Sometimes you have to open portals in time as well as space. So eventually I traveled back to Berlin myself to search for more intangible responses. I walked down the streets that my main character, Hannah Vogel, strode in my imagination, or what’s left of them. Many of the locations in my book were flattened in World War II. And to make matters worse, some were never rebuilt, but were paved over and had a giant wall built through them for 28 years. But I prevailed upon a Berliner school friend as beautiful and determined as the city itself. She took me on a tour of the major locations in my book on a hot summer day in 2006. That’s when we moved into the sixth sense.
Hannah’s apartment? Gone. Her office? Still there and recently restored. It’s closer in appearance to where she worked than at any time since 1931, when she typed her make believe news stories there. Eerie, but very cool.
But eeriest of all was the gay bar El Dorado. It’s where Hannah’s brother Ernst, a drag queen decades before we invented the term, mesmerized audiences with his singing. The Nazis closed the actual bar after the elections in 1933, and, not skilled at recognizing irony, turned it into a political headquarter.
In the 1990s the bar reopened. When I ordered a Berliner weisse beer, my old college favorite, they only had raspberry red shots. I laughed, because that is all that Ernst would have ever ordered anyway, red being his signature color. At last, Ernst’s old haunt was restored, not as it was in real life, but as I invented it with him in my novel. Goosebumps raised on my arms as I studied the oil paintings that lined the walls. Reproductions of Georg Grosz’s Metropolis, each was a deja-vu-inducing scene from my book. El Dorado today looks less like it did in 1931, and more like a representation of the world I created in my novel. I wasn’t the only one who fell in love with Berlin in 1931 and tried to recreate it whole.
Again I sit on my lanai. This time I must imagine an even darker Berlin. In The Night of the Long Knives, Hannah and I have been drawn into the murderous Berlin of 1934. I step into its shadows. In spite of devoting years and pages to it, Berlin still won’t let me go.
Where would you travel to walk in the footsteps of your favorite literary character? What would be changed? What would be the same? And, most importantly, what would you snack on?
While Kelli is traveling through space to Denver, I want to talk about traveling through time. Like Kelli, I write historical fiction and to do that, I have to be able to travel back in time through whatever portals I can force open.
To write Even Smoke Leaves a Trace I didn’t have to go quite as far back as Kelli, though, just to 1931 Berlin, 12 time zones and 70 years away. Why face just a historical distance when I can face twice the challenge by writing from a diametrically opposed location too? I gazed out at dancing palm trees and warm waves from my lanai in faraway Hawaii, and filled my pages with coal and cobblestones.
With my heroine, Hannah Vogel, I moved into Berlin in 1931, the year before Germany was completely lost to the Nazis. I started at the top level of research with secondary sources, thick scholarly tomes like The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but only through page 387 because I wasn’t interested in the fall yet, just the rise. I romped through Otto Friedrich’s history of Weimar-era Berlin, Before the Deluge. And where else but in Hawaii would I have time to start the thousand year history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis by Alexandra Richie?
I dug deeper, down into the primary sources to see how Berliners felt at the time. Luckily, Berlin in 1931 housed wonderful diarists like Count Harry Kessler, Bella Fromm, William Shirer, Viktor Klemperer, and the grim articles of Joseph Roth collected in What I Saw. I read until their ghost voices haunted my sleep. Not always fun, because 1931 was their last moment of freedom and some of them, especially Roth, knew it. When the Nazis took power in 1933, Roth wrote a scathing indictment of all European intellectuals and moved to Paris where he drank himself to death.
I listened to the rough voice of Lotte Lenya, widow of Kurt Weill, belting out an enchanting “Mack the Knife,” a song released in—you guessed it—1931 in Berlin. Now to see their world. Berlin’s UFA Studio was the center of the German film industry from 1917 to 1945. Amazingly gifted directors who worked there would later come to the United States and become famous enough that even their early films are available on Netflix, only a few days shipping from my tiny TV, classics like M, Emil and the Detectives, and Nosferatu.
It was pure self indulgence but, I wanted to taste the city too. I trekked to a specialty grocery store and brought home boxes of bockwurst, Berliner weisse beer, chocolate, and apple strudel mix. It wasn’t quite Berlin in 1931, but at least it was my Berlin from 1985. Writers get to have fun too.
