Today we are happy to share this interview with author Germaine Shames…
What is your background in dance?
Like the protagonist in my novel I began taking ballet classes at the age of four with a teacher whom, my parents liked to boast, had studied under Martha Graham. Like other young girls, I dreamed of becoming a prima ballerina.
But I was not like most girls. Shy, stubborn, I balked at following choreography and often found myself stranded alone on one side of the studio while the class, moving as one body, occupied the opposite side. And then suddenly, before I had mastered a single step, it was time for my first recital. A chorus line of us baby ballerinas was positioned center-stage as the towering velvet curtain slowly, slowly opened. One look at the audience and I froze, mouth wide-open, hands clamped to my cheeks.
My parents removed me from ballet class and enrolled me again thee years later—with similar results. There would be no more recitals.
Flash forward half a century…
I have ripened into, not a ballerina, but a writer with abiding creative and emotional ties to dance and dancers. My forthcoming ballet-themed novel You, Fascinating You will be released within days.
The protagonist of my novel, Margit Wolf, begins the account of her life, “They say ballet chooses the dancer.” Regrettably, I was not among the chosen. How I envy those of you who are!
How did you become a writer?
I was born a writer.
For as long as I can remember, an inner narrator has been whispering in my ear. When I could no longer block that voice out, I abandoned a successful corporate career and devoted myself to writing full-time, first as a journalist and correspondent, and later as a fiction writer, focusing on novels and screenplays. Regardless of genre, my “product” is a compelling story lushly told.
You, Fascinating You is a heavily researched biographical novel, the true story of ballerina Margit Wolf who, banished from the stage by Mussolini, inspired a timeless love song only to fade from history without a trace.
In cinematic terms, the story is a cross between The Red Shoes and Europa, Europa. Like the former it centers on an impossible love between a ballerina and a composer, and like the latter its consequences leave a seven-year old boy alone on the streets of Europe during the most desperate months of the Second World War.
Why did you decide to write about this topic?
I met Wolf’s son Cesare Frustaci at the home of mutual friends, Hungarian émigrés, in the winter of 1990. A dozen years later, a videotaped oral history Cesare contributed to Yale University arrived in the mail. It told the story of his mother’s preternatural courage in the face of history’s cruelty. I sat riveted as if hearing the libretto of a classic ballet or opera and knew I would one day share this hidden epic with the world.
Why do you think this book will appeal to dancers?
Nearly all early support and encouragement for You, Fascinating You has come from the dance community.
Throughout the process of writing the book and preparing to launch it, I have been humbled again and again by the generosity of dancers. Russian danseur Stanislav Belyaevsky gifted me with the book’s exquisite cover image. Ballerinas Susan Jaffe, Janet Panetta, and Elana Altman read the book and offered cover blurbs, as did the granddaughter of the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, Kinga Nijinsky Gaspers.
Their enthusiastic response leads me to believe that other dancers and lovers of dance may also find something of value in Margit’s story.
Why do you think the book would appeal to non-dancers?
For the past several years Cesare has been sharing Margit’s story at schools, community centers, synagogues and churches—and receiving the same enthusiastic response from all these diverse groups. I believe such a story has the power reach across barriers of religion, generation and politics to touch hearts.
What makes this book unique?
Its heroine and the almost mythic array of public figures who entered into her life, and in unexpected ways, determined her fate—Vittorio De Sica, Greta Garbo and an Italian Pope, among others.
What was the best part about writing this book?
Giving this deserving ballerina her moment in the spotlight has been deeply gratifying. That readers living in another time and place can relate to my protagonist and empathize with her struggle never ceases to fill me with wonder. Sharing is the best part of writing.
What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?
Penetrating the soul of a dancer.
What is next for you?
I am pursuing opportunities to bring You, Fascinating You to the stage and screen. Beyond that, I am at work on a new novel—a literary ghost story—set amid the histrionic rise and fall of Abstract Expressionism.
Thank you for the privilege of appearing on 4Dancers.
Some thoughts on the book:
“A love story reminiscent of that of my grandparents. I could not put it down.”
“Germaine Shames’ beautiful depiction of the life of Margit Wolf and Pasquale Frustaci is told with such vivid and haunting detail, it’s as if the reader is propelled back in time to witness a devastating journey of shattered dreams, juxtaposed with the strength and courage of the human heart.”
–Susan Jaffe, “America’s quintessential ballerina”
“The epic drama expected on the ballet stage is dwarfed by the tragic real life events of her ballerina heroine, Margit Wolf. Penetrating descriptions of political brutality and the prepossession of romantic love, an ever present theme in classical ballet, make for a page-turning, impelling read.”
–Janet Panetta, Ballet Master Tanztheater Pina Bausch
“Shames captures the essence of a ballerina with such expertise in her riveting story. Dancers succeed by creating beauty from effort; this book, too, shows that exquisite art can be made from history’s hardships.” -Elana Altman, soloist dancer, San Francisco Ballet
In the final weeks of 1938, in the shadow of Kristallnacht and imminent war, a heartsick Italian maestro wrote a love song called “Tu Solamente Tu.”
Its lyrics lamented his forced separation from his wife, the Hungarian ballerina Margit Wolf, in the wake of Mussolini’s edict banishing foreign Jews from Italy. The song, first recorded by Vittorio de Sica in 1939, catapulted to the top of the Hit Parade and earned its composer the moniker “the Italian Cole Porter.” The German version, “Du Immer Wieder Du,” would be performed by Zarah Leander, the foremost film star of the German Reich, and its English counterpart, “You, Fascinating You,” by the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band.
Twenty-two years would pass before the maestro and his ballerina again met face-to-face.
You, Fascinating You begins as a backstage romance and ends as an epic triumph of the human spirit.
About the Author:
Germaine Shames scours the globe in search of compelling stories. Shames is author of Between Two Deserts, two earlier nonfiction books, and three feature screenplays. A former foreign correspondent and contributor to Hemispheres, More, and National Geographic Traveler, she has lived and worked in such diverse locations as the Australian outback, Swiss Alps, interior of Bulgaria, coast of Colombia, Fiji Islands, and Gaza Strip. With You, Fascinating You the author returns to her roots in the performing arts to reveal a hidden story painstakingly researched across three countries over the course of five years.