Natasha Solomons, House of Gold

House of Gold
By Natasha Solomons

I am so excited to be interviewing Natasha Solomons today. Natasha is a screenwriter and the bestselling author of four novels including The House at Tyneford and The Song of Hartgrove Hall. Her latest book, her fifth novel, House of Gold, is an epic drama about a supremely wealthy Jewish family tested in many ways by World War I. It has already been optioned for TV by Tall Stories, part of the UK team known for Downton Abbey, my favorite show. She currently lives in Dorset, England, with her husband and two young children. 


Welcome, Natasha. Thanks so much for being on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”


Natasha Solomons: Thank you very much for having me.


Zibby: I feel like I'm on the phone with this major celebrity. I've been carrying around House of Gold and telling everybody I know, “I am reading the best book.” Now, I get to talk to you. I'm so excited.


Natasha: Thank you. You so made my day.


Zibby: No, it’s true. Can you tell listeners what House of Gold is about and how you came up with the idea for the book?


Natasha: The Goldbaum family are the confidants of governments and kings. They have banking house all across Europe. It’s 1911. Despite that, nobody quite trusts them because they're Jewish. The Goldbaums realize that only family can be trusted. Greta Goldbaum of the Vienna dynasty is being sent to London to marry her cousin Albert, a man who she's never met. Right from the start, it looks like the marriage is going to be a disaster. The couple lose one another on sight. Soon they have larger problems. The Great War, World War I, is looming. Really, it’s the story of the breakup of Europe but told through the microcosm of the breakup of a single family. It’s a novel of power, of family, of war, of love and loss.


Zibby: Amazing. That's a great description. This is like the Oscar for best picture. This is how I would describe a movie like that. That's amazing. It came from inspiration from your own family, correct?


Natasha: A little bit. On the stairs in my parent’s house in Dorset, England, there's a portrait of one of my ancestors, a man called Jacob [indiscernible]. It’s a little picture of a man wearing a black yarmulke. On his desk is a yellow bird, a golden oriole. I must have walked past this picture a thousand times and never really noticed it. One day, I did see it in the way that you do. I asked my parents about it. They said that this man Jacob, he was a tutor and a neighbor in the Frankfurt ghetto to the Rothschild family. I was intrigued that my family had brushed so closely to this incredibly famous European family. My family had left the Frankfurt ghetto at around the same time as the Rothschilds. The Rothschilds had gone on to found these banking house all across Europe and had this meteoric rise. My family had not. Somehow, following the journey of both families, one incredibly famous and my own moderately successful, gave me that first writer’s tingle. Really, what drew me to this story and wanting to write about the Goldbaums was the idea of writing about a family who was very powerful and yet vulnerable. Although they're close to the wheels of power and they're measurable wealthy, because they're Jewish, they're other. They're set apart. They're not quite trusted. They always have this sense of unease. That was, in fiction, what, to me, made them so fascinating and made me want to write about them.


Zibby: It says on the back of the book, somebody had compared this to a Jewish Downton Abbey, which is what I was thinking. I was almost disappointed someone had said that before me on the back. It’s true. The vivid imagery you use and the descriptions of this castle living, it’s so clear and amazing. Then I am reading it and I am imagining that I'm in Downton Abbey as you're writing. I actually jumped, I think it was page thirty-four when Greta’s congratulating her brother Otto on some scientific achievement and says “Mazel tov.” I was like, “What?” I jumped back. All of a sudden, my grandmother from Florida was in your book. I was like, “What is going on?” For me, being Jewish, so much of the custom is a part of me and my family. To have it shown in this sweeping war story across countries in this beautiful way was something I really hadn’t seen before which I think you did so beautifully. They have a broken mezuzah in some places. The whole thing with Shabbat with Otto and Ari and Claire and Greta, which was amazing, and the skullcap under the military helmet, all the little Yiddish-isms. I just thought it was amazing to put that element into this context. I thought it was awesome. 


Do you think there are other modern-day Goldbaums in Europe living like this? Does it exist?


Natasha: I don't think so much now, during the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The first World War marked the beginning of the end of them. The cost of the first World War, they had to put so much money up to lend it to the government to finance the first World War. They made a decision back in the 1890s, these kind of families. The Goldbaums are modeled on the Rothschilds, the Sassoons, the Montessoris, the Goldsmiths, as well as many other of these banking families. They're different. 


The European banking families are different from the American banking families. They think that they're tremendously important and tremendously powerful until they come into contact with the American banking families and discover that, really, they are small fish compared to the vast ones of America. They're still hugely wealthy, but compared to those with houses on Wall Street, they are small. They make the decision in the nineteenth century that they're not going to invest in Wall Street, that Europe is going to be bigger. That decision really costs them. It keeps them small scale. When the war starts, they're having to really bankroll the European governments. The cost of the war is so enormous. They never quite recover from the cost of that. Even today, the families are still rich because when you've been that wealthy, for a fortunate to dwindle takes a hundred years, but it’s smaller. I don't think there are families quite this large now.


