About The Author
Anna Funder was born in Melbourne and studied creative writing at her local university, before continuing at the Freie Universität Berlin. She worked as a documentary film-maker and translator in Germany and Australia and spent 1997 as Writer-in-Residence at the Australia Centre in the University of Potsdam.
She lived in Berlin both before and after the fall of the Wall and the interviews she conducted with residents formed the basis of her first book Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall. It provides a rare voice to the people of the Communist half of the city, describing the constant fear of denouncement to the brutal Stasi and the practical difficulties of living and working under such an impersonally bureaucratic and ruthless regime.
The book won the 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and became a bestseller all over the world. It was described by the Sunday Times as 'a journey into the bizarre, scary, secret history of the former East Germany that is both relevant and riveting'.
She has now written her first novel, All That I Am, which opens with the elderly Ruth Wesemann receiving a package containing a tattered notebook that instantly returns her to Berlin in 1933 as Hitler makes his first speech as Chancellor. As one of a group of friends who had opposed the rise of the National Socialists, her very life was in danger. Fleeing to sympathetic friends in London, she was determined to continue her resistance work, but she risked betrayal and exposure at every turn. She managed to obtain vital leaked Gestapo documents, but risked exposure and betrayal at every turn, even before discovering that Hitler's reach extended across the Channel.
Inspired by the real-life recollections of Jewish Germans, including playwright Ernst Toller and her cousin, All That I Am is a heart-wrenching and elegantly written story of courage in the face of merciless oppression and of bravery in defence of cherished beliefs.
In this exclusive interview, Anna talks about the real Ruth who inspired her novel and was the genesis of its main character, Ruth Becker, and why there haven't been more books written about this dark period in Europe's history..
Hear Anna talk about and read from the stunning All That I Am.
Below the interview is a list of titles by Anna Funder currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
Questions & Answers
Can you describe the intriguing origins of this novel?
I met the real Ruth, who is the genesis of Ruth Becker in All that I Am, when I was 19. She was exactly 60 years older than me, but so alive, so present in the moment that it was as if history itself collapsed. The 20th century concertinaed back on itself. Having a friend so much older made life seem long, but at the same time it made history seem short. In fact, the stories that Ruth told of her anti-Hitler activities stopped being history, and started to be something that a very brave, very humble friend of mine had had the presence of mind, and the courage to do.
I spent five years working on All that I Am, including a summer in London in 2006 as part of the research, and some time in Berlin. The novel was the first thing I thought of in the morning, I worked on it all day, and it was the last thing I thought of before I went to sleep. Other things happened in my real life during that time - some of them quite momentous. My little daughters grew and started school, my son was born. But the whole time I lived and breathed this book, like some vast, secret inner parallel life. It took five years to write, but really, this novel has been brewing all my adult life.
How involved, if at all, was Ruth in the writing of the novel?
Ruth wasn't at all involved, except as an inspiration. She died at 95 in 2001.
How did you negotiate between the need for factual accuracy and the demands of writing a piece of fiction?
I didn't change the basics of what happened - the two women found dead in the locked room in Bloomsbury; the story of Hans' betrayal of Bertie - but my aim was only tangentially to tell what happened, strange as that sounds really . My interest was always in representing the interior, emotional lives of these people: what does it feel like to be in love in a way that possesses you to the point of willful blindness? Or to be afraid, to be the bell-ringer in a world that will not listen? That said, I did spend 18 months reading around all the historical material I could find, to knit my plot together. That plot is also, necessarily fiction, but it is made of real materials and does not do violence to the truth. I made the connections between Bertie and the source high-up in Goering's ministry, and between Dora and Bertie as her source - that seemed to me the most logical and likely thing. Though I know, of course, that life is not necessarily either logical or likely...
Had you always intended to follow up Stasiland with fiction?
