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The women behind the books

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Imagine opening the pages of a book to find you’ve been immortalised in print. Stylist talks to three women who have been recreated as fictional characters

Words: Hannah Marriott

The survivor

Mania Salinger, 89, spent over four years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She was one of the inspirations for Jodi Picoult’s international 2013 bestseller The Storyteller, which examines the friendship between a former SS guard and the granddaughter of a holocaust survivor. Salinger has also written her own memoir, Looking Back (£10, Nelson)

“I met Jodi Picoult’s mother by chance a year and a half ago. She told me that her daughter was writing a novel about the Holocaust and asked if I’d mind being interviewed. So I invited Jodi to stay at my house in Michigan – I had no idea that she was such a famous author – and we spent hours talking about my experiences. I grew up in Radom, central Poland, a happy, spoiled, confident Jewish girl. My life was turned upside down in September 1939, when Germany invaded. I was 15 at the time. By 1942, when I was 18, the mass deportations had begun. On 15 August, my mother, who was in her mid-40s, and my brother, who was just 13, were taken to the gas chambers at Treblinka, north-east of Warsaw. I spent the next four and a half years in camps, including five days at Auschwitz, where I was finally separated from my father. I later found out that he had been shot in a camp at Mathausen, in January 1945. Some of the camps were more bearable than others, but the last one I was taken to, Bergen-Belsen, was truly horrendous, and I became very sick and depressed. I didn’t think I’d survive but then, one morning the Germans were gone. The British army had arrived and we were free. It was 15 April 1945 and by now I was 21.

I wouldn’t say that Jodi’s character, Minka Singer, is me, exactly – I was more outspoken and gutsy; I was brave enough to ask officers to give my father a less punishing job at one of the camps, for example, and optimistic enough to boost the morale of those around me. But a lot of the situations in the book were mine. At school I was a little in love with my German teacher so I never missed classes. It was knowledge of the German language that saved me in the camps, as I was often given office jobs, doing shorthand and typing, rather than having to toil for hours of hard labour. That aspect of my life is central to the experiences of Minka. Still, when I read Jodi’s book, I couldn’t quite believe that the person who lived through those experiences was me. The hardest passages to read were those in Auschwitz. I had to skip some pages; reliving what happened is very depressing. I did ask Jodi to remove some of the most upsetting scenes, and she listened to me. But it’s incredibly important to me to make sure young people know what happened, and to encourage them to live without hatred. That’s why, throughout my life, I have given talks at Holocaust centres and have written my own memoir. I know that many thousands of people will read Jodi’s book. It means a great deal to know that my story will live on.”

The mother’s quest

Sang Ly is a 31- year-old mother of three living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Camron Wright’s 2012 novel, The Rent Collector (£9.99, Shadow Mountain), was inspired by her

“I met Camron through his son, Trevor, a filmmaker who made a documentary called River Of Victory about my family. Back then, we were living in a little shack beside Stung Meanchey rubbish dump, where my husband made his living picking rubbish to sell to recyclers. My husband would make around £2 a day, barely enough to buy food. The dump was a dangerous place full of violent gangs, fumes and chemicals. But we had no choice but to live there; the rent was the cheapest around. Then one day my husband was mugged and beaten badly; he had his toe cut off by a rubbish truck. We were plunged into debt paying his medical bills. My younger son Sokchea, then 18 months, was also very sick. He had diarrhoea all the time and became terribly skinny. I scraped together what little money I could for medicine, but he fell ill again and again. Trevor filmed me for the documentary as I took Sokchea to hospitals and doctors and fought to find a long-term cure. When I heard that Trevor’s father, Camron, had watched the documentary from his home in Utah and had been moved to write a novel about it I laughed – why would anyone want to read about a woman who lives in a rubbish dump? But last year, Camron came to Cambodia and gave me a copy of the book, explaining that he found my determination inspiring. I couldn’t read the book as I can’t read English, but from what I have been told the main character, Sang Ly, is very similar to me. Much of the book is about her fighting for her sick son. Eventually I did find a cure for my son, by taking him to a traditional Cambodian healer. Afterwards, Camron paid me to sign several thousand bookmarks, which helped us to pay off our debt. He also bought us a motorbike, so that my husband can work as a taxi driver. Life is still very difficult but the book has helped my family greatly.”

The one who got revenge

Hilary Winston, 37, is an LA-based TV writer. In 2007, her ex-boyfriend Chad Kultgen released The Average American Male (£8.99, Harper Perennial), featuring a character she believes is based on her. Four years on, she got payback

“During the four years that I dated Chad Kultgen, he’d often introduce me at parties as his ‘fat pig girlfriend’. I tried to brush it off as edgy comedy. A lot of my friends didn’t like Chad but I would tell them that I knew him and deep down he wasn’t that guy. We broke up because he decided he didn’t want to marry me. It wasn’t a messy break up, but it was sad. A little more than two years after the break up in 2007 I saw Chad’s debut novel in a bookshop. I knew I shouldn’t open it. As a writer I was worried I’d be envious, but as soon as I started reading it I felt sick. The first line I read was: ‘My fat-assed girlfriend takes Groundlings classes.’ Chad used to joke about my fat ass, and Groundlings was the improvisation group that I went to. As I read, I came across scenes seemingly lifted straight from our relationship. The narrator’s girlfriend ‘Casey’ was desperate to get a ring on her finger and when Chad and I were together I did want to get married. The book’s language was incredibly misogynistic. I ran out of the bookshop and started bawling. I felt so betrayed. I left Chad a long voicemail – he later claimed that the character ‘Casey’ wasn’t me, but the similarities seem too specific. So I decided, to write my own non-fiction book, My Boyfriend Wrote A Book About Me (£8.99, Sterling) in which I wrote about the truth of our relationship, and told other stories about my life. I did criticise Chad (Kyle) in the book, but – the biggest laughs in my book always came at my expense. Although I did mention that ‘Kyle’ has white pubic hairs – that was a little part of my revenge. Strangely enough, I think Chad’s ego was stroked by the whole experience. I sold the idea to Paramount, and the movie is in pre-production. My new fiancé hasn’t read Chad’s book all the way through but he’s read my book and it hasn’t put him off.”

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