Currents: What I’m working on, by Jennifer Bryce

A couple of months ago I finished the manuscript of my second novel, working title Edith Ascending. Finished? I think we all know that a piece of writing is never ‘finished’. Even after my first novel was published and stacked on shelves within its beautiful cover, there were bits I wanted to rewrite – things I could have left out, things I could have added. But with Edith, I’d reached a stage where I needed to do something more than re-reading and tweaking. Fortunately this stage of my writing coincided with a program of Virtual Literary Speed Dating organised by the Australian Society of Authors (ASA).

Writers are aware that it is extremely hard to get commercially published in Australia if you are not well-known. But I wanted to give it a go. Get a literary agent? There are not many agents in Australia and most of them, it seems, don’t have room to take on new clients. The alternative is to trundle your manuscript around to publishers, hoping that one of them won’t assign your work to the slush pile.

If you are brave, Virtual Literary Speed Dating is another pathway to a publisher’s door. The ASA sets up a three-minute time-slot (on Zoom) where you can ‘sell’ your book to a publisher you’ve selected from a list of about 12 provided by ASA (some of these may not be suitable, for example if they mainly publish YA or children’s picture books). You have to be a member of ASA to participate.

I’d never before done any kind of speed dating, but the similarity with the more usual kind of dating is clear. Is this my kind of match? Do we like each other? Could we get along together?

I found the ASA very supportive. I attended a preliminary online workshop where there was advice about preparing for the three-minute presentation, including a suggested template for structuring your pitch. Spend 1½ minutes outlining what you want to pitch: genre, word count, brief synopsis and a selection of three or four similar books – I tried to select titles from the list of the publisher I was pitching to. Then 30 seconds on why you wrote the book: I was inspired by a particular composer, etc. And finally, 45 seconds about yourself (the most difficult): previous publications, writing courses you’ve taken, other publicity such as radio interviews.

I don’t know how many times I recorded myself practising my pitch, timing the presentation to within a microsecond! I discovered that you can look at the camera on your laptop whilst reading from notes stuck to the side of the screen – better than glancing down the screen to read a document and thus not looking straight at the camera. My colleagues from Elwood Writers were a huge support, both in suggestions for my synopsis and bio, and also in keeping the presentation enthusiastic.

It was all worthwhile. I think I was fortunate that the publisher’s representative who heard my pitch is interested in music and asked to read the whole manuscript, which is the best outcome I could hope for. This doesn’t mean that they will take on the publication, but it’s a step in that direction – a very pleasing result.


A session entitled Bet the Farm was an interview with two writers I hadn’t heard of: Gabrielle Chan,  a political journalist, who has written a book, Why you should give a f*ck about farming, and Anika Molesworth, an agroecology scientist, who has written Our Sunburnt Country. Generally it seemed that there was too much to cover in this session. We are living in a time where we are experiencing the convergence of floods, fire and plague. Some areas discussed were: the problem of favouring the cheapest production of food (the neoliberal approach), one-third of the food produced in the world is wasted, the general lack of vision – everything is siloed – the Minister for Agriculture should have the same status as the Minister for Defence – need for a National Food Policy. Anika is hopeful. Farmers for Climate Action has 8,000 members. Yet it is hard to spread their messages – the rural press has closed down. Since attending this session I’ve been more particular than usual about not wasting food.


San Fedele Press: The Second Ice Cream Social | reviewed by Jennifer Bryce

Most of us here in Australia were sipping coffee rather than eating ice cream when we logged into the Ice Cream Social at 7.30 am Eastern Australian Daylight Time on Sunday 31st October – it was 4.30 pm Saturday in New Jersey. Patricia A. Florio, the founding publisher of American Writers Review, was a most welcoming convenor.

Continue reading “San Fedele Press: The Second Ice Cream Social | reviewed by Jennifer Bryce”

A question of websites: Jennifer answers

What was your original intention when setting up your website?

