The author Anna Funder talks about her first novel
Anna Funder is considering her answers to questions that are, for writers, supremely difficult. What draws her to her material; why does she write about what she writes about? In the case of Funder - who had an international hit with 2003's Stasiland, a non-fiction examination of the East German secret police - that material is totalitarian regimes, and the people who stand up to them.
"I don't think I've had enough psychotherapy to answer that question," she smiles. "I don't really know, but the evidence is clear that I'm drawn to this subject.
"I come from a pretty high-powered intellectual family. I have two brothers who are both involved in politics at a high level. There was clearly something in the water about power. I have no interest in personal power, but I'm interested in how societies work, and in what is being seen but not talked about."
Ever since the vast success of Stasiland, readers have been waiting for a follow-up. They finally have their wish: the publication of her first novel last month, All That I Am, which tells the story of a group of German opponents of the Nazis who flee to London when Hitler takes power in 1933. The story has a basis in real lives: one of the narrators is the left-wing German playwright Ernst Toller, who died in New York in 1939. The other is a member of the German Socialist Worker's Party, Ruth Blatt: she is based on the real-life Ruth Becker, who spent the last decades of her remarkable life in Sydney, where she became a friend of Funder's until her death in 2001, age 94.
"Ruth taught my German teacher German," Funder explains. "We became good friends; I loved her dearly; she was at my wedding.
"It was an incredible life. She really did try to smuggle anti-Nazi leaflets into Germany in 1939, and so on. But she gave no sense of being aware of any of that. She was by constitution a deeply humble person, full of admiration for other people. She was an observer."
So did Funder always know that she would write about Ruth?
"Well, this novel isn't really Ruth's story, but I have told that before. Soon after finishing Stasiland I collected these voice recordings I'd made of Ruth, and made a documentary out of them. When it came to this novel, I became intrigued by these events in London, and, having told Ruth's story, I was happy to inhabit her voice and let her observe another story going on around her."
Indeed, while much of the action comes to us via Ruth's recollections, the real heroine of the book is another member of the Socialist Worker's Party, the hard-headed and independent Dora Fabian. It's Dora's fate, played out in London, that lies at the heart of All That I Am.
While the novel has its basis in real lives, though, Funder had to imaginatively reconstruct the story she tells. In a note at the end of the book, she compares the process to "drawing skin and feathers over an assembly of dinosaur bones, to fully see the beast". Given the success of Stasiland, many readers might have expected Funder to produce a non-fiction treatment of Ruth et al. Indeed, Stasiland - which skilfully weaves Funder's own voice around the history dealt with - is often one among a number of books mentioned by critics who claim that fiction is a dying form, that recent history has outpaced our ability to fictionalise it. So why did Funder decide, this time, to write a novel?
"I would have written Stasiland as fiction," she says. "I started to, but the first demand of fiction - to create a believable world with believable characters - just didn't work. What happened with the Stasi was too incredible for a credible novel. And I wanted to tell those stories; I wanted to say that they were irradiating papers and using the radiation to track people, that they were breaking into apartments and stealing underwear and using dogs to track people by smell.
"People assume that with fiction, you stretch credulity to its limits. In my experience the reverse is true: you are constantly reining it in to maintain credibility. With Stasiland I didn't want to rein in the facts, I wanted to explore them.
"This novel is aiming at something completely different. This is about representing consciousness from the inside; it's about being inside Ruth's and Toller's heads."
And what of this idea - in support of which Stasiland is often marched out - that events in our recent past, such as the Holocaust, or September 11, are too terrible, too incredible, to fictionalise?
"It's a little bit like looking at the sun," says Funder. "We can't look directly at the sun. But there are techniques, ways of looking at things that are oblique but nevertheless extremely powerful. I think that with enough intelligence it is possible to represent these events.
"You could say it about any age really: 'We live in times that are indescribably brutal, or whatever'. I don't think anything is off-limits. You have to be brave and see what you can do."
A certain amount of bravery was necessary when it came to All That I Am. Funder's account of what happened to Dora in London is largely imagined, but founded on a period of deep and painstaking research.
"Someone else could look at the sources I looked at and make an entirely different story," says Funder. "But the story I tell is entirely congruent with what we do know. That was a forensic detective exercise that was pretty mind-breaking.
"I found some scenes quite upsetting to write. I'm not totally bonkers, and I know I invented them, but those feelings were still there. I mean, we go to fiction because we know it is going to muck around with our insides; we want our heart and mind to be moved. And those feelings happen to the writer, too."
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