Stephan Frenkel, a retired architect and land planner who lives with his wife in Santa Barbara, California, is the first to admit that he is an accidental author. His literary aspirations didn’t ignite until he stumbled across an old photo album from his beloved grandmother, Clara Prinz. This album—the cover of which is faithfully reproduced on the front of his book, Clara’s Secret—contained a wide array of “cabinet cards,” signed photos of famous historical figures like Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt that she collected while growing up during La Belle Époque (“the Beautiful Era”) in late 19th- and early 20th-century Berlin.

This unexpected discovery ultimately sent Frenkel on a six-year journey of research and writing to better understand this remarkable woman in the context of both her personal life and the larger events that occurred on the global stage during this shining and precarious moment in history. The resulting book is the product of Frenkel’s desire to find out more about his grandmother’s most formidable years. After having various postcards and letters from family and friends translated from their original German, he actually flew to Berlin in order to retrace Clara’s steps through the streets of her old stomping grounds so that he could “literally walk hand in hand with her through her adolescence in an attempt to understand the trauma she had to undergo coming to the U.S. on her own and how her life subsequently developed after that.” And while Clara’s Secret originally formed as a way “to get to the root of familial connections,” Frenkel explains that it then quickly “turned into a way to bring other people into this world and into Clara’s life. I’m simply the translator, the tool for her story. The person who brought it back to life.”

And bring it to life he does. As Kirkus Reviews notes, Frenkel “vividly captures the story of old Berlin, a city that the Jewish Clara fled with her family in 1939 and which was almost completely destroyed by the bombs of World War II. The depth of the author’s research allows him to cover broad swaths of history while also recreating specific scenes from Clara’s life with novelistic flair.”

Capturing Clara’s authentic voice proved to be where the “creative” portion of the book’s creative nonfiction designation really came into play. This means that although specific dialogue and certain interactions are “creatively suggested,” the major facts of Clara’s dealings with real historical figures and experiences of major political events that rocked the entire world are true. And while most of Frenkel’s research turned up hard facts and specific dates, it was figuring out how Clara came into contact with such a wide swath of famous movers and shakers in order to get their autographs that proved a delightful puzzle of sorts. Frenkel experimented with how these connections and interactions could have actually played out until he came upon scenarios that seemed to him the most organic. The result is a sweeping saga that encapsulates a unique moment of optimism and prosperity, as well as its horrifying downfall and the reemergence of hope after all seems lost.

Frenkel expertly captures the growing dread and mounting tension as war inches closer, but it’s arguably the quieter, more personal moments of Clara’s everyday life that will resonate most with readers. It is also remarkable to muse upon the sheer amount of talent that roamed the streets of Berlin at that time. During a stroll with her good friend Sigfred Ree in the summer of 1908, for example, Clara casually stumbles across Richard Strauss—the Bavarian musician responsible for composing the one-act opera Salome:

At first, Sigfred and Clara were unsure of how to approach such an important person. But, the casual atmosphere of the park emboldened them. They quietly walked toward the seated musician and Clara respectfully called, “Doctor Strauss?” The gentleman turned towards the young couple and happily greeted them. Clara, now with greater confidence, returned the greeting. Both she and Sigfred apologized for the interruption and said that they didn’t want to bother him anymore than necessary, and only wanted to tell him how much they admired his music. He offered a simple smile and graciously thanked them. Clara then produced the photographic card and politely asked him if he would provide an autograph for her collection. With pen already in hand, the great musician immediately accepted the card and carefully wrote his title and name at the top. In the brief time it took for his signature, they told him how they were inspired to play piano because of his contribution to the world.

This is a world that overflows with art, music, and literature, one that practically hums with vitality and genius. It is vividly reproduced in even the most casual interactions and stands in stark contrast to the war-torn city that will emerge in just a short amount of time. Frenkel’s exploration into Clara’s life and the world she inhabited ultimately came from his desire to preserve one’s own history for future generations in a way that is both relatable and sustainable. When speaking to various genealogical groups about his research for Clara’s Secret, Frenkel always emphasizes that everyone has an important story to tell and that the sacrifices families make for future generations can be admired and respected through sharing these types of stories. The hardest part is simply documenting it all. This can be particularly true when a family’s history is especially difficult or painful for family members to recall. Frenkel himself had only heard scattered snippets of his grandmother’s past while growing up. He hoped, through researching and writing Clara’s Secret, to uncover and understand the major events and timelines that ultimately helped shape the woman he knew and loved.

There is no doubt that Clara’s Secret covers a lot of ground: Its epic narrative encompasses everything from history and family to culture and war. But at the heart of it all, says Frenkel, the story is “really about the soul of a woman. This is a woman’s story, this is not a story of men.” The yearslong process of writing the book helped him reflect more on that idea of womanhood. The substance of Clara’s remarkable life ultimately lends itself to an appreciation for women’s roles both in the family unit and in history. While this may make it an especially appealing read for female audiences, the book’s deep historical dive and vivid descriptions of political strife truly open it up to an extraordinarily broad range of readers, from history buffs to memoir enthusiasts and beyond.

So what comes next for this accidental author? Frenkel is currently hard at work on his next book. Another creative nonfiction volume, this one instead follows the life of his wife’s grandfather who came over from western Russia (now Ukraine) and settled in Milwaukee. While writing, Frenkel continually keeps his two-year-old grandson in mind, since his ultimate goal is to help relate stories from one generation to another. “The further detached we become from our ancestors,” he explains, “the more difficult it is to pick up that thread of family.” And it is realizing one’s history that helps bring the future into focus.

Andrea Moran lives outside of Nashville with her husband and two kids. She’s a professional copywriter and editor who loves all things books.