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How did first time author CF Yetmen achieve the beginner writer’s dream and have Hollywood power broker George Clooney promote her first book?
Hi there. I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today historical mystery author CF Yetmen talks about the amazing convergence of ideas that saw her first Anna Klein book ride a tidal wave of publicity in conjunction with a Clooney blockbuster movie.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- The part serendipity played in buddying up with a Hollywood movie
- Is there a ‘right age’ to publish?
- Why Woman in Gold beats Monuments Men in story telling
- How becoming a mother developed her writing
- The writers she admires most
- And the one thing she did that brought success
Where to find CF Yetmen:
Facebook and Twitter @cfyetmen
Jenny: And now, here’s CF. Hello there CF, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you speaking from Austin Texas.
CF: Thank you so much for having me.
Jenny: It’s great to be speaking across the oceans. Beginning at the beginning . . . .Was there a “Once Upon A Time” moment when you realised you had to write fiction or your life would be the lesser for it? If so what was the catalyst?
CF: You know I don’t know if there was a particular moment. I was always a big reader as a child and I grew up speaking German. I learned English when I was about six so I read books in both languages. When I was in about sixth or seventh grade I wrote a long story which won some sort of an award as I recall it, and I thought “Oh this is fun” and so I have always enjoyed it. When I went to college I studied English, but when I started my career I was working in magazines and publishing, working with other writers, not writing myself until much later in my life. I think it was always out there in my mind, but I didn’t think it was a realistic or feasible dream . .
And then when my daughter was born, you find yourself keeping odd hours, and you find things to do in the middle of the night and that was when I started writing.
Jenny: And those early attempts, were they in this historical mystery genre?
CF: Well the first book The Roses Underneath is the first thing I wrote and it took me five years, so yes, it is the first thing I wrote, but the early versions of it were pretty terrible, it took me quite a while to understand what I was doing.
Jenny: And that book The Roses Underneath – it’s the first book in your Anna Klein trilogy – deals with a topic that became very high profile quite a long time after you starting working on it, – there have now been at least two Hollywood movies made about it – and that’s the restoration of stolen art works in Nazi Germany. The Monuments Men with George Clooney and Matt Damon movie came out in 2014 – But you’d already been working on your book a long time before the movie came out, hadn’t you? The Roses Underneath came out in 2014 too, didn’t it?
CF: It did. It came out three weeks before the movie and that was the result of a very long effort. I had started working on the book in 2009, when I had come across a documentary on TV The Rape of the Europa which was also a book. I was quite a World War II buff, but I didn’t know anything about this particular army unit, and it really resonated with me because my day job is writing bout architecture and many of my clients are architects too. And many of the “Monuments Men” enlisted to find lost art were architects too…..
So I really became interested in their work and somehow I plugged into some cosmic moment suddenly a book and more and more articles appeared and a philanthropist in Dallas created a foundation and did research on who was still living and of course this all aligned with my book! And then one day my husband emailed me and said that George Clooney had bought the rights to the book. And that when I thought OK here we go..
Jenny: Goodness what a great convergence . . it really does feel sometimes as if an idea has it’s moment, doesn’t it?
CF: Yes it really does, and the book coming out three weeks before the movie – I was very pleased about that because I got George Clooney to do some of my book marketing for me . . .
Jenny: And you didn’t even have to pay him . . .
CF: No I didn’t have to pay him at all . . .
Jenny: The other movie we haven’t mentioned yet is the Woman In Gold.
CF: Yes. . . that one was about the restoration of a Gustav Klimt painting to a Viennese family whose descendants now live in America. I felt that perhaps did a better the job of explaining why the art needed to be returned, and it was something that the Nazis totally understood which is why they stole it in the first place. The significance of these art works to the families and their collective identity. that movie did a better job of tugging at those emotions . .
Jenny: One of the things that was most shocking was that they had a deliberate policy of destruction when they realised they were going to lose the war – not only did they covet these works but they set out to destroy them so no one else could enjoy them . . which seemed particularly vicious.
CF: Yes it’s that abuser mentality of “If I can’t have you no one can,” isn’t it? It’s quite shocking, but very effective. If they had succeeded it would have been devastating. But luckily there were art historians and museum directors in the United Stated who realised in the middle of the war what the dangers were and they petitioned the government and the President to form this unit. So thankfully they recognised that – whether it was completely out of altruistic motives is unclear – American museums certainly benefited from this displaced art, but certainly the idea of saving it was a noble one and the Monuments Men themselves individually were committed to that idea…
Jenny: So we’ve established that you wanted to write from quite an early age, but how did you come to decide to something set in post war Germany rather than a contemporary romance?
