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An Interview with the Author

Q: Tell us why you wrote
Bells of May.

A: Well, I’ve always been fascinated by my family’s history, but I found it frustrating that I didn’t know, and never could know, what motivated my ancestors, what they were like.  I fantasized about inventing personalities and motivations for them and writing a book about my imaginings.

When I lost my job in 2003, my husband suggested that I stay home “for a few months” and write that book. That few months turned into two years!

Q: You seem fascinated by the Harz Mountains. Why?

A few years ago a Germany genealogist discovered that my family were not farmers, as I’d always thought: for hundreds of years they had been part of the mining industry of the Harz. That seemed much more exotic to me, and the more I read, the more interested I became in the area. Also, the fact that the people of that area had some unusual rights and privileges—even free education in the 18th century—attracted me.

Q: Then, are the people in
Bells of May real?

A: They’re all real in my head! No, actually there
are some historical characters: the surgeon and the midwife in Wieda and the pastor in Wettmar, were all actual people who served the community in the appropriate time frame.

Other characters are only inspired by people in my family tree. I did have an ancestor whose first husband died in a mining accident and who remarried a much older man, but that’s all I know about her: Katherine’s story is Katherine’s only. The closest I come to using actual family for my characters is in the last section: Let’s just say that the Baumanns who came to America are closely related to my great-grandfather, whose name was Heinrich Willi Bormann.

Q: You went to Germany to do research. Why was that necessary?

Details. It was all about details. I found myself wanting to describe a scene, a room, a very real church that was still standing, with no clear picture in my head of what it would look like. The only option was to be vague, and I knew I was cheating the reader. I just had to see Wieda, Zorge, Wettmar and the rest.

Q: How did you do your research, aside from the trip?

Thank goodness for the Internet! I learned all about making charcoal, raising canaries, the 30-years war and more. I used Google to translate German sites (tricky, but adequate), and communicated with people like Olaf Strecher, who lives in Wieda. At one point I needed an appropriate name for a pet canary, so I e-mailed Olaf to ask for ideas. He suggested Berta, which was perfect—my Grandma Bertha (pronounced “Berta”) had a canary.

I also owe a lot to the few books written in English that I could find which covered non-military matters in Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. My very favorite were “Health & Healing in Eighteenth-Century Germany” by Mary Lindemann and “A History of Brunswick, Life in a German Duchy from Roman Times through 1900” by Dan C. Heinemeier.

Q: Any more family tales to tell?

Absolutely. I’m currently working on the story of the “tiny red-haired German girl” who marries Willi Baumann in the final chapter of
Bells of May. This is the epic story of my Grandmother, who was born in Prussia in 1876 and died in Chicago in 1963. The enormous changes that she experiences over her lifetime make a wonderful story.

And then of course there’s the Swiss side of my family …!

Jane Wagoner
Bertha Froehlich Bormann
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