Max is a story that has lingered with me longer after I finished reading the book. What does is mean to be good? Are we born good or bad? It is a story that left me breathless and contemplative about human nature, and when the author Sarah Cohen-Scali agreed to an interview I was thrilled! She is an award-winning French author of over 20 novels for children and adults.
So, how does the idea for writing a story from the POV of a child born into the Third Reich already a believer? Read on to find out!
Did you always want to be a writer?
Not when I was young. My first passion when I was a teenager and a young adult was to become a theatre actress. But at school, I always loved to write. My French homework looked like little novels. I always loved literature and books. And then, at the age of 29, I began to write and publish. I never stopped. (Writing is a kind of drug you can’t quit.)
What inspired the premise for Max? Your book does explain your research, but I wondered what sparked the idea for the book?
An editor (not the one who published Max in the end) asked me to write a historical novel. I refused. I said l couldn’t, my historical culture was not big enough. Then he told me I could write about World War II. Oh! Much better, l thought, because I’ve always been fascinated by this incredible period. But there are already so many books, good, very good books on World War II, why would I add one more?
Then I remembered Lebensborn. No one knows about it. Very few people (journalists, writers) talk about Lebensborn. The first time I read myself this word was in Le choix de Sophie, by William Styron. Just a few sentences, a paragraph in this tremendous novel, when Sophie wants to save her boy in concentration camp and asks for him to be sent to a Lebensborn Home. She insists, tells them her boy has blond hair and blue eyes… So l began my research (which took three years) and once it was over, I asked myself: ‘Well, now what? What can I do with all this?’
I felt quite depressed, until the moment I decided to talk about Lebensborn from a German point of view, from the inside, from the very beginning. And then came the idea of a baby/Nazi/hero talking before his birth.
When I first began reading it, I couldn’t quite understand your dedication where you asked the reader to be sympathetic towards Max, but by the end, I thought I understood what you meant – did you doubt that Max would resonate with readers? What has your fan response been?
One thing which is quite important: Penny Huston (Senior Editor at Text Publishing) asked me to write a dedication. Here in France, we are not used to this. I was quite embarrassed and I was not sure the dedication was a good idea.
Anyway, yes, I doubted that Max would resonate with readers. While I was writing, I loved him, and that seemed quite normal because an author must love his characters, otherwise it’s impossible to write. But sometimes, I stopped writing, looked at the page on my computer’s screen, and I was thinking: ‘How come I love him so much? He is horrible, he is a little bastard!’
I was worried when the book was published. But as soon as I began to discover readers’ opinions on the Internet, I realized they were feeling exactly like me. It felt like a kind of victory.
A big part of the allure of Max (and Lukas) is that it’s somewhat optimistic – to me anyway. Despite all his indoctrination, something in Max holds him back from outing Lukas – it says to me that there is good in everyone, it’s up to each person to make the good triumph over the bad in them. Is that what you intended? What did you want Max to say about that part in history and humanity?
First, when I write, I don’t want to say anything particular. I only want to tell a story. A good one, with genuine heroes. I don’t have a purpose in mind like ‘sending a message’. I’m not a teacher; I’m not the mother of my future readers—the young ones. I’m just an author of fiction.
If, once they have finished the book, my readers continue to think about my story and the characters, if they have questions, then OK, that means they were touched. I’ve done my job.
Max is a horrible story, but it’s a true story, in many aspects. I’m not as optimistic as you. Is there good in everyone? I don’t know. I’m not sure.
Max has been indoctrinated—very young, as a baby—and in this way, he is a victim. Unfortunately we see, now, all over the world, how powerful indoctrination is, especially with young people. It’s insane and it’s cruel. How can we fight against that? Perhaps, for some of us, by writing, drawing…
Max could have grown up without doubts and become a horrible adult. What saves him is meeting Lukas. The capacity Max has to love him, despite the fact he is Jew.
From where Max begins in the book, to its end, how would you describe his journey to readers?
He opens his eyes.
The first scene, in the novel, is Max’s birth. But it’s a fake birth.
At the end, once the war is over, when he meets the UNRRA team, tells his story as Lukas told him to, there begins his real birth.
Max is a compelling and original story about an awful time in the world’s history. I hope Sarah Cohen-Scali has piqued your interest enough to add it to your TBR list.