“The Berlin Letters” – In Conversation with author Katherine Reay (Part 2 of 2)

"The Berlin Letters" by Katherine Reay, available now from Harper Muse.
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Interview continued from Part 1…

Katherine Reay, author of “The Berlin Letters” (Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Reay)

DeCanniere: And, in your book, we do get a look at what happens when dissent isn’t tolerated. Under those systems, you are surrounded by people you cannot trust. You can never tell who is a friend and who is a foe.

Reay: So, in the eighties, one in every eight — that was the statistical number — citizens in East Germany was spying for the Stasi. When those records were legally opened in 1992, many people found out that their neighbor or their uncle or their best friend’s sister had been spying on them. The Stasi kept unbelievably accurate records. There were these huge files and people were discovering that friends and family had been spying and reporting on them for years. I just cannot imagine what that would feel like.

DeCanniere: Yeah. I mean, it truly is just so incredibly disturbing. I, too, can’t imagine what discovering something like that must feel like. I also cannot imagine agreeing to do something like that. It’s just unfathomable.

Reay: While I agree with that, so many were compromised in the sense that they were threatened by the Stasi with arrest — or they would threaten to kick their kids out of the Communist Club, so to speak. If your kids were kicked out, they had no future. So, they were playing this dual role with friends and family. But those who were not ideologically aligned — and I am sure that there were some who were — were so threatened, and in such fear, that they made choices I would like to think I would not make.

DeCanniere: Right. Though I am from the United States, and I grew up after the Berlin Wall came down, I am aware of history and, thus, some of what was going on in that part of the world at that time. I know that there were many people who were not free to make their own decisions. So much was controlled by the government there. Though it is hard to conceive of if you are from here, people didn’t even have the ability to choose whether they would go to school or for what.

Reay: Yes. We take that for granted. I was giving a talk once and somebody asked “Why couldn’t so-and-so just pick a different major or do something else?” Every year they were assessed and then told what they would study, or if they could even go on with school, or what factory they would work in, or what apartment they could live in. All of those decisions were made for them.

DeCanniere: Right. I’m so grateful that I didn’t have to go through anything like that — and I am so thankful that I didn’t have to — but I do have some awareness of what they were going through.

Reay: I don’t have firsthand experience with this, either. I was born here in the United States as well. While I’ve studied this and talked to people, and I’ve been to Berlin as a tourist, I don’t have firsthand experience with that. That’s part of what draws me to write about it. I don’t want us to forget these chapters in history. In a contemporary context, remembering the past is so important for how we live today. That’s partly why I write in this historical fiction space — why I write about these time periods and these struggles. They matter for us now.

I hope we all really understand the privileges that our government structure affords us, and that we take advantage of them. To your point, that is voting and speaking out — all of those important things we are allowed to do — because it is true that there are countries where people are not allowed to do so.

DeCanniere: What I also found interesting is that you do get some sense of what it is like for Luisa to work for the United States government. She has to keep secrets from her own family. While they know she works for the government, she can’t tell them what she is really doing. At the same time, she discovers that there are family secrets that are only just coming to light, following the death of her grandfather — including some revelations about her own parents. And, it is arguable, those revelations determine the choices she ends up making herself.

Reay: Yeah. You are absolutely right. There are secrets. There are secrets on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and she stumbles into a few of those along the way. There are a lot of spies around in this novel, aren’t there?

When I was setting out to write this book, I wanted it to be a spy story, but also a family love story and a story of sacrifice and courage. In terms of one family and their emotional journey, I wanted to provide a snapshot of what life was like on the other side of the Berlin Wall at that time.

DeCanniere: I think that the novel really does do a wonderful job of depicting things from the family’s perspective. I can’t imagine being in East Germany, largely unaware of what was going on in the outside world apart from the little bit that was able to trickle in. It seems there is only this trickle of information, because things are so tightly controlled. You could only get information from the outside through what were then illegal sources. In the West, by contrast, you only knew what was going on in the East from what little information that people on the inside were able to get out.

Reay: That is true. Back then — especially in the sixties — if your radio antenna was facing toward the West, you would be arrested. It got a little easier in the seventies, and then a little easier in the eighties, but it was tough. So, often, you didn’t get a good picture of what was going on.

DeCanniere: Speaking of keeping information from getting out — albeit in a very different sense — I think Luisa’s grandparents were very eager to keep a lot of information from her. You certainly see this continuing, even after the death of her grandfather. In a way, I think it does stem from their wanting to move on themselves — at least to the extent that’s possible. I think the other part of it may be that they do feel that, as long as they have come all the way to the United States, then why should Luisa have to go through all that they went through? That seems to be a part of it, anyway, as well.

