Today’s post is an online conversation between myself and Fiona Rintoul, the author of the historical fiction novel The Leipzig Affair. It is the story of Robert, a Scottish student who travels to the GDR in 1985, where he meets Magda, a young East German looking to escape. As a fan of the book, I had the chance to speak with Fiona – an accomplished journalist and translator, in addition to her literary talents – about fiction, history, and the Stasi.
Ned Richardson-Little: When writing a work of history, you are ultimately bound by the texts and artifacts of the era that make up your source base. While you have a greater freedom to go beyond this as a fiction writer, how do you see the constraints of history as you write about this era?
Fiona Rintoul: When you are writing a novel that is grounded in a particular time and place, I think you have a responsibility to make sure it is authentic, especially if you are writing about events that were traumatic for many people. The characters and events in The Leipzig Affair are fictional, but real people in the former GDR suffered the kinds of problems and injustices that my characters endure. Therefore, I did feel it was important to get the details right.
At the same time, the book is a work of fiction, and there is truth and fictional truth, and they are not quite the same. A story has to work as a story regardless of what actually happened to actual people. I think a writer can allow themselves some freedom to create their own reality within their chosen setting – as long as the story remains authentic. If there are lots of things that are just plain wrong, then you lose credibility and your story becomes a bit of an insult to people who lived through the period you’re describing. However, I don’t think you need to check the location of every lamppost. I’m reminded of a story my husband tells about WG Sebald, who allegedly received a letter from a reader saying the clock in Antwerp station is on the left of the departure board in one of his books when in fact it’s on the right. Apparently, he wrote back and said, ‘In my book, it’s on the left.’
I think that’s fair enough. It’s not fair enough to misrepresent people’s experiences. For a long time, I hesitated to write the book because I’m not East German. However, after spending time in Berlin on a journalists’ exchange and seeing how much tension and lack of understanding there was between East and West Germans, I came to the conclusion that an outsider might actually be the best person to write this book. After it was published, I received an email for an elderly woman in Dresden thanking me for writing it and saying she appreciated that I’m neither an Ossi nor a Wessi. That’s still my favourite review ever.
NRL: I’ve had similar responses as a Canadian writing about East German history. After one seminar, I was told that it was a relief that we didn’t have to discuss my family’s role on either side of the Wall before getting down to actually debating the merits of a historical argument. Not that I actually am inherently objective about this subject, but there was a sense that being an outsider made it easier to talk about certain sensitive subjects. In the case of your book, you also seem to be balancing the use of an outsider perspective through one of your protagonists – a Scot who is encountering the GDR for the first time and is written in the first person – but at the same time, the other protagonist is East German and is written in the second person.
FR: Yes, writing the story of Magda, the East German protagonist, in the second person, was quite an important choice. For reasons that I can’t entirely explain, using the second person really helped me to get inside her head and to stop worrying about not being East German myself. I’ve written about why I think the second person was the right choice for Magda’s voice elsewhere. I think writing in the second person did also put me at a little bit of remove from her – almost as if I were a Stasi agent watching her – which somehow helped. And, yes, you’re right, meanwhile I could put across the outsider’s perspective on the GDR through Robert.
NRL: When telling this story, did you see yourself as a vehicle for a factual recounting of what occurred in the GDR or is the act of fiction writing, even when writing about a historical era, more concerned with a broader truth? Continue reading