Interview With Author "James Cloud"
James Cloud was born and brought up in New Mexico shortly before the outbreak of World War II. His life and career brought him in contact with people of many nationalities and cultures, which he represents in his books - The Brandenburg novels. Cloud has attempted to bring together in his work, his impressions gained from interactions with various groups – most especially with German and Jewish people – and how they in turn have related to each other. Writer’s Life had the opportunity to ask him a few questions after the release of his second book, Brandenburg II: The Ninth Circle of Hell.
Tell us a little about yourself and why you decided to write the Brandenburg novels.
I grew up in Las Vegas, New Mexico; the ethnic makeup of our town was very diverse. In addition to a large Hispanic community, there was a large representation of us who were of various Caucasian backgrounds. There were also quite a few German families. For example, my mother shopped at a German-owned grocery store. Several businesses were Jewish owned, and my first-grade teacher and principal of my elementary school was Jewish, Miss Minerva Kohn.
In 1942 at the height of World War II, I entered Miss Kohn’s first grade class. When it was pointed out to me she was Jewish, it was the first time I had ever heard that word. As we children began to hear more about the war and the treatment of the Jewish people in Europe, it created in me a great curiosity about the conflict between the Germans in Europe, who were viewed as the “bad guys” in my mind, and the Jews. It was a dilemma for me. Mr. Lingnau, my mother’s grocer was German. He was a very nice man who used to give me candy. On the other hand, I loved Miss Kohn, who used to button our coats and give us hugs when we left to go home. Why would such nice people hate each other? In our town, they didn’t. I don’t recall ever hearing of any conflict between these groups during the war. This dilemma began to develop in me a life-long interest in them. As a young adult, I stayed with a Jewish family in Toronto for a couple of weeks. I then moved to Massachusetts and eventually began training to become an airline pilot. I got my private pilot license and even purchased an airplane with some friends in order to build flight hours.
Later, while living in Boston, at the Gillette Safety Razor Company in the Research and Development Department I worked with an Industrial Designer. I participated in several projects developing new products for the company. I also had joined an international student group where I met a young German couple. The young man was employed at the German Consulate in Boston. They put me onto the idea of studying in Germany. This inspired me to enroll in the Architecture and Industrial Design program at the State Arts Institute (SHfbK) in West Berlin. In order to qualify for this, however, it became necessary to develop fluency in the German language. I enrolled in the four-month long language program at the Goethe Institute in Blaubeuren, Baden-Württemberg near Ulm. At the same time, I lived in the home of a German family, where only German was spoken. After a five-year course of study at SHfbK in Berlin, I served a subsequent apprenticeship at the Siemens Company in Munich. I received my diplomas from both of these institutions and returned to the United States.
At Siemens, I met a German engineer who informed me he had lived in New Mexico as a prisoner of war during World War II. Meeting this man and other people in Germany and hearing of their experiences before and during World War II inspired me to later write these novels. After marrying and moving to California, I developed a waterproof cast protector which I named Castgard and for which I was awarded a U.S. patent. At this time, I also worked in Industrial Design and manufacturing, but I began to realize my real interest was in the study of languages and cultures. I enrolled in the graduate program in German at California State University at Fullerton. After two years, I received my Master’s Degree in German Linguistics and Literature. Following this, I was employed as a full-time high school instructor of German for one year at Diamond Bar High School and later in the ESL program at Santa Ana College for five years. I then found a position at Weber State College in Ogden, Utah in the Foreign Student program. I also taught German classes there. After two years, I learned that Weber County School District in Ogden was forming an ESL/Citizenship Preparation program in the Adult Education Division for immigrants. I applied and was hired as a full-time instructor where I served for twenty years until my retirement.
So, now late in life writing these books, I wanted to explore how two great cultures can come into such deadly conflict. I didn’t want to write another Holocaust book. Those stories have been written by those who lived through it first-hand and I could never pretend to improve on their works or retell their stories. I have attempted to provide an account of life in Germany as told from the German perspective, as compared to the many books about that era told from an Allied point of view so we can have a better understanding of the events that ultimately led up to the tragedy of the Holocaust and a ruinous war.