CF: Yes, so the premise of the two books – the situation of Anna Klein and her daughter Amalia is the same as that of my grandmother and mother. My mother was aged five years old at the end of the war, and they were displaced persons. They were separated from my grandfather, who ended up in the Russian sector, the part that became East Germany, so they had to fend for themselves. My grandmother was fortunate enough to speak English, so she got a job working for an American colonel.
So that was a story that I was always interested in, although it’s not one that she willingly talked about so I only had snippets of what her experience was, and unfortunately she passed away before I got serious about telling her story, but that was always in the back of my mind, and when I heard about the Monuments Men one day those two ideas just converged and Anna Klein got a job working for the Monuments Men and that became the premise for the book
The Monuments Men became the vehicle for telling of her experience. That period has always fascinated me because the country was reduced to rubble and how do you recover from that and change into the Germany that I knew growing up so that was always in my mind and I knew if I was going to write it would be about that
Jenny: Tell me did your grandfather get out of East Germany?
CF: He did, but not until much later. In the late 1950’s he walked across the border with just the clothes on his back, but by then because their future was so uncertain he had divorced my grandmother and she had remarried. I did grow up with him, I knew him, but they were not together.
Jenny: I thought it was a brave call to make your heroine German when you are writing for an American audience . . . just because sometimes those of us outside of America regard Americans as preferring their own home grown heroes – so tell us – how did you that decision?
CF: A good point I grew up in Germany, I moved to America when I was six. I straddled cultures. I didn’t feel German, I didn’t feel American, my father is Turkish and I didn’t feel Turkish – I didn’t feel fully anything – and so the relationship between Anna and Captain Cooper in the book explores that same gap that I experienced and asks how do the Germans see the Americans and how do the Americans see the Germans?
And that forms a tension I find really interesting to explore, because they kind of want the same things, and then again not really . . . .and they don’t really know for sure what they are doing.
The thing I hear most consistently from American readers is that they had not thought about what it was like for German citizens in the war, because as you say there is a very strong narrative of how the Allies won and they defeated the Nazis and there isn’t much written about the experience of German civilians in fiction. I read a ton of books on it, but not a lot of fiction and that’s the response I get the most from readers. They’d never thought it before.
Jenny: Has the series been published in German?
CF: It has a lot of readers there but it has not been published in German, no. It would be nice if it was . . .
Jenny: The Roses Underneath has won awards including an Indie Publisher Gold in 2015 . . . that must have felt like vindication that you are on the right track. . . .
CF: Oh yes definitely. . . you know the reason I chose to indie publish is because I was closely tracking progress on that movie because I thought ‘I have been working on this book three or four years’ and I didn’t want it to appear that I was following them – I felt strongly I wanted it to come out before the movie.. and then the movie production got bumped up by a year and that forced my hand in terms of going for indie publishing because I could control the date.
Jenny: Yes if you’d been traditionally published you might still be waiting . .!
CF: Yes I was at that point querying and I was getting some interest but it’s a very slow process and when they pushed the production schedule up I thought boy even if I get an agent today they still won’t get the book out until a year or a year and a half after the movie . . . Well I don’t want to wait that long so I quit querying and I hired an editor and began the process of indie publishing.
Jenny: Was it a bit like getting on the crest of a big Hawaiian wave and just holding on? How did it affect your sales and visibility?
CF: Oh well you know I’d been working on it for so long… and at the beginning – say I was in a yoga class or something – and someone would say “Oh you’re working on a book – what is it about?” and “I’d say “Well have you heard of the Monuments Men?” And they’d say “No” and so I’d have to explain . . and then about half way through 2013 I’d ask the same question and theyds say “Oh yes, I’ve heard of that, there’s that movie coming out isn’t there? There were previews and rumblings because it was a George Clooney movie and it was a big deal So of course I thought well this is good because it doing some work for me I did get to ride that crest.
And there was one day I think about four or five days after the book was published where I had an article on Huffington Post and that one particular day if you Googled Monument’s Men my book showed up above Clooney’s movie. I have a screen shot of that and I thought “Yes!” My one moment I am outshining him. . .
Jenny: That is terrific! I admit when I read the books I hadn’t realised they’d tracked the movie so closely . .
CF: It became a little obsession, I think it became a bit unhealthy and unbalanced and I was a bit disappointed with the movie but people did go and see it and it did get the word about about the book as well.
In more general terms (moving away from specific book focus)
Jenny: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success? Maybe you’ve already answered that question write about the same topic of a big movie . .
