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Monday, February 20, 2012

Today's guest at FLY HIGH! is G.S. Johnston. He is the author of two historical novels, The Skin of Water and Consumption, noted for their complex characters and well-researched settings. In one form or another, Johnston has always written, at first composing music and lyrics. After completing a degree in pharmacy, a year in Italy re-ignited his passion for writing and he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. Feeling the need for a broader canvas, he started writing short stories and novels. Originally from Hobart, Tasmania, Johnston currently lives in Sydney, Australia with two cats - home-loving Reba and the wayward Rose - and Miss Mia, a black and white cuddle dog. He would be impressed with humanity if someone could succeed in putting an extra hour in every day.  
Read through G S Johnston's post below,  "Come to the Cabaret", and get a chance to win the e-book version of his new novel, The Skin of Water. Read the details at the end of the blogpost.

Around 1972, my mother took my brother and I to the film Cabaret.  We didn’t have live productions in Hobart, Tasmania so we made-do with Michael York and Liza Minnelli in their prime.  My mother loved the theme song.  My father was away sailing for the weekend.  In the evening, we went to the Avalon Theatre in Melville Street, a Victorian theatre with imperial plaster moldings and pillars, gold trim and swathes of lush red velvet.  We sat in the dress circle.

I don’t think she knew how risqué the film was going to be.  From the opening scene, the distorted image of the Master of Ceremonies, this clearly wasn’t The Sound of Music.  We descended into an alien world, a world without judgments, mein Herr.  The cabaret formed a Greek chorus to the off-stage story, even though my knowledge of the function of a Greek chorus was many years away.  There were people of indeterminate gender, gay people, straight people, all seemed to mish-mash.  Even the Nazis came to the cabaret.  I remember the telephones on the tables so people could call to other tables.  This was sophisticated and restless, a long way away from Melville Street, Hobart, Tasmania.  
What feels like a thousand years later, I helped George Perko write his autobiography.  He grew up in Budapest, his late teens and early twenties coinciding with the years of the World War Two.  His parents were small-time industrialists and as the war descended he started to move amongst the bars and nightclubs of Budapest.  He told stories of a nightclub hostess who would appear each evening wearing a glamorous evening dress, accompanied by two Afghan dogs, signaling the start of the cabaret.  He told stories of Big Bands, Chappy and His Orchestra and others, who played all the hits of the time, the American lyrics translated to Hungarian.  He passed most of his days in cafes and traded on the black market. 

Immediately I thought of Christopher Isherwood’s stories of Berlin during the Weimar Republic.  I’d not thought of them or Cabaret for a long time and re-read the novel and watched the movie again, after thirty-something years.  We are so conservative by comparison. 
Hungary held an odd position during World War II, connected to Germany through history and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Hungary had also lost a lot of territory through the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.  But when Germany advanced into Czechoslovakia, some of this confiscated land was handed back to Hungary.  People who spoke Hungarian were now governed by Hungary again.  And as Germany righted its gripes from the Treaty of Versailles, there was the promise of more land and more reparations.  Without entering directly into the war, Hungary allowed troops to move through its territory on the way to battle fields in Poland, then Yugoslavia and Russia.  Hungary contributed some troops but never really entered the war.  By 1943, it was almost surrounded on all borders by German occupied countries but Hungary had managed to remain unoccupied. 

And life went on in Budapest, largely as if nothing was going on.  Budapest was not bombed, German troops moved through but touched nothing.  But towards the end of 1943, as the Russians pushed back and the allies marched up the Italian peninsula, Germany began to place more and more pressure on Hungary.  Hungary did its best to resist and resist until Hitler grew tired of Reagent Horthy and the Germany army rolled into Budapest.  The war had arrived in Budapest and this changed the complexion considerably.  Even the cabarets closed down. 
And one afternoon George mentioned a family, Weiss Manfred.  They were converted Jews who ran a large factory on Csepel Island on the Danube River.  Fearing for their safety, they were so wealthy they were able to bribe the Gestapo to fly them to a neutral country.  I found this amazing.  Firstly I’d not considered the Gestapo was THAT corrupt and secondly that anyone could be that cashed up! 

While I was finishing writing Consumption, I did some hours in the library researching the family’s story.  I validated the few facts from George but found little about this Weiss family.  And most importantly, no character of any strength emerged to float a novel, no Sally Bowles in the Weiss Manfred family.  But other families had done similar things to get out of Hungary and a man, Rudolph Kasztner, paid the Gestapo for seats on a train bound for Switzerland. 
I also found information about two brave Slovakian men who were prisoners in Auschwitz but worked in a detail that went out beyond the camp’s fences.  Most people who managed to escape the camp were caught close to the camp within three days.  But after the three days, if the people were not caught, the guards gave up. 
With the help of other prisoners, these men created a hollowed woodpile outside the fences of the camp and hid inside for three days.  They covered themselves in petrol to camouflage their all-too-human scent from the guards’ dogs.  After three days, when the guards had given up, they emerged from the woodpile and made their way towards Slovakia. 
They detailed a report, first hand evidence that the concentration camps were death machines and that there was massive new constructions underway, indicating an expectation of greatly increased numbers of people – the Hungarian Jews.  They were forced to write and rewrite the reports so various drafts could be compared for verification.  But despite the on-going disappearance of so many people, people were reluctant to believe them, more reluctant to act.
All these stories set my imagination on fire.  But no real historical character emerged that would unite these disparate elements so I let the idea slide, put it out to pasture.  I didn’t forget about it but I could see no way forward with it. 
And I had many other ideas to write about – there was an idea to write something about W B Yeats and Maud Gome and Lady Gregory.  There was an idea to find a murder mystery.  And for ages I’d wanted to write a grand romance.  I’d re-read The English Patient and thought the affair between Katherine and Almásy was so grand and tragic, on a scale not often seen in modern literature.  Part of the reason it came alive so well was Ondaatje deft use of a post-modern structure.  But I also felt it worked because of the simplicity, the almost generic-ness of the romance of these two star crossed lovers. 
Most days I take my dog for a walk.  She demands it around midday and around five in the afternoon.  I get jumpy legs around these times too.  Sometimes we go to the near-by park for lunch and sometimes we just walk the suburb, go to the shops to buy things for dinner.  But one afternoon when I was walking, two ideas came to me; why don’t I invent a Hungarian family and hook that together with my hankering for a grand romance.  BANG!  The plot fell out in front of me.
As I got closer to home, Catherine and Zeno were alive and well.  I thought of a scene in a nightclub with phones on each table.  As I got closer to home, it started to rain and I walked on the skin of water. 

G.S. Johnston  

Win an e-book copy of The Skin of Water leaving your comment + e-mail address. This giveaway is open internationally and ends 27th February when the winner is announced. Good luck! 
Visit G S Johnston online at or follow him on Twitter at @GS_Johnston.  


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