It is a pleasure to warmly welcome Tania Blanchard to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews for A Tea Break with Mrs B, a short form author interview series. To help celebrate the release of Letters from Berlin we sat down for a chat. Thanks Tania!
What is your drink of choice as we sit down for a chat about your new book?
Coffee! Strong and black!
Can you give us an overview of your writing career to date?
I started writing seriously about twelve years ago when my children were very little and I was home with them. I began writing stories for them and tried my hand at a full length novel that morphed into a young adult fantasy novel as my children grew. I did a couple of online writing courses to learn more about structure, technique and characterisation and eventually in 2015 went to Adelaide to Fiona McIntosh’s Commercial Fiction masterclass. I learnt lots writing that children’s novel but it needed lots of work to properly change it into a young adult novel and I decided to put it to one side and try something I was passionate about. While in Adelaide I was inspired and encouraged to write about my German grandmother’s life in wartime Germany. She’d passed away six months earlier and left behind a treasure trove of documents, photos and memorabilia. I knew this was the time to start writing The Girl from Munich. I was very fortunate to be picked up by Simon and Schuster Australia after pitching my story idea at another of Fiona McIntosh’s weekend workshops six months later. The Girl from Munich was published in September 2017 which was short listed for The Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year at the 2018 ABIA awards. Suitcase of Dreams inspired by my grandparents’ experiences as immigrants in the 1950s and as New Australians was published in November 2018. Both books combined had sold over 100,000 copies by January 2020. My third novel, Letters from Berlin will be released shortly. I love writing historical fiction, I feel like this is my ‘groove’, combining my love of history, family stories and writing fiction.
Can you tell us about the true story that inspired the creation of your new book, Letters From Berlin?
While researching my very first book, 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 had been sent to her when she was in her eighties by newly connected relatives in Germany. They’d been trying to find other branches of the family that had dispersed after the war and had found my grandmother’s cousin, recently returned to Germany after spending nearly forty years living in Brazil where his mother’s family had migrated in the early 1900s. He wrote them a short letter in response to their enquiry about his family.
It was wonderful to discover a part of my grandmother’s family that I knew nothing about but the icing on the cake was the copy of a German newspaper article that accompanied the letter. I had no idea what it was about until I began translating it. That article blew my mind! It briefly covered the story of this man’s family from the 1920s through to the late 1940s – the war years in Germany and into the Soviet occupation. The reason his story was so sensational was because he was involved in a landmark legal case in Germany in an attempt to reclaim property lost to his family at the end of the war. The legal case took over 20 years from first lodgement, reaching the Supreme Court in Germany. The final verdict was a resounding victory, handed down when he was lying in hospital. His courage, determination and persistence finally paid off. He died two weeks later.
Besides being an incredible story, the amazing thing for me was to learn more about my family. I discovered that my grandmother’s uncle was married to a Jewish woman originally from Russia. He owned a large estate outside of Berlin and was predominantly a timber merchant. His wife’s name was added to the register of Jewish people in 1943, sparking off a series of events that changed their lives, despite all he had done to protect them from Nazi persecution. I couldn’t believe everything this family, my relatives, had endured. It’s 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.
What was the research process like for Letters From Berlin and what sources did you use?
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. I drew on fascinating first-hand accounts of the time from books and biographies, a fabulous array of information from the internet, I watched lots of documentaries and returned to my trusted tomes written by historians about World War Two. 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.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Did you have a set outline of Letters From Berlin before you sat down to write this novel, or did you allow this book to take shape during the writing process?
Actually I think that I’m a little of both. I had a general outline of the story before I began writing Letters from Berlin, plotting the main points in the story with the historical events that surrounded them but there was a lot of empty space in between that needed fleshing out. However each day as I sat down to write, although I usually had an idea of where I was headed in the story, often an unexpected scene would be written by the end of the day or the story would take an unexpected turn that I hadn’t seen coming. It was a fascinating process, filling in the gaps using detective skills and research but imagination, intuition and inspiration took the writing and story to another level.
What are the main themes present in Letters From Berlin?
This is a story about family and legacy. What a family will do to stay together, what a family will do to protect its own. In the prologue and epilogue, Ingrid and Natalie living in Sydney, learn about their family connections to Germany and Susie, the main character, and read her letters which tell the story of her life – her legacy to them. It mirrors the legacy for me as I learnt about this branch of my grandmother’s family and how I can now share their story with members of my own family. Like in The Girl from Munich, the common theme running through the war years was of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary times is found in Letters from Berlin and I’m proud to share this story and honour this family’s memory.
What is one thing that you really hope readers will take away from the experience of reading Letters From Berlin?
