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)