Author Anna Funder visits the Bookworm of Edwards
Ryan Summerlin January 23, 2013
Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, Anna Funder wanted to be a writer from the time she was 6 years old.
“We went to live in Paris, and I started school there. I had to learn French fast, and I realised that language was a magic curtain – things happened differently behind the different languages, emotions could be expressed that had no name, or a different tone, in English.”
Eventually she wove her way through life to writing, though she was an international lawyer for the Australian government first. The two careers aren’t as different as you might think, though.
“I’m deeply concerned, in both my books at some level, with human rights and freedoms, and what we owe one another,” said Funder, who now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and children. “That’s what I was doing in international law, and in a way I’m still doing it.”
Funder’s first book, “Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall,” has been translated into16 languages and in 2004 it won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize, the most prestigious nonfiction award in the United Kingdon. “All That I Am,” her first novel, won Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, and has also been longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award. The book is based on true events. It follows a close group of friends who become outlaws after Hitler comes to power in 1933.
“One of our booksellers read an early copy and loved ‘All That I Am,'” said Nicole Magistro, co-owner of the Bookworm of Edwards where Funder will speak tonight. “Based on our love for World War II historical novels, we felt this would be a good fit for our store and our customers, so we invited Anna for the paperback release. Her work is based on a real cast of characters during the German resistance. For us, there are so many questions-about what really happened, what part of the story is left to creative license, and what inspired Anna’s amazing story – we can’t wait to meet her.”
Funder answered a few questions for the Vail Daily.
Vail Daily: Tell me how you got the initial idea for “All That I Am.”
Anna FuNder: I was writing a novel about a dysfunctional family (which is to say a completely ordinary family) and I was going to have a character like my friend Ruth as the grandmother – a take-no-prisoners, truth-telling kind of person who would puncture everybody else’s denial. I got stuck. Research is always good if you’re a bit stuck. So, I started to look into my friend Ruth’s life. I thought I knew all about her activities against Hitler, about her being betrayed and about her imprisonment as a Jewish political prisoner under the Nazis. What I didn’t know about was how life was for the refugees from the Third Reich while they were in London, 1933-1935. That’s when I found out about Dora Fabian – so sexy and smart and brave – and then I was in love and gone for all money. I went to the cemetery where she’s buried in London and there’s not even a gravestone. I thought: someone has to find out what happened here.
VD: It’s based on real people and events, but how did you find the story?
AF: LIke I said, it started from researching my good friend Ruth Blatt’s life. The story I had to make up, because the real verdict in the events was ‘suicide by reason of unsound mind due to romantic disappointment.’ Who would believe that – then or now? But I didn’t make up any piece of evidence in making my story – it might have been as I have it.
VD: Tell me about your research and writing process. How long did it take?
AF: I spent about 18 months researching the book – though the research and writing phase overlap a lot of course: you keep finding things and having ideas long after the characters have started to take shape on the page. I spent a little over five years full-time on the book. At the beginning I went to London for six weeks one summer, and walked the streets where Dora and Ruth walked, I went to the archives looking for the coronial file (gutted, rather curiously now – just an empty folder), I actually got into the flat in Great Ormond Street where my characters lived and died. To be in a state of excited admiration, of curiosity and exploration is like being in love. It’s a good place to write from.
VD: What are you working on now?
AF: I’m working on a keynote speech for the Perth Writers Festival next month, and a piece of long-form fiction I’ve been wanting to do for a long time that’s a kind of follow-up to my first book, “Stasiland.” I’m also woolgathering for a novel. I have a studio in an old can factory with a long desk in it, and I have my materials set out in there for each piece, reminding me of what my year looks like.
VD: What are you reading right now?
AF: I’m reading Vassily Grossman’s incredible “Life and Fate,” his startling and masterful account of Stalingrad. When I need to, which is pretty often, I re-read Jonathan Franzen’s essays in “Farther Away,” and in “How to Be Alone.” I go to Sebald if I need to get a sense of what is possible in writing. I recently read “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which makes you ask the question that is the question of all good writing – is this the most important thing you can be doing? It keeps you honest.
VD: What can people expect from your event at the Bookworm of Edwards on Thursday?
AF: I’m going to give people a kind of ‘DVD Extras’ experience, you know – you press the button and you get ‘the making of’ the movie, or in this case, the behind the scenes of the novel. The novel contains in it this strange, unresolved case, which looked like political murder – a Gestapo assassination – of an extraordinary woman. Where do you go with that, as a novelist? I’m going to ask myself that question in public and see where it leads.