“Keep the faith with your work. When you find something important to write about, find many different ways to investigate it, and never stop making it better.”
The author of An Address in Amsterdam, which was the winner of Story Circle Network’s May Sarton Award for historical fiction, Mary Dingee Fillmore is not just a writer, but a writer with a cause. And considering recent news events, Mary believes it is a timely cause. “As we see hatred and xenophobia increase in our own country, we are again faced with the same question as people in (Nazi) occupied Amsterdam. Will we collude, collaborate, or resist? I hope my book will motivate people to be mindful and make good choices.”
Mary’s book is the story of a young Jewish girl who risks her life as a secret messenger for the Anti-Nazi underground. It was a finalist for the International Book Awards, and was selected as a Kirkus Indie Book of the Month. “But the Sarton Award has special meaning for me,” Mary says, “because I am such an admirer and follower of May Sarton, and have been for decades.” The inspiration for Mary’s book came when she was living in the Nazi-defined Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and learned that roundups of Jewish people had taken place on her very own doorstep.
“It brought the Holocaust home to me, a gentile with no known Dutch connections, as never before. The next year, I lived in another apartment where Jewish people had been hidden in the attic, and I felt compelled to write their stories. While I would never know what happened to those specific individuals, I could learn a lot about people in their situation… That was the point when the novel began.” During the 13 years it took to research and write the book, Mary says she learned a lot about the perils of the hatred of any group of people as a group.
“I saw how quickly a civilized society could change into one where it was possible to roundup and murder 80 percent of the Jewish population — and I was deeply inspired by seeing that resistance was possible, even in those circumstances. Rachel Klein, my 18-year-old heroine, risks her life to deliver messages, underground newspapers, and ultimately false papers. Women like her were the backbone of communications for the resistance, and they haven’t received nearly the credit they deserve.” Mary began writing as a child, but it was only when she was in her fifties that she became brave enough to take what she had written beyond family and friends. “I was galvanized by the stories of the Holocaust and Resistance in the Netherlands. At last I had a subject that was more important than my fears.”
An Address in Amsterdam is not Mary’s first book. She also wrote a non-fiction book in 1987, Women MBAs: A Foot in the Door, that was published by Macmillan. It is a qualitative study of what happened to the women who thought they only needed an MBA to succeed. Mary says that while she cares about that issue and that book, An Address in Amsterdam has become a passion. So much so that she plans to devote two years to getting the ideas in this book out into the world before beginning another major project.
As for winning the Sarton award, Mary says, “It is an affirmation of the value of 13 years of hard work. It touches and delights me, and will help me keep up the good work for the rest of my life. It’s in my kitchen where everyone can see it.”
Between 2001 and 2015, Mary lived in Amsterdam off and on for a total of 30 months. She started her book in 2002, and while writing and researching it, she also managed to earn a master of fine arts degree from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She says the best piece of writing advice she received came from a faculty member, Larry Sutin, who taught her about the benefits of revision, “which many writers think of as a nasty chore rather than as an opportunity to deepen the story. I actually enjoyed it, which is good because no page of my book has been revised less than a dozen times.”
“Sutin told us not to tinker with the words first, but to close our eyes and re-vision the scene, i.e., to see it more clearly. Look for the details, the people in the background, a stray gesture. Slow the action down so you can really see it all.”
“The hardest thing about writing the book,” says Mary, “wasn’t the 13 years of delving into archives and doing all the rest of the research, or the arduous process of making the dates accurate that every historical novelist goes through. It was coming to terms emotionally with the fact that the place I lived and loved, which seemed so civilized to me, had been occupied by the Nazis, and that they had succeeded in their diabolical plans.”
“Allowing myself to believe that, and to feel the loss of people I didn’t know but whose presence I nevertheless felt, was extremely painful — though not as painful, of course, as it is for people who suffered the actual losses. To write the predicament of my characters, I had to search my own heart and experience for the times when I had felt terrified, persecuted and in fear of my life. That was much harder than figuring out if my characters had been banned from the park by March of 1943.”
An offshoot of Mary’s book has been a blog she calls Hidden Amsterdam. She began writing it during the early months of 2015, when she was again living in the city, and doing the last of her many revisions to An Address in Amsterdam.
“Many people travel to Amsterdam,” Mary says, “and I wanted to share my discoveries with them or with armchair travelers. In the course of my research, I discovered many unmarked, or unmarked in English, places of interest. I attended commemorative events and visited endless museums and archives. It was satisfying to have an outlet for that information — and a great relief to write a post fast, put it up and let it go, rather than the long labor of love that the novel represents.”
In addition to featuring Amsterdam’s many charms, Mary’s blog also guides people to places that speak of collaboration and betrayal, resistance and honor. “If the words ‘Never Again’ are to have meaning, we need to learn enough to make them live,” she avers.
In her non-writing life, Mary helps people and organizations change for the better through reflective retreats, strategic planning, mentoring and training. During her earlier career years, she worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, and was editor of three science and society newsletters. In 1981, she set up her own consulting service. Now living in Vermont, she splits her practice between work in her own community and clients elsewhere in the public sector, nonprofits, and socially responsible businesses. Mary says she builds strategies on the conditions prevalent in an organization, rather than imposing a formula and trying to fit the client’s needs within it.
At home, Mary loves writing longhand in her grandmother’s Victorian chair, which is perfectly proportioned for her. “It looks out a glass door to the grape arbor and shade garden I’ve created. In winter, the shadows of the trees and grasses on the snow are just as beautiful as the vegetation I see now. I never revise or outline in this spot, or use the computer; it is purely meant for creation.” As for her advice to other writers, it is to “keep the faith with your work. When you find something important to write about, find many different ways to investigate it, and never stop making it better. Everyone’s work can be revised and improved. It takes a village!”