Heroes of the Secret Underground by Susanne Gervay

“You’re free too … You’re not trapped by the secrets of the past. You’re now a witness to the past. To honour those who have suffered and let no one ever forget so it cannot happen again. You’re free to create your future now.” (Heroes of the Secret Underground)

Any introduction of Australian children’s author Susanne Gervay is likely to use the words “much loved”. Susanne is indeed the much-loved godmother of Sydney’s – and further afield nationally and internationally – children’s literature community. She is the author of significant books, and of equal importance, she is the enthusiastic, nurturing mentor and supporter of our authors.

I was first aware of Susanne’s work when I was the consultant at The Children’s Bookshop, Beecroft. Her seminal children’s novel about bullying I Am Jack (2000) was published then. I distinctly remember promoting this into schools and at conferences and other forums. It was a standout and has gone on to become a play and a work that has been read by realms of children.

During my years as a consultant for independent bookstores in Sydney and Brisbane, Susanne’s other novel that I vigorously promoted because of its importance, understanding and beauty was Butterflies, about a teenage girl with severe burns.

Susanne’s new novel is Heroes of the Secret Underground (HarperCollins Australia). It is the best children’s novel I have read this year. It is action-packed and, although dealing with pain and loss, it is overflowing with love, particularly love of family. I believe this to be the third of Susanne’s novels that will keep her name in the canon of Australian children’s literature.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Susanne.

You have played an incredible role in developing and nurturing the Australian children’s literature community. Could you please tell us about some of this?

‘Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot if difference. They don’t have to makes speeches. Just believing is usually enough.’— Stephen King, On Writing

When I nervously began the journey into writing, It was lonely writing. There was very little, if any community and few people who believed in your journey. That was then more than 20 years ago. Today, the Australian children’s literature community is vibrant, complex, rich with opportunity and support and energy.

My first entry into the community was squirreling through rickety staircases and a maze of rooms to an attic in the old Journalists’ Club at Central Station Sydney. There I found four writers who were the remnants of a Children’s Writers Network. I was so happy to find them, although they were pretty sad at the state of publishing.  The Journalist Club was being knocked down when I offered to set up a monthly Children’s Network in an old hotel that was in the family. So it began. The Children’s Network at The Hughenden became the hub of a writing community that attracted novice authors and illustrators. I always remember when the extraordinarily talented Sarah Davis arrived with her unpublished portfolio. It was so exciting to support her in the beginning of her illustrator career and her first book. I loved Kate Forsyth turning up with her little children where they drew while the writers shared the creative life. Kids were welcome. Libby Hathorn, Aura Parker, Sue Murray, Belinda Murrell, Moya Simons, Will Kostakis and everyone came forming their careers with community support.

When Jennie Orchard asked me to gather kids’ authors and illustrators to become ambassadors for Room to Read, bringing literacy to the children of Asia and Africa, I called our community together. It has been amazing with Jacqueline Harvey, Deborah Abela, Oliver Phommavanh, Tristan Bancks, Belinda Murrell and a team of us committed to becoming ambassadors.

When I joined the NSW Writers’ Centre I committed to establishing a children’s and young adult community there. From virtually no kids’ authors and illustrators, it grew to around 25% of the membership and became a drop in place for the children’s community. When I established the inaugural Kids and Young Adult Writers’ Festival there, it was I believe, the first one in Australia. I am always so proud that the hilarious and talented Oliver Phommavanh got his first break there with an offer of a literary agent. Now seeing how many Kids festivals have grown from such a small beginning, is so exciting.

Taking on the leadership of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators has been the most consuming role. One I have done for more than 20 years. It has grown from gatherings at our family hotel to everything imaginable from road trips to Jackie French’s bush house; international conferences; writing retreats; connecting to the world at Bologna Book Fair; crazy Christmas parties; campaigns that support libraries. I have an incredible team of generous writers and illustrators running chapters in every state (except WA and NT) and New Zealand. I did initiate SCBWI WA which has the most wonderful creators.  WA was on the outside of publishing when I started. Publishers did not realise the talent there. In their first international conference, SCBWI WA was piggy-backed onto the Sydney Conference. We brought publishers to Perth and so it began. SCBWI West became its own region eventually and I’m so proud of that.

