Q. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A. Not at all. I always read a great deal, but growing up I thought very little –if at all – about the writers who had put the words on the page. In English lessons at school, I remember zoning out of discussions of novelists’ biographies, just far preferring the stories themselves.
When I first started working, I wanted to be a film editor. I started out as a cutting room dogsbody, but I didn’t want to be stuck there, so like many a junior in the film industry, I tried my hand at writing ideas for films. My scripts were more like short stories, however, and then the stories got longer, developing a life of their own, and eventually they became my first novel. So I moved away from film in the process – but I took the discipline of the cutting room with me: in cinema, not a moment of storytelling time is wasted, and I like my books to have that same drive.
Q. What does your writing day look like?
A. I keep office hours on my writing days; I’m very disciplined about it. I have a room of my own at home, so I’m very lucky. My dog has her basket in there, and she’s good company, snoozing under my desk as I write. But I also like human company, so I often work in libraries. It’s nice to be a regular somewhere, on nodding terms with the other regulars. Writers don’t have colleagues; it’s the nearest thing I get.
While my children were younger, my books were written between drop-off and pick-up. Many people told me I’d never finish another book, but I took J.G. Ballard as my role model: father of three, single parent, and prolific novelist. He advocated a large whiskey after the school run to kick start the writing day, but I’m not so bohemian: I knit as I write. Keeping the motor functions occupied allows the higher functions to get whirring –all of my novels have been written over the course of many hand-knitted socks.
Q. What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
A. To make what you write excellent, you have to be your own harshest critic – I’ve thrown away 200,000 words before, and started again from scratch. But a novel is a work of persistence, so you must be your own greatest advocate too, keeping yourself going through all the doubts and drafts. Those 200,000 words were worth writing and throwing away, because they were part of the process of arriving at my fourth novel. So my main advice is to find that small, stubborn part of you inside, and then persist, persist, persist…
The other thing to bear in mind is that writing doesn’t always happen at the desk. Michael Rosen says his best work is done on the 38 bus; Haruki Murakami runs in order to write. I have often had insights about my characters while cycling home from the library – annoying that inspiration waits like that, but at least I can start the next day on the right track. In any case, movement is important to the thinking process.
Q. Where do you find inspiration for your novels, A Boy in Winter specifically?
A. Most of my inspiration comes from history: periods of great upheaval and what they bring out in people. I’m not interested in the great and the good, though; I like to look at ordinary people in extraordinary times
A Boy in Winter starts early on a November morning in 1941, when a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. My characters are Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, and all of them face impossible choices. Who to trust; whether to run or stand their ground; will they do what is right, or just what they need to, in order to survive?
I didn’t set out to write this book; I was researching another novel entirely, when one of the historians I was consulting recommended a collection of essays which happened to contain a rare account of a righteous German – Willi Ahrem, an engineer who was dismayed by Hitler’s rise to power. When he was drafted into the Wehrmacht, Ahrem managed to avoid fighting for the Nazis by transferring to the construction corps. He ended up stationed behind the lines in Nemirow, a small town in newly-occupied Ukraine, where he was to oversee a road-building project.
What captured my imagination was this: Ahrem did not hold with the Nazis, he had done all he could to minimise his involvement in their war, and yet only weeks after his posting, he awoke to the sound of the Jews of Nemirow being rounded up. I put aside my novel-in-progress; I knew I had to write a story like Ahrem’s instead. What do you do when you have tried so hard to do the right thing, and yet you find yourself in the midst of such a great wrong?
As I started writing, I found I couldn’t tell the story just from his point of view – other characters kept suggesting themselves, and all of them found themselves in the midst of this crime. It was a time when even doing nothing had consequences. This is what made the idea so compelling to write.
Q. How did you go about researching your novels?
A. I read and talk around the subject as much as possible; one book leads to another, one conversation will throw up questions for the next. My advice to anyone new to researching is don’t be shy about contacting historians or historical associations; they are often incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. Specialisms can be lonely, and specialists love to discuss their subject with someone genuinely interested.
As the idea for a novel builds, images can be as important to find as first-hand accounts, so I go to photo libraries, seeking out faces and places. I also I write scenes as I research – sketches for chapters – because characters develop best when they’re having to act and react. That’s how you get to know them. As I learn about historical events in my research, I write my characters into similar situations, to see what they would do or say or feel. It’s a process of experimentation.
Q. Your novel deals with some very complex and emotional issues, how do you go about approaching such difficult subjects?
A. I’m often writing out of a desire to understand a situation, so even when it’s difficult, it’s part of a process. I have German family, my mother was a child in Nazi Germany, so writing about the Third Reich and Holocaust is personal. My first book was about that period, and it’s taken me a few books to return to it. But I still had questions – I probably always will have – so it felt right. In fact, sore as it is, it is also a luxury of sorts; there are few jobs which allow time to really delve into a subject.
Q. List of your favourite books/authors/inspirations
A. I go through phases, but Toni Morrison is enduring. I think A Mercy is her masterpiece. Her characters pass the plot on from hand to hand, and it’s done seamlessly; she never drops the story for a second, although it’s told from many different perspectives. I love William Faulker’s As I Lay Dying for many of the same reasons – as a reader, you slip inside one character’s head and then the next, and even the rhythm of their thoughts is different.
I’m not sentimental, so Cormac MacCarthy’s hard-edged characters appeal to me; same with J.M. Coeztee, who has a great talent for writing women just as flinty as his men. George Orwell’s characters can be a little morose for my taste, but his non-fiction has none of that introversion. He looked at what he was writing with such sharp eyes – whether it was an elephant on the rampage through an Indian hill station, or toads in an English pond. I’d love to achieve the same precision in my storytelling as any of those three.
There are many novels about the Holocaust I admire, but Jakob the Liar by Jurek Becker stands out: a great truth from a very small story.