I hoped to offer a perspective of the war that readers may not have seen before, giving insight into how those in ‘mixed marriages’ between Jewish people and Germans, and their children lived under the yoke of the Third Reich. But being a story about family and legacy, I know many readers will be able to relate to the experience of learning about family, especially with the fracture and dispersal of so many families across Europe after World War Two. It’s often after the generation who lived through the war has gone that their descendants want to learn more and search for pieces to their family story, perhaps even discovering relatives across the world, maybe even bringing families back together in some way. Our ancestors’ stories are their legacy and ours too. If we learn them and share them, passing them on to future generations, we’ll never forget.
Have you developed any quirks or habits while writing your books?
I generally work school hours four days a week and have a word limit I stick to each week so that I reach my deadline with a finished manuscript. Also, I try to always continue writing forward and not go back and edit until I’ve finished a complete draft. During the cooler weather, I love to work in my fluffy dressing gown!
What writers have inspired you along the way to publication?
Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander series. I love the beautifully written scenes, her exquisite use of the five senses, her detailed character development and the way she weaves fascinating historical events and every day detail into her characters lives.
Cornelia Funke and the Inkheart series. This beautifully written story and the idea of characters jumping in and out of the story and into the reader’s world has always stayed with me as a modern fairy tale. I loved how it drew me into the sense of wonder and innocence of Meggie until she learns her father’s secret.
Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth is a wonderfully detailed historical epic about the people who might have been involved in building the Salisbury cathedral, seamlessly woven with historical fact. I admire the seamless weaving of historical fact with the epic fictional storyline.
Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. This epic tale of Russia at the turn of the twentieth century and spanning WW1, the Russian revolution and the birth of the Soviet Union, fired my imagination with the gorgeous setting, evocative of imperial Russia, its traditions, the sweeping landscapes and brutality of massive social change, and of course, the impossible love story between Yuri and Lara. It was an emotional read with the backdrop of the fall of the wealthy upper class and the struggles within all levels of society as socialism took hold of Russia.
What book or books do you recommend that I add to my reading pile?
The Convert – by Stefan Hertmans. This part fictional, part biographical, part historical research is a beautifully written novel about a noble Christian girl who marries a Jewish Rabbi’s son in eleventh century France and converts to Judaism. Her story is fascinating and heartbreaking but her courage, resilience and love for her husband and family is what makes her story incredible. The way Hertmans weaves fact, conjecture and fiction with the beautiful descriptions of the landscape where he lives in the remote mountains of Provence has stayed with me. I felt like I joined him on his journey of discovery of this indomitable woman’s life and I felt like I stood over the ruins of the Jewish quarter of the ancient village, walked the streets of the modern town and experienced the landscape with the change in seasons. It was powerful and evocative and not like anything I’ve ever read before with the mix of styles and perspectives.
What are you working on writing wise at present?
I’m just finishing the first draft of my next book set in Southern Italy in the lead up to and during World War Two. I decided with this story to look to my father’s side of the family who were from Calabria. The story begins in 1936 as Italy has begun its colonial expansion into East Africa, invading Ethiopia or as it was called then, Abyssinia. This was the initial spark to the story, when I first heard about my grandfather going to war in Abyssinia and Albania before WW2.
The story follows Giulia and her family through Mussolini’s fascism, Italy’s involvement in the war and alliance with Germany, the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, the role of the partisan resistance and the ensuing civil war between the puppet fascist state in the north and Allied occupation in the south. I knew very little about southern Italy’s role in the war and I was fascinated to learn about how their isolation geographically and politically from Rome and the wealthy, industrial north affected their attitudes to war. I’ve loved researching Calabria during those years, discovering the richness of the region, its people and their culture against the background of fascism and war, of foreign occupation and Italy torn in two and exploring the connection between family, religion, medicine/healing and the ancient Greek and Byzantine roots of this part of the world. I hope with this novel to offer another perspective of World War Two from an intriguing part of the world that was often remote and isolated from much of Europe but became an important part in the war against the Nazis.
Thank you for the lovely tea break and chat Tania. Congratulations on the release of your new book, Letters from Berlin.
From the bestselling author of The Girl from Munich and Suitcase of Dreams comes an unforgettable tale of love, courage and betrayal inspired by a true story
As the Allied forces edge closer, the Third Reich tightens its grip on its people. For eighteen-year-old Susanna Göttmann, this means her adopted family including the man she loves, Leo, are at risk.
Desperate to protect her loved ones any way she can, Susie accepts the help of an influential Nazi officer. But it comes at a terrible cost – she must abandon any hope of a future with Leo and enter the frightening world of the Nazi elite.
Yet all is not lost as her newfound position offers more than she could have hoped for … With critical intelligence at her fingertips, Susie seizes a dangerous opportunity to help the Resistance.
The decisions she makes could change the course of the war, but what will they mean for her family and her future?
Letters from Berlin by Tania Blanchard was published on 7th October 2020 by Simon and Schuster. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
Connect with Tania here: