For those who’ve followed it since the beginning, and for those who’ve just arrived… Bringing you up to speed on my novel-in-progress, You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic…
It’s a story that I consistently refer to as a World War II thriller. You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic is a tale I’ve been dying to tell since 2017, and actively writing since 2021. And what a labour of love it’s turned into! A labour of love that’s so much more than the historical thriller I first envisaged. There’s politics, there’s romance, there’s revenge… You could even argue there’s a bit of satire. A love letter to my days working in hotels, and a means of taking the piss out of all the stupidity that hospitality staff face every day. Or venting my anger at the same… I dunno. But for all that, there’s no less serious an undercurrent. This is Nazi Germany, after all…
Where are we in the story?
As of 19 February, I have hit 400 pages of A5. Plot-wise, we’re very near the halfway point. In keeping with my previous two novels, this story is long. It deals with a large ensemble of characters, all of whom are playing relevant and pivotal parts in the story. They’re all undergoing their own development. But I know there are people out there who will say, “A historical novel should only be X number of pages long”. You’ll have to excuse me but I disagree.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that this story, as it is, is too long. I have already decided to cut a final quarter out to make way for a potential sequel if that’s what readers want. But to keep it in would give us a 21st century War and Peace. And in the redrafting and editing process, I’ll whittle it down and decide what needs to go, what needs to stay, and so on.
What part are you writing currently?
As of 19 February, I’ve hit 400 pages of A5. Plot-wise, we’re very near the halfway point. In keeping with my previous two novels, this story is long. It deals with a large ensemble of characters, all of whom are playing relevant and pivotal parts in the story. They’re all undergoing their own development. But I know there are people out there who’ll say, “A historical novel should only be X number of pages long”. You’ll have to excuse me, but I disagree.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that this story, as it is, is too long. I’ve already decided to cut a final quarter out, to make way for a potential sequel if that’s what readers want. To keep it in would just give us a 21st century War and Peace. And in the redrafting and editing process, I’ll whittle it down and decide what needs to go, what needs to stay, and so on.
I’m just in the middle of a high-octane, action-packed and emotional set of chapters, in which bombs start to fall in the middle of an important function at the hotel, during which one of our main characters also falls seriously ill; it falls to our hero, Heinrich, to choose between love and duty. It’s also the point at which the hotel stops being seen as invincible, a haven of luxury and security away from the war-torn Berlin that surrounds it. Heinrich struggles to come to terms with his complacency as a result.
What’s the book about?
You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic follows young hotelier Heinrich Oeunhausen, who is being pressured to join the Nazi Party by his frequent customer and family friend, Standartenführer Leopold Upfauer, the Minister of Hospitality. He grapples with a sense of duty to his country, respect and fear of Upfauer, and his devotion to his wife Sofie, whose mental illness makes her a target of the party. Heinrich must keep her existence a secret from his SS clientele, hiding her in relative plain sight under heavy sedation and with the music of Chopin to quell her violent hysterics. The pianist is a secret in his own right; a peevish Jew named Itzhak Zylberman, confined to an attic annexe with little sympathy from Heinrich.
With Upfauer’s influence, Heinrich’s business (and his secrets) remain relatively safe. That is, until the arrival of Cordelia Knesebeck, a beautiful but inquisitive and mysterious woman with secrets of her own, who Upfauer soon installs as deputy manager of the hotel. Events take dramatic twists for both Heinrich and Cordelia as they are thrown into an uneasy alliance. Their loyalties and commitments are tested, and control over their lives and secrets begin to crumble.
Meet the Main Characters
If you’ve read my other books already, you’ll know I’m fond of a large cast of characters. That is real life, after all… you don’t stay in a hotel and only encounter two or three people… not in my experience, anyway. Here are the ones you need to know about for now:
The 23-year-old manager of The Heinrichstürme, one of the last luxury hotels still operating in Berlin, which he inherited from his father. With a soft-spoken and gentle-faced demeanour, Heinrich is seen as something of a pushover by many. But the events of the novel lead him to harden as a leader, forcing him to confront several awful choices along the way.
A beautiful, if difficult, young woman who arrives at The Heinrichstürme as a guest. With the connivance of Standartenführer Upfauer, and to Heinrich’s chagrin, she soon joins the hotel staff as deputy manager. A development that leads many including Cordelia herself to question her loyalties and motives. But it also opens her eyes to hardships she’d never known before.