The manuscript critiques, which have become standard practice now, started with SCBWI. I must admit I got the idea from SCBWI Head Office in Los Angeles, where they were bringing publishing industry to the creators through these critiques. So, it is what happens now at many Kids and Young adult Conferences. We are always at the forefront of supporting our community. The recent SCBWI initiative was the Australian Illustrator Narrative Award with prize money of $20,000 to our illustrators. I was on the committee for the inaugural Words on the Waves Festival on the Central Coast which partnered with SCBWI to bring our authors and illustrators into this beautiful event. There are so many initiatives like this that have become incorporated into the life of children’s creators.

Working with the Children’s Book Council has brought our authors and illustrators into the fold. We just did STORY SCOOP where SCBWI creators produced 15 minute video clips on story which were part of the CBCA platform. The recent CBCA NSW anthology for ‘Old Worlds, New Worlds, Other Worlds’ brought together the community. The wonderful author Elizabeth Cummings initiated this anthology and she asked me to come on board to approach creators and edit as well of course. I contacted so many writers and illustrators I knew and they were all happy to donate a work to this anthology to raise funds for the CBCA. There is so much more, but being a children’s writer or illustrator is no longer a lonely business. It is filled with the vibrancy of the children’s story industry and keeps growing and evolving with new creators joining us and pursuing their brilliant career. Not everyone will make it, but a lot do and it is a privilege to be part of their journeys.

This is just a snapshot. What a community.

(How uplifting to read of your involvement in the children’s literature community and how you have been an intrinsic part of its nurture and development, Susanne.)

What is the story behind your new story?

I have been writing ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ all my life. My first book ‘Next Stop the Moon’ (HarperCollins) which is no longer in print, was my initial venture into this story. My picture book ‘Ships in the Field’ was another attempt and while it received two Notable Awards from the CBCA, it was not there. I wrote fragments of the story in children’s to adult anthologies and journals, but the deeper story was not fully revealed yet.  ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ is there now. Part autobiography, history, philosophy with a splash of fantasy, it is a thrilling time slip from the year 2000, the International Year of Peace in Australia, to Budapest 1944 at the time of the Holocaust. It holds my beliefs, life and passionate commitment to empowering young people to be heroes in the face of challenges. Jackie French AM Australian Laureate 2014-2015 Senior Australian of the Year writes: – ‘As Susanne weaves in stories from her family’s secrets, she writes about the essence of humanity.’

The cover of your new novel features the title Heroes of the Secret Underground written on the diagonal. Diagonal lines often represent adventure, fast-pace and chaos. How does this reflect your novel?

The cover is amazing. The diagonal is a visual representation of the dramatic pace of ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’. It also has a sense of the swastika and highlights the red angles that form the backdrop. The cover has many parts – the labyrinth, three young people running into it towards a mysterious city at the end of the time tunnel, the colours of light and dark. There is a lot to explore in that cover.

When and where is this book set?

It begins in the International Year of Peace, the year 2000 in Sydney.  I selected this year as it holds the theme of the novel. Peace. It time slips to Budapest 1944.  It is set in a time frame that does not date, giving it permanent context.

What is something you love about Budapest?

Budapest with its dark history is also a city of gold. I love its opulence and glory and, despite humanity’s capacity for evil, it displays humanity’s capacity for extraordinary creativity. As Louie, Bert and Teddy reach the Hungarian Royal Opera House they are breathless at its magnificence –

‘The glorious Hungarian Royal Opera House rises in front of them. Magnificent arches, soaring columns and grand balconies force their eyes upwards. Beethoven, Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and other marble statues of the greatest composers in the world stand like stars on its rooftop.’ (Ch 21)

I was spellbound by your sensory evocations of Sydney – and the descriptions of flowers and trees are breathtaking. Could you please share one of these that describes some of what Sydney means to you?

