Find a Christian store

Interview with Melanie Dobson

Author Melanie Dobson’s newest book, The Curator’s Daughter, is scheduled to release March 9, 2021. She began to write this novel in 2019. She was intrigued when certain elements from her story—racism, a riot in Washington, DC, and a pandemic—began to play out on the national stage in 2020. This confirmed her belief that the challenges facing us today are not so different from those faced by people who lived in tumultuous times in the past.

Why did you structure your new book as a time-slip novel?
The Curator’s Daughter was a curious story for me to write. Certain ideas go back through time. Often the heart of what we face today was faced by previous generations. My desire through time-slip fiction is to show that even though we’re separated by time from our historical characters, we still face and are required to embrace the same things.

What inspired you to write about the German people during the Holocaust?
The Curator’s Daughter was inspired by a reader friend who lived in Germany right after the war. 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. Germans 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 to those young people who’d lost theirs. 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 in their Jewish neighbors—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.

Ember Ellis, a contemporary Holocaust researcher, wants to confront hatred toward the Jewish people and other minorities. How did you develop her character?
The prologue is based on an actual story about a neo-Nazi group in Idaho in the 1990s. I learned about the story from a friend of mine who lived there. The neo-Nazis did some horrible things. I created my character Ember Ellis as someone who grew up in that group.

Ember wanted to make up for all the terrible acts committed by her family. She sought to discover why people hate so much, and why the cycle of hatred continues to repeat over and over in our world. She became a research scholar at the Holocaust Museum with the intent on finding this out.

I chose her name because I’ve wanted to use it for a long time. Ember has a fiery personality, and the name goes with her character. She's a spark turning into a blazing fire.

How much and what type of research was required for this story? Do you have other books written about WWII?
I’ve written a number of time-slip novels set during the World War II-era including Catching the Wind, Chateau of Secrets, Memories of Glass, and Hidden Among the Stars. To research The Curator’s Daughter, I read several books and interviewed both German and Jewish friends, a research scholar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the curator at the Oregon Jewish Museum. Then I traveled to Washington, DC, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nuremberg, Germany so I could capture the important details of each place and pour those back out onto paper.

I talked with a lot of people. Someone who had read my book Chateau of Secrets contacted me. She told me the story of her mother-in-law who married an American soldier and lived in Nuremberg in 1945. They moved into a German home and the residents at the home became their servants. It was a wild story. That started the wheels turning. I decided to go to Nuremberg and see where so much of the Holocaust happened. The place where Nazi party rallies happened and where Hitler came speak. I wanted to create a German character who wasn't a bad person but got sucked into what happened there. That was my heart.

I spent time at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I interviewed a Holocaust survivor who was gracious and thanked me for telling the story. She doesn’t read Holocaust books or watch the movies because it’s way too emotional for her. I also interviewed one of the scholars at the museum. He was a fantastic resource. The trip was special because my fifteen-year-old daughter made the trip with me.

What was one of the most surprising discoveries in your research?
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.

Which was your favorite character to write?
I really enjoyed writing Lilly’s perspective as a child in the Sonnenwiese Children’s Home. Lilly was one of those Jewish kids who was kidnapped from Poland. Most adults struggled silently during this difficult time, but I was able to raise some 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.

Which character was the most challenging to create?
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.

She was part of a broad organization that existed to preserve the heritage and the legacy of the German people. Hanna wanted to discover and preserve what was good about their heritage. What started out as good went amok under the Nazi regime. When the Jewish population starts to disappear, Hanna was drawn to preserve their stories. She collected them and hid them under name stones at a prayer labyrinth in an old abbey above Nuremberg.

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.

How did you make Hanna empathetic?
She was someone just trying to survive. I showed her caring for other people, ultimately for the daughter Lilly that she adopted. Hanna struggles after she finds out Lilly had been kidnapped. She loved Lilly. If she sent her back to Poland after the war, what kind of place would the girl find?

Hanna was a curator. When she realized the Jewish people were being taken away, she worked to preserve their stories for their families after the war, and so the world would know what happened. It wouldn't have been true to her character to make her completely against the Nazis. She embraced the good part of the rhetoric while she was realizing the bad things that were happening and started to rebel in her own way.

What do you hope your readers take away from reading The Curator’s Daughter?
As someone who’s been writing World War II-era fiction for many years, it has become easy for me to pass judgment on those who made bad choices before and during the Holocaust. But when I walked alongside my German characters in the writing of this novel, when I realized what they faced and what they didn’t know through the much clearer lens of hindsight, I discovered that I was no different than many during this era who were sucked into Nazism. This experience has made me even more vigilant to weigh what is right and wrong today, watching the actions of others instead of just listening to their words. And then trying to weigh my own thoughts and actions as I determine whether I’m faithfully living what I believe. I hope readers will be inspired to do the same.

In what ways are people today no different from the citizens of Germany during WWII?
We are sometimes unaware of what’s happening politically. It's easy to look back and ask why the Germans were so fooled by Hitler. The Curator’s Daughter explains how Hanna was fooled. I used some of Hitler’s quotes in the book about how he thought he was on a mission from God. He used spiritual terms. People were able to embrace the fact that he was trying to rebuild their country. At first, they didn't know about the concentration camps because Hitler controlled the media and freedom of speech.

