She's an international best-selling author – home in Te Awamutu this week to talk about the journey that led to the release of her first book, The Tattooist of Auschwitz and the follow-up, Cilka's Journey. And after a mesmerising 45-minute address from the heart, Heather Morris gave her audience three tips on how to be a successful author. Te Awamutu Courier editor Dean Taylor catches up with her.
One - Never turn down coffee with a friend;
Two – Never say no to meeting someone new;
Three – Always get on with their doggies.
Heather Morris shared these three tips on how to be a successful author when she was in town as part of her book launch speaking tour for Cilka's Journey, the follow-up to The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
I first met Heather in April when she came to speak to students at Te Awamutu College and 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, that would be released later in the year.
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At that time we discussed holding an event in Te Awamutu and with the support of Waipā District Council, Te Awamutu RSA Club and Te Awamutu Paper Plus, it came to fruition this week on Monday.
Following the address, Waipā 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 is a historical novel based on interviews with Sokolov.
The novel has sold more than 4 million copies since its release last year, was a No1 international bestseller and is back at No1 on the New York Times Bestseller list after 64 weeks.
Morris's name will join those of 28 other prominent locals immortalised for their impact on the community or world recognition.
"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 Mylchreest.
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.
Also named in the Te Awamutu Walk of Fame are musicians Tim and Neil Finn, husband and wife rosarians Pat and Paddy Stephens, who were key in establishing the Te Awamutu Rose Gardens, and Rewi Manga Maniapoto who was widely respected for his knowledge, oratory and leadership skills, as well as military acumen.
An inductee must have been born in Te Awamutu or districts, or achieved their notable success as a resident to be inducted.
Last month marked 10 years since Te Awamutu's Walk of Fame was officially opened.
The idea was the brainchild of Te Awamutu Alive; a local group formed to promote events and projects to put Te Awamutu on the map and has been supported by Waipā District Council.
Inductees are acknowledged with a pou in the Walk of Fame in Te Awamutu's historic Selwyn Park.
Heather Morris grew up in Pirongia with her parents Jock and Joyce Williamson and four brothers.
She attended Pirongia School and Te Awamutu College, worked in town for a couple of years and at 18 headed across the Tasman.
She met her future husband, Aussie Steve Morris, and for a while they lived in Christchurch where their three children were born.
She began her address on Monday night by saying her last memory of the Te Awamutu RSA Club was her wedding day in the 1960s.
Home from Australia for the big day, her father had taken her husband-to-be and other male members of the wedding party to "the club" before the nuptials at Old St John's Church.
"I walked up the aisle and could smell the beer," she said.
Steve was OK until we had to kneel. "I literally had to lift him back to his feet," she said.
Steve Morris 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.
Getting back to her three tips for success.
One - It started in 2003 over coffee with a friend who said, "My friend Gary, whose mother has just died, asked me to find someone his father can tell a story to".
The only criteria was that it had to be a non-Jewish person.
Morris says she was immediately interested. "I'd been doing some writing and preferred reading stories based on real people, so I said yes."
Two - A week later Morris was at the home of Lale Sokolov - the tattooist of Auschwitz.
She says he was an elderly gentleman, still grief-stricken over the death of his wife, Gita, whom he had met in the prison camp.
They had been married 60 years. It was his story of love and survival that formed the basis of the historical novel she was about to write - albeit that it did not hit the shelves until 15 years later.
Morris would go to Sokolov's home regularly over the next three years and listen to his stories.
The two formed a bond, they met each other's families and sometimes socialised.
She told Monday's audience that Sokolov was a "ladies' man" and a flirt – even in his 80s.
She would take him out and he would introduce her as his girlfriend.
"I told him off eventually, reminding him I was a married woman," she said.
"Next time we went out he said to the other people 'This is Heather, my mistress'."
Three - Morris knew she had fully gained Sokolov's trust when she was allowed to throw the ball for his two dogs.
Sokolov announced "the dogs like you, so I like you".
Morris and Sokolov remained close friends until his death in 2006 - and as she came to grips with her grief, she began to write.
She had promised Sokolov she would not give up on telling his story.
And although Morris was speaking during the launch of Cilka's Journey, she explained there would be no book if not for Sokolov, so it was important for her to explain the dynamic between them that led to the story.
She also explained how she had intended to write a screenplay for a movie – her other love apart from reading – but it wasn't gaining traction.
And it took her two attempts at writing the novel before her publishers accepted the manuscript.
