Express In Conversation
AN AUSTRALIAN WRITER IN BROOKLYN
ANNA FUNDER with Bec Zajac
Australian author Anna Funder’s first book Stasiland won the world’s biggest literary award for nonfiction, the Samuel Johnson Prize. The book explores what life was like for those who lived in the most perfected surveillance state of all time, former East Germany, during the years of communist dictatorship. In order to conduct her research, Funder, who was living in East Berlin at the time, placed classified ads to reach former members of the Stasi and anti-Stasi organizations and then interviewed them extensively. Published in 20 countries and translated into 16 languages, Stasiland was hailed by the London Review of Books as a “heroic act of listening.”
Funder’s second book, All That I Am has just won Australia’s most esteemed literary prize, the Miles Franklin. All That I Am is a novel based on the real lives and experiences of a group of anti-Nazi activists, including poet W. H. Auden and playwright Ernst Toller, who bravely worked against the Nazi regime but whose stories remain largely unexplored. Described as “imaginative, compassionate, and convincing,” by the Wall Street Journal and “spell binding” by the Sunday Telegraph, the book has spent nine months on the Australian Bestseller List. It was released in the U.S. this year.
Funder, who is now living in Park Slope, chatted with fellow Australian and former Brooklynite Bec Zajac. They talked about Funder’s work, heroic acts of resistance against totalitarian regimes and, of course, the best Australian coffee shops in Brooklyn.
Bec Zajac (Rail): Both your books are not just drawn from historical research, but from very personal stories that people have told you. When I read Stasiland, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the stories that people chose to tell you that they’d never told anyone before.
You interview ex-Stasi members in their living rooms, you get drunk with the Mick Jagger of East Germany, and you talk at length with many women who resisted the regime with very tough exteriors who allow themselves to be extremely vulnerable. Likewise, much of All That I Am is drawn from the experiences of your friend Ruth, a member of the group of political activists at the center of the novel, who decided to share her story with you.
Now, I suspect that’s not just an accident but because you must have an extraordinary ability to get people to trust you. How do you get people to open up in that way?
Anna Funder: I don’t have any particular rehearsed techniques. I’m a very curious person and I love to be told a story and I love to be told a story that someone thinks is important to them. In Stasiland, I was younger and I was operating in German, which is not my first language, so I was listening very hard to what everyone said to me. In any language, it’s important to listen closely, and if you’re operating in your second or third language as I was then, the effort is probably visible. People then likely reward you with incredible stories. I think also, if you’re fascinated by someone else’s life, by what it is in general to be human, which is what writers are fascinated by and what I’m fascinated by, then you feel honored when someone shares their little slice of subjectivity and time on the planet with you. So I just listen very closely. That’s the only way I can explain it.
Rail: All That I Am is no ordinary book. It’s an extraordinary mixture of fact and fiction. Is your creative process different depending on whether you are writing in one genre or the other?
Funder: At the kernel of All That I Am, you have two dead women (Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm) who are political activists working against Hitler, found poisoned in the locked room of the top floor flat in Bloomsbury in London. You have the “truth,” in inverted commas, of history, as written by a coroner, who took three hours to come to the verdict of “suicide by reason of unsound mind due to romantic disappointment.” The friends of those women thought there was no way that they were going to kill themselves and no one believed it at the time, but that’s the truth of history.
I was necessarily looking at the facts leading up to Dora and Mathilde’s death and at the coronial inquiry. The closer I looked, the more unbelievable the so-called “true historical verdict” seemed to me. However, I wanted to write the story using only real material, in the sense that had the coroner been so inclined or had he been free to do so, he could have admitted evidence of what these women did in their lives, which was that they were political activists and writers working against Hitler, rather than just ignore all of that. Then, he might have come to the point of view of their friends that this was a political assassination. I didn’t make up anything that the coroner couldn’t have looked at. I have come to a verdict in my fiction that I think is possible.
Rail: How did you decide when to use the factual details to tell the story and when to create fictional components?
Funder: If you’re writing this kind of book, the main thing is that it has to stand as a novel, as a piece of writing and as an artifact in the world in its own terms. If Armageddon happened tomorrow and this novel were buried for hundreds of years in the sand and people forgot all about the Nazis, you would hope that it would make some kind of sense regardless of whether anyone ever knew if there was a real reference to these characters. That said, I know that there is and I feel a duty to get things right, so I was sticking very closely to the truth as I saw it. I’m very puritanical about these kinds of decisions.