CF: The only thing I can say and it’s so boring and cliched and that is just sticking with it and getting up every morning and just getting the words down even when you didn’t feel like it.. I am fortunate my day job is as a writer and I get paid to write. I have to write when I don’t feel like it – and it might be especially difficult for that first novel which noone else really cares about and you have to create your own momentum and drive to get it going
I was fortunate that none of that process was a mystery to me and it was fun to do it for my own book and then the publishing side of things, finding an editor, working on the cover – I knew how to do all that so that was very helpful. In terms of writing the first two drafts I sent the first five chapters to a friend in New York who works in writing and he said “This is good – but you know you can make stuff up . .” and I said “Oh OK!” Because the two types of writing – journalism and fiction – are very different.
I was so not used to writing fiction. I was used to writing about what I see – buildings and so forth – and I couldn’t just make stuff up – so it took me a couple of drafts to loosen up and once I figured that out I had a good time.. They are different but they feed off each other.
Jenny: It sounds like you did quite a bit of research on the ground for the books – If you were going to organise a literary “magical” mystery tour for your series, where would you Tripadvise people to go?
CF: It’s a great question because I just had an exchange with an art historian – I think based in London, she’s specialist in German art history and she’d read the books and she was travelling to Wiesbaden where the book is set and she did her own little tour of Wiesbaden . . .
I had gone there to research the books and in the novel there are the tourist highlights but it’s 1945 and they are either completely obliterated or partially destroyed – but there is a very famous art museum, a spa, a very famous hotel, they all appear in the book . . there is a Russian chapel up on the top of the hill that Anna and Cooper visit.
So it was wonderful to hear from this woman who had walked through the town and gone to the museum – and that’s where a lot of the book is set because of course that’s where collecting point for the Monuments Men was. . . and she said “Oh I walked in the back door, where Anna walked in . .” and I thought Oh that is so amazing, to have a character come to life like that in a complete stranger’s mind! So I would say go to Wiesbaden and walk around the town . . .
Also Twitter has been so terrific. I made contact with an art historian in Wiesbaden and she wrote her thesis on the art collected at the museum – she was a tremendous resource for the second book . . she very generously shared her dissertation with me and reviewed the second draft – so I have connected with some great people on Twitter.
CF As reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series . . . . Have you ever in the past been a “binge reader” Who did you read?
And do you have a current series or author – or more than one – you’d like to recommend to listeners?
CF: I am not as much now – when you take up writing you have less time for binge reading – but the first series I can literally remember binge reading was Patricia Cornwell and that was definitely an inspiration for writing series as well. Sue Grafton was another who I would put down one and pick up the next – I loved her as a writer and as a person – she was so joyful, she was another inspiration for me on becoming a writer. My absolute favourite is Philip Kerr the Bernie Gunther series about a detective who gets up to all kinds of shenanigans spanning 1930 to 1950 – he’s one of my absolute favorites. And I enjoy Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series too.
Circling back to the beginning
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
CF: the only thing I would change is I would have started earlier. I would have trusted my abilities sooner. I don’t know if this could only have happened this way, having achieved a certain life experience and maturity. I don’t know if that is an essential part of this, that you can’t do it without that.
Jenny: More than 50 per cent of the writers who answer that question say the same thing and it is debatable if there is a time where it all comes together – probably the subject of a blog post sometime ..
CF: I don’t know if it could have happened sooner because one of the things in the book is Anna becoming a mother and I don’t think I could have written that without being a mother myself. That was a critical element for me. Once I had my daughter, suddenly everything was from the mother’s perspective.
Jenny: So what is next for CF the writer – Book three is in development?
CF: When I began it occurred to me there would be three in the series Each revolves around a particular historic event. This time of 1945 is interesting because everything was in chaos. After 1946 the work of Monument Men became more bureaucratic and it’s not such a rich ground to mine for stories
So Book three It takes us to early 1946 because it was this real crucible of time because they didn’t have security or proper storage and once those things got solve it becomes less interesting
The first is set in August 1945, the second in November 1945 and third one starts January 1946 and ends probably in February. I did that deliberately to keep it in this very particular moment.
Jenny: And when are you planning to publish?
CF: I am aiming for next year but I’m not sure when. One of the joys of self publishing! it will be ready when it’s ready.. but I can’t make readers wait too long so I have to get on with it!!!
Jenny: So we are coming to the end CF. Where can readers find you on line?
CF: I have a website – Cfyetmen.com and I am on Twitter and Facebook. @cfyetmen in both places…
Jenny: Well it’s been great talking and I’m sure readers will look you up online. . .
CF: Thanks so much for your interest its been great talking to you too….
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