Questions & Answers
Your father is Austrian though your mother is Welsh and you live in Cardiff. Can you say how far, whether directly or indirectly, your story is linked to your parentage?
Oh, certainly this book is directly linked to my parentage. The whole thing was driven by a need to explore my Austrian heritage, which in many ways was conspicuously absent from my life. We visited Austria most summers, but I can’t speak fluent German so can’t easily talk to my relations, and in terms of my dad, there were so many missing pieces to the puzzle. He never spoke about his past, unless forcibly outed by my mum, and I suppose I wanted to feel closer to him, to understand the place he came from, to picture his childhood. He’d grown up shoeless, in 1950s Allied-occupied Austria. It was a grim time, really. The mood in the country was very low, following the end of the war and the fall of the Reich. My dad’s father (my Opa) had been a soldier in the German army and a keen supporter of the Nazis. Moving to the UK allowed my dad to leave all this behind, and I sensed that beneath his flippant jokes (for instance, pretending to goose-step around the house) was a dense silence concealing much that I needed to know.
What research did you have to do in order to achieve both historical accuracy and convey the atmosphere of the time?
Research for this book was deep and long, which is partly why it took so many years to finish. I read a lot, and also went to live in Austria for a while in a tumbledown Viennese apartment block. It was an exhilarating and challenging time. I was so eager, ravenous really, writing a huge anecdotal journal to record my observations. I interviewed Austrians of all different age groups (an Austrian man I met offered to interpret for me and also recorded the interviews). Most incredible were the interviews I did with elderly Austrians, contemporaries to my Opa.
The conversations were invariably long, and astonishingly honest, confessional even. One woman spoke of her guilt at having been a ‘Nazi’, and took me to the sight of a small concentration camp that was in the centre of her village to see the stone memorial erected to commemorate the people killed there. Clasping my hand with tears in her eyes she wished me good luck with my book – she hoped we’d meet again. She was 87, so I doubted we’d have the opportunity. There was a sense that this was the last chance for some of these people to pass on their experiences. Still, I marvel at my naivety, in some ways; if I’d known then just how sensitive Austria is about its Nazi past, I don’t think I’d have dared to do what I did, which was to go into people’s homes and ask and ask and ask.
What was it about the children’s ‘hospitals’ that made you want to write about them? Have they been as extensively covered in fiction as other aspects of the war?
The killing clinics dotted across the Third Reich (including Austria) were truly horrifying. In these places, disabled, ‘asocial’, or emotionally disturbed children were murdered in thousands, seen by the Nazis as ‘life unworthy of life’ or ‘useless mouths’. I did NOT want to write about these clinics at first; it was just too harrowing, especially because I worked with disabled adults at that time. But one of my main characters (Schosi) is a teenage boy, who has a learning disability. I couldn’t avoid the fact that his life would have been in danger and that there was an important, albeit deeply disturbing, story to be told. Schosi is closely based on my Austrian great uncle, who has a learning disability and autistic traits. He’s a wonderful, kind and gentle person and was very lucky to have survived those brutal times. So, telling the story of Schosi was not just about depicting suffering and cruelty but about portraying him as more than just a voiceless victim, as someone with a life as worthy as any other, containing all of my affection for my Austrian relative.
You’re right, the clinics have not been much written about in fiction, as far as I know. Finding information about them was pretty hard. I wrote away to Austrian TV companies and was sent copies of little-known Austrian documentaries, complete with English subtitles. They contained shocking real testimonies and eerie footage of the empty hospital dormitories with tall barred windows. I still get a clawing anxiety thinking about them.
Did anyone ever manage to rescue a child once they had been taken to one of the notorious children’s ‘hospitals’?
I did hear of one instance where a young man travelled far across the Reich to find his girlfriend who had been incarcerated in such a place. He managed, through sheer persistence, to get her released. This was probably because it was after 1941 when the ‘mercy killing’ of disabled people was made officially illegal following huge public outcry, so the boyfriend had a bit of leverage. However, the Nazi T4 programme continued covertly until 1945. Children were snatched, transferred across the Reich far from their homes and the trail obscured so that before the frantic parents could find their child they received a pot of ashes in the post with a nametag on it, and a letter saying the child had unfortunately died of ‘pneumonia’ or ‘appendicitis’. One family said that their child had had their appendix out years before and so they knew it was a lie. Too horrible.
The villagers are startlingly passive, not least about the concentration camp on their doorstep. Was this common across Austria?