At the same time, you have a real aesthetic responsibility to make the best piece of work you can, so obviously I picked out the things that seemed to make the most sense to me, or that seemed the most moving, or that seemed the most telling about human behavior. However, that’s the same in Stasiland, which is absolutely nonfiction, in the sense that documentary is nonfiction. These things are always edited. The author is always the lens through which that world is refracted. You’re always leaving things out, and you’re always making a story of things; making something have a beginning, middle, and an end because your piece of work has to have a beginning, middle, and end.
I like very much operating with that dual responsibility to the aesthetics of the form and to the real reference that you are honoring. It’s like painting a portrait. In lots of art forms, it doesn’t matter if your painting looks nothing like the sitter. I want to get what I see as the essential truth of my sitter in my work. I don’t want to distort it.
Rail: When did you first learn about the group of anti-Nazi activists at the center of All That I Am and when did you decide they would make up the basis of the book?
Funder: I did masses of research. I knew lots of other stories as well but these ones were hanging together and my friend Ruth was a friend of Dora’s and had been in the flat. I wanted to tell this story of Dora because I went to her grave with a friend of mine who’s a poet who lives in London. Dora and Mathilde were buried the afternoon after the inquest very quickly in the Jewish cemetery at East Ham in London and we went to the cemetery. Mathilde was still a member of the Socialist’s Workers Party and they had gotten together enough money to put a headstone on her grave. But next to her, the plot where Dora is buried, there is absolutely nothing. It’s just gravel and a tiny number stuck in the ground to show that there’s someone underneath. That is all there is of this extraordinary woman.
Rail: I’ve read a lot about people’s experiences in the ghettos and in the camps but I haven’t read as much about the time before the war, during which much of All That I Am takes place. Something about this era, which struck me as being incredibly fascinating, is how progressive it was in terms of all kinds of minority rights. It seems very important to understand that Nazism actually emerged from this very progressive society. Can you talk about that era and what it was that made you want to write about it?
Funder: I think because we come from a culture that came out of the Enlightenment 300 years ago, we still assume that things are always getting better and more progressive but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s not the case with women’s rights and it’s not the case in many parts of the world. It’s a kind of Western Enlightenment fantasy that we have about onwards, ever upwards, and so on.
It was very exciting for me to go and look at this strain of very progressive, liberal, left-wing, fair-minded thinking that preceded the First World War in Germany, that dissented from the First World War, and that was at the forefront of German culture. Germany was the most technologically advanced, the richest, and, in many ways, the most admired country in Europe and it had this thinking there. It’s just we don’t know about that. It’s largely unexplored. That history has been really overshadowed by what came later and what came later was what my characters, as part of that progressive history, were trying to stop.
This book is not about the camps. It’s not about the Holocaust. It’s not about the war. It finishes six years before any of that. We read it knowing what came later and that’s what makes the reading experience particularly acute. I admire the prescience of my characters. The fact that they didn’t really win that battle doesn’t mean that they weren’t right to fight it.
Rail: A striking aspect of your description of this historical period is the first reference made to Hitler and Nazism in the book. When Nazism is first mentioned, it’s almost in passing, as something in the background. Then when Hitler is first mentioned, he is depicted like a regular politician, making speeches and doing very regular political things. Obviously, Hitler is now associated with so much, it’s impossible to see him as at all “regular.” What was it like to write about him and his rise without that lens of retrospect?
Funder: Of course I can’t write without the lens of retrospect. I’m operating now. But he was a regular politician. There are other politicians like him and there have been others since him and there were others before. To make Hitler into a monster is to make the rest of us all innocent of participation or belonging to a spectrum of humanity that includes him and many other politicians.
My characters thought of him in a differentiated way; some as a buffoon, as a kind of lower class Austrian corporal who would not be difficult to get around, and, in the beginning, who was not really seen as a threat to anybody. Then, quite quickly they catch on that this kind of redneck, philistine hope peddling has traction with large sways of the population; first with a kind of working class, but then also with the universities and the intellectuals. At that time, nobody said, “Here, we’re dealing with a monster,” although my characters did say, “This is looking really, really bad.” The British certainly wanted to deal with him as if he was an ordinary politician and that was the undoing of my characters.
