A global pandemic has been an unusual time for international bestselling author Heather Morris (The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Cilka's Journey) – but it hasn't stopped her releasing her fourth book in as many years.
Te Awamutu Courier broke the story in November last year that the next title would be Three Sisters – a story about 'three amazing and beautiful women who believe they are ordinary people'.
It was a story so bound to The Tattooist of Auschwitz main characters Lale Sokolov and Gita Furman, yet Heather hadn't heard any of it before in her research and interviews.
Three teenage sisters, Cibi, Magda and Livia Meller, grew up in the same Slovakian town as Gita, and like Lale and Gita, they were all in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the same time and all survived.
But not only did they survive the camps, they also survived the death march and after World War II travelled to Israel to be part of the creators of the new State of Israel, where hundreds of thousands of other Holocaust survivors were seeking a new life. They then went on to marry and raise families in their new home.
So how did a girl from Pirongia come to be a respected historical storyteller and international traveller when most people at her stage of life are planning to slow down and take life a bit easier?
Heather (nee Williamson) left Te Awamutu College and her family in Pirongia, parents Jock and Joyce and four brothers, 'some decades ago' to make a bit of money and then escape small town New Zealand to see the world.
Like many young Kiwis, she headed across the Tasman, where she met her future husband, Aussie Steve Morris.
For a while they moved to Christchurch where they had family.
Steve worked in IT and was headhunted back to Australia in 1987, where they have lived since. Heather worked in social services within the medical profession - mostly at Melbourne's Monash Medical Centre.
She has always been a keen reader and a movie lover, but nothing prepared her for the journey of more than a dozen years that led her to international fame when she released her first book – the historic novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
That was in 2018 and when I first met Heather in April 2019 she was back at Te Awamutu College speaking to English and history students.
It was the Te Awamutu Courier that announced she was working on a second book, based on the information from Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, and further research, to be released later in the year.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz had spent weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list and at that time had been translated into 46 languages and more than two million copies sold into 49 countries – with more on the horizon.
The audio book, read by Richard Armitage, had won a 2018 Earphones Award - given by AudioFile to 'truly exceptional titles that excel in narrative voice and style, characterisations, suitability to audio, and enhancement of the text'.
Our next meeting was in December of the same year at a speaking engagement at Te Awamutu RSA, also supported by Waipa District Council and Te Awamutu Paper Plus, for the second book - Cilka's Journey as part of her book launch speaking tour.
She also told the Courier she had enough research material for six or seven other novels – but at that time she still didn't know about Cibi, Magda and Livia Meller.
At the RSA talk Heather gave her audience three tips on how to be a successful author.
One - Never turn down coffee with a friend;
Two - Never say no to meeting someone new;
Three - Always get on with their doggies.
Heather said it was at coffee with a friend she heard about Lale.
Then she was invited to meet him, an opportunity she took, and later Lale admitted he only agreed to tell her his story because his dogs liked her.
It was at the event Waipa mayor Jim Mylchreest announced Heather would be inducted into the Te Awamutu Walk of Fame in acknowledgement of her worldwide literary success.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz had gone on sell more than four million copies and was back at No 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list after 64 weeks.
"Heather has made a huge impact around the world with her writing and we are proud to know that her roots are in the district," said Jim.
The mayor said she was in good company, joining many impressive men and women who had accomplished great things and had ties to the Waipā.
The combined sales of The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Cilka's Journey have gone on to exceed eight million.
In November last year Heather released her third book In Stories of Hope, a non-fiction title full of stories from growing up in Pirongia, where Heather explores her extraordinary talents as a listener - a skill she employed when she first met Lale and one she believes we can all learn.
And it is a skill that brought about Three Sisters.
"It was unbelievable that Heather would write about the lives of my sisters and me. She has a gift of being able to quietly listen and understand," said Livia Ravek.
And Heather also went out of her way to learn about the story, which brings us back to the bond with The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
While in South Africa she received an email from Canadian Oded Ravek who said he had bought The Tattooist of Auschwitz when he was visiting his mother in Tel Aviv.
His mother, Livia, saw the cover, with the tattooed arms, and said that must be about Lale and Gita.
Surprised, Oded asked if she had already read the book, but instead his mother said she recognised the number and showed him her tattoo, which was just three numbers different.
When Heather read this she rang Oded and instead of travelling home to Melbourne, went straight from South Africa to Tel Aviv and met the two surviving sisters and other family members.
She says the sisters were 'tough old birds'. They had all survived their husbands. Cibi, the eldest, passed away in 2014 aged 93, Magda turns 98 this year and Livia is 96.
After getting to know the family, and winning their trust, the three generations sat her down and asked her if she would write their story.
For Oded it was the realisation of a dream – that someone would capture the remarkable story of his mother and aunts.
Once again Heather was amazed at the human spirit – and as she delved into their stories through her usual channels of engaging professional researchers in Germany and Slovakia, it became clear this was an amazing story.
Livia was the first to be captured for transport to the death camp, but Cibi would not leave her younger sister and went with her.
Magda went into hiding for a couple of years but eventually was discovered and captured, and was amazingly reunited with her sisters.
Heather's relationship with Slovakian authorities meant she had access to records usually kept locked away.
Unfortunately Covid meant she wasn't able to travel to the sisters' hometown Vranov-nad-Topl'ou, but her friend and researcher Lenka, who lives in Lale's hometown of Krompachy, was given the task of uncovering the documents.
"It killed me that I could not go there, but Lenka was on a WhatsApp video link with me as she sat looking at the birth and death journals for the Meller family, translating what she was seeing," says Heather.
"The authorities also let her photograph them on her phone and send them to me and I had copies made for the descendants."
She worked on the story from her Melbourne home during the extended pandemic.
"Being locked in and under curfew for about 23 hours a day might sound perfect for a writer, but it isn't," she says.
"I had to really pull myself together to get the story written."
Part of her research was to watch the sisters as they gave their full length testimonies for the USC Shoah Foundation's Visual History Archive – the 'Shoah tapes', an archive of video of thousands of survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides which was established by Steven Spielberg in 1994 after he completed his Academy Award-winning film Schindler's List.
More surprisingly, in January last year Magda, who doesn't speak much English, announced she had written a diary during the death march.
None of the family knew, but much to everyone's surprise it was found just two months ago.
Heather has since had it translated and says it is an amazing document; a first-hand account of the march, including one-and-a-half months in Germany after they fled the march and went into hiding.
It came about when Magda broke into an office at one of the camps and stole a notebook and some pens and started recording the events that were taking place.
The diary records what villages they visited, how they evaded authorities and who helped them.
"The details are simply fantastic," says Heather.
"There are two entries on May 8, 1945 – the second near midnight when the Russians told the escapees the war was over.
"Magda recorded how she felt at the news and what it meant to her and her sisters."
Heather says it is invaluable reading and decisions are being made about what is the best place for the diary and the content.
Three Sisters is due for release in October and is already gaining traction around the world – especially the US, Croatia and Israel.
Heather says she has been privileged to be sent many true story outlines from families around the world.
"For the next few months I will concentrate on marketing and promotion of Three Sisters, with online speaking events organised into many towns, cities and countries.
"There is also the small matter of the mini-series The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which hopefully will be able to go into production soon.
"I anticipate being involved in that."