Dorothea von Schwanenfluegel Lawson – Author Interview

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

“Laughter Wasn’t Rationed: a Personal Journey through Germany’s World Wars and Postwar Years” is my memoir about surviving two world wars in Germany, the aftermath and so-called peace time, and I touch on the Cold War, too.

A lot of people only know about European history what they read in history books or maybe newspaper accounts, but that doesn’t give you a true picture of what life was really like — the behind-the-scenes episodes and day-to-day struggles. While I had a relatively care-free youth, I witnessed the rise and fall of Hitler and his Nazi Party, WWII and the Berlin Wall. Then there were the air raids and intense bombing of Berlin, the food rationing and ever-present hunger (8-hour long trips to farmers), the Soviet invasion as well as American occupation. Life certainly wasn’t dull!

While I cite many historical facts, this is not a history book. (Although I must admit that several universities are using it in history or Modern Gemany courses.) Couldn’t resist giving the reader a small dose of German culture and jokes about the Third Reich that were once punishable by imprisonment or death.

The book is in its second edition and second printing, and has over 40 photographs.

Tell us something about yourself.

I was born in 1916, in the middle of World War I, and yes that means I’m 94. A reviewer from a Chicago newspaper made a point to say that I’m one of the few people alive who has lived thru both world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War and the building of the Berlin Wall. I never thought of it that way, but I guess he’s right!

The place where I was born in Germany, Upper Silesia, is now Polish. In 1935 my family moved to Berlin and that’s where we survived World War II and the intense bombing of Berlin in our air raid shelter. As a teenager I went to school under Hitler’s rule and all the accompanying hoopla.

When the Berlin Wall went up, I emigrated to the US with my two children in 1962. I lived in a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC. for almost 40 years. There I taught German language skills at the university level and to the military. I have a masters degree in languages and linguistics from Georgetown University.

I currently reside in Medford, OR, near my two daughters. It was time to leave the DC area in 2003 when one of the terrorist planes hit the Pentagon. I could see the fire at the Pentagon from my high-rise condo and will never forget that sight, as well as all those B-52 bombers overhead.

What inspired you to write this book?

“Laughter Wasn’t Rationed” was originally intended for my children so they would have a documented family history. As I started to write, I would sometimes share my stories with my students or friends, who found them fascinating and encouraged me to write a book. As the project grew, I came to realize that many Americans didn’t know what the ordinary German citizens went through during the world war era, things I took for granted. And this is why I wrote the book in English, not in German, which would have been a lot easier for me.

What did you believe is the hardest part of writing?

For me, it was the English language! I still think in German and when my daughter would take my initial pages to put on her computer, the first thing she did was turn most of my sentences around.

But I was also amazed how much time this took, and how intensely absorbed I was in my writing. I recall one instance where she visited me and asked if I heard about the latest airplane crash. Plane crash? Didn’t even know it had happened because I was living in a totally different world of the past at the time.

How did you publish this book?

It took me over 10 years to write my memoir because the first five were wasted with first one well-meaning friend, then another, who offered to help by writing down the stories I told them. Unfortunately they wrote down THEIR story with embellishments that didn’t occur. After these experiences, I finally had to take matters into my own hand, and there was NO way I was going to have some young editor at a publishing company re-write what he/she thinks will sell. My life is my life, and no one can change it.

My youngest daughter ended up forming her own publishing company, Tricor Press, and published the book for me. This was very labor intensive since she had to hire an editor, a graphic designer for the cover, as well as a professional for the interior design and layout. She used a well-known book printer in Michigan who was able to reproduce the vintage photos. The end result was a professional product that I’m pleased with.

How did you do research for your book?

I had old diaries that helped me recall events and so did two girlfriends. While I remembered historical events, I researched them in history books to be sure I was accurate with dates, names and places. I also did extensive research in Germany and re-visited some places of my childhood.

Are you working on your next book?

At 94, I don’t think so! But I’ve been told that I should write about my experiences in America. The first two years we lived in CA and I decided to sell Avon to make some money. Now I had a cosmetology license and my own business in Germany so thought this would be a piece of cake. No one told me they gave me the district with the worst sales! Turns out I became THE best Avon seller, and I still have the two corning ware dishes they give me as gifts.

What advice do you have for others who may want to write their own memoir?

You do not start by writing down your life from A to Z in sequence! You may not even want to start with chapter one. I would remember things in bits and pieces, and wrote them down on loose sheets of paper (so I could shuffle them around). Often I would remember events in the middle of the night, only to find out that in the morning I had forgotten them. So I learned to keep a pad and pencil next to my bed at night. Thoughts just happen and you need to take advantage of them as they occur. It is only later that you re-arrange them into major periods in your life, and then into a sequence that readers will be able to follow.

I encourage everyone of the World War generation to write down their experiences. If nothing else, for family. It does not have to be in the format of a formal book like I did. Our generation is dying out and pretty soon our experiences will be lost forever.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

You need to have an audience in mind when you write a book. I also think it is also extremely important to familiarize yourself with the publishing industry so you know what you’re getting into. Read books about publishing, do some Internet research, join online publishing discussion groups. My publisher (daughter) made me read a book on book marketing, which was quite an eye opener for me.

And actually the writing and publishing is the easy part compared to the marketing. A tip from me is to carry your book in your car and with you at all times. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I sold a copy in the grocery store check-out line, at the bank, at the hairdresser and even at the doctor’s office. Talking about your book is one thing, but offering it right then and there AUTOGRAPHED is another!

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

You can learn more about “Laughter Wasn’t Rationed” at the Tricor Press website www.tricorpress.com. It is actually quite an extensive site because it includes the preface and table of contents from the book, as well as excerpts from five chapters and several photos. There is a place to order, and of course Amazon.com carries it.

I hope you will visit me soon!