The Books Interview — Anna Funder

The <em>Stasiland</em> writer on her latest book, <em>All That I Am</em> and the extraodinary histor

Your first book, Stasiland, was non-fiction. Did you always intend your second to be a novel?
I started writing Stasiland as a novel. The fundamental thing about writing a novel is to create a believable world and then to have people in it living believable emotional lives.At a technical level, it didn't seem possible to do justice to a world in which the [East German] secret police would break into your flat and steal your dirty underwear in order to have a smell sample to train a dog to follow you. All the details of the organisational perfidy were not credible and I would not have been able to put them in a novel.

Conversely, presumably there are things you can do in a novel that you can't do in ordinary discursive prose?
Yes. Despite all our civilised efforts and our best intentions, we don't understand things first rationally. I think we understand things best and most clearly on an emotional basis. It was hard for me to come to this [recognition], because I'm from a very scientific family. It has come as a revelation
to me, which is probably why I am so evangelistic about it.

All That I Am has two narrators, one of whom, Ruth Becker, is based on a real person - Ruth Blatt. How did you know her?
She taught me German in Australia. She had a wig, big glasses, funny teeth, the beginnings of a beard, one leg longer than the other - and she had this incredible story that preceded her wherever she went. It was about having tried to smuggle 150 anti-Hitler leaflets into Germany in the 1930s, being betrayed by someone in her group in court, being tried and spending five years in prison, before getting out and going to Shanghai and then Melbourne.

Was it always your intention to write the novel in the first person?
Yes. I'm reading Anna Karenina, which is a wonderful and humbling thing to do. Tolstoy gets inside everybody's heads. I could have [gone with an omniscient narrator] but I don't think I wanted to.

There's something about the extreme intimacy of the first person that I like. I think that's reflected in the title as well. I wanted to do broad-brush history through a very intimate lens.

In the novel, Ruth is Jewish. You seem to be particularly interested in the great miracle of German-Jewish assimilation.
Yes. It is extraordinary when you think about it. My other narrator, the playwright Ernst Toller - the real Ernst Toller - did go with great enthusiasm into the First World War, and the Kaiser did say: "My dear Jews, welcome to the war." In the Weimar Republic, cultural life in music, in theatre and in print was led by educated, assimilated Jews, and political life as well.

Ruth ends up in Britain. The British at that time were largely ignorant of this other Germany, weren't they?
Yes, although I'm not saying anything in particular about Britain or about appeasement in the book. It is partly about denial. I think it is possible as a person and as a society to know things about boatloads of refugees off the coast of Australia today, for instance, or in America, when the St Louis comes through with the Jews in 1939. It was not a secret what was happening in Germany.

Both your books are about Germany. Is your relationship to the country central to your sense of yourself as a writer?
I don't think it is, although the evidence isn't in my favour, is it? I did a combined honours degree in English literature and German. And I loved the language. I also studied in Berlin before the wall came down. It was very formative for me, having grown up during the cold war, to be in that city.
Stasiland came out of people I knew in West Berlin who had been kicked out of East Germany. I was interested in the trace of the cold war on people's lives. But I was trying to get away from Germany with this novel - spectacularly unsuccessfully!

I was making Ruth into the grandmother of a dysfunctional family in Sydney. But when I got a bit stuck with the novel, I thought I should go and look up what the Socialist Workers' Party of Germany was, what they were doing in Germany, what life was like for the exiles in London, and so on.

“All That I Am" is newly published by Viking (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis