I recently read the incredibly moving novel The Beast’s Garden by Australian author (and long-term good friend) Kate Forsyth. Kate sat down with me for a chat about this wonderful book.
Kim: Historical fiction is usually defined as fiction that takes place before the author’s birth. Usually you write about pre-20th century history, but this book is very much within our parents’ lifetimes. Were there extra challenges in writing “modern history”?
Kate: Although THE BEAST’S GARDEN was a very challenging book to write, it was not because it was set in the ‘modern history’ period of the 20th century. Apart, of course, from having to write about Hitler and the Gestapo and concentration camps!
All historical fiction – regardless of the time period – has a certain set of challenges. I feel that my job as an author is to bring the world of my story vividly to life upon the page, allowing the reader to experience that world with all of their senses and all of their understanding. To do so, I have to slip inside the skins of all my characters, trying to understand at a deep cellular level how a person of that time thought and felt and perceived the world. To achieve this level of understanding, I spend a long time reading and researching and thinking and imagining. I don’t start writing my story until I feel I understand the inner and outer worlds of my characters.
Much of the challenge of writing historical fiction, therefore, has to do with the reading and research involved, and the absorbing and internalising of all that I read.
So – in a way – the life of a young woman in Berlin during World War II was much easier than other places and times I’ve worked with, simply because life at that time has been so widely recorded and scrutinised.
However, each book throws up new problems and new challenges, each unique to that story. I think the great challenge for me was trying my best to do justice to the amazing true stories of courage, strength of spirit, and compassion that I discovered. And – I must say – not allowing my own spirit to be darkened by all the horror and cruelty of the times.
Kim: You’ve made a name as a fantasy writer, the book relies very heavily on fairytale structure and ideas, and there is a strong element of romance in it. Given the way that all these things are often seen as trivial or “light”, did you have misgivings about writing about a topic that is so relentlessly associated with the serious and weighty?
Kate: Well, I was constantly plagued by misgivings and doubts and fears. I always am. It’s the cost of creativity.
However, I never doubted my story, or the importance of writing it, or the rightness of creating a story of love and steadfast courage and salvation in the midst of such darkness and terror. What I doubted was my own ability to tell the story as well as I wished to tell it. But I simply trusted in my story, trusted that it was a story that needed to be told, and trusted that I would find the way to do it. It was not easy. THE BEAST’S GARDEN was by far the most difficult book I have ever written. It took me a while to find the right form and structure for the story, and I am someone who needs to see the narrative shape clearly in my mind’s eye. I also struggled with the research that I had to do. Spending months and months reading about Hitler and the horror of the Holocaust was just soul-harrowing, and I needed to be careful not to allow that to overwhelm me, or my novel.
I was aware, at all times, that THE BEAST’S GARDEN was a love story, and a story of courage and resistance and redemption, and so – rather than being a source of anxiety and misgivings – knowing what my story was actually gave me a light to steer by. I never forgot what I was truly doing in my heart, and that helped me overcome any apprehensions.
Kim: There are many beasts in this story. There were people in it that I simply and absolutely despised. Who do you think was the beastliest beast (and let’s remove Hilter from the pool so you don’t have to consider him)?
Kate: Adolf Hitler is, of course, the most obvious manifestation of beastliness in the book, and I found it fascinating that he identified so strongly with wolves, one of the traditional beasts of terror in fairy tales (he liked to be called Herr Wolf, for example, and many of his headquarters were given names such as the Wolf’s Lair).
Then, of course, we have Heydrich Reinhard, who was head of the Gestapo for a good many years. He was nicknamed The Butcher of Prague and The Blond Beast. Of all the Nazi monsters, he was the one I always found the most chilling, perhaps because he was known to play the violin exquisitely. The violin is the instrument that plays my soul’s music. I find it almost unbearable that a man could, without hesitation, order the death of millions of people and then pick up a violin and play music of heartbreaking beauty. It seems so wrong, in a way that I find difficult to articulate. I think perhaps its because I think music and poetry and art and stories are so often expressions of beauty and love and healing, and a man like that should not be able to create it, or appreciate it. I know this is foolish and untrue. An appreciation of beauty and cruelty of heart have gone hand-in-hand for centuries. I just want it to be true.
But Reinhard is like Hitler and the rest of the cogs in the Nazi death machine – they are obvious villains, almost cartoonish in their virulence. And I was concerned, in the main, with more subtle kinds of beastliness – the ordinary people who betrayed their friends or families, or who looked the other way and so allowed evil to happen.