Although I started my website way back in 2014, I must confess that I still haven’t made a clear distinction between my website and my blog. That is still on a hypothetical ‘to do’ list! In 2014, I hardly knew what a blog was, but like Barry I wanted some kind of social media presence. I had resolved to become ‘a writer’ after many years of working as a musician and in educational research – and this was one way of establishing a writerly presence.

I looked at a few blogs and enrolled for a workshop at Writers Victoria on setting up your blog. I was flabbergasted when the person taking the workshop spent her time talking about recipes and childcare! I think it hadn’t occurred to me that people would want to share these very important aspects of their lives in this way – I’d envisaged blogs as being ‘literary’.

Barry acquainted me with WordPress and my nephew helped me with the initial setting up of a blog, designed with categories covering the various areas I thought I might write about. The six categories haven’t changed over the years (although I haven’t had any travel to write up since 2018). They are: My Reading, Memoir, Comments on concerts, plays, films, Travel, Short stories and Writing.

Continue reading “A question of websites: Jennifer answers”

Margaret Ann Spence: Joyous Lies

On the front cover of Joyous Lies by Margaret Ann Spence we are told, ‘If plants can protect their young, why can’t humans do the same?’ Then, in an extract before the prologue, Maelle remembers the time she was told of her mother’s ‘accident’, which, as she guessed, turned out to be her mother’s death: ‘Maelle saw the lie in her aunt’s eyes’. Intriguing – children can sense the truth. That kind of saccharine coating is not a protection. And so the scene is set, plunging the reader into a drama with twists and turns of family relationships that provide the essence of this beautifully written book.

The Prologue is written from Maelle’s mother’s point of view and we are with her just before the fatal ‘accident’ at night in a laboratory – questions about her motive for going there and the detail of what happened will lurk, distracting Maelle from her PhD research on plants’ communication.

Most of the book is set in a commune established by Maelle’s grandparents when Neil, her grandfather, was a Vietnam War draft resister. Maelle was about ten years’ old when her mother died. She went to live on the commune with her grandparents and the various others, mainly of their generation, who had kept it together since the 1970s. There we can smell the nourishing meals of freshly-picked vegetables, the bread from the oven, and we can feel the softness of the angora, spun and knitted by Maelle’s grandmother. But there are also knowing looks exchanged, secrets, half-truths.

Most of the story is from the point of view of Maelle as a young adult with a scientific career before her – sometimes we see through the eyes of her grandmother, Johanna, who finds her partner of fifty years, Neil, a ‘grizzled man’ who ‘kept tangling in her mind with his golden youth’. In spite of the communards’ values, much of the time Neil seems to treat Johanna with disdain.

Early in the book Maelle meets Zachary, a young psychiatrist, and there is an instant attraction. When, after a short time, Maelle takes him to the commune to meet her family, Zachary acts strangely and some extraordinary links emerge that shed new light on the mystery of Maelle’s mother’s death and further divert Maelle from her studies, threatening to undo a great deal more than her relationship with Zachary.

In tandem with the mystery prompted by Zachary’s reactions when he visits the commune is another equally compelling plot line. Neil agrees to the chic thirty-something Pamela Highbury making a documentary about the commune. This poses a huge threat to Johanna, who wrongly assumes that Pamela is having an affair with Neil. And given that Pamela claims to be interested in ‘documenting human failings’, the project threatens to unravel the essential fabric of the commune. The stiletto-heeled film-maker will disapprove of the ‘feudal power’ under which the women have been engaged in traditional roles such as pottery and dairy, and the men in more strenuous activities.

But the question underpinning Pamela’s investigation is fascinating to the reader (as well as to Pamela’s potential audience): what became of the Hippies? Feeding into this question are matters of coping in old age; working on a commune doesn’t provide retirement benefits. Johanna and Neil aren’t legally married. Does Johanna have rights as his partner? To what extent has the commune genuinely adhered to a non-capitalist way of life?

When, near the end of the book, everyone comes together to view Pamela’s documentary, I was fleetingly reminded of the end of an Agatha Christie novel, when everything comes together in resolution. To the communards’ (and the reader’s) relief, some ‘lies’ are mercifully concealed.