Magnolia blossoms photo by izik (Creative Commons)

Outside my terrace home is a stunning magnolia tree in the tiny park that is at the entrance to my street. It is lined with Victorian terraces, boutiques, cafes and iron wrought fences typical of inner city Sydney. Magnolias are grown throughout Sydney and I love them. They are such overblown flowers that have been around forever. I love the Australian natives too and flowers transported and adapted from across the world. They reveal the essence of Sydney with its diverse community that blends and adapts to create home.

‘Fragrant perfumes waft from the gardens into the air, making her giddy. She watches the milky-white magnolias flip-flopping in the wind like baby umbrellas. Imagine. Magnolias have been in the world forever. More than ninety-five million years. Before there were even bees. Or bats. Or wise old owls like Bagoly.’ (Chapter 3)

Could you please introduce your protagonists?

My protagonists are inspired by my family. Louie who is nearly thirteen, her younger brothers Bert eleven years old and Teddy who is four, drive the story. They are joyous, curious, investigative, caring, loyal, brave, thoughtful, mischievous and all those qualities that make us love them. Teddy with his red hair is based on my little grandson with his huge heart and adventurous spirit. Bert is the scientist whose hero is Einstein of course, and always has ideas. He is based on my son. Louie is me.

Naomi, the ghost girl, is the physical representation of the need to know the past, to find the wisdom to not repeat it. It was inspired by Charles Dickens’, ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Zoltan and Verushka are my parents. I wrote ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ to honour their courage and the values that underpin my life.

There are many characters in ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’. Each one is purposeful and reflects people in the past and present who enrich the reading experience.

What is the importance of the locket and labyrinth in your story?

On a simple narrative level, finding the owner of the locket provides a plot line. Unravelling the mysterious symbols on the locket, reveals its significance to the protagonists. Then there is the pearl shell labyrinth inside the locket. It unlocks the pathway to peace which is a core theme:-

‘The labyrinth is eleven sandstone pathways, in an eternal circle, without beginning or end. It is the unity of the human spirit.’ (Ch 7)

There are many more aspects of the meaning of the locket and the labyrinth. These include:- the search for the meaning of life; the locket’s representation of tradition and how it has been passed on for generations; the return of the locket to heal the sins of the past; the difference between a labyrinth and a maze where one is a way forward and one is a place to get lost.

There is philosophy and ethics to explore in the locket and labyrinth.

Your lyrical and rich, and yet accessible and engaging, writing is a feature of this novel. What is another symbol that you have used in the book?

There are many symbols in this novel. Everything is purposeful, to reach deeper into our values, ideas, consciousness, relationships. Not everyone will find them or see their relevance, but that is okay. They are there for those who want to explore further.

Rose is throughout the novel from the rose-gold locket to the red roses representing love. The black cockatoos are the great protectors, the spirit finders. The Chai means To Life. Peacock feathers are symbolic of blessings. The drop of blood from the thorn of the rose is magical like in Fairy Tales. Bagoly which means owl in Hungarian, is Teddy’s wise and comforting companion.

A key symbol is the candelabra. It represents light and hope. 

‘The seven-branched candelabra, also called a menorah, is first mentioned in the Bible in Exodus (25:31–40), where it was revealed to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. In Judaism, the branches represent human knowledge, and the flame represents universal enlightenment.’ (Glossary, Symbols of Peace).

It opens questions about who we are. Can you steal a person’s light?

‘The soldier picks up the golden candelabra with its seven lamps of wisdom. ‘No … not … our candelabra … the light …’ Mamma cries. The professor grabs her hands. ‘Leave it. You must leave it.’ Verushka whispers, ‘Shush, Mamma. They may take the candelabra, but they can’t take the light. That is always ours.’ (Prologue)

What is the significance of music and food in your tale?

