There's nothing like reading about a genuine moral quandary to get your blood stirring. When you have to make the hardest choices, do you put your principles first, or your relationships, or your own life?
The way you face life-and-death questions may be related to your stage of moral development. Experts have argued about which category people fit into by the way they make decisions and what they value most. (Here's a good overview of the controversy.)
Being drawn to such issues, I thoroughly enjoyed David Gillham's first novel, City of Women, which has garnered starred reviews from the top three early review journals. It takes place in Berlin in 1943 and is the engaging story of Sigrid, a German soldier's wife, who finds herself drawn into a life-and-death series of moral decisions.
Q. In writing City of Women, did you specifically seek a topic to treat from a woman's point of view? Which I found quite successful, by the way.
I’m always so pleased when I hear that my rendition of the female perspective has worked for one of my readers, thank you. I originally thought I might write a novel with a completely female cast of characters, because I wanted to explore wartime from a feminine point of view. But that fell flat after a while. I needed the dramatic tension of the love affairs to keep the plot moving and the suspense tightened. We follow the thrust of the story through the eyes of my protagonist, a “war wife” named Sigrid, who is a strong, passionate woman, trapped in a dismal existence on the Home Front.
There are many twists and turns and sub-plots woven together by a host of characters, but the essential story of the book is Sigrid’s story, as she breaks free of her oppressive existence, and re-invents herself.
But without men, I think her story would have lost some of its impact. Think of how much we learn about Sigrid through her connections with the men in her life. Also, as did all German women, she lives under the oppressive weight of a highly misogynistic regime that viewed women as fodder for motherhood.
Q. Working from old maps and such, where did you get your sense of writerly confidence in taking on a project like this?
I’m very happy that my Berlin has rung true for many readers. Berlin, after all, became a character in the book, and I worked very hard to make sure that all the historical detail informing the book was as accurate as possible. This included street names and tram routes and all the minutia of everyday city life. I read many, many of books, memoirs, histories, and other novels. I loved studying photographs and sometimes recreated an image I’d found in a dramatic scene. And of course, I have stalked though the street of Berlin itself looking for remnants of the bombed-out city. (Much of Berlin from that era did not survive the war.) But perhaps the blueprint for the historical layout was my Baedeker’s Berlin travel guide from the 1920s. So, I do hope that anyone who actually lived through the period portrayed in the book would recognize the portrait of the city I’ve assembled.
Q. How many revisions did you go through?
I tend to revise as I write. I’ll write a scene or two, and then the next day, I’ll begin by combing through those scenes before I write anything new. But generally speaking, I probably revised City of Women five times from beginning to end, after finishing the first draft. Both my wife and my writing consultant acted as crucial sounding boards for me. My agent made sure the book’s pace never slowed. And my editor was instrumental in deepening the relationship between characters and enriching the story.
Q. I particularly liked the way Sigrid found herself taking action gradually, finding her moral compass along the way, with her very first anti-Nazi act being the self-centered one of having an affair with a Jew.
I must admit that I never thought of her affair with Egon to be an anti-Nazi act, until you pointed that out in your question. But you’re right. It was her first act of resistance, though you’re also correct that Sigrid, herself, would never have thought of it as such. One of my goals in the book was to explore the moral grey ground. Sigrid defends a young woman being harassed by the Gestapo in a cinema not out of any great moral commitment, but because she doesn’t like bullies.
So my characters are continually faced with difficult moral dilemmas that demand immediate choices be made. Sometimes the results of these decisions lead to lives being saved, sometimes they lead to disaster. Sometimes they lead to both. Look at the character of the Duty-Year girl, Ericha. She inserts herself into Sigrid’s life as an incorruptible moral compass, but even she reaches her breaking point.
FROM REAL LIFE?
Q. You did a great job of conveying small-town paranoia, where every remark, every step you take, is being watched and gossiped about. That certainly raises the tension. Where did you learn that?
I think that some of that tension comes from my background as a dramatist. (I studied screenwriting before turning to fiction.) I tend to write novels like they’re screenplays to some degree, relying on the reversals of each scene to keep the engines churning. And I love pitting a small number of characters against each other in a tight space. Most of us have probably experienced situations where we’ve felt constrained by a gossipy, high-pressure, even paranoid environment, where your every move is subjected to observation and comment. Doesn’t that describe any number of work places?
Q. The relationship between Sigrid and her mother-in-law is harsh and grating. Also very realistic. Again, to me, emotionally claustrophobic. Did you have a real-life model for that in your experience?
I seldom base characters or their relationships on specific people from my personal experience – at least not consciously. However, I have observed, more generally, the type of friction that throws off sparks between Sigrid and her mother-in-law. Again it’s a situation where two characters are trapped in a tight space (a cramped Berlin apartment in the middle of a war) and each is pursuing an opposing agenda. It’s a power struggle common to many families, I think.
Q. The ending, Sigrid's final choice, is a surprise. When did you know how the story would end?
You might think, with all the plot machinations, that I would have needed to depend on outline. But in truth, I find outlines too constricting, so I seldom use them. And on those rare occasions when I’ve tried, I inevitably abandon them. In the case of City of Women I had only the most general idea about where the plot was heading while I was writing. This produced its own kind of high anxiety, but ultimately, left me plenty of room for characters to surprise me. Egon, for instance, Sigrid’s lover, continued to shock me with the layers of lies he told. What was the truth of his story? I didn’t find out till the end!
Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry