Q&A with Author catherine A. Hamilton
A native Oregonian of Polish decent, Catherine A. Hamilton spent several years as freelance writer. Her articles and poems have appeared in The Sarasota Herald Tribune, The Oregonian, The Catholic Sentinel, and The Polish American Journal. She is the author of a chapter, “Katherine Graczyk”; in Forgotten Survivors: Polish Christians Remember the Nazi Occupation. Edited by Richard C. Lukas, pp.31-37, (University Press of Kansas, 2004). Her debut novel Victoria’s War will be published on June 2, 2020, by Plain View Press.
Hamilton lives in the Northwest with her husband.
Q: Before we talk about your book, can you tell us a little more about yourself?
I was born and raised in the small town of Sweet Home, Oregon. After finishing high school, I moved to Portland where I graduated from Lewis and Clark College in 1984 with a Master’s degree in psychology. I spent 12 years as a psychotherapist, publishing over a dozen articles in my field. After joining a writing group and trying my hand at fiction, my stories, articles, and poems were published in magazines and newspapers. I closed my private practice and started writing fiction fulltime. And I guess you could say, the rest is history.
Q: Victoria’s War (out on June 2nd) is based on a true story. How did you come about this story?
Given that I’m Polish-American with family still living in Poland, and that the bulk of my publications are on things Polish, you might be shocked to hear that like most Americans, before I started my research for Victoria’s War, I had no idea that 1.7 million Polish Catholics were kidnapped into the largest wartime slave labor operation in modern history, an operation that today we call human trafficking. Of course I knew about the Nazi death camps, about the Holocaust and about the 3 million Polish Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis. What I didn’t know was that half of the abducted 1.7 million ethnic Polish slaves captured by the SS were women. That one of those women was my own cousin!
That’s where it all started for me. The oral history that inspired my fictional character Victoria Darski was given to me by someone very close, my cousin, Katherine, whom I met 50 years after the war was over. Katherine was kidnapped off the streets of her village in Poland in 1941 and survived slavery in Germany. Her only request was that someday I write it down. Victoria’s story gives voice to so many slave laborers who were caught up in the Nazis slave labor campaign, those who survived and those who did not.
Q: Can you describe Victoria in three words?
Victoria is a compassionate, empathetic heroine with gumption.
Q: I know you spend a lot of time on research. can you tell us about the research you did for Victoria’s War?
During my research I relied heavily on historical sources, in addition to traveling. Specifically to Magdeburg, Germany, where large potato farms as well as factories used Polish slaves. I traveled to Berlin, where my cousin had been auctioned off, bought by a farmer, and was later imprisoned for running away from the abusive owner. And to Warsaw, Cracow, and the towns and villages in south eastern Poland, where my story opens.
I interviewed primary sources including eyewitnesses representing ethnic Poles, Jewish Poles, and Germans. Not until then did I feel I knew enough to pay tribute to all those who had been rounded up during WWII and taken as slaves of Nazi Germany. These were people like Victor Bik who was 17 years old when Hitler invaded Poland. He was from Zdrowa--a village in southwest Poland, and abducted into by the SS in to slave labor. There were many others who told me their stories. Each and every story was difficult to hear. But I never wavered. It was on me to tell this untold story. And tell it, I did.
Q: If Victoria’s War was a Hollywood blockbuster who would you have play the role of Victoria?
I always imagined it would be Mary Lynn Rajskub, the American actress of Polish decent, known for portraying Chloe O'Brian in the action thriller series 24.
Q: Are you working on the next book? If so, can you tell a little about it?
I am. I’m nearly finished with my first draft of my second novel. A women’s espionage thriller set in Eastern Europe, TRUTH, SPIES, AND THE EVENING NEWS opens with rising-star Polish TV journalist Aleksandra Novak and ambitious female secret service agent Vera Lukas in a tug-of-war at the scene of a crime: a woman is found dead inside the sacristy of St. Martin’s Church in Krakow, Poland.
Big money, European politicians, a madman, and a mastermind; it races across Poland to the University of Belarus, to a small birch forest in Smolensk, Russia, where the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn Massacre has a chilling connection to the criminals who plan to eliminate the president of Poland and his entire delegation.