Those things, they didn’t live and die with Germany; they exist everywhere, and they’re called upon by politicians, in many countries and at many times, when they suit. Obviously, the end result of that in Germany was more horrific than anything that we can think of to compare it to, but he was an ordinary politician operating within a spectrum.
Rail: When I was standing in the line to get my book signed by you at your Melbourne reading, there was a lady in front of me who, after you signed her book, said “I just have one question, why do you think this happened there?” And before you answered, she added, “It’s something about the Germans, isn’t it?” Her question of why did this happen there and then is central in a lot of people’s minds when thinking about this era. It seems that people want to believe it was one particular thing about Hitler or one particular thing about the Germans that caused this, some sort of extraordinary strange force.
But your book seems to suggest the opposite; that what allowed this to happen wasn’t something out of the ordinary but something very human.
In All That I Am, there all these different kinds of people who get persuaded, blackmailed, and seduced to betray other people by those in power and many of them are sympathetic characters. It seems to suggest that innately in human nature we all have that aspect of us that wants power, that wants to be part of the system, and that can be seduced. Was that something you wanted to get across?
Funder: I’m really glad that’s an observation you make because, when I’m writing this, I’m aware of these politics, but really I’m thinking mainly about my characters. I’m thinking mainly in the head of this really old woman who spends her life as one of these early bell-ringers against Hitler but who failed to see her own husband’s betrayal in front of her nose.
It’s about these blindnesses that are personal in the way that a woman might choose not to see the unfaithfulness of her husband for many years or a body of people like the Germans might choose not to see—or how you can see something without really taking it on as your responsibility. In Australia, we have children and women locked up for indeterminate periods of time in prison camps in the desert and in the suburbs. We know this as a fact, but to know something as a fact and to actually take it on as your responsibility and as something that needs to be stopped is something else.
I think that is part of a contemporary fascination with the Nazi. I mean it’s complicated and I don’t really share it, but part of it is that people are not so fascinated by what Mao did to his own people, or what Stalin did, or what Pol Pot did, or any number of terrible genocidal massacres and regimes, and they were killing just as many if not more. The German thing is at the heart of Europe, and a lot of our Western culture owes a massive debt to German culture; basically all the classical music, all the philosophy, all the psychoanalysis, Einstein, massive amounts of poetry and literature. The idea that this happened in such a sophisticated intellectual advanced Western culture is a shock.
But the other reason people are continually fascinated by it is to make of the Germans some particular evil, which, I have to say, from my experience of living in Berlin, it’s mainly the Germans who worry about that themselves and take it on as a kind of cultural characteristic. But I don’t really buy that. I mean I think that the way that these regimes express themselves is different. In Latin America, it’s extremely flamboyant and people are dismembered and thrown from helicopters. That doesn’t happen in Germany. It’s done in a different way and perhaps more technocratically and perhaps more bureaucratically, which is kind of frightening, but I think it’s too easy to make of Hitler a monster. It’s too easy to make of the Germans a people apart who are somehow subject to this kind of thing. I don’t buy that. That’s why I have to write long books trying to examine it.
Rail: The book has an excellent title, All That I Am. Can you talk about where that comes from?
Funder: It comes from the beginning of the book where Toller sees Dora giving a speech at an anti-abortion rally. It’s 1925 and she’s very bravely giving this speech about the rights of women and as she’s doing it, she holds out her hand, and he just sees in that gesture something, which he recognizes in himself, which is the ability to evaluate the value of your life and to weigh it up and to say, “I am going to use my life in this cause.” It’s kind of like using your life as a weapon, not in the terrorist sense but in a really brave sense. Like, I can hold the value of my life in my hand to do with what I will. It’s a very calculated thing that very brave people do. It’s a way of representing bravery and I think it’s very common, because I found it in the real people in Stasiland as well. They didn’t care what was going to happen to them. They were just not going to collaborate. They said, “I don’t care that I can’t see my son. You just can’t twist me morally out of shape.” It’s an extraordinary thing about human beings and it’s common, but it’s nonetheless very, very extraordinary.
And then on the other hand, when we make mistakes, when we don’t live up to these extraordinary standards you know I don’t think I would necessarily at all—we forgive ourselves by saying, “Well I’m only human.”
So on the one hand, to be human is this massive and extraordinary, holy kind of thing and on the other hand, it’s not very much. So I wanted the title to encompass that paradox. To be human is to be capable of this extraordinary altruism and bravery at the same time as it is to forgive yourself for not living up to that.
