An interview with Melanie Dobson

Interview by Mariah León

What inspired the storyline and characters found in The Curator’s Daughter?

The Curator’s Daughter was inspired by a reader friend. As I researched her story and the Nuremberg trials, I struggled to understand why Germans in this medieval city and across the country didn’t stop the Holocaust. Then I began to realize that a battle had waged within Germany between wars. The people were struggling to find their identity, trying to determine who they were after the loss of the Great War. The Nazis used and abused this desire and began manipulating citizens through pride, fear, shame, and other psychological tactics. The Nazi leaders targeted youth first, presenting Hitler as a father when many fathers were missing. They compiled an archaeological team to dig for artifacts to prove their Aryan heritage and created stories—propaganda—to further their work because they knew the power of story. Then they created an alleged threat—a common enemy—to unleash the pent-up anger.

As I read about the Nazis’ quest for power, I began to wonder what would happen to a professional woman in this era who was passionate about history and its stories. A loyal German citizen who began to question the motivation and control of her government and decided to collect and then hide the stories of those who were being sent away. 

How is the perspective of The Curator’s Daughter unique compared to other novels in the WWII genre?

This novel steps right into the heart of Germany before and then during World War II. The Jewish people were repeatedly welcomed and then expelled from Nuremberg for more than five hundred years, and this story explores—through the perspective of a female archaeologist and wife of an SS officer—why many Germans didn’t try to stop this abuse. The Curator’s Daughter demonstrates this pattern of persecution through stories from earlier centuries and remembers the heroes who stood up against evil. Each character must ultimately choose whether to embrace an identity cultivated not from circumstances or their family but from knowing that they are a son or daughter of God. 

What was one of the most surprising things you discovered in your research for this novel?

When I began writing this novel, I knew the Nazis stole artwork and other artifacts from Eastern Europe, but I had no idea they also kidnapped Jewish children to be raised as “racially pure” Germans. The Nazis had begun losing many of their countrymen in the war so they took it upon themselves to measure these children for what they considered defects and “aryanize” those who they thought would help build a new German culture and loyal army. Some accounts say that more than 200,000 children were kidnapped from countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Many of these kids were too young to remember their biological families, and some didn’t find out for decades that they weren’t really German.

How did you get the idea for the connection between your two main characters, Hanna and Ember?

The connection between Hanna and Ember slowly developed as I realized that Ember would be a Holocaust researcher, inspired by the stories of her former teacher on Martha’s Vineyard, and the victim of a modern-day cult. As she delves deeper into her teacher’s past, she discovers Hanna’s story, and this story ultimately changes her life. As a time-slip writer, it’s rewarding for me to weave the stories of past and present characters together as I discover the connections between them. I won’t give away all the threads, of course, but the similarities in what Hanna faced in the 1940s and what Ember continues to face today surprised me.

Which was your favorite character to write? Which one was the most challenging to write?

I really enjoyed writing Lilly’s perspective as a child in the Sonnenwiese Children’s Home. Most adults struggled silently during this difficult time, but I was able to raise some of the harder questions through the wonder and confusion of an innocent girl who understood clearly the difference between right and wrong. A girl who was ultimately forced by adults into believing a lie. Her journey, I think, represents what was happening to Germany as a whole at the time.

The most challenging character for me to write was Hanna Tillich, an archaeologist and eventually the wife of an SS officer. I liked her drive and search for the truth as she was trapped under Hitler’s regime, but it was hard to create an empathetic heroine who once worked for the Nazis. 

As with many of my novels, I’d like readers to dig deep as they read her story and wonder what they would have done if they lived during the Holocaust. And what they can do now to help and encourage others. 

What made you want to write historical fiction? What about this genre do you most enjoy?

I’m the reader who wants an epilogue in every historical novel, so the time-slip genre with both a historical and a contemporary plot is the perfect fit. I love learning from history, and with time-slip, I can write about how something that happened in the past continues to impact people today. How even with the hardest of circumstances, the greatest of heartaches, redemption can still happen years later. As a result, I hope readers are able to embrace hope for their own story. 

Can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects?

I’m currently writing a time-slip novel inspired by another true story, this one about a young Quaker woman who helped Jewish children escape over the French Pyrenees near the end of World War II. This next book will take readers on a harrowing escape in Southern France and then over the ocean to a beautiful, remote farm in Oregon with a caretaker who has harbored a terrible secret for more than fifty years.