This book is superbly crafted: deftly paced and captivating. What is more engaging than a child wanting to find out how and why her mother died? And now that those people of 1970s ‘Flower Power’ are facing old age, it is intriguing to ask, what is life like for them now? Do they still live by those ‘hippy’ ideals? There are strong characters too – I was particularly drawn to Johanna and to Maelle as she pieces together what actually happened to her mother.

Margaret Ann Spence grew up in Melbourne, Australia, but has spent most of her life in the United States where she worked as an award-winning journalist. After some years she moved to Arizona, joined a writers’ group and decided to take up writing fiction. On her website Margaret says, ‘I write about women and their families, and the secrets that lie beneath’. Margaret’s first novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, was published by The Wild Rose Press Inc in 2017. It won the Romantic Elements Category in the First Coast Romance Writers 2015 Beacon Contest, it was a finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award and in the 2019 Next Generation Indie Awards. Joyous Lies is Margaret’s second novel. Do get hold of a copy of this suspenseful book. Details of how to obtain it are below.

Margaret Ann Spence, Joyous Lies, The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
First Edition, 2021
Trade Paperback ISBN 978-1-5092-3472-1 Digital ISBN 978-1-5092-3473-8 Published in the United States of America. The book is now available on Amazon and will soon be available from Barnes & Noble and other good book stores.

About ‘Duets’, by Jennifer Bryce

My short story ‘Duets’ features in Every Second Tuesday, the new anthology of work by Elwood Writers.

What inspires one to write a short story? My motivation to write ‘Duets’ was different from usual, when I’ve recalled an episode from my childhood, or been moved by a particular experience, or tried to put myself in the place of someone else. In the case of ‘Duets’, I saw that the Henry Handel Richardson competition was to be judged by my writing hero, Helen Garner, and I wanted her to read my work.

Henry Handel Richardson/ Ethel Florence Richardson

The competition required that the short story have ‘some link to Henry Handel Richardson and/or her work’. I had recently read her first novel, Maurice Guest, much of which is set in the Leipzig Conservatorium – a world that interested me because I was writing a novel set in a musical environment. The story that emerged was: ‘a glimpse into the life of Madeleine from Henry Handel Richardson’s novel Maurice Guest ‘. Madeleine is a sensible and well-organised student, never frivolous, never passionately in love and I imagined how that young woman might have become a school principal’s wife, where she would have an intellectual more than a passionate compatibility with her husband. My own maternal grandmother (only about ten years younger than Henry Handel Richardson) had made a career out of being a school principal’s wife and I drew on my childhood memories as I developed my own older Madeleine.

My grandparents lived in a flat in the grounds of the school where Grandad was principal and I used my memories of this as a setting for ‘Duets’: ‘the scuffling of feet as the boys were summoned to bed’ [page 122], the dingy sitting room in the flat, ‘furnished in deep-red brocade and dark wood, the darkness broken only by cream lace antimacassars on the back of the upholstered chairs’ [page 115].

The school boarding houses, where my grandfather was principal, taken in the 1930s

Helen Garner did get to read my story and I was awarded an honourable mention. The judge’s comment was: ‘A shocking and very touching and strong story about a child’s suffering and despair, and the breath-taking dishonesty of adults.’

‘Broken Rules’ is out!

Barry Lee Thompson’s short story collection, Broken Rules is already proving to be a stunning success. It is to be launched, virtually, by Readings bookstore next Monday 14th September at 6.30pm Eastern Australian Time. Don’t miss out on the chance to hear Barry ‘in conversation’. The event is free, but you need to book:

Already there has been a range of very complimentary reviews, including in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. The following review was written by Amanda Rayner of Readings Books. We hope to see you at the Launch next Monday.

The short-story collection from a single author is something I have grown to appreciate, especially in the last ten years or so. Australian writers have definitely made their mark in this area, ranging from those works with a strong sense of concept (Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals), those linked by a sense of mood (This Taste for Silence by Amanda O’Callaghan) and those that are simply an impressive, varied collection (Fabulous Lives by Bindy Pritchard). Broken Rules and Other Stories by Barry Lee Thompson (who was born in Liverpool but now lives in Melbourne, so we’re claiming him!) touches on all these approaches but is its own unique collection and brought unexpected tears to my eyes in the closing pages.

