“Meet the Author” event with Helen Dunmore (HD) on 25 April 2013 at the Ingeborg Drewitz Stadtbibliothek Steglitz, moderated by Jan Bild (JB)
[Brief welcome and introduction of Helen Dunmore and the novel “The Betrayal” by Michael Ruhnke]
JB: First of all, a very warm welcome to all of you, familiar and new faces alike. Some of you know me from the reading groups that I host and it is due to the groups that Helen Dunmore is here tonight. I always ask the groups which of the authors we have read in one year I should invite for an event, and almost everyone last year wanted to meet Helen. Now, I have gone to great lengths to get her e-mail address, which publishers or agencies were rather reluctant to part with, but once I had it and had written to her, she replied within two or three hours and said, yes, she’d very much like to come and read from her book.
We will focus on her novel “The Betrayal” tonight, but her latest novel, “The Greatcoat“, written in 2012, is actually the book we will be discussing in May, so if any of you want to read more of Helen Dunmore and would like to join the group, I hope I have whetted your appetites now.
Now, my first question to Helen: As an Englishwoman, how come that you are so fascinated with Russian history? [“The Betrayal” is a ‘sequel’ to one of HD’s previous novels “The Siege” which is also set in Leningrad]
HD: First of all thank you for having me here tonight. I think we all have very different views of the world, depending on where and when we live. My primary readership is English-speaking, and I have always felt that Russian history has been poorly understood in Britain and I wanted to contribute to changing that. I first wrote “The Siege” and had a lot of response from readers, saying that it made them understand that time a lot better, especially as I had chosen to write not from an overall perspective, ‘from above’ as it were, but from the view of individuals, of families.
My interest in Russia first started when I started to learn languages. I had a native Russian teacher who sparked my interest and curiosity and I wanted to know more about Russian history, culture and literature. . Also in my early writing, which was mainly poetry, I was very much influenced by Russian poetry. I am also fascinated by Finnish culture and history. As you may know; I lived in Finland and there the perspective on Russia is quite different from the British perspective – because of the scale of Russia and then the Soviet Union as an immediate neighbour, and because of the history of the Russian Empire.
Now, why am I drawn to certain subjects such as this? I don’t know really, but it is a time with many stories to be told. I was a little concerned at first how it would be received by Russian readers, that they might see my telling their history as trespassing on “nash“, which means “ours”, but I received very positive responses from Russia too.
JB: How do you get to the essence of a story?
HD: I decided for this novel not to give a historical overview but rather to tell a story about individuals which unfolds its historical implications as the story evolves. For example, the description of the apartment brings thoughts of “home” to the reader, but this home is at the same time very fragile, and I wanted to make the reader feel the terror of how this home could be destroyed in a second, how people at that time had to be careful and watchful all the time.
JB: One of the things we loved in the groups was how we were immediately drawn into the story. How did you achieve this?
HD: Well, openings are always very difficult because a reader will decide immediately whether or not this is a book he or she wants to read. But let me just read the opening to you…
[Reading of opening passage, introducing the doctor Andrei and his colleague Russov.]
JB: So, in that passage, the stage is beautifully set for Andrei’s subsequent dilemma. Could he have said no?
HD: Good question. Does a character ever have a choice? I have obviously thought a lot about Andrei and I think while he has extremely strong and personal views about his profession, he also knows immediately that whatever he does in this situation will be dangerous. Whether the boy recovers or not, Andrei will have come to the attention of powerful people, which he would rather have avoided. He and Anna have tried extremely hard not to come to the notice of the authorities, Anna maybe even more than he; she is constantly and deliberately under-performing in her work so as not to attract attention. I think Andrei could not have acted otherwise in treating the boy, because of his professional views. Also, in the end it wouldn’t have made any difference. And Anna shows a certain amount of anger that he brought this upon them.
JB: How special is this little family among all those who have survived the siege and their optimism that things will get better?
HD: It is very important that they do not have hindsight. Think of the fact that they could not know that Stalin would die a few months later, in March 1953. At that time it must have seemed that this would go on for ever.
JB: For example, when you were in Berlin in the summer of 1989, it did not seem possible that the wall would come down so soon…
HD: Exactly! They are living and being in that moment. It is important that they cannot know the future, because this makes them act the way they do.
JB: But especially in that political situation, and having survived the siege, their home is particularly dear to them. Could we have a view of their inner life?
HD: Well, Anna for example was very sure at the beginning of their marriage that they would have children. As time goes by and the expected children do not come, she thinks all the more about her brother, for whom she has cared since birth.
[Second reading of Anna thinking of the past, the present and Kolya’s possible future]
JB: Marvellous how Helen manages to add bits of humour into a grim topic. Now the audience is welcome to ask questions.
Q: Was “The Siege” translated into Russian?