Yes, I think it was. Of course there were exceptions. There were lots and lots of small camps dotted around the country, one within easy reach of every village, if not in the very centre, like the one I visited. The prisoners were brought out into the community to mend roads, dig graves, or to work on farms. They were very visible, as was their suffering. Some pitied them, because they looked so thin and cold. Some say they were afraid for their own lives if they were to offer help. The guards who accompanied the prisoners were frightening. But then, there were instances, like the one depicted in the novel, where ordinary Austrians picked up rudimentary arms and willingly helped to hunt down escaped prisoners, with a blood lust that was certainly not the result of threats from the authorities. Human nature has a very dark side, which I think it is important for fiction to explore. If no one has a conversation about what really happened, then how can we ever understand it, or change?
Your book is hugely ambitious, covering not only Felddorf during the war, but Vienna and its children’s hospitals and then the arrival of the Red Army. It doesn’t feel overburdened but did you?
I sometimes sat at my desk and looked out of the window on a sunny day and thought ‘Why am I doing this? How can I possibly tell all this and do it justice? Perhaps I should leave it for someone else to do.’ I felt the hand of history resting heavy on my shoulder and it was paralysing. But the book had a grip on me that never really dwindled and kept me feverishly grappling with the enormity of the subject matter until I felt I had done it – thrown some sort of shadow onto the wall that resembled the object itself. Containing the sprawl and scope of it was hard and many real events and experiences are woven into the novel, but my aim was to show many sides, and to cast that shadow from a lesser-known angle. It is fiction, so it’s not real, but I hope I have captured something that feels true.
Frau Hillier stands as a remarkable beacon of honesty, courage and clear-sightedness. Was she modelled on anyone in particular?
Although she grew into someone in her own right, Frau Hillier was initially based upon an old woman I interviewed in Vienna. She was 89 and had lived through the war and its aftermath, raising a small child through hungry years and all the while actively resisting the Nazi regime. ‘How they didn’t see it coming, I don’t know,’ she said of other Austrians. ‘I took one look at Hitler and thought, this man wants war’. She recounted how she was forced to give up her hat-making business and work in a munitions factory where she deliberately constructed bombs that would never detonate. During the final siege of Vienna, when the Red Army flooded in and the conscripted older men and young boys were sent into a hopeless battle to defend the city, the woman, then in her early twenties, went out on the streets with a female friend, and persuaded men to lay down their arms. She collected a huge pile of guns beside her. If she’d been found she would without doubt have been executed on the spot. She inspired me to write someone who could see through the propaganda, who was resisting, at least internally, if not taking quite such astoundingly brave risks.
Anton is almost unreservedly nasty if not downright evil. And yet he chastises Ursula for not fighting hard enough against what was happening. Was this simply evidence of his own jealousy or did you intend for him to be allowed to speak for those who criticized non-resisters after the war?
Anton is a damaged and vindictive boy, possessive of his sister, who I didn’t necessarily intend to represent, or speak for, others. But after the war, a woman who hooked up with a Russian or American, or any of the Allied occupying soldiers, was seen as the worst kind of traitor. This feeling was definitely bound up with jealously, but also contained the pain of disempowerment and emasculation that many men felt in this situation. They were defeated, some detained in prisoner of war camps for many years beyond the end of the war, returning to a country where their women had been ‘stolen’ (either forcibly or willingly or as part of a bargain to survive starvation) by the enemy.
You are a singer, violinist and lyricist in a band. How do you reconcile these different creative outlets? Do you need them both equally?
I’m in the band Hail! The Planes, which I love so much. When I can’t find time for music (which has been the case for a while now, with the book coming out) it makes me quite restless and uneasy. I can only describe it as a kind of pining feeling. It’s a whole different creative experience, so much more instant in its expressiveness – you can say everything without speaking and feel incredibly free. I love singing, it’s excellent for getting sadness out, and I do a lot of improvising on the violin when we play live, which is like disappearing into the sky or something – you’re just not there anymore. Predictably, I’m very keen on the lyric-writing aspect, too, the opportunity to tell stories in song form. I often write about destructive love and dependency, which has been something of a theme for me (I suppose this is central to My Own Dear Brother, too). But recently, I have been writing outward-looking lyrics, with a political ember smouldering somewhere at the centre. I need music and writing, but so far writing has always come first. Maybe not forever, though.
Which writers have most influenced you, not just as a writer but as a person?
Emily Bronte came first, and left an indelible mark of bleak romanticism. Later, Margaret Atwood led the way like a beacon of inspiring light, a female role model to help me feel stronger in a world where a woman can feel so small. I am rather worshipful and deeply grateful towards her.
Do you have another novel on the go and can you say anything about it?
Yes, I do, though it’s still amorphous at this stage. It is told by a boy of seventeen (or thereabouts) living in a 1970s British commune, and depicts both the optimism and idealism of that culture but also the ease with which it can fall apart, undermined by self-destructiveness, clashes of character, wild drug-taking, or threats from the outside world. The themes are male vulnerability, drug addiction, loss, class conflict and refusing to let life’s injustices make you cruel.