Son Writes Memoir of Mother's Gulag Survival - Part I

Randall Murphree

In "Dancing Under the Red Star," Karl Tobien writes a gripping account of Margaret Werner (his mother) and her three decades in Russia.

Ford Motor Company sent the family there to help establish a Ford plant in1932. Both Margaret and her father wound up in prison.

The book was released last month, and plans are under way for a screen version. Tobien, his wife Tina and their four children live in Cincinnati, Ohio. Randall Murphree interviewed the author for AgapePress.

AgapePress:  For how long had you wanted to write this book?

Karl Tobien:  I can't remember ever having an early conscious desire to write a book or to become a published author. What I can remember is having the distinct vision to make my mother's incredible story come to life, in some form or fashion including film, since about 1995 or 1996, just prior to her death. But it wasn't until three or four years later that I became personally inspired to write the book.

AP:  Did your mother share this dream, or did it come along after her death?

KT:  My mother was very guarded or reserved about certain aspects of her private life – namely her 30 years in Russia. For many years after her return to the U.S., she purposely chose to live a quiet, humble life that was intentionally off the radar screen. She was not interested in personal notoriety, or in writing a book for the sake of public acclaim or attention.

Perhaps there were hidden fears instilled in her spirit resulting from her earlier years of total oppression. Though almost everyone who had known her throughout her later years, and those who knew bits and pieces of her story, always said that her story must one day be a book and a film. She was interested only in her immediate family knowing the details of her story.

AP:  What obstacles did you have to overcome to get your book in print?

KT:  First and foremost, the lengthy process of finding the right publisher, which, for a first-time author, is normally not such an easy task. I met with a couple of early disappointments along the way. But I was very blessed to have an undeniably powerful story to begin with, so I knew that I just needed to find the right publisher, one who felt equally touched by this inspirational and historically unprecedented account.

AP:  How did you go about finding an agent and a publisher?

KT:  I chose not to employ an agent. I was very fortunate and happy that WaterBrook Press, the inspirational division of Random House, was enthralled with the story from the onset, and quickly agreed that it just had to be published.

AP:  You write your mother's story in first person. Is it based on her journals or oral history?

KT:  It's actually a combination of things. Certainly a lot of it is based on a lifetime of growing up and hearing – sometimes overhearing – stories and conversations that she would have with friends and relatives over the years about different incidents. Then, also, in her later years – I'd say in the early 1990s – she began to write, not for the purpose of publishing a book, but she began to write some notes just to leave something on paper for her family, a family legacy.

To a degree we were unaware of a lot of the facts. I was certainly aware of the headlines, but a lot of the minute details eluded me. So my mother and I began to talk. We had a lot of conversations and I probably filled up a couple of legal pads with notes from talking with my mother. I took all that information along with the foundation she had given me, and I decided that first person was the only thing that really made sense. It's sort of my tribute to my mother in the telling of her story, which she was no longer going to be around to see finalized.

AP:  You said you could write a book about your mother's years in the U.S.

KT:  I think I could.

AP:  You also said something about your father's story – called it a story "for another time." Do you know his story well enough to write it?

KT:  I know his story pretty well. But there are a lot of absent years in there. For over 30 years, we didn't know one another. I think a lot of the story just involves how we came to discover who he was and where he was and his whereabouts. That was something that my mother was able to accomplish for me before she passed. That was really quite a gift.

© 2006 AgapePress.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.