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A conversation with Anna Funder

Anna Funder 2Anna Funder is an internationally acclaimed bestselling Australian author whose debut Stasiland recounted the personal stories of people who worked for the East German secret police, and those whose lives were affected and even destroyed by their covert activities. The book won a swag of international prizes. The manuscript of her follow-up first novel, All That I Am, created a sensation at the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair and will be published in sixteen countries; it premiered in Australia in September. The novel derives from real events in the lives of activists, intellectuals and artists in pre-WW2 Germany. All That I Am begins:

When Hitler came to power I was in the bath. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match …

Overland’s Boris Kelly corresponded with Anna Funder.

BK: Both of your books deal with the politics and, to some extent, the logistics of covert surveillance. What is it about spying that fascinates you?

AF: To secretly gain information about people and use it against them is a form of power, often illicit. It is done everywhere – by political parties, by secret services, by news organisations, by internet giants, by corporations trying to sell us something. I think it is a kind of voyeurism and theft combined and I think we need to be wary. Of course that is also what writers do, so the ethical entanglements of it are personal, not theoretical, to me.

BK: The central characters in All That I Am are German émigrés forced out of the country after the burning of the Reichstag and Hitler’s ascent to power. Although they are Jewish, their persecution by the National Socialists is primarily a consequence of their political activities, not their religion or ethnicity. What was it about this particular moment in history and the lives of these characters, most of whom are based on real people, that drew your attention?

AF: I like the dramatic tension of telling a story about prescience and courage. These people were the bell-ringers in a world that would not listen. The action takes place between 1933 and 1935, which is a long time before the war, and the better-known stories from that time. In the beginning – though, of course, the Nazis were by nature anti-Semitic – their first priority was to eliminate or expel the educated, the outspoken, and the cultural elite. Hence, the expulsions as soon as they came to power. Later came the extraordinary and little-known extra-territorial assassination squads that were sent out. But I never saw myself as drawn to a period. I was drawn to write about the characters themselves. I am interested in courage and its flipside, terror. I am interested in how we can be braver than is good for us, or, on the other side, we can let ourselves and everyone else around us down.

All that I amBK: Historical novels can, and perhaps should, resonate in the present. Did you have any thought of contemporary parallels when writing the book? I am especially interested in your thoughts on Australia.

AF: I don’t think this is a historical novel – it does not set out to represent an era for its own sake. It is, however, one that makes the past firmly present. The situations the characters find themselves in – speaking out against unjust and outrageous governmental power – are utterly contemporary. I could have written the same book about characters in China, or Libya, or Burma or Russia and set it in the present. The idea that things can be known as facts, and yet not fully apprehended in the hearts and minds of people or the body politic, is something that fascinates me because it speaks to the fact that humans are only in the second instance rational beings – we apprehend things by emotion first, and hence the force of the novel form in our culture.

As for specifics, well there are many resonances. For instance Clara’s brother is on a ship of Jews fleeing Hitler that is off the coast of Florida, but it is turned away by both the US and Canadian and Cuban administrations, and sent back to Europe. That is the kind of thing happening off the Australian coast now.

More importantly, I think that the relationships between the characters in the novel are ones I see all around – mistaken loves that are nevertheless permanent and passionate; true loves that don’t turn into practical, everyday lives lived together; the difference between what we want and what we need and how, try as we might, we just can’t see it.

BK: There are moments in the novel that contain highly significant but very subtle plot and character details which, on a first reading, are likely to be missed. On a second reading their weight is more apparent. How important are such fine details to the craft and technique of the writer?

AF: I think they are hugely important. Underneath the suspense story there are several others. The book is in one way about what we don’t see – what an individual can miss; what a society can miss – the rise of Hitler, the boats off the coast … The details need to be there for the story, but also for the reader to experience the missing, and then the satisfaction of, finally, ‘seeing’.

BK: To take that point further: The novel is narrated in part by Ruth Becker, a ninety-four year-old woman living in Bondi Junction in 2001. Ruth reflects on years spent in Germany and then London with her cousin Dora, her own journalist husband Hans Wesemann and the celebrated, revolutionary playwright, Ernst Toller. At one point Ruth says:

‘In my experience, it is entirely possible to watch something happen and not see it at all.’

It is an observation that reflects on both her personal life, especially her marriage, but also to wider social and political circumstances. How do you regard this tension between the personal and political? Was this a challenge in writing the novel?

AF: I loved writing about what we see and what we don’t. I’m interested in blindness of all kinds – the necessary ones in marriage, in life – and the devastating ones, in politics and in the limits of public compassion. For instance, I think some marriages, perhaps many, survive by selective blindness to foibles that would otherwise drive us crazy. And yet this too can lead to serious consequences. On the political plane, the blindness of appeasement, in the case of the British government – and of course the Menzies government in Australia, too, though that wasn’t my subject in All That I Am – while understandable in some ways was also devastating, in the first instance for some of my characters, and then later for everyone. I don’t draw any glib equivalence between individual human souls and the shifting movements of public consciousness but I think one thing a novel can and should do is explore both.

BK: Dora is the pivotal character in the book. Your characterisation is drawn from accounts of the life of Dora Fabian, a pacifist, leftist political exile active in London, who was hunted by the Nazis. She is the most politically driven character in the novel. If she had lived on, do you think Dora would have returned to East or West Germany after the war?

AF: I think she would have gone to West Germany. She’d left the Socialist Workers Party a long time before. Or, she might have gone to the US, like Hannah Arendt did. Her ex-husband Walter went back West Germany.

BK: Do you write by hand at any point in the process of drafting?

AF: I have a notebook that I write things in – scraps, observations, ideas, pre-sleep insights. I never draft longhand, though sometimes the notes in the notebook are sentences, or paragraphs that come out of nowhere, and that I need to get down. When I look at the long-ago Stasiland notebooks – and there are ten of them – I can see the beginnings of paragraphs that were then fixed and honed for the book. Some come pristine though. For Stasiland I had the final paragraph of the book – ‘children on swings and roundabouts I never noticed were there’ – long before it was written. For All That I Am I had the last scene with Bev, and the last line where she ‘starts to clean’ also for a long, long time before I was done. These things are strange. It is as if I have an ending to write to, a point of hiatus or upswing or unfinished business that I nevertheless know is the final note of the book.

BK: Are you a meticulous note taker during the research phase?

AF: I don’t know that meticulous is the right word. It implies too much straight diligence. I do take lots of notes that I carry around with me. But they are bowerbird notes – bits of bright things that strike my mind.

BK: I’m interested to know if you might at some point write something closer to home, something with an explicitly Australian theme. Would you mind telling me what you are currently working on?

AF: I’m working on a novel. It’s sent in contemporary times and it’s not very political. Or not at the moment, at any rate.

BK: Given the acceleration of social and political volatility in the world today and the reactivation of the Left, do you think there is a place for the overtly political novel?

AF: I think there is always room for good novels. If they deal with political issues, so much the better. But to be good, they have to be about what it is that makes us human, and not, in the first instance, about prescriptions for living.

BK: Why the title, All That I Am?

AF: When Toller first sees Dora she’s holding an audience entranced with a speech. She extends her hand and he sees she is someone who holds their own life in their palm, to do with as she wishes. My characters are people who, like many activists, have to assess the value of their lives when powerful, possibly fatal forces are arrayed against them. Is it worth it to them to give up their lives? And on the other hand, for instance for Hans, he falls short of his ideas of himself. We all do this. When we do, we comfort ourselves with the idea that ‘we’re only human’. I wanted in the title to encompass the extraordinariness, the hugeness, the miracle of a single human being, and at the same time the smallness of a single soul.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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