Broken Rules and Other Stories is described as seventeen interlinked stories. I found coming to each story individually and not worrying too much about how it should ‘fit’ resulted in me slowly seeing the possible links between them. By the time I read the final and longest story, ‘Angel’, I had developed my own perspective on how these stories worked together, which bought a sense of closure for me as a reader. The stories cover two main themes. The first focuses on stories from gay male perspectives: fantasies as a young boy, first approaches, random encounters with strangers, sex work, and the continuing search for true intimacy. Scattered between these stories is a group of tales that centre on family dynamics, with a particular focus on the relationship between mother and son.

Regardless of connections the individual reader may make between the stories, there is not one weak link. All pieces capture your attention quickly and none outstay their welcome. It is Thompson’s ability to create a vivid sense of place and tone that makes this an exciting (although sometimes unsettling) reading experience. At this point I am still wondering if I can forgive the author for the terrifying pictures in my head after reading the opening story!

Adelaide Writers’ Week: another engrossing day

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My day started sitting beneath Lombardy poplars, myrtles and holly oaks in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, to hear a session entitled ‘Trees for Life’. The trees in the garden are symbolic, as I learned from Wikipedia:

The design of the garden is a simple rectangle with a low decorative brick wall. At the centre of the garden is Cohn’s sculpture of a female figure, raised on a plinth. This is surrounded by green lawns, and four garden beds with ornamental trees and shrubs at the edges. Cornish’s choice of plants was influenced by their symbolic meanings, selecting five Populus nigra “Italica” (Lombardy poplars) to represent the five women of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Trust; Quercus ilex (holly oak) and Myrtus communis (myrtle) for protection and love; Lonicera (honeysuckle) for love, generosity and devotion; and Syringa vulgaris (lilac) to symbolise memory, protection, youth and tenderness.

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The session on Trees for Life was held on the East Stage, a little to the East of the area around the sculpture. Sophie Cunningham’s book, City of Trees, is a collection of essays; memoir, fact – trees are characters – they tell stories, they evoke emotions. With her we travel across the world, always with trees as a focus but, as she said at the beginning of her talk, she is always drawn back to Australia. We are into the ‘withering’. By 2050 we will have lost a large proportion of trees across the globe. Old trees will die, and often there won’t be enough moisture for new ones to survive. But Sophie’s focus is particularly on loving what is here now.

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Michael Christie has written a novel, Greenwood. He was inspired when, at his home in Canada, he had to cut down a tree that was blocking his driveway. He looked at the rings in the trunk and thought of a family tree — ‘a map of time’. He used this idea to structure his book, which is about some wealthy tourists visiting an arboreal resort. I haven’t read Michael’s book and the interview didn’t venture into the detail. But there was illuminating discussion about the importance of trees and their value to mankind although, according to Michael, half of the globe’s trees have been cut down.

The next session I attended was titled ‘From Fact to Fiction’. Anna Goldsworthy and Anna Krien have both written novels after substantial careers of writing memoir and journalism. Both have written for Quarterly Essay.  Anna Goldworthy’s novel Melting Moments focuses on ‘an intimate portrait’ of moments in a woman’s life: 1940 to 2007. She said the idea emerged from stories told by her grandmother who had a late life romance after her husband, Anna’s grandfather, died. Anna made interesting comments about the 1950s, which she is too young to have experienced herself. She sees the time as a ‘whitewash’: straight after the Holocaust, we have Buddy Holly. The main character, Ruby, shows ‘female competence’. She ‘keeps everything nice’.


