For someone like me who isn’t interested in reading Biographies or Non-Fiction, Historical Fiction is a savior. ‘Wolf’ by Herbert J. Stern and Alan A. Winter was published on 11th February 2020 and I was glad to have received an ARC. It is an incredible book, where you meet Hitler up close and personal through a fictional character’s prism. Many people read ‘Mein Kempf’ to understand Hitler but ‘Wolf’ isn’t his version of the story. Wolf is based on extensive research bringing to life Hitler’s rise to power from 1918 to 1934 for the readers.
I bring to you a wonderful interview with Alan A. Winter, co-author of ‘Wolf’. He shares the incredible experience of writing this exhaustive historical fiction and the sequels planned ahead.
Q 1. How were you inspired to write a fiction centered on Hitler?
Herb presented the idea that we should collaborate on a book about Hitler a little less than four years ago. You see, he was an ardent student of Hitler, the Nazis, and World War II. And while most of us ––me included––may think that everything that could be written about Hitler has already been written, Herb pointed out that there were gaps in the historiography.
Q 2. Tell us something about the process of writing, since ‘Wolf’ is authored by both of you?
Writers use a variety of processes for writing, from outlines to chapter synopses to letting the characters tell the story to see where it leads. In our case, we had an historical outline to use as our template for where the book was going. That said, it was never our goal to detail every key event that occurred from the end of World War I to the time Hitler became the Führer sixteen years later. Rather, through our research, we identified gaps and errors in the historiography of the period and then figured out ways to incorporate them into WOLF.
Q 3. Was the title always ‘Wolf’ or there were other shortlisted titles as well?
We only had one other working title taken from a John Dunne poem: “No Man Is An Island.”
We thought it suited the story and Friedrich in so many ways, given that he was a man without a memory, a blank slate, and he had to figure out what the emerging Germany was all about after World War I ended, including how Hitler and the Nazis evolved during those critical years. But no one we asked liked that title. Many suggested WOLF. And nothing could be more perfect, since few know that Hitler referred to himself by that mononymous name. For the record, Adolf is a shortened version of the German name, Adawolf, which means “splendid wolf.”
Q 4. How much time did it take for the research?
Given that Herb had studied Hitler and the Nazis for more than fifty years, it took four months of working together to bring me up to speed. This included being spoon-fed books and articles that Herb gave me before I was comfortable enough to perform my own research. Once we started writing, Herb and I both dug deeper into the period, reading memoirs and interviews, not accepting footnotes and references but following them for their veracity and accuracy. We worked with archivists from the Library of Congress, Duquesne University, Ohio State University, and most importantly, the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York, where the John W. Toland papers on Hitler are housed. It is fair to say that even after the book was written and while we edited the galley, we were still conducting research.
Q 5. Hitler is one of the most discussed/ controversial personality in world history and so much is out there for people to read. How does ‘Wolf’ stand out?
Hitler in WOLF is portrayed unlike any other book written about him: with human qualities. Let me be clear: we do not glorify him, adorize him, or give him attributes he did not have. Rather, we show his personal side . . . and this may make readers uncomfortable.
That was not our primary goal when we started. Our first goal was to call attention to the fact that most history books failed to mention that Hitler was in a mental institution at the end of World War I. While some have described how his eyes were affected in a gas attack, none mention that he was treated by a psychiatrist rather than by an ophthalmologist. The more we researched, the more we discovered other flaws or gaps when it came to describing Hitler, the man, and how he came to power.
For instance, most books describe Hitler as “sub-human” or “a black hole” or “unhuman.” They go out of their way to point out that Hitler was “asocial,” incapable of loving a woman or having a friend. Many say he was homosexual or asexual. This is simply not true. Readers of WOLF will discover the real Hitler loved children and women, and he was loyal to his friends even when he had reason not to be. Hitler could be the life of a party. None of this changes the horrors and evil that we all know happened. But if WOLF does nothing else, it highlights that demagogues, dictators, and monsters that commit inhuman acts are people, too. And if we forget that, we may miss an opportunity to stop the next “Hitler” from gaining power before it is too late.
Q 6. Was Friedrich Richard, an amnesiac without any past memory, the undisputed protagonist for the book from the beginning? Did you have any second thoughts during the course of writing, maybe Emil or Goebbels could have turned out better?
That’s an insightful question. In those early days, when we were consumed with research more than story, everything pointed to Emil Maurice being our protagonist. After all, Emil was with Hitler from the first days of the founding of the Nazi Party and was given #2 as an SS member, second only after Hitler. But the more we studied Hitler and the men who comprised his inner circle, we realized that we needed to create that perfect character who had no prejudices, could not be accused of favoring Hitler or his beliefs, and was in a position to challenge Hitler when necessary. In other words, we needed a character with the moral conscience of us all . . . including the German people. That is why we had to create Friedrich, a man without a memory. A tabula rasa. Friedrich was not prejudiced, not an anti-Semite, not anything. He was the eyes and ears through which the reader could view history while enjoying themselves at the same time.
Q 7. What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing ‘Wolf’?
That historians have censored history. That historians have failed to be objective when it comes to describing Hitler as a man. We have found inaccuracies in timelines and descriptions of events that occurred from one book to another. “New” and “updated” biographies of Hitler have made no effort to correct the record. WOLF changes that, and it does so in an entertaining way. For those who want to better understand how WOLF changes the historical record, our research is posted on www.NotesOnWolf.com.
Q 8. I think ‘Wolf’ is a perfect amalgamation of fiction and reality; it is like crossroads, you have read it before but in an impersonal way. How difficult was it to strike this balance?
Striking that balance of presenting unique history in an historical novel that flies in the face of “accepted” facts was a challenge every step of the way. We knew from the beginning that this could not be a history book. And yet, if our inner secrets were revealed, we hoped that WOLF would serve as a resource book for high schools and college programs on Hitler and how the Nazis came to power. Our challenge was to take all the good information we had uncovered, and figure out how our protagonist, a made-up character in a book filled with real characters and real lives depicted, could present these truths. We argued about how much exposition should be in the book, and how much “storytelling” we needed to write, and still maintain the suspense and tension readers expect in a novel.
Q 9. One fun question, which is your favorite book and why?
Oh my, that is quite the challenge. Many, many titles come to mind: “The Remains of the Day,” “The English Patient,” “The Incredible Lightness of Being,” “The Kite Runner,” “All the Light We Cannot See,” “The German Girl,” “The Reader,” and more. But perhaps because I read it more recently, Alyson Richmond’s “The Lost Wife” gained my admiration.
Q 10. And, lastly, do you plan to come out with a sequel to Wolf? (If yes, how soon can we expect?)
Not only do we plan to come out with a sequel, but it is our hope to write a trilogy. If all goes according to plan, our next book will be a continuation covering the time period from 1934-1939. The third book will be from the beginning of WWII in 1939 until sometime before the end of the war. At the time of this writing, we are actively performing the same research and are in the midst of creating the storyline for the next book. We cannot predict when it will be finished, but we can assure readers of WOLF that it will fulfill all their expectations.