Letters From Berlin – Interview with Tania Blanchard
Briefly tell me about your new book!
Letters from Berlin is inspired by the life of my grandmother’s cousin and follows the story of a ‘mixed marriage’ family, Jewish and German, during World War Two Germany and into the Soviet occupation.
Set in and around Berlin, Susie’s world is turned upside down when Elya, her godmother and guardian, has finally been placed on the official register of Jews and must now wear the Star of David. Her godfather Georg has been able to protect Elya and their son Leo through good relationships with prominent Nazis until now. When a family friend and influential Nazi offers to help protect Elya and Leo, Susie jumps at the chance. She’ll do whatever she can to protect her family and the man she loves. As they turn to the resistance to thwart the Nazis in any way they can, and the risk to Elya and Leo escalates, Susie learns how far she’ll have to go to keep her family safe.
What inspired the idea behind the book?
While researching The Girl from Munich, and sifting through the documents, photos and memorabilia that my German grandmother left behind after she died, I discovered the letter that started the journey to Letters from Berlin. It was from my grandmother’s cousin, recently returned to Germany after spending nearly forty years living in South America and he wrote a short response to the enquiry about his family. A copy of a German newspaper article accompanied the letter which briefly covered the story of his family from the 1920s through to the late 1940s – the war years in Germany and into the Soviet occupation. He had been involved in a landmark legal case in Germany in an attempt to reclaim property lost to his family at the end of the war. I couldn’t believe everything this family had endured. It was such an incredible story full of heartbreak, survival and human endurance that made me immensely proud and I knew immediately that I wanted to tell it.
How did you tackle the research process for the book?
Unlike the previous novels where I had wonderful family stories, photos, documents and memorabilia to draw on, with Letters from Berlin, all I had to begin with was the letter that was sent to my grandmother and the German newspaper article that accompanied it. Fortunately because this cousin’s case was so high profile, his story and the progress of his legal case was reported in a number of German newspapers over the years.
Thankfully there were enough details about the significant moments in his and his family’s lives that I could research further, investigating the historical events surrounding these moments.
Research provided further layers to the story and helped build a picture of what family and legacy meant in the climate of the Third Reich and in 1943 with Germany’s first big loss in the war on the Eastern Front at Stalingrad and ‘The Final Solution’ well underway, what extent people were prepared to go to protect the ones they loved. Using the pivotal experiences of this family as anchor points in the novel, I was able to join the dots to construct an authentic story, weaving fact and research about what their lives may have been like with fiction to bring this family story to life.
What are the easiest and most difficult parts of your job as a writer?
The easiest part is being able to write every day. I love being able to write what I’m passionate about and it’s easy when I have a great scene in my head or when I have a fabulous piece of information, a story or some kind of inspiration that pushes my story forward or brings a whole new level to it. I really enjoy the research because I’m a history buff and I love weaving the research with fiction, especially when the creative juices begin to flow.
For me the most difficult part is when I’m stuck, when that inspiration doesn’t flow or when I’m having trouble putting the pieces of the story together in a way that makes sense and remains authentic. Sometimes it’s also easier to skim over the emotions in a scene, especially when they are heavy emotions. It can be difficult to dig deep below the superficial layer of the scene and the surface emotions especially when I know that it will elicit a strong emotional response in me.
I think the hardest scene I’ve written was Lotte’s reaction to the death of her husband Erich in Suitcase of Dreams. It took a few drafts to get into the deep emotions. Not only had I written about them as a couple over two novels and was by this time so emotionally invested in their characters and knew them so well but I was also writing about my grandparents. I used my vague memory of my grandfather’s death and the few childhood memories I had of him and it brought forward the grief I felt at losing him as a small child and how I missed having him in my life since. It also evoked emotions of what it could feel like to lose a husband or life partner so unexpectedly. I cried so much writing that scene but I think it allowed me to nail the raw emotion and desolation, making it a more powerful scene.
What’s some great advice you’ve received that has helped you as a writer?
Believe in yourself, write what you love and what you’re passionate about and keep to a weekly word count so that you get the first draft finished. Don’t go back and edit until you’ve finished the entire manuscript, otherwise, if you’re like me, who wants to constantly edit and make what I’ve written better, you’ll never get it finished.