgraced Colonel named Martin Franke, demoted for a security breach in Lisbon and is now in Warsaw routinely tracking down escaped Jews, who sniffs out Nathan’s presence andsees the path for his return to favor in apprehending him. Not to mention the Camp Commandant, Ackermann, who runs the camp with the singleminded dedication of a bean counter running a factory assembly line, and whose own career paths rests on maintaining his numbers.

This is a good time to bring up the setting, I think. Auschwitz. About half the action in the book takes place there. That was quite a decision to set your story there.

I did so because some of the historical foundation of the plot led me there. But I never this to be a story about the horrors and atrocities in a concentration camp. Still, I had to treat it frankly, because Nathan must navigate this brutality and possible death every minute he’s inside. And one of the challenges of the book was maintaining that balance, between brutality and death, and heroism. There’s been a canon of literature based on life in such camps, much of it written by people who experienced it firsthand, and it surely wasn’t my goal to write the definitive Auschwitz book. Yet I hope I’ve added something to what’s come before. One of my most rewarding blurbs on the book is from Jenna Blum, a Holocaust interviewer and novelist, not a thriller writer at all, who wrote The Things that Save Us, and she certainly felt I did add something original.

So okay, I have to ask, you were a suburban thriller writer. What made you think you could write such a radically different book? 

Well, I’m a story teller first. Maybe I was categorized as such because of my early books after my time with James Patterson. But over time I began to feel typecast and handcuffed by that niche. I was writing good books, and I had some success, of course, just not the books I was intending to write. For me, telling stories that tap into some universal quality or human in spirit, that’s what’s fixed. The settings, the time and the place, what language they speak, those are the variables.

That said, The One Man is still very solidly a thriller, given that there’s an nearly impossible mission and a ticking clock that’s winding down. So it doesn’t stray too far from the essential things people associate with me: creating vivid characters and ratcheting up the suspense. 

You mentioned one challenge of writing the book being the balance between heroism with brutality. I’m sure there were others?  

Plenty. Creating a believable canvas of life in pre-War Poland and then an infamous Nazi concentration camp. One thing that is sacrosanct in Jewish and literary tradition is the Holocaust, so there’s no taking liberties with the facts. I probably read some thirty books ranging from FDR and his policies towards the Jews, life in Auschwitz, even the making of the atomic bomb. Alfred Mendl might be an expert in atomic theory, but it was surely a challenge for a guy that stumbled his way through 8th grade earth science. 

And I know there are risks when you make such a drastic switch of genres. Tell me about them. 

Tons of risk. Start with the artistic risk of whether I could pull it off or not. Then the business risk of actually selling of the book, which I did off a detailed outline. Not everyone jumped aboard because t was so different. And there were marketing risks, the risk that my fans might not come with me on a topic so different. All in all, though, I decided they were not as great as the risk I took when I got into this business in the first place. 

So was there anything you learned about yourself in the writing THE ONE MAN? And did writing it change you in some way? 

For a Jew, writing about the Holocaust is like the search for the Holy Grail. On one hand, there is such a long and esteemed canon of work on this subject, and so much of it by people who have gone through it firsthand. But when you write a book of this kind, it’s not like reading one. You’re not an observer. It’s not like going to the Holocaust Museum or watching Schindler’s List, where you can leave when you’ve had enough or the film ends. You’re in it, full time. So to me it was like having to go through something I’d only read about, both a life-affirming and an enervating process. And without giving anything anyway, heroism won. 

Did your father in law ever have a chance to read it?

He was 96 and sick in the past year and didn’t get out of bed much. One day my wife read the opening chapters to him, in whichhe recognized the main character, who was based on him. It clearly struck a chord, because he asked her to stop, and his eyes got glazy and he said after almost seventy years, “Lynnie, there are a few things I need to talk to you about.”  It was very emotional for them both. And a perfect postscript for me.

He actually died this past February, and going through his things, my wife found something astonishing:  a series of letters from his mother in Poland, from 1939 and 1940. Before the German invasion of Poland, and after. Amazingly, he never shared these with anyone. The letters showed a likeable, modern woman, opining that my father-in-law had not written her from his new country. “Nathan, have you not receive my letters?” she asked. It was likely that he had written her back, but his letters were undelivered by the Nazis who now censored all mail coming in and out of the ghetto. The later letters are clearly stamped by a Nazi censor. Suddenly I thought I understood all the sadness and self-judgment he carried around with him all these years. That his parents perished, thinking he had never written them back. That he had ignored their letters. It’s such a compelling thing—my father in law suddenly became clear to me. And hopefully with this book I can give voice to what was inside is heart.

About the Author: Andrew Gross is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of nine novels, including No Way BackEverything to Lose, and most recently, One Mile Under. He is also coauthor of five #1 New York Times bestsellers with James Patterson, including Judge & Jury and Lifeguard

About THE ONE MAN: 1944. Physics professor Alfred Mendl is separated from his family and sent to the men’s camp, where all of his belongings are tossed on a roaring fire. His books, his papers, his life’s work. The Nazis have no idea what they have just destroyed. And without that physical record, Alfred is one of only two people in the world with his particular knowledge. Knowledge that could start a war, or end it.