Zibby: Did you know all of this World War I information, and the banking? Did you happen to know this? Were you a history major? I know you did a lot of research for this book. Did this all come up in your research?


Natasha: It was all research that I had to do. I knew some tiny bits when I started. I did loads and loads of research, which was so much fun. I love researching. It was great. Usually when I start to research a book, I say to myself, “I'm going to be really diligent. I'm going to be really good. I'm not going to start writing until I've done months of research.” Then I get really excited and really carried away. I fall in love with my lead character. Then I start writing in this happy chaos of papers everywhere, books everywhere. I write for a bit. Then I have to stop because I have to do a leg more research. It all happens in this happy muddle together. 


This time I used the broken finger method. I was reading an email on my phone from my US editor. I shut my finger in the car door on the way back from the school run. I broke my finger in a couple of places. I had to go for surgery. I thought, “It’s fine. I've got ten fingers. With only one out of action, I've got nine more. I can absolutely type.” It turned out that I really couldn't. I type pretty fast. I just couldn't do it. It was different for me, that sort of enforced reading and just writing notes and not doing it in quite that muddily way. I think it worked quite well, but it did feel different.


Zibby: Maybe you have to do this from now on.


Natasha: Oh, my goodness. No. It was way too sore.


Zibby: Not the finger. [laughs]


Natasha: I walked into the studio where my husband was working and was holding my finger. The kids were in the car, so I was trying really hard not to say bad words. I’m saying, “Darling, I think you're going have to take the kids out of the car.” I was dripping blood. He's saying, “I'm busy. Can I just finish this sentence?” He was working. “No. Just because I'm not swearing and shouting, you really need to take the kids out of here.” I'm not doing that again.


Zibby: When you started researching this book for instance, did you know the plot? Did you know how you wanted the whole thing to unfold and then you researched to support that? Did the plot unfold as you researched?


Natasha: I had some scaffolding of ideas of where I wanted it to go. Because it is a story that encompasses the Great War, there are specific points that one has to go to. There are dates like the assassination in Sarajevo, these are fixed things that cannot change. There are these dates that you know are immovable. Within those, there's flexibility. There are other things that you're building and moving around. I knew that, for instance, I wanted to write a story about war, but without goodies and badies. I wanted to write some of the war from the English point of view and some of it from the Austria-Hungarian point of view. I wanted to write about a brother and sister who are incredibly close, and to have some of it from her point of view and some of it from his, and to show the absurdity of the idea of enemies. How could they be enemies when we've seen them so close, that relationship between them? 


Having those ideas, then I needed to research what it was was like to be a Jewish officer in the Austria-Hungarian army. It’s a very anti-Semitic army on the Eastern front during the war. That was really hard to find out. A lot of it was in Russian. A lot of it was in German. I don't speak those languages. It was trying to follow that sugar trail to find out those things. Then it’s also having that flexibility that when you find something wonderful, to be able to work that into the story and not be so rigid, and also allow when you're writing such character-driven drama, to allow the characters to drive the story forward. There's always a danger that if you're plotting too hard, that somehow the plot is driving the characters. They're almost the victims of the plot and world historical events. They're dragging your characters along a little bit by their hair rather than that your characters are driving the story forward. I very much want to write stories where it feels that the characters are in charge of their own destinies rather than they're being carried forward and being bullied along by history and feel a little bit incidental, if that makes sense.


Zibby: Totally makes sense. Your characters, all of them, however it is that you're doing this so beautifully, they're like real people. I'm sad that the book is over, that I can't spend my evenings anymore with Greta and Albert. This paragraph you wrote about Albert to describe what he's like, in just ten lines or so you talk about his regular habits, his aversion to being touched, his need for quiet and being alone, how he washes his loose change every night. You have all these details. You paint it all so vividly that you figure out right away Albert’s an introvert. How crazy that now he's forced to be in the center of all this drama when what he probably wants to do is just be hidden all day. 


How do you find these? They're not real people. If it was someone real, I would think it would be great being able to describe them and distil who they are down to these few, little features. How do you do that when the person is not even real?


Natasha: They feel real to me. Also, what I wanted to do is to show that in many ways, certainly at first, this is a very unnatural marriage. Greta, she's doing her duty, but she is an extrovert. She's full of fun and chaos and rebellion. She's being made to marry this man. He is withdrawn. His passion is to these butterflies and these beetles. There is a coolness to him. He's quite controlling. He is married to this woman who scissors around the edges. They are so wildly unsuited and unsuitable. Yet somehow, they have to find a way of making it work because this marriage isn't just about two individuals. It’s about two dynasties. The stock exchange in Vienna and in London rises on their engagement announcement. It’s beyond just the two of them. It’s about a family. It’s even about a country. At various points, their marriage has wider implications. 


