Susanne Gervay’s latest release, Heroes of the Secret Underground, is a children’s historical fiction book full of action, mystery and adventure – not to mention a healthy dose of time travel! It expertly navigates the difficult topic of Nazi occupation in Hungary in the 1940s, as well as the mistreatment of Jewish people at this time. Gervay has crafted a story that packages these topics into a hybrid genre, maintaining intrigue whilst also educating younger audiences on historical events.
Senior Editor Shelley spoke to the author about her new book and its significance.
In your own words, can you describe your book for us?
Heroes of the Secret Underground is a story I have been writing all my life. I weave the history of my family into the year 2000, International Year of Peace, and a world at war in Budapest 1944 [into a dual timeline novel]. The book is like a thriller, especially when the heroes time-slip to 1944, as they right wrongs, survive, and search for their past, to then return with insights that will change them forever. Heroes of the Secret Underground is a unique story, but also universal. It weaves great philosophies into its pages, challenging readers to not only engage in the chase, but to live the meaning of friendship, family, justice, and, ultimately, choices about who they want to be.
Ursula Dubosarsky’s Children’s Laureate endorsement is deeply meaningful to me: “This is a personal story that has huge meaning to all of us, beginning in a beautiful safe world which turns suddenly to chaos and terror. A child discovers for herself that there is history that can’t be hidden – it cries out in the darkness of secrets. But it’s also a story of light and love and exceptional courage. The pages seemed to turn by themselves.”
What inspired this story?
As the child of refugees whose family experienced unimaginable atrocities, growing up always held dark secrets. My parents rarely spoke of the ‘before’ as they wanted to keep their children safe. However, children sense these secrets and it was not safe at all. Uncovering the past was a driver of Heroes of the Secret Underground. I also wanted to honour the courageous journey of my parents, Zoltan and Verushka, and so many others like them. Most importantly, I wanted to empower young people to know that whatever challenges happen in their lives, they are heroes.
Your book deals with quite serious historical topics. How did you frame this topic for a younger audience?
Heroes of the Secret Underground
is written for young readers to engage with, so history becomes part of their choices in their own lives. It is about a dark time in history. So the challenge is to make it relevant to young readers. The Holocaust is about the Jewish genocide, but it is also about the genocide of Romani, disabled people, LGBT+ people, and all those who are not part of the superpower race. [Abuse and bullying] is at the heart of power. I frame it for young people through identification with the characters, who are just like them. Gorgeous, feisty, opinionated, emotional, wonderful characters who meet the challenges of history with courage. I write through a time-slip using fantasy as a way into history. The ghost girl is an important guide throughout the story. I do not shy away from real historical situations, but I look for the ways out, always offering hope.
The song The Blue Danube features quite heavily in this book. What is its significance and why did you choose it?
Music was very important in my life. My mother learnt the violin as a child and played it right to her passing away. The Hungarian Opera House in Budapest was part of her life in Budapest and she brought that love here. Opera, music, ‘The Blue Danube’ were integral to growing up here. The music of Strauss often played in my home, as we waltzed around the loungeroom. It was a place of family. ‘The Blue Danube’ travels with the story. It runs through dangerous historical scenes such as the drownings on the banks of The Danube; fantasy with the mermaids of the Danube saving the kids; the music played by the family in Budapest and in Australia. The symbolism is rich and complex for readers to travel with the river into dark and also beautiful places.
You are quite an established author with many books under your belt. How did you get started in the industry?
Getting published is generally hard. Some even say ‘soul destroying’, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s all about the children’s book community. I couldn’t have got here without the sharing of the craft, opportunities, camaraderie and support. Critique groups, joining the state Writers’ Centre, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers are places to begin. I head The Society of Children’s Book Writers Australia East & New Zealand and that is my community.
Do you have any advice for authors wanting to write historical fiction for a younger audience?
Read fabulous children’s and young adult historical fiction by authors [like] Jackie French and Kate Forsyth. Read some classics like Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow. The My Diary series by Scholastic Australia has a wealth of great authors writing about different parts of history. Get to really know the genre.
Select a historical period that truly engages you, as otherwise it is very hard to keep your commitment to the story. Research through the State libraries, interview people who are experts or recall a lived history, visit museums and relevant exhibitions. While historical fiction is fiction, the history has to be correct.
Historical fiction takes a while to write. So take your time and enjoy the discoveries you will make.
What does your writing routine look like?
My ideal writing routine is to write in the morning until lunch, then get on with life – the administration of the writing life, events like podcasts, Zoom meetings. This is my COVID routine. However, when the world reopens it is more difficult to achieve this. I will go away for a week to just write.
Lastly, we ask every interviewee for some book recommendations. What have you been loving at the moment?
Pip Harry – The Little Wave
Melina Marchetta – Zola series – for younger readers
Dianne Wolfer – The Dog with Seven Names