Author(s): Kalle Gayn
I was involved as a proofreader as well as being the design and layout artist of '4 Steps To Freedom' and so the author, Kalle Gayn, has dedicated the novel to me. I'm hardly an unbiased interviewer! Today's post is an interview that I conducted with the author.
I hope you enjoy it.
4 Steps to Freedom
Author Interview: Kalle Gayn
M-T: Welcome to our blogspot Kalle, and thank you for the dedication in your novel.
KG: Thanks for interviewing me Marie-Therese. I've always been inspired by your creativity.
M-T: Is this your first novel?
KG: It is!
M-T: Have you written short stories or essays prior to your first novel?
KG: I've written a large number of papers and articles in a previous life, but not using this nom de plume. I wanted my first novel to stand or fall on its merits, rather than have any preconceptions of a past life interfere with the critique process.
M-T: It appears that most authors are motivated to write because of a storyline or character that won't leave them alone etc. What motivated you?
KG: There were lots of different factors that came into play, all approximately at the same time. Most of us are too busy to write unless it's our vocation. Very few people make a living through writing - even journalists are fast disappearing! For example, the 'Authors Guild’s 2018 Author Income Survey (USA)' showed that authors incomes fell to historic lows in the USA. The median now sits on US$6,080 in 2017, down some 42% from 2009. Hence, without added financial support very few authors can make a living from writing.
I was lucky in that I had paid leave for six months, and instead of spending it on an overseas trip, I decided to stay at home and write.
M-T: You had the time and you were financially supported during your writing phase, but why write this particular novel?
KG: I grew up in a family where the most interesting characters were females. My father was barely around as were my two older brothers, and my two younger brothers looked up to me, whereas I admired my mother and my sisters. By the time I went to primary school I was convinced that males were the second sex! In the late 1960s and early 1970s when feminism took centre stage, I was amazed that it needed to happen, since female equality was a given in our family from the day I was born. Naturally I was always attracted to intelligent, talented women and so I married one!
I wanted to write about these strong intelligent women in my life and so the novel evolved in my mind. The female characters in my novel aren't based on anyone of my relatives nor my wife, but rather the traits of the female characters in the novel are inspired by all of them.
M-T: I see. What literary genre brackets your novel?
KG: Generally, it would be considered to be in the historical literary fiction camp. To add flesh to that genre, the novel attempts to give you an insight in order for you to better understand the world that the characters live in and in doing so, it tries to deliver real emotional responses to situations that arise over which the characters in the novel have little control. A stand out novel in this genre is Dr Zhivago written by Boris Pasternak. I'm not implying that my novel is of the same calibre, rather I'm asserting that it's in the same genre.
MT: You're an Australian author who has written a historical literary fiction that's geographically located in Germany. Australian authors tend to write historical literary fictions set in Australia; for example, Peter Cary's, True History of the Kelly Gang, comes to mind. Why in Germany?
KG: Most Australians have an overseas experience, whether it's through travel or because of their heritage. Australians are the least xenophobic people in the world. Australians get that there are no kangaroos in Austria!
Australia was last invaded when Captain Cook arrived in Botany Bay in 1770. That's not the European or a world experience. Even Great Britain was last invaded in 1797, some 9 years after Australia was first settled by Governor Phillip on 7th of February 1788 in Sydney. Australians have experienced nearly 241 years without the presence of a second invading power.
The novel needed to begin in a locality where war was a continuous feature of the landscape, in order to juxtapose an external disorder against an inner yearning for an internal order centred on a mindful but blissful state, which the main character in the novel, Magrete, was continually seeking. Germany felt the right place for the novel's beginning, but not for the story's future ending.
M-T: The storyline is set from 1935 through to 1949 in Germany. Why that period?
KG: This was a fairly tumultuous time in the world's history. The effects of the Great Depression were still being felt everywhere. A world war was looming, and so budgets were heavily focussed on remilitarisation. For the first time extreme ideologies on the left (Communism) and on the right (Fascism) were in government, and more importantly, on the ascendency (e.g. Italy, Spain etc.) Democracies were still fledging entities, since western powers such as Britain, France, Spain, The Netherlands, and Portugal (to name but a few) had colonies, as did northern Asian countries like Japan etc. Few of these colonies ruled in their own right. Even some countries prior to World War Two, who were considered democratic and progressive wouldn't allow women the right to vote (e.g. France took off all restrictions on the female vote as late as 1965). Of course, twice as many civilians died in World War Two than those in the military and most of these civilians were women and children. So females were most vulnerable during the war. This was further reinforced by the allies and foes alike who found that bombing civilian centres was far less risky than targeting military sites.
M-T: If females were the second sex in terms of vulnerability during periods of crisis such as a war, why use this period as your backdrop for creating strong female characters?
KG: It gives an added shade to the principal female character of the novel, Magrete. During a period of extreme female vulnerability the main character exhibits all the traits of a strong personality: she's ethical; she's mentally and physically strong with respect to the way she handles people, especially men; she possesses courage and compassion; she's uninhibited and so she's unafraid to display her emotional side as well. She's not perfect and so she lies when she needs to in order to protect those she loves.
M-T: Why Germany from 1935?
KG: If you're ethical, then living under a Nazi dictatorship would test whether you're prepared to take extreme risks in order to stay true to yourself. It would've been so much easier to be moralistic and ethical in a democratic country, like the US in the 1930s, than under a Nazi dictatorship, where there were severe consequences in place for defiance. To remain true to oneself in these circumstances could mean, and did mean, death!