Even Greta’s body isn't her own. She's told at various points that they want her to get pregnant because it’s important for the company and for the family. The investors need to know that there will be, at some point, an heir for this family business to go on. It’s that sense that even her body doesn't really belong to herself. It belongs to something greater than herself. Despite the material riches and the wealth that she's brought into, there's something so awful about that, that I think it makes her quite relatable and gives her humanity and helps make her feel quite real.


Zibby: Absolutely. Also, the way you have her turn to her garden and the way she transforms it and puts her own mark on it really illustrates who she becomes and her role in the context of all these other -- how she makes it literally, physically look different, the way she is now that she's been immersed into this family. Is this also a research thing? I feel like you must be the best gardener in the entire world.


Natasha: My mom is a really keen gardener. She's a passionate gardener. Some of the research of the book was we visited gardens. My daughter at the time was really, really tiny. We took her with us. We went and did garden research. I wanted the gardens of the Goldbaums to be an expression of character. Initially in the ghetto, the Jewish children were banned from the city parks. Jews weren’t allowed to have gardens. The first thing the Goldbaums do when they have money is they want to create these amazing gardens for their chateaus and their castles. The gardens that they create are these incredibly formal [indiscernible] gardens. They're an expression of power because they're so extravagant. There's these series of greenhouses. These amazing glass houses are needed to constantly replace the very delicate bedding plants that are needed all the time. If there's a frost, they're destroyed. The plants are spoiled. Fresh plants are brought out of the glass houses, immediately replanted by dozens of gardeners while the family sleeps. They're all fresh in the morning. It’s a very extravagant way of working. The gravel paths, the paths to walk up and do deals as you walk along, they're not places to relax or to find a hidden corner and read a book. 


Greta is given land for a garden by her mother-in-law as a wedding present. She's rather worried that it’s a ruse to clip and turn her into the perfect Goldbaum wife. It’s not what she wanted to be. She doesn't want to be clipped by some of the Goldbaum topiary. She wants to create a much more laid back, relaxed place. She wants a garden of defiance with women gardeners where women wear trousers. You can't dig in a corset. It’s physically impossible. She wants something with wavering grasses and hidden spaces. I'm not a great gardener. I have a lovely garden, but it’s weed-filled. At this point in my life, I could either weed or I could edit. At the moment, I need to edit rather than to weed. I post pictures of my garden on Instagram, but you can't look too closely. There's a lot of weeds at the edges.


Zibby: Have you ever been interviewed by or spoken to an author named Dominique Browning?


Natasha: No.


Zibby: She writes all these gardening books. This is my dream now, is to have a panel with you and her talking about gardening. She often reviews books about gardening. She has a book. It was called Slow Love. It’s really good.


Natasha: She’ll make me ashamed of all my weeds.


Zibby: In the book, you have Greta meet Claire, Henri’s mistress basically. She designs a dress at the beginning of the book for Greta that I feel like really sets the stage of her character and who she becomes, the boldness of deviating from what the baroness wants her to wear by wearing this Klimt-esque inspired gown. I think you should start a clothing line. This is my new thing. You need to start selling these dresses or at least have one or a few of them made so that people can actually see. It sounds pretty gorgeous the way you described.


Natasha: The dresses are real. Klimt’s girlfriend is this woman Emilie Floge. The dresses that he paints were real dresses designed by Floge. She was this dress designer in Vienna. You can see the dresses if you look at a Klimt painting. The woman that are wearing the dresses are dressed in the Floge dresses. If you look at a Klimt painting, those are what they're like. The dresses that I describe, if you look at various Klimt paintings, you'll be able to see the dresses.


Zibby: I thought you had made it all up.


Natasha: I haven't. They're taken from Klimt. Klimt, basically he paints his girlfriend’s dresses. That's what he does. They are amazing. They are quite something. I don't know if any of the dresses have survived or whether they’ve just survived through the paintings. They are remarkable modern pieces of art.


Zibby: I'm definitely going to go online now and check those out. I thought it was the sweetest thing in your acknowledgment section when you wrote, “And lastly, thanks to my children. As far as they're concerned, I've been writing this book their whole lives. The tiny baby who was asleep in a Moses basket at my feet when I began is now running around with a dinosaur in each hand shouting, ‘Have you finished yet?’ Yes, darling. Now, I have.” It was so great.


Natasha: I did get quite teary when I finished writing that bit.


Zibby: You can tell there's so much emotion. First of all, how long did it take you to write this book? How did you balance managing to write and research and produce this masterpiece with two small kids underfoot? 