So it was after years of work that she achieved "overnight success".
Morris told her local audience that Sokolov described Cilka as the bravest person he knew, and said she saved his life.
Cilka, Cecilia Klein, was just 16 years old when she was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau where she befriended Gita.
But head of the camp, SS-Obersturmführer Johann Schwarzhuber, also took a liking to Cilka and she became his sex slave.
Morris said there was no way of sugar-coating it – "Cilka was used and raped by that bastard Schwarzhuber" and like many women who survived major conflicts, she kept the shame of being a victim of sexual assault to herself.
It was the "relationship' with Schwarzhuber that kept her alive, and Sokolov.
After Sokolov had been caught with contraband he was taken for interrogation and beaten for six weeks.
He was returned to the main camp to be left to die – but Cilka asked Schwarzhuber for a favour, pointing out Sokolov and asking that he be allowed to live.
Schwarzhuber agreed and gave the order. It was the only time Cilka asked Schwarzhuber for any favours.
Cilka was one of the central characters in The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Cilka's Journey recalls her experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but then moves forward.
After liberation Cilka is charged with collaboration by the Russians and sentenced to 15 years hard labour in the Vorkuta gulag in Siberia.
There she trains as a nurse and works in the gulag hospital, finds love and survives a second horrific incarceration.
Heather told her listeners the book is true to the spirit of Cilka's life – another historical novel based on testimony of the people who knew her.
One of her biggest issues was the "fact" as recorded in a number of official records which stated that Cilka Klein had been 'murdered at Auschwitz'.
"We knew Cilka had survived, but we didn't have the evidence to support it," she said.
She said there was a team of researchers employed to read archives from around the world and she would also travel to Slovakia, where Cilka was born, and other destinations important to the story, to find and establish credible information.
"The breakthrough came when I was asked by officials in Cilka's hometown of Sabinov if I wanted to view her birth records," said Heather.
"With my interpreter in tow I was on a plane and taken to the office.
"The records were beautifully hand-written volumes of all the family information for over 200 years."
Morris said Cilka's page was open, the other records were blanked with sheets of paper, and it showed her birth details.
Her interest was piqued by two things. Firstly, the mother's name didn't gel with other information she had and, secondly, there was a note at the end of the line in a different pen and handwriting.
The visitors had established a rapport with the official, so Morris asked if she could see records pertaining to Cilka's parents and grandparents.
While the official was away and they were alone Heather looked under the paper sheets and established that no other entries had a note at the end of the line.
She asked for a translation of the note and was told it said: "In 1958 Cecilia Klein visited this office bringing with her a document from the Government in Bratislava proving she was alive and declared a citizen of the state of Czechoslovakia".
Cilka had come back to her birth town to set the record straight – she was alive.
The other records provided by the now interested and more willing official showed Cilka had two other sisters, both born to a different mother.
When she had died her father married his late wife's sister – which explained the confusion created by the fact she had a different mother's name recorded, but the same maternal grandparents.
And her father's first wife's name was Cecilia, the name then given to the third daughter by her grandmother.
Heather said this was the information she needed to continue with confidence.
She said history is often regarded as the "official facts" and "recorded documentation" of the time – but to her mind it is a combination of those factors and of credible testimonies, either first-hand or passed down, from those who were there.
A project to video-document the testimonies of Jewish people who survived the prison camps was undertaken when Sokolov and Gita were alive.
"Gita didn't want to take part when the team was in Melbourne, but Lale convinced her it was important," said Morris.
On the last day they were in the city, Gita and Lale were filmed.
"I had the chance to see that video, so it was I heard Gita's testimony as well as Lale's.
"And in my travels I was invited to meet people who knew and lived with Cilka, I went to the home where she lived with her husband and I have heard her testimony through them."
Morris said she was proud and honoured to bring Cilka's story to light.
Her address in Te Awamutu concluded with a question and answer session – and an extended meet and greet and book signing session.
Te Awamutu Paper Plus sold out of its remaining copies of The Tattooist of Auschwitz and did a great trade on Cilka's Journey and Morris engaged with each and every person who came to meet her and get a book, or books, signed.
She also finally got the question she was hoping for.
"Come on," she prompted, "I've given enough clues but I haven't had the question yet."
Then it came. "You said you were writing a screenplay, is there a movie?"
"No," she replied. "Even better, a six-part mini-series – each one hour."
And maybe Morris will be back home for that launch and to be officially inducted into the Walk of Fame. We are working on it.