Anna Krien’s novel is titled Act of Grace — the term used for the compensation payment made to soldiers injured in war. Anna commented that these acts are far from ‘graceful’. The main character has PTSD — ‘a man trapped inside a nightmare’. As Anna said, ‘a man you look at, then look away’. She realised that there isn’t a literature based on the Iraq war. Anna said that she undertook an intense amount of research, but when you’re writing, she said, ‘you don’t really know what is going to come out’. Some accused her of writing about things she doesn’t know about. She disagrees with this. One of her characters has a conversation with Saddam Hussein.

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There wasn’t as much discussion as I would have liked about the line between fact and fiction. Anna Goldsworthy said that the idea for her book came from family anecdotes and both writers agreed that verisimilitude is more important than whether something in a novel is true or factual.

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Tony Birch has written a new novel, The White Girl. It addresses the former practice of  removing Aboriginal children from their families. Sometimes lighter skinned children were taken because it was thought they would assimilate better. But a brutal policeman, Sergeant Lowe must give her permission to cross town. Tony gave a beautiful description of a fictitious town that is divided by a levy bank. The wealthy live safely above it. The poor — including the Aboriginal families — are routinely flooded.

John Birmingham (famous for He Died with a Felafel in His Hand) and John Boyne (famous for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) gave a session ‘Reflections on Writing’. By this time it was cold and raining and we sheltered under umbrellas to hear their views. Both are very experienced writers. Raymond Carver has said that a successful writer needs ambition and luck. The writers agreed that you need some ego — a certain amount of boldness and arrogance, but luck is a huge component. As John Boyne said, you can make your own luck: seeing an opportunty and taking it. Don’t give a damn about upsetting people. (This comment came from his experience of writing about a transgender teenager when he, himself, is not transgender.) It wasn’t a case that he didn’t care about hurting transgender people — he didn’t want to do that — but he wanted to write about them, and the voice that tells the story is someone who is not transgender — so he doesn’t presume to know what it is like to be transgender. Nevertheless, he has received a lot of flak for this. He said that most of this was from people who hadn’t read the book! He now wishes that he hadn’t engaged with these people — they just wanted to be heard.

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Both men were asked about their writing process. John Birmingham, who is a ‘plotter’, has a clear blueprint. He goes to his desk at the same time every day and has a set program: 25 minutes to read through the previous day’s work (or a paragraph or two), a stretch, then 1 hour of writing. He then puts a red dot in his diary. A ten minute break, then another hour and another red dot. He aims for 4 red dots a day.

John Boyne writes more from the seat of his pants (what is known as a ‘pantser’) — sometimes in a frenzy, such as when he spent 60 hours straight, pouring out 50,000 words of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, because he knew he was onto something. He said, ‘something takes over you and you have to go with it’. He said that writers don’t talk enough about how enjoyable writing is, ‘It blows out of you onto the next page’. Along similar lines, John Birmingham said, ‘If a character wants to do something, let them do it!’.

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John Boyne

John Boyne writes eight to ten drafts. His favourite draft is the second — the first is just something basic to work from. He shows the sixth or seventh draft to his editor. Birmingham shows his first draft.

In terms of research, John Boyne said, ‘Get the book down, then research it’, whereas John Birmingham loves research and likes to know what he’s talking about before he starts writing.

I know that I’d love to be able to be like John Boyne and have the words ‘blow’ out of me onto the next page.

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Adelaide Writers’ Week 2020

Elwood Writers, has attended Adelaide Writers’ Week for many years — I’ve lost count how many — maybe for the last six or seven years. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Adelaide Festival, and Adelaide Writers’ Week, which has been a significant part of the Festival since its inception in 1960.

There are many attractive things about this week of listening to authors talk about their work — one of the main being that the main events are free. We sit on the banks of the Torrens River, in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, in the summer sunshine, appropriately shaded by blue canvas, with a choice of parallel events on East Stage and West Stage.

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John Boyne had come from Ireland. He has written eleven books for adults (there was discussion about the unnecessary labelling of books as ‘for young people’, ‘for adults’). His most famous book is The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, which was a New York Times No.1 best seller and sold 11 million copies.

