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An Interview with Rebecca Cantrell

Rebecca Cantrell

I’m interested in how this series was conceived.  Did you have in mind a situation where a German citizen watches the rise of the Nazi party in horror and must take action, or did you conceive of Hannah Vogel, your protagonist, first?

I did it completely backwards! The story started with Ernst Vogel, Hannah’s brother and the murder victim in “A Trace of Smoke.” I had a gay host brother when I lived in Berlin and after I saw a faded pink triangle on the wall at Dachau concentration camp, I realized that he would have been killed 50 years earlier just for being who he was. So I started thinking about gays who died in concentration camps and that led me to the thriving gay scene in Weimar-era Berlin which led to Ernst who led to Hannah who led to the series. It was a bit of a winding cobblestone street.

The opening of the first novel, “A Trace of Smoke,” is so compelling — Hannah sees a photograph of her younger brother, who she raised, in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead at the Berlin police station, but can’t let anyone know who he is. 

Thank you! I stumbled across a mention of that hall in Joseph Roth’s “What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933,” which is a fascinating compilation of newspaper articles that Roth wrote while living in Berlin. He had an eye for the darkness and rot hidden beneath the frenetic façade of Weimar-era Berlin and that hall is one example. Once I read his piece, I knew that the story had to start there.

There are several detective novel series (Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshaswski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone) with female protagonists, and I’ve always been fascinated by the balance these writers have to maintain between the physical violence protagonists must endure in these types of scenarios, and the fact that the protagonist is female, as is much of the readership, so violence must usually remain more threat than action.  There were some scenes in “A Game of Lies,” where Hannah was in real danger.  Can you address the issues you face as a writer in maintaining that balance?

I have to follow Hannah wherever she goes, and she keeps going to very dangerous places. Real women got hurt during that era, so I don’t shy from showing that, although I also don’t dramatize every bit of gore. I think it’s a balance of showing what’s there, but not showing it in a way that makes the reader turn away for good. Then and now women faced acts of violence against them. It’s part of real life, and it’s part of Hannah’s.

You do a wonderful job of conveying the hardships the German population had to endure after the first world war — the inflation, the unemployment — without coming across as lecturing.  I wonder what the feedback on this has been?   Do you have readers writing to you who say “I never knew this”?

I often hear exactly that from readers! Although just as often I also hear “I did know that and I’m glad to finally see in on the page.” My readers are an interesting mix of very knowledgeable history buffs and those just learning about life in Berlin in the 1930s for the first time.

Speaking of feedback, has any of it been negative.  I ask because our current sociopolitical landscape has become so black and white.  Has anyone taken you to task for presenting the German citizens as ordinary people caught up in an evil government, as opposed to evil people?

So far, so good. Like every other author, I’ve had a few negative reviews on Amazon, but overall the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I expected more of a reaction to portraying German people during the Nazi era as just as nuanced and complicated as people everywhere, but so far readers seem to be understanding the truth of that.

Can you discuss integrating real historical figures into your stories?

That’s been an interesting challenge. I have several characters in the books who existed in real life—Ernst Röhm, Theodor Eicke, Hans Frank, Adolf Hitler, Bella Fromm, Sefton Delmer—and I try to be as meticulous as I can with that research. I consult as many sources as I can find so that the characters feel true to who they were originally and also that any real life events I portray (such as Röhm’s arrest and execution) follow the historical record as closely as possible.

Your next novel is called “A City of Broken Glass.” I assume it’s about Kristallnacht.  If it were all up to you, would you continue to write the series so that it covers the whole span of the war?  Would you take the characters beyond that, to an occupied Berlin?

It is, indeed, about Kristallnacht. I would like to do nine books: a pre-war trilogy (which is already written, with “A Trace of Smoke,” “A Night of Long Knives,” and “A Game of Lies”), a war trilogy (“A City of Broken Glass,” something set in Palestine in 1940, and one set in Berlin in 1945 as the city is falling), and a post-war trilogy (with books about re-uniting families, hunting Nazi war criminals, and the Berlin airlift). There is such an incredibly rich history there to explore!

Your glossaries and author’s notes at the end of each book are so helpful.  What authors, books, and resources have particularly helped you through your research  journey?

For nonfiction books, I loved “A Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larsen (I only wish he’d published it years earlier so he could have saved me some time.)  The Joseph Roth I mention above, “Before the Deluge” by Otto Friedrich and “The Weimer Republic Sourcebook” by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, and “Voluptuous Panic” by Mel Gordon.

But really the best source is diaries, like Bella Fromm’s “Blood and Banquets” and Sefton Delmer’s “The Counterfeit Spy” and “Berlin in Lights” by Harry Kessler and “I Bear Witness” by Victor Klemperer.

And don’t even get me started on the wonderful fiction out there, from Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” series to David Downing’s Station books to the original Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” to Jeffrey Deaver’s “Garden of Beasts.”

Plus the movies filmed in Berlin in the early 1930s…

Rebecca Cantrell’s most recent novel is “A Game of Lies.”  Visit her website at http://rebeccacantrell.com.

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