Exclusive Q&A with bestselling author Heather Morris

Australian author Heather Morris talks about resilience, the importance of listening and her latest novel set in a Soviet gulag.

Your novel Cilka’s Journey is based on the real life of Cilka Klein and set in a Soviet gulag at Vorkuta in Siberia. What is a gulag and why do we know so little about them?

A gulag was a forced labour camp, an instrument of repression used by the Soviet Union between the early 1930s until about 1962. They were situated in extremely remote areas in Siberia. The gulag Cilka was held in, Vorkuta, is 160km above the Arctic Circle, a coal-mining region. I do not have a good answer for why we know so little about them. We should, we owe it to the millions of men and women who suffered and died to hear their stories and remember them. It is estimated more than two and a half million individuals were imprisoned in the gulag system during the period Cilka was held.

author heather morris
book cover cilka's journey by heather morris
soviet gulag

The main character in the novel, Cilka Klein, was 16 years old when she was incarcerated in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942 and 19 when she was sent to the gulag, where she spent eight years. How did she survive? 

Cilka spent ten years in Vorkuta. Initially she was, like most prisoners, delegated to work in the coal mine. Her survival can be attributed to her being given work, originally as an administrative clerk in the camp hospital, then being chosen to train as a nurse. Working inside kept her from the harsh elements. In winter, the temperature often dropped to minus 30°C. Cilka had already survived hell on earth for nearly three years in Auschwitz-Birkenau. She had a strength about her, and a determination to survive, that never left her. I know this from meeting and talking to her friends and neighbours, people who knew her for more than 40 years. Cilka was able to locate the Georgian doctor who she considered saved her life, after her return to Slovakia. She visited her several times in Sochi, which was then part of the Soviet Union.

We might be feeling the cold in winter, but it’s nothing compared to the Artic weather in Siberia. What clothing and bedding did the female prisoners have and how they cope with the harsh conditions?  

Many did not survive the harsh conditions. Millions are listed as dying during this period. While not a death camp like Auschwitz, the loss of lives in the gulags was not considered a problem with continuous replacements arriving. Each hut had a small stove for heating and there was enough coal at Vorkuta to keep it burning. Clothing was whatever you could get your hands on. In many photos I have seen prisoners wearing many layers to keep warm. Their beds often had only a single blanket provided. The longer you survived, the more contacts you acquired in the relevant areas of the camp, and the more clothing, and blankets you could get, along with better jobs. The camp was primarily run by prisoners, known as trustees. Black markets and exchange of goods was rampant, again it was a matter of surviving long enough to be able to be part of the “system”.

Cilka’s journey is said to illuminate the resilience of the human spirit. What lesson does your novel provide for us all as we emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown?

I cannot equate the hardship of being asked to stay at home with what Cilka and others endured. Except to say, I hope many used the imposed shut down of their normal day-to-day lives to reflect on what they may want their life to look like in the future. I know I have. Cilka's story is one of many to shine a light on the resilience of the human spirit. We hope never to be tested in the same way. However, this should not stop us reflecting on whether we would have the capacity to survive, do whatever is required to wake up the next day. The lesson I like to repeat is to learn, or relearn, how to listen to family and friends, neighbours and strangers who want to talk and share a story or two. Many incredible stories of compassion and going the extra mile are emerging from this pandemic.

You have spent the past two years travelling the world, either to do research or promote your books, what have you being doing while in self-isolation?

I was in California, about to fly to New York when the world shut down. I took the advice of Qantas and returned home. I self-isolated for two weeks, taking the opportunity to finish my third story, a non-fiction book, Stories of Hope (www.yourstoriesofhope.com).   
Thousands of people have written to me sharing their stories of hope after reading my novels featuring Lale, Gita and Cilka. In Stories of Hope, I have written about my experience of listening to those brave enough to tell me their deeply personal, often tragic stories. I write about the importance of listening to others, including the elderly, children and strangers. I have also rediscovered cooking and baking, which I had not done much of for several years. My family tell me my cooking has not improved, but hey, anything cooked by someone else is a treat for which we should be grateful and enjoy. I will admit however, I cannot wait for a vaccine to be created and to get back travelling.

Cilka’s Journey, by Heather Morris (Bonnier Echo) is available in bookstores and online. Her new book, Stories of Hope, is due out in October 2020.

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