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John was here to talk about his most recent novel, A Ladder to the Sky.  The focus of this story is something that would intrigue most writers:  Maurice, an aspiring author charms a celebrated novelist, Eric, as Boyne says, he ‘reaches inside’ him. This raises questions such as, who do stories belong to? Do we own our own stories?  Do we have the right to tell other people’s stories? Boyne said, ‘There can be no discussion of morality when it comes to art’, and ‘I read other people’s stories … that is why I write’. He says he was strongly criticised when he wrote a book about a transgender teenager — because he is not transgender. Boyne points out that the book was written from the point of view of the teenager’s little brother: it’s a novel.

John Boyne was asked, What does ‘success’ mean for a writer? For John , it’s not the winning of prizes (he has won some) but how well you have achieved what you have set out to say.

There is a section in a Sydney bookshop for ‘plotless novels’. John said that he believes the story is really important. He wants a page-turner. For him, a good novel is one where you need to want to know what will happen next.

In The Ladder to the Sky, young Maurice is ambitious — but he is ambitious for fame, not for the quality of the work. Clearly John Boyne doesn’t believe in aiming for fame.

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From hearing John Boyne, I listened to a couple of academics, Martijn Boersma and Justine Nolan, discuss ‘Modern Slavery’. I was reminded of how frequently we support the exploitation  of others — using palm oil, coffee beans, the fishing industry — apparently 95% of retail chocolate is not certified free of child labour. There is now a modern slavery law in Australia, but no penalties for not complying! There were a few encouraging examples given of powerful people, such as ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, speaking out against modern slavery — satellite imagery can survey workers at brick kilns, block chains can show the complete history of a transaction. But it was pretty depressing to realise that the world hasn’t progressed a huge way since the pre -1860s slave trade.

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Another fascinating non fiction book is by Hannah Critchlow, The Science of Fate. It used to be that discussions of Free Will and Determinism, were the province of historians, philosophers and theologians. Now, neuroscientists are important contributors. It has been shown that neuroplasiticity is an important factor in learning. We are aware of biological determinism through genomics — eg prediction of our Body Mass Index, schizophrenia, IQ, how long the natural course of a person’s life will be. Neural circuits can be studied from 20 weeks’ gestation to find whether a person will have, for example, autism or ADHD.

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There is now some serious study of Epigenetics — can memories be passed across generations biologically? Some studies with mice suggest that they can be. Maybe experiences of Holocaust survivors explain depressive illness in family members generations later.

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When I opted to go to a talk by Bart van Es, I was expecting to hear of another story like The Diary of Anne Frank. Bart van Es, a professor at Oxford, is recognised as a Shakepearean scholar. But this book takes a very different path. van Es, whose family is Dutch, was aware that something had happened in his family during World War II — there was some secret — not talked about. When a Great Uncle died, Bart van Es realised that history would slip away if he didn’t try to get to the bottom of what had happened. As he said, ‘without families you don’t get stories’. Lien was still alive, in her eighties. She had been sheltered from the Nazis by the van Es family and other families from 1942 to the end of the war. Bart tracked her down and visited her. He’d been told that she would be reluctant to talk about her wartime experiences but he said that when Lien opened the door of her apartment ‘it felt like family’. The resulting book tells Lien’s story, but not just that. It describes how difficult it has been for her to live with those experiences. How there was a family rift as recently as the 1980s, resulting from tensions accumulated from the time of the war. It questions why it was that the Netherlands society  in the 1940s was ‘unresilient’ — how do you respond when authority is not to be trusted? There had been no recorded anti-Semitic attacks from 1550 to 1942 — the Dutch people were not used to having to be resistant. Apparently the family friction of the 1980s revolved around the grandmother’s belief that Lien should ‘move on’ — forget that time. Lien’s parents had been sent ‘East’: that meant to a concentration camp. When, at the end of the war, she realised their fate, she let two rings her parents had left with her drop through floor boards to be lost forever. But of course that physical act could not expunge the pain of the separation. Many years later she visited Auschwitz and said, ‘It’s over’. The book is also about what it was like for Bart van Es to uncover this family story.

Adel writers Bart van es