THE ONE MAN will be published next 8/23/16 by Minotaur, a division of St. Martins.

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Why I Changed Genres

Over the past decade, I’ve published nine thrillers in what is known as the “suburban” thriller category— recognizable, every day moms and dads in an upscale setting you could pretty much hold a mirror up to and see yourself, and who through either a momentary weakness or misstep, end up over their heads in something sinister. By most measures I’ve had some success—five have made the NYT Bestseller list, all but one, Top Ten in the UK; I’ve received the occasional star from various review publications, been published in over twenty countries, and an enviable, long-term book deal from Harper Collins.

So why am I walking away from all this?

Hopefully, I’m not crazy. At least, not completely so. For several books I’ve felt constrained by the narrow niche of what my publisher, and perhaps even my readers, expected from me. Not only the familiar “suburban” setting, with root-for-able yoga moms and hedge fund dads with one foot in something murky and the “protect-your-family-at-all-cost” theme. But crisply-paced, plot-driven story lines with a dollop of some emotional resonance at the end, a carryover, perhaps, from my co-writing days with James Patterson. It was how my publisher positioned me. There was a strategy and a goal. I went along willingly. I’ve had the benefit of aggressive marketing campaigns. I was always told I wrote engrossing, exciting books that had a deeper soul in them than the outward constraints of plot and pace generally allowed.

I was writing good books, just not the books I always intended to write.

(Maybe there’s a little Caitlin Jenner in all of us.)

My favorite stories growing up were sweeping tales of the Persian-Greek wars, the First Crusade, escapes from Devil’s Island, the clash of Napoleon and the tattered Russian armies, Nazi conspiracies in and after World War II. Stories that transported you, not just grabbed you. Stories of heroism in the face of a known, historical outcome. Books of “what if...” Probably the book of mine that I recall with the most satisfaction was of a twelfth century peasant who comes back from the Crusade to find his wife and daughter taken by a lord and becomes a jester to find them, co-written with James Patterson. 

The truth was I did feel like I was perpetually pushing a boulder uphill in the niche that I found, continually having to come up with fresh and original traps for my characters, new ways to threaten the “family.” And extricate them. I wanted to write books with bigger bones, broader themes and richer, atmospheric settings. My contract ended. An idea stared me in the face.

So I decided to let the boulder fall.

My father-in-law is 95, and came here in from Warsaw in early1939, only months before the war. He never had any idea what fate befell his parents, or for that matter, any of his extended family.  He was the only one in his family to survive the war. For years it’s been like he’s carried a weight of sadness around with him; guilt and loss. A peace that always seemed to elude him, despite his successes here. To this day he has never spoken a word to my wife or her brother about his family life back in Poland. Like a lot of survivors, the yoke of memory is just too hard to bear. He came here as a student, but in 1941, when the U.S. entered the war, he enlisted, and because of his facility with languages, was placed in the Intelligence Corps. He has never divulged what his duties were there.

I always wanted to write the story he might tell.

As I looked into certain aspects of his past, I came across the massacres in the Polish (now Ukrainian) city of Lvov where in 1941 the Nazis systemically “purified” the university town of its Jewish intelligentsia, murdering hundreds of doctors, lawyers and esteemed professors. From there, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine what if one of those victims might have held some vital knowledge to benefit humanity that died along with them: a seminal philosopher or a respected surgeon. Or maybe, a physicist who specialized in a vital aspect of atomic fission.

THE ONE MAN is the story of an escaped Pole who is convinced to return to the place where his parents were murdered by the Nazis to rescue the one man the Allies believe can ensure them victory in the war. That man is a nuclear physicist whose expertise is urgently needed on the Manhattan Project. And the place the young Pole must get him out of is Auschwitz.

It’s a thriller, in the sense that it’s about a near-impossible mission with a ticking clock winding down, but much richer in theme, more deliberate in characterization, and far more detailed in setting than anything I have ever done.

Writing this kind of book was not without its risks. The risk that fewer publishers would bid for it when I went to sell it. The risk that some of my readers might not follow me to a new place. The artistic risk that I could pull it off.

But I reminded myself, far less of a risk than the one I took when I got into this business in the first place.

This past July I turned in THE ONE MAN to Minotaur, my new publisher. I have no idea if it will deliver the wider, crossover audience I am hoping for. Or how it will stand up against the canon of work already based on the Holocaust. I only know it came out richer and better than my wildest hope for it, and that my next books will be in the same style and vein.  And that my father-in law, after reading a few chapters, put it down with moisture in his eyes, turned to my wife and said, “Lynn, there are some things I’d like to talk to you about.”

THE ONE MAN will be published next September by Minotaur, a division of St. Martins.