NBC News veteran Martin Fletcher pens semi-autobiographical novel

Martin Fletcher

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Martin Fletcher, longtime NBC News Special Correspondent and the station’s former Israel Bureau Chief, returns for the third time to the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival to discuss his first work of fiction, a semi-autobiographical novel called “The List” (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99) that tells a gripping story about a Jewish immigrant family. At the close of World War II, Jewish immigrants whose lives and homes were shattered and destroyed are scattered throughout Europe.

An Austrian Jewish couple, Georg and his wife, Edith, who is pregnant with their second attempt at a child, mend clothing in an effort to earn a small amount of money. Though trained as a lawyer, Georg is reduced to making buttons in order to eke out a living.

The novel is a real page-turner as it traces the efforts of Georg to search for possible loved ones who might have survived the Holocaust; blatant anti-Semitism among the British, and even a plot to assassinate the foreign secretary of the British government. Not only is the book meticulously researched, it has the ring of authenticity, and that is small wonder, since Fletcher himself was born in London to a couple very similar to the Georg and Edith described in the book.

Last week, the Jewish Light caught up with Fletcher to discuss “The List.”


Your last two appearances at the Book Festival were in connection with your non-fiction books, “Breaking News” and “Walking Israel.” Your new novel, “The List,” is loosely based on the story of your parents. What made you depart from your usual facts-only mode of writing to tell such a personal story?

Because I think the real truth, emotional truth, can be found in fiction. I spent a career asking what happened and why-facts, facts, facts, events, analysis. Now I wanted to answer the question, what was it like? How do we actually experience our lives? Emotions, characters, relationships. It’s a deeper truth that non-fiction can’t reach, and that is ultimately more interesting. Plus I always wanted to write a novel. 

Did you enjoy the experience of writing a work of fiction, albeit based loosely on fact, enough to want to write more novels?

I always wanted to write fiction. And I’m trying to decide what to write next-it’ll be a novel though. But I want my fiction to be stories told within a context of fact, so readers will learn about a time and a place through my characters. That’s what I’d like to do, but I’ll keep freelancing with NBC, too.

Philip Roth, perhaps the greatest living Jewish novelist, spoke about the shocking level of anti-Semitism he encountered on visits to England with his former wife. Why has anti-Semitism been such a persistent reality among much of the British population?

I don’t know. I find it interesting that Shakespeare wrote the Shylock character in “Merchant of Venice” without ever having met a Jew in his life-they had been kicked out of England. It shows the deep-seated, cartoonish view some Britishers have. The British are wary of “the other” whoever it is, and Jews more than others. But why? I just don’t know. I do know that many of my Jewish friends in London do not agree there is anti-Semitism there.

How close is the character Georg to your own father? Did he have to make a living in such a humiliating manner after escaping to London from the Holocaust?

Very close, Edith to my mother, too. But only in their mannerisms and characters. None of the events described happened, as far as I know. But they may have for all I know because they lived through this period and faced the same issues. It’s just that we never spoke about it and by the time I had the idea of the novel, they were dead. I saw the book in some way as a homage to them. And yes, my dad did make buttons for a few years, and my mother mended stockings.

The character Ismael is fascinating, described as an Egyptian Arab who “despite his seeming antagonism toward Jews has a habit of coming to their rescue.” Have you encountered such characters in the course of your career-those who spout anti-Semitism but nonetheless are moved to extend a protective hand to Jews?

He is completely fictitious and no, I have never met anyone like that. I have met Palestinians who hate the Israeli government and the army, but who help Jews if they can. I know one Palestinian who fits the above-an Israeli broke down in his car on the edge of his village, a mob surrounded him, and Abed and his brothers saved the Jew and saw him safely away. But these are not anti-Semites.

What lessons for today’s Jews are in “The List”?

Don’t dwell on the past, don’t bear a grudge, that is a destructive force. Look forward, rebuild. That’s why I ended on the birth of a baby. In “Walking Israel” I wrote that the Jewish revenge is to have a family. Respect the past, but it is the past. Hold your head up, be proud, rebuild and enjoy life.

Finally, a “current events” Mideast question. Do you think it was a good or a bad deal that Israel agreed to with Hamas to exchange the freedom of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinians?

It was a truly lousy deal. But (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) had to do the deal eventually because the Mothers and the Media beat it up for so long. And in the end, for or against, and a great debate rages in Israel, everyone who saw the exchange must have felt proud to be a Jew. Life trumps all…even though logically saving that one life will probably condemn others to die. It’s very hard. Can you imagine America or Britain doing such a deal? Not a chance.

Martin Fletcher

BOOK: ‘The List’

SESSION: 10:30 a.m., Nov. 16


MORE INFO: Fletcher will be interviewed on stage by Mike Bush, KSDK Channel 5 anchor.