How would you describe the first book, “Brandenburg: A Story of Berlin”?
My novels are historical fiction adapted to actual historical events and places, but told from the German perspective. Book one commences with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and ends with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime in 1933. The events of the time, set in Berlin and in other European locations, are related through the lives of four main characters and their families. I have studied the contrasts between the different social levels and backgrounds of German society. I have a young aristocratic playboy who is dating a Jewish girl. He is best friends with a farmer’s son who dates a girl living in the tenement slums of Berlin. We follow their lives as they struggle to survive WWI, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the hyper-inflation, The Great Depression, and then adjust to the ever-changing environment of the post war years in Berlin under the growing strength of the Nazi party. Book one ends when Hitler comes to power.
Does book two, “Brandenburg: The Ninth Circle of Hell,” pick up where the first book left off?
Yes. Book two picks up the story with the Reichstag fire in 1933 with Hitler as the new chancellor, promising to restore glory to Germany. My characters now have to endure life under a constant propaganda and indoctrination barrage on themselves and their children of the Nazi ideology as the regime clamps down on every day freedoms. Some will fall prey to the Nazi propaganda, while others reject the ideology and escape. For those that stay, I attempt to answer the question of what life was like living under the Nazi regime. The story continues with life in Berlin through the 1930’s and ends with the conclusion of WWII in Europe.
Have you spent much time in Germany? If so, how do you feel that experience informed your novels?
I ended up going to college and working in Germany because of my dear German friends from Boston. In the Summer of 1961 I made my first trip to Europe and stayed with friends in Flensburg and Hamburg. I returned to Germany in May of 1967, and after living with a family in Blaubeuren near Ulm while I studied German at the Goethe Institute for four months, I then enrolled at the State Arts Institute in West Berlin in the Industrial Design program. After five years, I completed the course and received my diploma and apprenticed at Siemens, all of which led directly to some of the scenes in my novels.
This was during the height of the cold war, and at one point I lived only a block away from the Berlin Wall. While living there, I was awakened once by loudspeakers and commotion on the other side of the Wall. I worked part time as an interpreter for the British Military Mission and crossed over into the East several times. I had a short stint as a tour guide in Berlin, so I was intimately familiar with the city. While living in Germany, I met many people that lived through the war and heard many of their stories of life under the Nazis. I also spent a month in a German hospital in a bed next to a former SS Officer. He was not eager to discuss his experiences during the War. I adapted some of my characters and scenes in my novels from first-hand accounts of people living in Germany during the war years.
You credit your childhood teacher, Miss Kohn, for igniting some of the fire of inspiration for these books - tell us about that.
Prior to entering first grade at Douglas Elementary in Miss Kohn’s class, I had never heard the word, “Jew”. As already mentioned, my interaction with her was very positive. Later, as I became acquainted with other members of that community, I developed several deep friendships.
How much of your books can be credited as historically accurate?
Although the books are fiction, I have made every effort to thoroughly research historical events, locations (in addition to my personal knowledge) and background of prominent people. I estimate that for every hour I spent actually writing, I spent two to four hours researching and documenting material. For each novel, I filled as many as six large three-ring binders with research. I have adapted fictional characters into actual historic events and places where possible.
Are your characters based on real people you have met and/or interviewed?
Yes, in some cases. While living, working and studying in Germany, I heard many accounts from friends and acquaintances of their experiences, or experiences related to them by others, during the years described in my books - especially in book two. I adapted their stories to fit my characters.
What message do you hope your readers take away from your books?
Basically, the same message I have adopted as a motto and displayed on the front covers of the books: “Man’s inhumanity to man belongs to no race and carries no passport”. If one digs deep into their history, atrocious treatment of fellow human beings can be found in all cultures and nationalities.
What can we expect from you next? Are you working on Book 3?
Yes. I have developed about twenty chapters in the manuscript for Book 3. The manuscript picks up where book two left off in the immediate aftermath and chaos in Europe following the conclusion of the war. I am planning on continuing book 3 through until the rise of the Berlin Wall, and perhaps a fourth novel until the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989.
For more information, please visit: https://www.jamescloudbooks.com/