Music is the food of the soul. Food is the music of family and friendship.

Food represents family, love, sharing, community. It is abundant and luscious, traditional and comes from recipes that have evolved over generations. Sharing it is like arms around you, like love.

‘There’s too much food like always. Cabbage and dumplings. Cabbage in sweet and sour vinegar. Cabbage and mince-meat pancakes. Hungarians love their cabbage. Poppy-seed rolls, sour cherries in sweet juice, melt-in-your-mouth angel wing biscuits, strudel with the flakiest pastry, and Louie’s favourite, kuglof, which looks like a rocky mountain with drippy chocolate, twirled between twists of dry-sweet vanilla cake.’ (Ch 5)

In war, there are shortages of food and people become desperate. In ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’, people are carving the meat from a dead horse in Budapest. As the kids hide on Margaret Island, they eat bread and thinly spread jam to save their food supplies. There are moment of sacrifice, when Bert gives his piece of salami to the hungry children in The Glass House.

War takes everything away, but it cannot take music. It is in your thoughts and heart. Like food music represents family, love, sharing, community. Sharing it is also like arms around you, like love.

Music runs throughout the novel, both in 1944 and 2000.

‘Louie shuffles her stool closer to the grand piano. She presses the brass piano pedals so the notes sound smooth and long. Grandma slips her violin under her chin and raises her bow. She tunes the strings, until they sound as sweet as summer days. Grandma nods at Louie. Swaying in time with the music, they play ‘The Blue Danube’. Grandma’s green eyes become soft as she remembers the past. When she was a little girl, watching ladies in flowing gowns, waltzing with boys in white ties and black-tail jackets.’ (Ch 5)

When there are no violins or piano, the boy in The Glass House made a harmonica from a comb and paper and played it.  The girls sing at the top of The Glass House.

‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ is a book filled with food and music.

What would you like us to know about the refugee experience?

‘It’s a long time before she (Grandma) answers. ‘It was very hard leaving everything I knew. Escaping Hungary. Crossing mine fields in the night. To live in a refugee camp with thousands of frightened people. It was many years before we found home.’ (Ch 5)

Refugees of war and terror do not want to flee their home and everything they know. It is horrifying to leave those they love to go to a new world, to be strangers in a foreign land.  My parents did not speak English, although they spoke both German and Hungarian. They had to find work without English. My father worked in the Holden car factory and my mother, who was the daughter of a professor of engineering in Budapest, worked in a clothing factory. They missed their home so much, but it was gone. They were grateful every day to be in a democratic country where they could rebuild and their children could receive education and a future. However they carried the scars of war and terror in their thoughts forever.

How have you made a tale that is so harrowing at times bearable for young readers?

I did not want readers to turn away from my novel because it was too harrowing. So how did I do this? It was through writing about characters they know. Louie, Bert and Teddy are their brothers and sisters. It’s their family or their mate or a neighbour or kids they hang out with. Louie’s family is unique like all families, but it is also the same as all families.

While I write truthful history, it is through the lens of young people, who have hope and adventure inside them. It is written like a quest and young readers love a quest. They’re the heroes in the quest as well.

When I tackle very hard areas, I leave it open for readers to take it at face value or explore further. When the twins are taken by the Lieutenant, those who know realise they will go to Mengele and camps. Others will not understand and that is all right. I leave plenty of room for readers to interpret the story within their safe space.

When the Arrow Cross fascist (Nazi partners) are murdering the people on the banks of The Danube, I refer to two young men with pink stars who lean against each other. If a reader knows it is about the extermination of homosexual people that is for them to realise. Others will bypass it and that is okay too.

There is a lot of room in my book for readers to find their comfort level and experience the journey as it meets their needs. In whatever ways readers read ‘Heroes of the Secrt Underground’, it was written to inspire courage and to learn from the past to make different choices.