I started writing Stasiland as fiction, but the basic requirement of fiction - to create a believable world - just wasn't possible in a place where the secret police were stealing underpants. This book allowed me to do what I couldn't in Stasiland, which was to get inside my characters' heads. It was a liberation.
Why is this period so relatively unexplored in fiction?
People simply don't know about it, I suppose. I wouldn't necessarily have become so obsessed myself, if it weren't for my close friendship with Ruth. But more broadly speaking your question is a good one. There are certain narratives of innocence a society tells itself after political disaster. In the German case, one of those is that, to put it too bluntly, but nevertheless: 'our country was highjacked by a madman and we were the innocent victims.' There's some truth in this, but not by any means the whole truth. My characters were, along with others, warning long and loud and people really didn't want to listen. In the British case, it's perhaps uncomfortable to think about appeasement, and the lived toll of that on these people.
How much impact do you think the efforts of Dora and other refugees had on the English government's position?
Very hard to say. Possibly very little changed up until much later in the 1930s. I'd be fascinated to know - and there will be some wonderful historian who knows this - about the history of the English government's changing attitude towards Hitler. It probably began with Churchill - and I have him using documents obtained through Bertie and Dora, so that might have been the beginning.
Do you agree with Dora's friend, Ellen Wilkinson's assertion, which you quote, that 'The greatest asset the Nazi agents have is that no one, neither police nor one's friends, will believe that anyone can do the things here that we have proof they do.'?
I thought that was such an interesting thing for Dora to say. We've all been in positions where reality outstrips our powers of credible imagination, where we shake our heads and it won't fit in to our image of what can be - the planes flying into buildings, an epidemic of people using themselves as human bombs, even the recent riots in Britain. Also, there are always all kinds of stories that are dismissed as 'paranoia' but actually involve outrageous governmental action against people. This is one of the more interesting parts of the wide, wide world of denial and protection of our sanity by constructing a saner world than the one we have.
Did Ruth ever forgive herself for what she describes as her own wilful failure of imagination?
That is my character talking, not the woman who I took as inspiration for her. The real Ruth thought that her survival was miraculous, and by implication undeserved, and I took that emotion and ran with it and gave the character a slightly more caustic edge than my friend, who was a much less self-reproachful. The failure of the imagination is something that interests me in connection with your previous question. It is personal, because it is the basis of empathy, or empathy denied, and it is political, because it allows us to cauterize ourselves from basic social injustices. In the Suburbs of Sydney, for instance, are refugee children living in prison camps - what is going on there in our collective imagination? Too little.
Can you tell us something about Ruth's life after the war?
Ruth was let out of prison in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. She was given 24 hours to leave the country, or she'd have been rearrested and put in a concentration camp. She managed to get out on the last boat to leave Genoa before Italy joined the war on the side of the Fascists. She had no passport, and could only go to Shanghai, the sole port that accepted paperless refugees. She stayed there, in difficult circumstances, till 1947, and then emigrated to Melbourne. She taught my German teacher German, which was how I came to know her. Ruth was very engaged in life, would go off to concerts and adult education classes. She thought commercial television was woeful and had a kind of empathetic pity for people who read the tabloids. .
In conversation Ruth would move from criticising Hitler to criticising our own government at the time, in a way that made it clear that when you are living through something, there are some people who can see things for what they are (whether that's dire, or just moderately unpalatable), and will always speak out. It is this kind of courage that fascinated me, along with the moral compass that underlies it.
How typical was the Dora, Bertie, Ruth network? Are there other undocumented stories still to be told?
The connection between what Bertie was doing and what Dora was doing - so between the two stories I mentioned earlier, is one that I have sewn together out of everything I've read. They were friends, and Dora had to be getting that incredible information off Goering's desk somehow. It seemed to me the most likely thing, but it's a piece of inspired supposition, of detective work made with real materials. It was thrilling to do, though it nearly broke my brain. My guess would be that there are many other stories out there, simply because there were so many people who resisted Hitler, so early on, and because the Gestapo were after them from the minute they got into power.