Natasha: This book definitely has taken me the longest out of anything I've ever written. I was supposed to be on maternity leave when I started it. My daughter was six weeks old when I started this book. I was researching it and looking after her all in this slight hormonal blur at the beginning. I started writing it more intensely as she got bigger. Probably, I was writing it over the course of a couple of years. I can't remember exactly. I wasn’t writing it intensely all the time because I was supposedly on maternity leave for some of it. It was muddled. Sometimes when she was smaller, I would write while she was sleeping. She was literally asleep in the Moses basket on her cot upstairs. I would write in those stolen moments when she was asleep with the baby monitor on, and just listen for the cry, and then abandon the book and run back to her. 


Now, it’s a bit different when I write. She goes to preschool. My son’s at school. Once they're out of the house, this internal clock starts. I know exactly how many hours and minutes I've got ‘til I have to go and pick them up or they get delivered back to me. I'm super focused and get quite anxious about how much time I have to write once they're out of the house. Then they come back and I stop writing, often midsentence, which sometimes is a good thing because then it’s easier to pick up the next day. Some weeks you feel like, “This is fine.” I'm managing to balance the work mothering. Other times it feels awful and it’s a complete mess and total chaos. There was one time a few weeks ago, I didn't have a handler. I went up to London to meet my editor. It turned out that I was four days early for the meeting. I'm just not managing this at all. It gets all a bit chaotic.


Zibby: That makes me feel better as a mom, all the times I show up for birthday parties on the wrong day and forget different activities. The chess teacher is at the front door. I'm like, “The kids aren’t even here.” The managing of the logistics of motherhood, it’s quite daunting. It’s hard to keep it all straight. 


Natasha: There's some pictures on my Instagram feed. I sent my husband to drop my daughter at preschool. It turned out the preschool was shut that day. I had no childcare organized. I absolutely had to write. I had a deadline. She just came and sat in my office. There's terrible pictures. She's just sitting on the rocking chair in my room. I'd like to say that she was drawing and painting and doing creative stuff. She wasn’t. She was watching PAW Patrol.


Zibby: It was probably the best day of her life. 


Natasha: Some days you just do what you have to do. It was fine. After a while, my mom came and got her. They went to a café. She had a great time. Some days, you muddle through. There's a balancing act, but balancing suggests that you have some measure of control and that there is a balance. I don't think it is. You flop. I flop from one side to the other.


Zibby: Balance is probably not the best -- a bit of misleading word.


Natasha: There is no balance.


Zibby: House of Gold is going to be a TV series. Why not a movie? How involved are you in this project?


Natasha: Because the book has this epic sweep, to try and squeeze it into two hours would be quite a mission. It feels like it would take longer than that to tell. A TV series would really give us a bit more time to tell the story. It will need that six to eight hours to really tell it properly. That lush TV that we have at the moment with those budgets, it felt like a much more natural home than trying to push this into a period movie. I think it would be hard.


Zibby: Are you writing the scripts or the screenplay? How involved are you in that project?


Natasha: I'm married to a screenwriter as well. We've cowritten the pilot together. If the show gets made, we’ll exec-produce it as well. We’ll be really involved every step of the way, which will be really nice.


Zibby: Do you have any stars on your wish list?


Natasha: I don't. To me, the characters are so real. I don't imagine Greta as somebody. Greta’s Greta. If it gets to that stage, it would be very exciting. For the moment, Greta in my head, she’s herself. I don't picture her as a different person.


Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors out there?


Natasha: If anything else can make you happy, do that. This is a crazy job. If there's anything else you can possibly do that you think could make you happy, do that. If you're listening to this and thinking, “Nope. There's nothing else,” then you have no choice. You're a writer anyway. You're stuck with it. You have to battle on through the lows and the odd high. It’s one of those things. The other thing to bear in mind is that, yes, we’re all hoping to get published. The dream is to make a career of it. 


Even if it’s not your career, writing can still give you great pleasure. For every kid who plays the guitar, you don't say to them, “If you can't make it as a rock star, that's it. Put your guitar down and burn it.” You say, “Play with your friends. Join a band. You can still enjoy it.” Even if the dream of publication doesn't happen, still write. It doesn't mean you don't have to do it. Still take great joy in it. Writing can still be part of your life and something that can give you and your friends great pleasure. I don't know if that's useful advice.


Zibby: That's totally useful advice. That's fantastic. We’ll start a writing band. [laughs]


Natasha: A writing band, there you go.


Zibby: Actionable advice. You heard it here first. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books” and all the listeners. I really truly, truly enjoyed your book. I really wish you all the best success. Just know that, at least for me, you've entertained me for a solid fourteen hours of reading. Thank you for that.


Natasha: Thank you for having me on the show.


Zibby: Of course. Take care. Thanks so much. Buh-bye.


Natasha: Thanks. Bye.


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