Heinrich’s beautiful wife, whom he met at a ball and married in secret after a brief courtship. It was only after everything was said and done that he discovered she has schizophrenia, an illness that makes her a target of the Nazi Party. Unable to flee without drawing attention to themselves, Heinrich conceals Sofie to their suite at the hotel, where she is out of harm’s way but confined to her bed, often under heavy sedation. Initially regretful and self-reproaching of the situation she feels she has caused, Sofie gradually chafes against her imprisonment and longs for freedom. Freedom her husband wants to give her, but cannot for the sake of their lives.
A member of Hitler’s inner circle, the Reichsminister of Hospitality, and a family friend of the Oeunhausens. One of their best and most influential customers. He reigns over his staff with an iron fist and combustible temper, while insisting on complete respect towards Heinrich and the hotel workers. However this respect is a front for the considerable control and manipulation Upfauer wields. Though he claims his motives are pure, he won’t be truly satisfied until the hotel and its owner cast aside their apolitical attitudes and tie themselves directly to the Nazi Party.
A Jewish former concert pianist from Poland whose skill on the keys has a miraculous calming effect on Sofie’s condition. In his 80s, Itzhak is confined to a secret attic annexe in the hotel, where he is forced to play the piano for Sofie, who rests beneath him. While this fate is considerably better than that of his family and his countrymen, Itzhak resents it all the same, feeling like a prisoner whom Heinrich would give up in a second if the opportunity arose. The two share an antagonistic relationship throughout the novel. Conversely, Itzhak views Sofie with fondness, and also enjoys Cordelia’s company.
A prolific Berlin attorney and accountant, whose clients include Heinrich and the Ministry of Hospitality. He relishes the power and influence this position gives him, particularly so he can dote on his glamorous wife. While a shrewd and conniving character, Verschuer has his limits. As the novel progresses, we see his attitudes towards the state of Germany, the war, and Upfauer’s cruelty, grow less steady.
Heinrich’s younger brother, an irresponsible yet irresistible, charming and charismatic rogue and gambler. He shows up unannounced after selling his share of the hotel, still hoping to score freebies and luxuries from his long-suffering brother, who hopes in vain to tame Konrad back onto the straight and narrow. Konrad is also mutually smitten with Cordelia on sight and their relationship is one of the novel’s key subplots.
Chief waiter and “Head” of the concierge department (also its sole member), nothing happens around the hotel without Alois’ knowledge or involvement. Fearless and impulsive, he will disobey orders and take serious risks to discover information and satisfy his hunger for justice. No matter how petty that justice may be. And while he rebels against him frequently, he is fiercely loyal and protective of Heinrich and will do anything to help him and Sofie. Though he possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of Berlin, Alois’ ambition lies in the law.
A housekeeper and waitress at the hotel, who also plies a less savoury trade behind closed doors. Upfauer and Konrad count among her clients. She also has a soft spot for Alois, and is often both a voice of reason and reluctant ally in his mischief.
Upfauer’s chief adjutant; in other words his most senior secretary and, in Hoesch’s view, the Ministry of Hospitality’s second-in-command. But for all his sycophancy and dedication, his master looks on Hoesch with disdain and irritation, making no secret of his preference for Heinrich. Hoesch is malignantly jealous as a result, and he shares a mutual enmity with the hotelier. He also commands little respect from the others in his department, but hungers for power and authority despite lacking the skills to manage either.
Fanatic Nazi Party supporter, Frau Elberfeld is head housekeeper at the hotel. She is a staunch admirer of Hitler and longs for him to bless the hotel with a visit. She doesn’t hide her disdain for the way Heinrich runs things, preferring the stricter style of his late father, who hired her after she resigned from her previous job in a private household. Frau Elberfeld also commands her department with militant relish, and dislikes Irene Ginze for a number of reasons. Not least the latter’s beauty, but also her close alliances with Heinrich and Alois, her main nemesis.
A quiet-spoken chef for whose skill in the kitchen Heinrich has a professed admiration. While only second-in-command in the department on paper, Mauritz is more-or-less in charge of the daily operations. But despite Heinrich’s efforts, he is shrouded in mystery. A mystery that may or may not involve the newly-arrived Cordelia Knesebeck.
What challenges is You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic facing?
The short answer to this is, many. Like I said in the intro, this novel is a real labour of love. Researching it has been a huge, but fun, challenge. But knowing how to frame the story… knowing which character’s eyes we should be telling it through… I’m still facing these obstacles even now. Suffice it to say, I already know that I’ll look to change things in the redrafting stage.
A more detailed post on the things I already know about my first draft of You Can Hear Chopin from the Attic will follow in due course.
Thank you for reading. Let me know what you think. Got a favourite character already? Want to know more? Why not leave a comment or get in touch via my Facebook and Instagram pages. And read further posts out more about this novel.