Q: When did you start writing?
I have been writing poems since I was a girl. I wrote professional articles and absolutely loved getting things published. My fiction writing came suddenly when inspiration and creativity collided with a story that had to be told in prose.
Q: What is your favourite part of writing?
For me, it’s finding that untold true story that captures my attention, some real person or event that won’t let me go. And then doing the research, plotting the story and getting that first draft hammered out!
Q: What are you reading at the moment?
Martha Hall Kelly’s Lost Roses and E. Piotrowicz’s Wild Mushrooms.
Q: What is your favourite book of all times? (just one and why?)
That is a tough one, because I have a favorite classic, a favorite children’s book, a favorite NYT bestseller (commercial fiction), a magical realism, literary fiction, and historical novel. But I’ve decide to mention one of my very favorite of all WWII novels and I’ve read and loved many of them. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is my pick! I loved this little book from start to finish! I adored the cover, the smallish size of the book, and the epistolary style! And lastly, I was touched by the story behind the story. That is a labor of love written by Mary Ann Shaffer, who became stricken with cancer and asked her niece Annie Barrows to finish the project. In memory of Mary Ann Shaffer and all writers who give their all to stories that must be told.
Q: I read that you have met John Paul II in his private library. Can you tell us a little more about the day you met him?
My husband and I were blessed to meet the Holy Father during a pilgrimage to Rome in October 2000. The call came on a Sunday night as we settled into our hotel room. The man said we were to be at the bronze doors by 7 am for morning Mass with the pontiff in his private chapel. That morning, we walked the three blocks from our hotel to the Vatican before it was fully light. It seemed like a dream, almost surreal. We were shown in through the bronze doors into a sitting room, along with twelve others. Usually, people would chat in a small but comfortable space. But no one said a word.
When the chapel door opened and we entered, the pope was kneeling at the foot of the altar. I could have reached out and touched him from where we sat. Dressed in his white papal cassock, a tall and strong-looking man, he didn’t move a muscle while there praying. His physical size was dwarfed only by his palpable holiness.
I find myself looking at the photo album of that trip—remembering Mass in his private chapel, and the chat in his library. It was kind of amazing that I could speak at all, but I spoke to him in Polish! I said, “I love you Holy Father.” And he said “I love you too.” He gave both of us a rosary, and there were lots of picture.
Being Polish, I guess I always felt close to the Polish pope. But that visit with him in Rome inspired me with such a deep and loving connection. So much so that I wrote an entire collection of poems during the nineteen days after he died and the next pope was elected. They are published under the title Nine Days: Poems Remembering John Paul II.
In that collection is the poem about that day titled, “A Memory of Meeting the Pope.” You might enjoy reading it.
Q: Finally, where is the best place for readers to interact with you?
Thank you so much, Catherine.
POLAND, 1939: Nineteen-year-old Victoria Darski is eager to move away to college: her bags are packed and her train ticket is in hand. But instead of boarding a train to the University of Warsaw,
she finds her world turned upside down when World War II breaks out.
Victoria’s father is sent to a raging battlefront, and the Darski women face the cruelty of the invaders alone. After the unthinkable happens, Victoria is ordered to work in a Nazi sewing factory. When she
decides to go to a resistance meeting with her best friend, Sylvia, they are captured by human
traffickers targeting Polish teenagers. Sylvia is singled out and sent to work in the brothels, and Victoria is transported in a cattle car to Berlin, where she is auctioned off as a slave.
GERMANY, 1941: Twenty-year-old Etta Tod is at Mercy Hospital, where she’s about to undergo involuntary sterilization because of the Fuhrer’s mandate to eliminate hereditary deafness. Etta, an artist, silently critiques the propaganda poster on the waiting room wall while her mother tries to convince her she should be glad to get rid of her monthlies.. Etta is the daughter of the German shopkeepers who buy Victoria at auction in Berlin.
The stories of Victoria and Etta intertwine in the bakery’s attic where Victoria is held—the same place where Etta has hidden her anti-Nazi paintings. The two women form a quick and enduring bond. But when they’re caught stealing bread from the bakery and smuggling it to a nearby work camp, everything changes.
You can purchase a copy of Victoria's War here: