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Award-winning author Martin Goodman has written ten books, both fiction and nonfiction, and a theme common to much of his fiction is the exploration of war guilt. He is Emeritus Professor at the University of Hull (where he was formerly Professor of Creative Writing) and also a publisher at Barbican Press. J SS Bach was published by Wrecking Ball Press in 2018 and we caught up with the author about the 20-year gestation period of J SS Bach, his writing process, life on the coast and what the future holds.
Where did the inspiration for J SS Bach come from?
A crazy download of the whole idea while standing on a tree stump in a camp site in America. I guess I needed to be slammed by it, since the whole concept of a novel on Music and the Holocaust was too daunting to wish upon myself.
Is it true that the book was 20 years in the writing? Can you explain why?
Yes. It took loads of drafts – different drafts focused on deepening different characters. And a lot of site visits, reading and research. Times I’d think the book was done, leave it to settle, and when I picked it up again I knew there was lots more to tackle.
Can you tell us more about the book for those unfamiliar with it?
Rosa, a musicologist from Australia, turns up at the Big Sur home of Otto Schalmik, a Jewish cellist-cum-composer. What links them is Rosa’s grandfather, who was the adjutant at Dachau concentration camp when Otto was imprisoned there. Rosa is angry with Otto for having spoken on behalf of her grandfather at his war trial.

The book looks to understand that riddle, how could a Nazi love Schubert and Bach yet commit atrocities? It also looks at war from a female perspective – three generations of women, one strand of Jewish heritage and one Nazi heritage. Much of my writing looks at how the effects of war are passed down through succeeding generations.

A curious star of the book is Mango, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. For a while the novel was called Follow the Dog. We have a lot to learn from the simplicity of dogs.
What experience do you want your readers to have with your work, and specifically J SS Bach?
I want them to be engrossed and then see their world differently when they emerge. With J SS Bach, I guess it’s to see the humanity that underpins horror. And to experience something of what it’s like to be inside the creation of music.
Who are you writing fiction for?
I write the book I’d like to read, and hope it plugs a gap in the reading experience of others. In J SS Bach I was also reclaiming the human tales of people whose existence was wiped out by the Holocaust – so I was writing it for those that did not survive, as some act of remembering and sharing.
Are you pleased with the reaction to the book?
It’s not yet won every award going and received streams of headline reviews, so I’ll always feel a bit shortchanged. But yes, I’m pleased. Folk I don’t know have written to tell me how strong their reading experience of J SS Bach has been, so having your novel connect with another life ins such a way is deeply satisfying. The Morning Star, which I’m very fond of, called the novel ‘masterful’. The Financial Times gave it a major review, which I’m glad for.
Aside from the obvious, how does writing fiction differ from writing nonfiction books?
You can truly get inside a character’s head and see what propels them. And then have characters meet and see how they interact. When you try for that in nonfiction, you’re entering fictive territory. My editor for my biography of J.S.Haldane, Suffer & Survive, advised me ‘not to let my novelist’s hat tip over my biographer’s eye’.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
When a book has taken hold, I’m often at it at 5 am. Writing doesn’t take long to flow when I sit down but I often start by reviewing the pages that have gone before. Work is redrafted again and again along the way. If a day has been swallowed and no writing done, I may well sit down of an evening and so mend the day with a paragraoh or two. 1,000 words is a good day, but fifty words or even an idea jotted down is not a bad day either.
Do you do a lot of planning or procrastinating before you sit down and get writing?
I do plan, though characters have minds of their own and keep steering books somewhere fresh. I spend years walking around with books in my head till the steam builds up and I have to make a start.
You’re well travelled and recently moved to the coast. How important are environment and place to you, your wellbeing and your writing?
I need a broad horizon, and somewhere without traffic where I can take walks. A lot of ideas settle in that way. A seascape works like a screen and you can project scenes from a novel upon it. And mountains suffuse me with ideas somehow.
Given that you are, yourself, with Barbican Press a publisher of books that challenge and surprise you’ve seen independent publishing from both sides. So, what are your views and opinions on independent publishers and your experience of them?
Independent publishers are plucky, and an editor’s personal choice and passion can survive there. That’s harder for an editor in a mainstream house to achieve, with marketing departments and their like to please. Independent publishers can work without compromise.
How does it feel to not be as involved with academia now your role with the University of Hull is somewhat different?
A relief. I miss the creative writing students – it was a true privilege to be allowed inside their creative lives. Teaching writing keeps your own writing sharp. But I don’t fit comfortably inside institutions and I feel blessed to be able to step inside my own writing more fully. The last couple of years, when my students were graduating, it felt that I should be graduating with them. Writing and running the publishing house mean my time is still full.
What are you currently working on and what’s in the pipeline?
A thriller in Patricia Highsmith mode. Two chapters to go! I’ve recently finished a play, an essay and a story as well, polishing off work that’s been banking up. I suspect it’s nonfiction next. I’ve two long term projects, but a new eco book about saving the world’s birds looks like it’s muscling to the front.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Please buy J SS Bach or request it from your library and read it and write and tell me what you think about it. I’d love to know what touches you.
J SS Bach is the story of three generations of women from either side of Germany’s 20th Century horror story – one side, a Jewish family from Vienna, the other linked to a ranking Nazi official at Dachau concentration camp – who suffer the consequences of what men do.
Fast forward to 1990s California, and two survivors from the families meet. Rosa is a young Australian musicologist; Otto is a world-famous composer and cellist. Music and history link them. A novel of music, the Holocaust, love, and a dog.
J SS Bach can be purchased online at