M-T: In the first three sections of the novel you refer to Germany as the 'German Reich', whereas in the last section you revert to 'Occupied Germany'. Why the distinction?
KG: I wanted to make the distinction between the people and the government. Too often what a government does or doesn't do, automatically taints the people of that country, irrespective of how they voted or how they felt. Nobody in Germany in the 1930s voted for a Hitler dictatorship, but it was delivered irrespective of the people's views (a fact that few people acknowledge). All of us must stop evaluating the citizens of a country through the lens of its leader or the leadership group of that country. Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump and yet do we Australians now view Americans through a Donald Trump lens? I hope not! This novel focusses on one woman taking risks and in doing so she defines herself rather than allowing the leadership of her country to define her - something we Australians must address when the Morrison government has treated boat refugees as unwanted flotsam and jetsam.
Once the war was lost and the German Reich disappeared, I reverted to the collective descriptor - Occupied Germany - to signify that elections hadn't been held and that Germany was ruled by the occupying powers. At every instance, I wanted to divorce those who ruled from those who were being ruled.
MT: Your novel is peppered with Germanic words, such as "Mutti" (Mum) and "Schatz" (Sweetheart), for which you also provide a single English translation. Was that to add a Germanic flavour to the language of the novel?
KG: English is one of the most democratic languages in the world, since it unashamedly borrows words from every language (e.g. German word 'Über' meaning 'Over' has become very fashionable of late). There are some words that sound phonetically more appealing in German (e.g. 'Papa' meaning 'Father' or 'Dad'). 'Papa' feels in tone to be more endearing or affectionate than either 'Father' or 'Dad', the former is more formal, whereas the latter is more mundane.
MT: When I read your novel I gleaned a lot of facts about the war and about the French occupation of its assigned territory of occupied Germany after the war etc. Did you purposely build an educative role into your narrative?
KG: I did. I wanted the reader to become more knowledgable about what it was like to live at that time and place, even though the two principal characters mostly lived in country areas that were not bombed, such as Beelitz and Tailfingen. The French in Tailfingen governed with a light, but arrogant touch.
MT: The storyline primarily centres on two women: Magrete, a Catholic Christian, and Anna, a Jewess. Before we explore this thread, you touch on other themes like Jewish stolen wealth and the holocaust.
KG: The novel touches on these themes because they were pertinent in that era. There are many excellent novels that highlight the Nazi's systematic extermination of the European Jews - 'Schindler's List' comes to mind. However, lesbians and homosexuals were considered criminals in most Western societies for many years after World War Two (and still are today in a number of countries). Hence, their extermination at the hands of the Nazis was, for a long time, considered not to be that reprehensible. I believe the narrative of the holocaust should be more inclusive, not to diminish what happened to the European Jews, but to stress that the evil intent of the Nazis was more far-reaching (e.g. extermination of gypsies etc.)
Do the current wave of white extremists in the USA and elsewhere really believe that history has shown their ideas to be credible even to this day? So many Australians, Americans and Europeans lost their lives, because they knew that Nazism had no credibility at all! It's sad to witness today that past lessons learnt are so easily forgotton.
As for stolen Jewish wealth, other novels like 'Woman in Gold', has it as its main theme, whereas in my novel it's more of a minor theme.
In summary, both themes in my novel are lightly touched upon, but are needed in order to advance the plot.
MT: Magrete, begins as a lady of the house and Anna is her servant. It then follows how these two women coped prior, during and after the war. Their relationship starts off on an unequal footing, but as time marches forward, their relationship equalises and four years after the war, Anna becomes wealthy, in a material sense, and Magrete poorer. Is there a moralistic underpinning to their economic trajectories?
KG: No, not really. War creates winners and losers. The war has destroyed Magrete's wealth and so she becomes poor, whereas Anna after the war marries into American middle class wealth and so she becomes richer. However, the wealth disparity between these two women at any point in time in the novel plays little importance in how these two women relate to each other.
M-T: There are male characters in the novel, and strong ones at that! For example, one such character is Helmut Gruen, a lawyer-cum-business executive, who is homosexual. Another is an American Jew, Captain Eugene Gould. Are there reasons why you've built these strong male characters into the storyline?
KG: It would've been unrealistic to have every male character in the novel heavily flawed and every female character without flaws. There are weak female and male characters as well as strong male and female characters. The strong male characters complement rather than control the strong female characters, therefore giving these female characters another layer of strength.
M-T: The novel is set in a historical context and so Nazi figures appear (e.g. the Himmlers). They're interwoven into the storyline. Are you adding an authentic layer to the plot by doing so?
KG: Rich people want to have political backing in any era. They realise more than most people do, that to have influence within a government is necessary in order to maintain or enhance their wealth (re: Donald Trump). Generally, it'd be utterly unrealistic if a family, who were seriously wealthy and living in Berlin at that time, wouldn't want to add a political layer to their business armoury.
M-T: I've purposely not talked about any incident in the novel, because I don't want to reveal too much of the storyline. What I did find intriguing was the ending. It was tearful and yet fitting. Thank you for revealing some intriguing aspects underpinning your novel. I hope the critics like it!
KG: I hope '4 Steps to Freedom' will entertain as well as inform the readers of the novel on issues that are still relevant today. Thank you for having me on your blogspot.