I think the character in THE BEAST’S GARDEN who disturbed me the most was Stella Goldschlag, a real-life woman in 1940s Berlin. She was a beautiful young Jewish woman who became one of the infamous ‘catchers’ for the Gestapo. This meant that she was paid to find and point out other Jews to the Nazi police, so that they could be shipped off to their deaths in Auschwitz. Stella Goldschlag betrayed many of her old school-friends and neighbours, and was so hated the Gestapo gave her a revolver to protect herself against assassination attempts. She later said she had become a ‘catcher’ to save her parents from the concentration camps, but the truth is her activities only intensified after both were sent to Theresienstadt. Nicknamed ‘Blonde Poison’ for her pretty Aryan looks, Stella Goldschlag was paid 300 reichsmarks for each Jew she ‘caught’, and it is estimated she was responsible for the deaths of up to 3,000 people. Her own husband ended up in Auschwitz, and yet she continued to work for the Gestapo right up until the fall of Berlin. Of course she was motivated by fear (she had been tortured by the Gestapo before she agreed to work for them), but also I think by greed and a desire for a soft and easy life. It is the fact that she knew her victims, and knew what was going to happen to them, that make her actions so horrifying to me.
Kim: I loved the way you wove in the stories of real people among the fictional. I was amazed to find out that people such as Libertas, the Admiral, and Heydrich were real; and that Ava, Jutta, Rupert, and Leo stood alongside them just as three dimensional. Were there challenges in weaving the real and the fictional?
Kate: Absolutely! It would have been much easier to have had everyone in the book (except Hitler and Heydrich, of course) being made-up characters whose speech and actions and motivations I could control.
However, a key concern for me in my most recent books has been this idea of giving a voice to forgotten women. In BITTER GREENS, I tell the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the 17th century French noblewoman who wrote the best-known version of ‘Rapunzel’. In THE WILD GIRL, my heroine was Dortchen Wild, the young woman who was the original oral source for many of the Grimm brothers’ most beloved fairy tales. THE BEAST’S GARDEN differs from the previous two books by not being inspired by the true lives of forgotten fairy-tale tellers. However, it is galvanized by the true lives of people who risked everything to stand up to Hitler, and whose stories are now largely unknown. Libertas Schulze-Boysen, Mildred Harnack and their friends were ordinary women, with hopes and dreams and talents that the world will now never see fulfilled. I find this very sad, and so I felt a strong desire to honour the truth of their actions, and to celebrate their courage and strength of spirit. Their true stories were so astonishing, so powerful, so heartbreaking, and so inspiring, I did not want to take their actions and give them to fictional characters with made-up names and backgrounds.
There was one character who began as a fictional creation of mine, only for me to find that she really – in one sense, at least – existed. The thought of it still raises all the hairs on my arms.
In the original fairy tale of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, there is an evil enchantress who curses the hero so he is trapped in the shape of a beast. When I was planning my novel, I called this character ‘the Gestapo woman’ and decided that she would be a young woman who admired and worked for the Nazis, and is in some way responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of my hero, Leo.
I chose to call this character ‘Gertrud’, because I don’t like that name, and because it means ‘spear-maiden’, thus tying her back to the Valkyries of Norse and Wagnerian myth.
Many months later, I am working on the chapters in which the Gestapo arrests Ava’s friends, Libertas and Mildred. I read Libertas’ heart-rending letter she wrote to her mother on the eve of her execution (a letter which I reproduce in the book), and realise – with an electric shock of nerves – that Libertas was tricked into betraying her fellow resisters by a young woman working for the Gestapo … and that young woman’s name was Gertrud.
Kim: Let’s talk about some of your characters. Ava is described in the book as somebody who “would not keep her head down and her mouth shut”.How important was that for the story?
Ava needed to be headstrong, courageous and far too outspoken for the plot to work. The story begins with her rushing through the darkness on Kristallnacht in order to try and save her best friend and his family, who are Jewish. She runs into a stranger, and in the intensity of the moment, speaks from her heart about her fear and hatred of the Nazi regime. She does not realize that the stranger she has met is an officer in the Abwehr, the German secret service. She risks her life, and that of her family, by speaking out so frankly, and her impulsiveness could have ended very badly for her. Instead she changes her life and that of the Nazi officer.
Later in the book, she joins the underground resistance movement, something that no sensible German hausfrau would do, and she speaks out through anti-Nazi graffiti and leaflets. Her outspoken character drives the whole plot of the book, right up to her unwitting betrayal of her husband towards the end.