Rail: Dora is a really incredible character. She was described in a review the by New Statesman as “the most attractive fictional heroine in a long time.” She is just so strong, so brave, and also incredible sexy. Statsiland too has many women who do fascinating things. Do you see yourself as a feminist writer and these as feminist books?
Funder: I’m obviously a feminist. I don’t understand how any kind of intellectual could not be a feminist. I don’t really know what it means not to be. I’m not writing feminist books though, in the sense that I’m very interested in ideologies of all kinds. I’m interested in how they warp and narrow what it is to be human and I’m interested in the terrible things done in the name of very self righteous ideologies of the Left and of the Right.
Sadly, I don’t share very many of Dora’s characteristics, but the one thing I do have in common with her is that I’m not a good joiner. I’m not a good group person, and I don’t like group-think, and I don’t like -isms. So, when I say I’m a feminist, of course I’m a feminist, but I’m not writing ideological books. I’m not interested in pushing a barrow with my book. I’m interested in language. I’m interested in making a beautiful experience, but also a powerful one, and I’m interested in what it is to be human and what it is to be alive.
Rail: You mentioned at your reading that you come from a scientific family, where “every emotion needed to be backed up by a double-blind study in a peer reviewed-journal.” But, you say you were always fascinated with the irrational. In both your books, the characters need to make a lot of difficult decisions and often what they choose is not rational but done out of emotion—either out of love or passion, or a desire for power, or just because they instinctually feel they have to. Is that something that drew you to these stories, these periods of history?
Funder: No I don’t think it works like that. I think it works the other way around. For me, I don’t get drawn to a period of history. I’m drawn to a particular person in a particular situation. If, instead of living in Berlin as a 21-year-old, I’d gone to live in Shanghai, I would have written Stasiland, but it would have been called something to do with China and would essentially have been the same story. I’m interested in the stories and the machinations of the soul. Just like I’m not really interested in ideologies per se, I’m not interested in history or periods per se. I just got sucked into a great love of German literature and language and lived in Berlin a long time, which is why that’s my reference point.
I did grow up in quite a scientific, very intellectually demanding, and inspiring household, and it did feel that if you had an emotion you needed to justify it by a double-blind, peer-reviewed study, published in an international journal, meanwhile I read copious, unhealthy amounts of fiction when I was small. I think that was a way of deciphering what was really going on.
There is this great and justified love of science and rationality and evidence, but people do not function like that. People function as emotional beings long before they function as rational beings and, if you’re going to understand the world or people, you have to understand that the emotion is primary. No matter how many scientists think that they are completely rational about things, they are functioning in a split second on an emotional level—the minute you meet someone, eat something—then a split second later the sort of rational justification for something will come. I was always interested in these kinds of subterranean, unmentionable, but overpowering forces that were operating and I think that writing is one way of making those visible.
Rail: Many of the main characters in your book are incredibly brave and that bravery is most often expressed through their art, their plays, and their writing. Does having been so immersed in these brave writer’s stories make you feel differently about your own writing and do you see writing as a political act?
Funder: I really don’t want to sound kind of pompous about it, but in the same way that I’m not a card-carrying political person, I’m not writing, to my mind, political books, although of course they’re steeped in the politics. I’ve never studied politics. I don’t know much about it, but I can see that Stasiland, although not a dry critique of socialism, is about the lived human effects of it on the people who carried it out and believed in that project and the people who were its victims and who were proof of its corruption. As a writer, those stories are fascinating to me. I’m very interested in courage and I’m very interested in desire and all those sorts of human things. And that story where the world is divided into good and evil, between the Stasi and their victims—not cleanly, not neatly—but still, it’s an extreme society and extreme societies bring forward these extreme responses at all ends of the moral spectrum and so that’s fantastic for a story. It’s very fantastic.
I think all kinds of books, after a certain level of quality, fiction or nonfiction, are very important artifacts in the world in themselves. Some of them have very direct literal political implications and some of them have much greater cultural or personal resonance. But that’s not why I do it. I do see All That I Am at some level as an intervention in a wrongly written history. It was very exciting to discover the story of this extraordinary Dora Fabian and to then reinvent her. She doesn’t have a gravestone so this book is some kind of epithet, but that is to be much too narrow about it, because it took five years to write, and I’m not writing it for Dora. I wrote it to make something that exists in the world that didn’t exist before that is both an object of some kind of pleasure and delight at one level and some kind of enlightenment at another.