On a gray Wednesday evening in April, I walked to Oslo's Litteraturhuset under the red blossom of my umbrella. I was on my way to see Australian author Anna Funder talk about her debut novel, All That I Am . Cars splashed murky water from the gutters up onto the sidewalk. I worried that my heart was about to break.
As a hopeful, student author, I've been told a thousand times that good writing is always genuine. That I must write from a place of sincerity and passion. Time and again, my mentors and professors have said to me, Write the story you must. Like any other helpful adage, however, once this truth has been used as a device to stimulate creativity a few dozen times, it loses its shine, its magic, its ability to impel. It becomes personal affirmation. Still true, but benign.
Then last winter, I heard a teacher say something new.
Bill Lychack, author of The Architect of Flowers , spoke to my class about what a writer's product is and where it comes from. Snow dusted the bare trees outside our classroom in Cambridge. When it came to his own process, Lychack said, "What I must do is all that concerns me." But then he went on...
Write the thing that would break your heart if someone else wrote it first.
I pushed through the doors of Litteraturhuset that April evening, folded my red umbrella back into itself, and tried not to think about the dreams I might be about to dash. I was going to sit at the foot of an accomplished author, one who had written a beautiful novel set in the era I want to write about and driven by themes which are also at the heart of my story. It was entirely possible that I would soon hear her say, You know that story you've been mooning about for almost thirty years without taking action? Well, I decided it was fair game, so I wrote it first.
When I heard Anna Funder was coming to Oslo, I bought my ticket right away. The acclaim she received for her previous book, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall , meant I'd heard of her. Stasiland was a work of nonfiction, an unveiling of oppression in East Germany, as well as the resistance efforts and activism born in response. The book received the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction in 2004. I knew I'd learn a lot from Funder as a nonfiction writer, but then I began reading her new novel.
All That I Am is the story of a group of friends and activist colleagues living in Germany between the two world wars. Germany had been isolated and severely sanctioned by the Treaty of Versailles. The German people were divided and downtrodden. It was a situation rife for change. The only question was which Phoenix would rise from the ashes. Told as a series of flashbacks by two different narrators, All That I Am reveals itself as a very human mystery, but it is also an examination of wartime morality: how the post-WWI political climate in Germany gave rise to the Nazi party and who fought against the rise of the Third Reich.
"It was a time of high appeasement," said Funder, referencing the tedious avoidance-politics practiced by the British and the Americans when first faced with Hitler. "Back when men couldn't type, and dictated all their precious words to a woman (who was at least as clever as he was)."
This fact of history, that men dictated their ideas to women for the typing, carries along the narrative of All That I Am . Such is the case of one of the story's narrators, Ernst Toller. Like several other characters in the book, Toller was an actual historical figure. He was a left-wing German playwright who fought in WWI, participated in a short-lived Communist revolution in Bavaria, and then wrote prolifically from prison after the revolution was put down. In Funder's hands, Toller lives and breathes again, and his character is rounded out by all the little details she knew and included of him.
So given how much of the foundational story line is true, why did she choose to stick with fiction?
"Many of them are true characters, but they are utterly forgotten," said Funder. The facts known about people like Toller didn't amount to a complete character, someone who could react to love and betrayal. To make her characters live, Funder needed to be able to take on their voices and invent dialogs and relationships.
"This was only possibly through fiction," Funder said.
I scribbled her words down in my notebook. Not because it was a revelation, but rather because it reinforced what I've long thought about my own project.
I also want to write about that dramatic era when the world went to war a second time, less than two decades after it had seen the end of "the war to end all wars." It's a period I know intimately. And I also have a specific set of historical characters, real people, who will appear in the halls of my novel. But while I know their names and have seen their photos, only fiction will allow me to bring the drama of their existence to life in a personal way.
Ripped coveralls. Lipstick on letters home. A celebration held around a newly-enclosed latrine. Voices in the jungle. Beriberi and dengue fever. Only fiction will allow me to put words in their mouths.
As it turns out, my trepidation at seeing someone else write a novel much like the one I hope to write was the perfect encouragement. Funder felt a responsibility to reinvent the brave people time forgot. She fell in love with the existence of a woman named Dora, a real-life rebel and activist, a feminist ahead of her time. Funder researched tirelessly; she read everything she could, and in the case of Dora, that meant digging up a single PhD thesis written by a history student many years ago. She carried that one book around with her everywhere, deep in her purse. "Like a secret," she said. "Like a bomb."
Then she began to write.
"You write to figure out what you think and what you know," said Funder. "Once it's there [on the page], it seems like the truth, though you didn't know that when you started."
The truth Funder was looking for between the lines of her novel had everything to do with bravery and courage.
In a 2008 lecture to PEN Writers in Sydney, Funder said, "According to Aristotle, a courageous person is one who faces fearful things as he ought, and as reason directs, for the sake of what is noble."
She was talking about the heroic and noble actions of recent resistance movements in Russia, China, and even Australia. As well, she was underscoring the resistance movement in 1930s Germany, which had inspired her then-in-process novel. But this same courage applies to the act of writing, too. For me this means facing the most fearful thing of all: Writing what would break my heart if someone else wrote it first.
Funder's talk that April evening at Litteraturhuset comforted me. I suddenly felt a new authority over my subject, the people who I would need to bring back to life.
The danger of taking on a period piece, historical fiction, is nostalgia. A refusal to see things wholly because it's preferable to see memories as they've been manufactured by our culture. Retro decor. Vintage fashion. Pincurls. Those things are important, too, but they're props. When it comes to the story, a writer must pull from a place deeper than the veneer.
Funder reminded us that Nazi Germany may take up a large section in most world history books, but that, ultimately, the themes surrounding wartime are timeless.
Truth told about the Then is also an important lens held up to the truth of the Now.
"This is a contemporary story," said Funder. "Totalitarian governments give rise to all these things." These things: mistrust, a forced decision about where one's loyalties lay, errors in judgment, mob mentality, xenophobia, restriction of personal freedoms. "It's mad, but it's still going on."
As an attorney specializing in constitutional and human rights law in Australia, Funder is well-versed in political current events, and has a broad historical perspective at her disposal. She understands patriotism, and knows that it comes in many forms. The Nazis, after all, were tremendous patriots. But the intellectuals, educators, activists, and journalists who were exiled from Germany as the war broke out were patriots, too. Much of All That I Am is rooted in a refugee mindset. Pushed beyond the borders of their homeland, many of these brave men and women continued their work, refusing to be silenced; they believed in an "Other Germany."
"Love of country," explained Funder, "Is like love of a parent--unless the parent does something really, really bad, it's hard to stop loving them."
Toward the end of the interview, Funder made one more comment about the choice to tell what is, inherently, a true story in a fiction format. When everybody is dead and forgotten and must be "reinvented," there is a huge responsibility to get the story "morally right." That can be accomplished through fiction, she told us.
"And there are many, many, many more stories."
She might as well have been speaking only to me. I walked home that night with my umbrella swinging low in my hand, and raindrops finding their way into my hair.