HD: Yes, it was, by a friend of mine, it was actually a labour of love. I was a little nervous if I had captured the spirit of the time and place properly. But every story is distinct and personal to the person who reads it and my task as a writer is to embody history in a personal way in a character, as I cannot tell “history” myself. Extracts from the book have been read on Radio St Petersburg on the anniversary of the lifting of the blockade.
Q: In the light of the story told in “The Betrayal”, is Stalin’s death a solution?
HD: No, it’s a change of pressure and emphasis.
Q: Is “The Betrayal” interconnected with “The Siege” and how did the stories evolve?
HD: In “The Siege” you have the same characters, only ten years younger. For some time I had wanted to set the novel a little bit earlier. But I changed my view because this period fascinated me as it was the time of Stalin’s death. It is interesting to write about characters over a long period of time as they evolve like living people.
Q: Where do you start, do you think of the characters first or the setting?
HD: First comes the structure; setting the frame is very important even if it sometimes does not appear so. In “The Betrayal” there are a lot of small and enclosed spaces involved, e.g. the enclosed courtyard scene in the opening, the linen cupboard in when Lena tries to talk Andrei out of taking the case on, the apartment itself… During the novel, Andrei makes a journey towards the smallest possible spaces. Also, a good closing is just as important as the opening. The last sentence “Among them is Andrei” is short, but full of meaning. All the other people around him have survived similar fates; they are just as precious and beloved, but knowing one fate among them is enough to know what they all have gone through. Looking at the individual to understand all, that is the task of a novelist.
JB: We didn’t like the cover of the English edition which is misleading, implying a romantic betrayal rather than a betrayal of the Russian people.
HD: I think covers in the UK are mainly chosen to sell, aiming to appeal to as many people as possible, and often you end up with one that appeals to nobody. Well, of the various kinds of betrayal, what was the biggest? The Russian people were overwhelmed by a system they could not get rid of. Gorya is betrayed by various people in various ways, and by his own body. Volkov is betrayed by his own politics, everybody is afraid and fears betrayal, and this fear is eating into relationships and lives. It is a very dark subject, and I wanted to write about this for a British audience which has not undergone anything like this.
Q: It reminded me of 1984, I had to think all the time of the betrayal of Winston and Julia and I feared this would happen to Andrei and Anna.
HD: Yes. and of Animal Farm as well: both novels show the sordidity of a totalitarian state. We recognise all this, “this could be us”. I have been influenced by Orwell and especially his ideas about why group decisions are made.
JB: We felt the characters were very three-dimensional. For instance, we empathised a lot with Volkov as a father.
HD: I wanted to create a bond between Volkov and Andrei, not one of friendship but of a mutual past. Was Volkov the villain? How did he get this way? Although he has all the power and Andrei hasn’t, it is Volkov who dies all alone in a back alley, a death you’d expect for Andrei rather than Volkov.
JB: Anna is also a very strong character, where does her strength come from?
HD: She had to be strong. Her father is depressive, her mother dies early and thus Anna has to take care of her baby brother. But she’s not perfect, part of her strength is just stubbornness.
JB: Does Anna perhaps have bits of you?
HD: Yes, she actually does. I worked in nurseries when I was young, and so I understand the life there. Anna plays games with her abilities, constantly underperforming. She loses herself in relationships and has to find herself. She has ability as an artist but she does not express it until towards the end of “The Betrayal”.
JB: Andrei is strong, too, but loses his sense of himself (temporarily) when he gets suspended from his work at the hospital.
[Another reading by HD on Andrei’s suspension and his first day at home alone and his thoughts there]
JB: Is there going to be a trilogy?
HD: I don’t think so. I think the story is complete and I also think if it continued, it might be very sad. Except maybe Kolya’s story might be interesting…
JB: Before we close, let me touch on your latest novel, “The Greatcoat” – why a ghost story?
HD: Just the pragmatic life of an author… After writing “The Betrayal”, I was quite exhausted and the request from Hammer came at the right time, as it promised a very different kind of writing. I love ghost stories. I think that a ghost has to do with a crack in time that never healed – a bit like history – and about how certain events just don’t die. Also, if you write a ghost story you need someone to be haunted and Isabel made an excellent “hauntee”.
JB: I’m looking forward to our discussions in May on “The Greatcoat.” Before we close, are there any more questions on “The Betrayal”?
Q: Russov was the most unlikable character. I would like to know what had happened to him?
HD: He is someone who was always quick on his feet and got himself a good job – and that’s where he stayed. If he had lived in a different time, he might have been less ruthless. That is another side of history, people learning what they are capable of.
JB: I’m sorry we don’t have more time, especially to hear one of Helen’s poems as Helen is a great poet as well as a novelist. It’s been a joy to meet you and to share our thoughts with you.
Thank you again for accepting our invitation to come to Berlin and for being here tonight, Helen!