Ava is also a singer, and her musical voice plays a very strong part in the whole narrative too.
Kim and Kate at a ruined abbey somewhere deliciously English and pagan
I have a lot of bird symbolism throughout the book, inspired by the key motif of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, the Grimm fairy tale that first sparked this book. Symbolically, the lark is seen as a messenger from God, the carrier of news, the herald of light and joy and the new day. So Ava is my messenger of light, my lark. Her name even means ‘bird’ and ‘life’ – I chose it very carefully. (Do you remember? We were in Oxford together when I found it.) (Kim: no I don’t remember! i have a terrible memory; but I’ve included a pic of us together in Dorset anyway!)
Kim: Ava is also described as almost synaesthetic. She sees music and colours in everything. Is that something taken from your own life or someone you know?
Kate: Yes, that’s me. I have always had the ability to see images, or stories, in sounds. When I listen to music, if its something that moves me or excites me, I will get a series of little moving coloured images in my mind, like a snippet of a film. Every time this happens to Ava in the book, I describe something that I have seen myself, in response to the same piece of music or the same word or name. I have been told it’s a form of synaesthesia but I don’t believe it is, simply because it does not happen to me all the time. Not all names spark an image in my mind’s eye, and not all music tells me a story. Sometimes, if I concentrate hard, I can conjure an image. Synaesthesia, however, is said to be both involuntary and constant i.e. the same colour is always seen at the sound of a particular note of music.
Perhaps it is simply because I have such an over-active imagination!
Kim: Rupert (Ava’s “almost-twin”) was my favourite character. His poetry was sublime. I wondered if you wrote it or if it was actually poetry found secreted around the Jewish prison camps?
Kate: I’m glad you loved the poetry. I wrote it all. Most of it was written at fever-pitch, late at night when I was exhausted, and appears in the book virtually word-for-word as I first wrote it down. I did, however, read quite a lot of poetry when I wrote THE BEAST’S GARDEN. Mainly Rainer Maria Rilke, who I quote extensively through the narrative, but also Holocaust-driven poetry by writers such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Czeslaw Milosz, Lotte Kramer, and Chaia L. Heller, unbearably sad and moving poems.
Kim: Let’s turn to research now: Berlin, which is a city I love, is always changing. After the allies had taken it, it was described as “a pile of rubble next to Potsdam”. How did you go about reconstructing the brilliant, beautiful pre-war Berlin?
It was important to me to bring Berlin of the late 1930s as vividly to life as I could, to deepen the sense of waste and desolation following the city’s fall in April 1945.
So I had to do a lot of research. Pre-war travel guides were useful to me, especially one in which I found a map! History books, memoirs, old photographs and news-reels, descriptions in pre-war German literature – these were all useful to me. I travelled to Berlin, and went to all the places that still existed or had been rebuilt. I particularly loved the Tiergarten, and walked in it every day. In my mind’s eye I carried all the old photographs I had studied, in which nothing was left of the Tiergarten but a few burnt sticks and acres of ash.
And because I found Berlin so inutterably moving, this crucible of 20th century history, I think I managed to pour all that empathy and connection into my descriptions of how the city once was (or, at least, how I imagined it once was).
Kim: Some of the details of your research were captivating. I need to know: was there really a woman who ate the gravel Hitler had stepped upon?
Kate: Yes, there was. Not just one. Many.
At least according to Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a German novelist of the time who kept a secret diary between 1936 and 1944. He hated Hitler with an absolute passion, and most of the diary is a record of that hate. He wrote:
‘My life in this pit will soon enter its fifth year. For more than forty-two months, I have thought hate, have lain down with hate in my heart, have dreamed hate and awakened with hate. I suffocate in the knowledge that I am the prisoner of a horde of vicious apes, and I rack my brains over the perpetual riddle of how this same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago can have sunk into this stupor …’ His diary is a reminder that not all Germans adored Hitler to the extent of literally eating the ground he trod on!
David Pryce-Jones, one of Unity Mitford’s biographers, repeated the anecdote about the swallowed gravel while discussing Hitler’s extraordinary charismatic pull over young women such as Unity and her sister Diana, and that is where I first read it.
Kim: You wrote about Unity Mitford and her obsession with Hitler. Why do you think women felt that way about him?