How do you like to travel back in time? If you could travel any where and any when, where would you go, and what would you bring back?
You ever have one of those Dr. Frankenstein moments? Maybe even a Young Frankenstein moment?
You know, when you pinch yourself because you just can’t believe that you and Igor have actually succeeded?
Well, it happened to me on Friday. The ARCS (advanced reading copies or galleys) of Nox Dormienda arrived. Did I think of a snappy, noirish line from one of my favorite movies? Did I raise an eyebrow like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, or sing “Put the Blame on Mame”?
Two lines occurred to me … the aforementioned “It’s Alive!” as uttered by the imitable Colin Clive, and those immortal words of Teri Hatcher’s, when she guested on Seinfeld:
They’re real–and they’re fabulous.
So now Mondays are the new Sundays, as we assemble press kits, reviewer addresses, and requests from relatives into mass mailings of what looks like a book with my name on it … nah, couldn’t be. This isn’t real … is it?
It’s a landmark along the road, another reason to celebrate. Your book is real, like parenthood, when you hold the responsibility for it in your hands. Even an advanced reading copy. And it’s necessary to celebrate, as I’m reminded when I read the wonderful Write Free newsletter, which should be a must read for everyone who writes or wants to write, or really, anyone who is trying to fit creativity into her life.
Something else I’m reading? Well, I just finished an advanced reading edition of another author,Jordan Dane. Jordan is going to be everywhere very soon — her first book, No One Heard Her Scream, pubs in March — so I’d suggest ordering now before they sell out, and don’t forget you heard it here first.
She’s got three books pubbing back to back this spring, all in the romantic suspense genre, but really–they cross over into thriller, mystery, police procedural categories. Vivid characterization, intense suspense, creepy and all-too believable villainy … you owe it to yourself to check these out! The next two coming up are No One Left to Tell and No One Lives Forever.
Another fine author (who also happens to be a real heroine — an emergency-room pediatrician) is CJ Lyons, who is launching Lifelines in March. I’ve read a sneak preview of the first chapter, and if you like medical thrillers and shows like ER and Grey’s Anatomy … well, you’re in for a treat. I’ll be picking up my copy at Left Coast Crime.
CJ, Jordan and I — and my guest blogger, whom I’ll be discussing in a minute — are all members of the Thrill Begins, the International Thriller Writers Debut Authors Group. We’ve all been on this journey together. So my enthusiasm is doubled–first, because the books are tremendous, and secondly, because we’re part of the same class, so to speak. That’s a terrific feeling, and a relatively new one in publishing circles, spearheaded by the Killer Year group of authors. KY, incidentally, has a killer anthology out … another recommendation.
Now, what about that guest blogger? Well, I’ll be posting for Declan Burke’s Crime Always Pays when we get to Denver. And fellow debut author and historical noir writer Rebecca Cantrell will be stepping over here, to Writing in the Dark, to share her observations about all kinds of things … including how to write noir in sunny Hawaii, where she lives, and how to channel early ’30s Berlin when you’re sipping mai tais in 90 degree weather. Becky’s book, Even Smoke Leaves a Trace, will be debuting in 2009, and I’m already in line for an ARC … it’s haunting and elegiac, the kind of poetry that noir inspires in the best of writers … and she is one of the best.
Speaking of noir … I saw Ida Lupino’s favorite film the other day. Ladies in Retirement (1941), another example of period-setting noir. The environment is a lonely house on some rugged, decayed looking English moor, circa the 1880s. Ida co-stars with her husband at the time, Louis Hayward, noir stalwart Evelyn Keyes, Elsa Lanchester, and a great supporting cast.
Charles Vidor (Gilda) directed; the story is based on a stage play popular the year before. Essentially, Ida plays a woman willing to do anything — emphasis on the anything — to keep her barmy sisters happy and out of the insane asylum.
It’s a marvelous film, owing something to Night Must Fall, but Vidor’s angles, the starkly contrasting cinematography, and the cat-and-mouse game Ida plays with Hayward’s character make it, in my opinion, even better. Lupino was one of the greatest actresses of the golden age … and never nominated for one of those glittery and sexless statuettes they call an Oscar.
Unfortunately, Ladies in Retirement isn’t on DVD or VHS … I caught it on TCM. Watch your listings, which is almost as good a sign-off as “That’s the way it is.”