Q&A with Author and Holocaust Survivor Charles Ota Heller
At the age of 9, Charles Ota Heller picked up a revolver and shot a Nazi. With dark memories of his childhood in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, Heller tried his best to let his past fade away once arriving safely in the United States at age 13. It wasn’t until decades later that Heller decided to rediscover his past and give his testimony of the horrors he and his family experienced.
Today, Heller is the award-winning author of Prague: My Long Journey Home — a memoir capturing his remarkable story of surviving the Holocaust and living the American Dream. His book has been published both in Czech and in English. As an Abbott Press author, his book was the first to earn the Writer’s Digest Mark of Quality recognition. In addition to traveling the country to discuss and promote Prague, Heller is also hard at work writing two new memoirs: Cowboy from Prague and Ready, Fire, Aim! Tales of Entrepreneurial Terror.
Below, we ask Heller about why he wrote his story, what he gained from publishing it, and what advice he’d give to fellow writers. For more of his incredible story, be sure to read Prague: My Long Journey Home and visit his website at www.charlesoheller.com.
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“I decided that I had to be one of the witnesses.”
Q: At what point did you realize that you needed to write a book about your experiences growing up during and surviving the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia?
A: On the day we landed in the U.S., my father ordered me to “forget everything that happened to you on the other side of the Atlantic.” I made every effort to comply, as I set out to chase the proverbial American Dream.
During the ensuing years, friends, teammates, business partners, employees and others may have been aware that I had come here from Czechoslovakia at the age of 13, but they knew little more about my past. That was just the way I wanted it. It was only after the fall of Communism in 1989 that I began answering questions about my native country and even beginning to reveal some of my long-held secrets.
Two apocalyptic experiences — one in Prague and another in Jerusalem — forced me to come to terms with both my nationality and my ethnicity. Memories came at me like a flood and, over the next six years, I began to write about them in my journal.
Although everyone was encouraging me to compile them into a book, I resisted. It was not until I realized that each day there are fewer World War II and Holocaust survivors left, that there are those who dare to deny the existence of the Holocaust, and that there are thousands of young people who have little or no knowledge of the war and the Holocaust, that I decided that I had to be one of the witnesses.
“Writing the entire story was, at times, painful, but it was also cleansing.”
Q: What did you gain from putting your story down on paper?
A: I found that there was a great deal about the saga of my family, the history of my native country, and my own personal narrative that I did not know. Months of extensive research helped me fill in the holes. But writing Prague: My Long Journey Home went far beyond enabling me to tell a compelling story. Above all else, it made me appreciate the incredible courage of my parents who fought against, and survived, Nazism and Communism. It served as my tribute to more than 20 of my family members who were murdered by the Nazis. Writing the entire story was, at times, painful, but it was also cleansing.
“I wanted to get the English-language book out into the market as quickly as possible.”
Q: Why did you want to publish? What publishing options did you consider?
A: I wanted to publish for a number of reasons, chief among them being my desire to be a witness to the horrors of war and my wish to honor forever the incredible lives of my parents.
Upon completing the first manuscript draft, I was signed to a contract by a literary agent. However, I became impatient with a lack of progress and parted company with her after 15 months. Upon the advice of another agent, I contacted several publishers in the Czech Republic and almost immediately signed a contract with the largest one. The manuscript was translated into Czech, and we had an exciting and successful launch of the book, titled Dlouhá cesta domů (Long Journey Home) in Prague, in April 2011. I wanted to get the English-language book out into the market as quickly as possible, so I researched various small and university presses, as well as subsidy and self-publishing options. I chose Abbott Press for two major reasons: the high quality of its books and the marketing support I would receive upon publication.
“Readers are struck by the perseverance and incredible courage of my parents.”
Q: What’s the single most important thing you hope others will gain from reading your story?
A: The feedback I get during my many discussions/signings throughout the country is that readers are struck by the perseverance and incredible courage of my parents, that they admire us for having achieved that American Dream after coming to this country with nothing, and that they appreciate the way I have woven a history with which most were unfamiliar with my own story.
“Be prepared to work hard — extremely hard — on promoting your book.”
Q: What is the most valuable piece of advice you could give to fellow writers?
A: I will begin by giving the same advice which most established writers give to those who are starting out: be patient and persevere. But, I’ll add to that an important piece of advice: be prepared to work hard — extremely hard — on promoting your book. Regardless of how and where the book is published, it is up to the author to create a major social media presence, to find out who and where potential readers are, to write letters and send emails in order to organize interviews, readings, signings, radio and TV appearances. It’s very hard and time-consuming work — often more difficult than the writing of the book — but it must be done. I’d add another piece of advice: never stop learning. I learn both by constantly reading and by taking writing courses, both in person and online.