You’ve mentioned some other books in the novel, including the Alice in Wonderland books, the Harry Potter collection, the works of Charles Dickens and Albert Einstein, the books of Moses in the Bible and Birds and Mammals of Australia. Why have you chosen one or more of these books?

Growing up, books opened my mind to thoughts and ideas. They travelled with me on that search for meaning of youth. I want to open that to young readers today. For those who just enjoy a pacey narrative, ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ provides that. However for those who want to go deeper, I incorporate works that have challenged me to think and imagine. How can you go through life without Lewis Carroll’s ‘nonsense’ poem ‘Jabberwocky’? It is not nonsense of course, as it is about courage, David slaying Goliath. The incredible Harry Potter books are also about courage and fighting evil. The fantasy in ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ slips in between history and realism with the ghost girl, the mermaids of The Danube, the portrait of Petra. Einstein, Charles Dickens, the Bible are there to tempt readers into touching the longevity of literature and relates to them today.

Sea Eagle by Gracius Joseph Broinowski

‘Gracius Joseph Broinowski, artist and ornithologist, was born 1837 at Walichnowy, in Poland died 1913 in Sydney, Australia.’ His illustrations of the Birds and Mammals of Australia were hung in most primary schools. I am not sure why I ended up with a school classroom picture of a Gracius eagle.  I understood his story, where young people escaped totalitarian regimes. He was a teenager and was being conscripted into the Russian army and ran away. It is a small story, but a big story, unknown in Australia now. I wanted to share it and Pa’s thoughts:-

‘Bert shows Pa and Grandma The Birds and Mammals of Australia. Turning the pages slowly, Pa reads the story of Gracius. He’s very impressed. ‘Who could imagine that just a boy from Poland escapes war, crosses oceans alone. Leaves his family and friends for an unknown home in an unknown country. Then he makes beautiful art of our birds and animals for everyone. He is brave.’

Who are the true heroes?

It is a story of so many heroes. Louie, Bert and Teddy of course. Zoltan and Verushka. Verushka’s parents.

Heroes:- Fifteen year old Klara who looks after the smaller children and tries to save the twins from being taken by the Lieutenant; the Vice Swiss Council Carl Lutz who issued false documents to save the Jewish people of Budapest; the young people of the secret underground and others.

What awareness do you hope your story generates in your readers?

A year ago at the World Holocaust Forum Prince Charles said “The lessons of the Holocaust are searingly relevant to this day. Seventy-five years after the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart, still tell new lies, adopt new disguises, and still seek new victims.”

‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ seeks to empower readers to oppose the ongoing spread of hatred and bigotry in the world.

You have personally received a number of awards. Could you mention one that means a lot to you and tell us why?

The Order of Australia for children’s literature means everything to me. My parents came to Australia with nothing. They lived in a single room and worked double shifts in factories. They came with such trauma in their lives but a belief that Australia was the land of freedom. Fiercely Australian they got their citizenship as soon as it was allowed. Imagine how they feel that in only one generation their daughter could stand in Government House overlooking Sydney Harbour and receive an OAM. It was one of the emotional days of my life, as I accepted the OAM for myself, my parents and for all those who have made home here.

What are you writing now or next?

I am just completing a picture book. I need a mental and emotional rest after the past years of writing ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’. Then I want to begin on an early chapter book series about the mix-master kids my grandkids are growing up with today.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Tristan Bancks – Detention

Dianne Wolfer – The Shark Caller (It was published a while ago which I have at last read and I love it.)

Susanne Gervay (HarperCollins)

How would you prefer your readers contact you?

Love them to contact via my website: https://sgervay.com

Or my Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sgervay

Thank you for your open, generous answers here, Susanne. I am enormously moved by them, as well as by your exciting and profound novel Heroes of the Secret Underground.

Equally importantly, thank you for what you do for our authors, as well as for the children who read your books.

There is a time to love, and a time for peace. It is that time now.” (Heroes of the Secret Underground”

Susanne Gervay’s website

Heroes of the Secret Underground by Susanne Gervay at HarperCollins

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