I would hope and pray I would be like so many Germans who didn’t live through the war because once they found out what was happening, they made sacrifices that cost them their lives.

I lived in Berlin and visited a fascinating memorial in the heart of the city. At first it looks like it had been structured without a lot of thought. It’s made of big concrete blocks that are supposed to represent the Holocaust. As you go further down into the memorial, the blocks get closer together and closer together. By the time you get to the bottom, all of a sudden, you’re trapped! It was an apt visual to use in writing this book.

In the time-slip novel, whose story do you tell first, the historical character or the contemporary?
It depends. Every book is unique. I wrote a nonfiction book about that last year since I wasn’t able to teach at conferences. Most of my time-slip novels are about contemporary characters trying to resolve or figure out something that happened in the past, so I start with the past. [See: A Split in Time: How to Write Dual Timeline, Split Time, and Time-Slip Fiction, Ink Map Press (July 9, 2020) by Melanie Dobson and Morgan Tarpley Smith]

The Curator’s Daughter has a beautiful cover. Did you have input into the design?
I usually have input on cover design, but I can’t take any credit for The Curator’s Daughter. The Tyndale designer did an amazing job with the color and intrigue of this cover, as well as incorporating the medieval city of Nuremberg in the background. The woman on the steps reminds me of one of my favorite Nancy Drew books (The Hidden Staircase). As a girl who wanted to be just like Nancy when I grew up, that makes my heart extra happy.

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
Writing fiction is a form of worship for me as I am continually in awe of how God uses stories to bring people closer to Him. Through the writing process, I revel in the creativity of our Creator and savor our sweet time together as the pieces of story slowly mold into a novel that I pray will encourage and inspire readers.

What is your writing routine?
Before Covid, I did most of my writing in our local coffee shop while my girls were in school, but my teens have been schooling at home for the past year and this wonderful little coffee shop has been mostly closed. I have learned how to write at home in the midst of the craziness, but my favorite time to write is in the midnight hours when the house is quiet and I can immerse myself in my fictional world.

Any sage advice for new or aspiring ACFW authors?
Years ago, I watched an interview with a bestselling novelist, and I was shocked when the woman said she was a “horrible” writer. She quickly followed up her admission by saying that even though she was a horrible writer, she was a fabulous re-writer.

During that season of my life, I was talking about writing all the time and thinking about it even more. The problem was that I was not actually doing much writing because I was terrified I would fail. And if I failed, it would be the death of my dream. Once I realized my first draft didn’t have to be perfect, I let go of my fears and began scribbling down random thoughts and scenes onto paper. Then I reworked and polished these thoughts and scenes over and over until I had a clean manuscript that I could send to a publisher.

I would encourage anyone terrified of the process to sit down with a notepad or computer and begin pouring out what’s in your heart for the first draft. If God has given you a story, pray for persistence, courage, and the skills to pursue it. The journey may not be easy, but it will be an amazing, soul-inspiring one as you diligently listen and learn and then write and rewrite the stories that He’s called you to write.

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
Oddly enough, a stack of rejection letters was one of the most important motivators of my writing journey. I have a box of rejections in my closet. If an editor took the time to give me specific feedback, I did my best to improve the manuscript with their recommendations. With each new rejection, I was motivated to work harder to learn the fiction writing craft.

In the midst of the rejections, I developed a steady routine of writing and rewriting, and this rhythm ended up being an extremely important foundation for when I finally received my first contract. If I hadn’t established that routine, I never would have been able to keep up with my publishing commitments in the face of bad reviews and a host of bad writing days.

My first novel that Kregel published was a contemporary story based on something that happened in the past. I later published a Love Finds You book about the Underground Railroad in Liberty, Indiana. At first, the publisher gave me twelve weeks to write, and then said I had nine. If I hadn't had a good seven years of writing, rejection, rewriting, rejection, rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting, there's no way I would have made that deadline. In hindsight, I thank God for the experience although it was hard at the time.

I've written almost 30 books now. My fourth novel, Together for Good, was it rejected across the board. My agent returned it to me. Eventually I sent it to Steve Barclift, Editor at Kregel Publications and he said yes. I was thrilled and we had a wonderful partnership. When I received a surprise Trailblazer Award at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference, it just happened that Steve was sitting in the audience. I was able to thank him for taking a risk on me.

After all your success, do you still have insecurities about your writing?
Some days I still feel fear. With each new manuscript I’m putting myself out there. I'm such a pantser. I try to outline but I'm no good at that. I come up with complex and complete characters and sit down and tell their story.

I know I need to be faithful if God calls me to write something. It's what I love. It's my passion and desire. I do my very best and God takes it from there.


Teresa Haugh lives with her husband in sunny Prescott, Arizona. When she is not writing, she enjoys music, hiking, reading, and visiting the gym (with audiobooks, of course). She loves meeting and talking with other authors about their writing journeys.

For more great interviews, visit our Author Interview Archives.

ACFW Members, click here to apply for an author interview!

Developed by Camna, LLC

This is a service provided by ACFW, but does not in any way endorse any publisher, author, or work herein.