Kate: I think it has to do with the giddy dangerous allure of power, especially absolute power, and also with Hitler’s own personal charisma. He had a way of fixing his eyes on someone with unswerving intensity that made many people – both men and women – feel a strong physiological reaction. Their temperature rose, sweat broke out on their hands, their collars felt too tight, they would feel light-headed and unsteady. Many did faint in his presence, in much the same way that people swoon over pop stars. Films of the time show women rushing the barricades, arms held up to touch him, trying to kiss him, and being dragged away by his bodyguards. It was more than his personal charisma, however. Unity was in love with him before she even met him. She moved to Munich in the hope that she might meet him, and spent days hanging round his favourite restaurant until at last he noticed her. In some way, Hitler’s words – both his promises and his threats – filled some hunger or need in the hearts of Unity Mitford and other young women like her. Freud would have called it a death impulse.
Kim: The fear of the oppressive fascist regime pervades everything in this story. It adds so much pressure to the characters that you’re sure they can’t survive. You show a side of Germany during the war that isn’t often shown: that of the German people. Did you ever reflect, while writing this, on whether you would be like Ava, or if you would keep your head down and your mouth shut under such circumstances?
Kate: Oh yes! All the time. I kept thinking: what would I have done? Would I have had the courage to try and resist?
It was very important to me to show that Ava was just an ordinary young woman, led step-by-step into extraordinary acts of bravery and kindness (and so too, by extension, Libertas and Mildred and the other real-life women of the story). They were not spies, trained to kill a man with their hat-pins. They did not have guns, or shoe-phones, or skeleton keys. They had to work and queue for food and try and find warm clothes for their children and spend their nights in air-raid shelters, struggling simply to survive. And yet somehow they found the courage to surreptitiously pass food to starving prisoners, to hide Jews and try to help them escape, to keep records of the atrocities they saw … all at the risk not only of their own lives but – under the Nazis’ sippenhaft law – of their whole families as well.
I like to think that I would have been so brave. Yet I find it hard sometimes simply to stand up for what I believe in.
And would I risk my children’s lives, my parents’ lives, the lives of all my dear beloved ones, to do so? I don’t know. I hope so. For one thing I have realized acutely since writing this book is that each one of us must stand up for what is right. Some things really are worth fighting for, and dying for.
Kim: How implicated are those who do just keep their heads down when such awful things are happening?
Kate: In a way, this was one of the questions that tormented me the most while researching and writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN.
It is very easy to become absorbed in your own busy life, hardly aware of what is happening outside our own small circle of influence. Wars and famines and atrocities can happen in the world, and barely make a dent in our consciousness. Sometimes, we are dreadfully sorry for what is happening. We wish there was something we could do. Other times, we know, but experience a kind of compassion fatigue, and a diffusion of responsibility. Someone else will help, we think. I’ve got a lot on right now.
I can understand such thoughts and feelings because I have been guilty of them all.
We can look back in time and be horrified that a Jewish refugee ship was shot at when it tried to land in Florida in 1939. The 900-odd refugees on that ship were forced to return to Europe, where many later died in concentration camps. It seems a shameful failure of compassion. Yet similar scenes of pragmatic cold-heartedness are happening on our own shores now.
In future years, will we be trying to excuse our leaders’ actions by saying ‘I’m sorry, we didn’t know’?
And, at this point in time at least, we do not have to fear our doors being smashed down by the Gestapo, and our loved ones being dragged off to concentration camps. We do not have to fear torture, slavery and a slow cruel death.
If we do not like the way our country is run, we can vote to change our government and make our displeasure felt in protests, strikes, and by raising our voices.
I would do almost anything to save my children from harm. I can understand how so many people turned their faces away, and pretended not to see. I can understand how tongues would be turned to stone, and hearts would be padlocked shut.
Yet to understand such behavior is not to condone it.
I’ve been telling people – only half joking – that writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN triggered an existential crisis in me. I have always thought deeply about the big ontological questions, and explored them in my fiction (its one reason why I love fantasy, a narrative form that embraces Big Thinking.)
But the tragic story of the German underground resistance has made me think a lot about the nature of good and evil, and what it means to be one or the other. And that old adage that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing is true.
So I want to make sure I do something.
Since writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN I have tried hard to be braver and more outspoken, and to stand up for what I believe to be right. I am trying to do more to help others who are in need and suffering. I am trying even harder to be a good person.
Because I know now that evil does exist – and that we must always fight against it.
You can find out more about Kate and her books at http://www.kateforsyth.com.au