Reay: That is definitely part of it. I think one part you cannot forget about Luisa’s grandmother is the incredible fear that she has. We have to remember that she grew up in Germany, and she was on the right side of things. They were hiding from the Nazis during World War II. They raced to Berlin ahead of the Red Army. She lives in such fear. She came to the United States as a grandmother — when she was in her sixties — and she really didn’t understand that there was another way. I think that’s very human. We know what we know, and it is hard to envision something different. That is part of this book, too — those differences in perspective. Luisa’s grandmother had so much to fear.

DeCanniere: As somebody who has been reading since the age of two, I think that one of the great things about literature is that it encourages you to consider other perspectives. It exposes you to other viewpoints and experiences — including other viewpoints that other people from other parts of the world have.

Reay: Yes, because we often have a natural assumption that people think as we do. That is so human. We don’t come from the same place in our thinking, and I agree that literature is so powerful in that way. When we read a novel, we step into someone else’s shoes. I read somewhere that it fires up the same neurons in the brain as if you were experiencing that moment with the character. That means we are taking on a different perspective in a very human, emotional way — and with that comes understanding. So, I think literature is incredibly powerful.

DeCanniere: I agree. Art has tremendous power — whether that is a novel, a play, a film, or whatever else. I think it makes it that much harder for somebody to “other” someone else. You are much more likely to see them as a person. I think that there would be far less xenophobia and discrimination — and far less ability to demonize others — if people continued to educate themselves. Reading is one way we can do that. I think one can learn in the more traditional sense — in the classroom — but we can also commit ourselves to continuing to learn via these other means. I know that, in my own life, my mom has been a major advocate of continuing to educate oneself. Learning and growing as a person does not stop when you graduate — or it should not stop when you graduate. If everyone continued to educate themselves throughout their lives, it would make for a much better, healthier, happier, more inclusive and more accepting society.

Reay: I wholeheartedly agree, because once you understand somebody — once you open yourself up to understand someone — you will not be afraid and you will not hate. It leads to love. I believe that understanding leads to love.

DeCanniere: I think that’s very well put, and I couldn’t agree more. Speaking of understanding, what I also found interesting is how Luisa really seems to understand her grandparents, and her own background, so much better after discovering these secrets and after going through all of the experiences she goes through.

Reay: To just go back to this idea of understanding leading to love — Yes, she begins to understand who her grandparents are — or were — and the choices they made, and why they made them. Up until this moment — the first week of 1989, when she stumbles upon these letters and codes — she doesn’t know. She doesn’t understand. Having grown up in the United States, Luisa thinks like an American — not like an East German. That’s partly what the story is about. Learning to love better because you understand more.

DeCanniere: While they seem to have been quite close, it also seemed like there were some significant differences between Luisa and her grandparents. This certainly seems to help bridge that divide — which perhaps is no surprise, given that everything is now out in the open. I remember back in 2013 I spoke with an author whose memoir had just been published, and in the course of our conversation, she spoke about how secrets are poisonous — how they damage relationships. I think your book has a bit of that, too. Secrets can be detrimental within a family, and everything seems to be so much better once they are honest with one another.

Reay: You know, on the surface you can say “absolutely.” The funny thing is that her grandmother wouldn’t even be able to tell you that she was keeping a lot of secrets. That’s another thing. She didn’t want to know what her husband was doing, because that would be a secret she didn’t want to carry. So, secrets are such funny things. It’s so much better when everything is out in the open, but then sometimes people don’t even know they’re holding onto secrets. If you could get them to talk and share — like if her grandmother would have shared about her life, Luisa would have understood so much more. It’s just understanding each other — and so many secrets are involved in that.

DeCanniere: Last, but certainly not least, who would you consider to be among your influences when it comes to your writing — or else what have you been reading that you would recommend to others?

Reay: In terms of my writing influences, I would say that the two most influential writers for me would be C.S. Lewis and Jane Austen. I know that sounds weird writing spy novels, but I would say those two given the core of how I started to develop story when I first started to write.

In terms of spy novels and the Cold War, there are so many great books out there. The two books I stumbled upon while writing this story were books about punk behind the Berlin Wall. One was called Burning Down the Haus by Tim Mohr and the other was Berlin Calling by Paul Hockenos. Those opened my eyes to what punk was behind the Iron Curtain.

I’m trying to think of the other books I’ve read. There’s a book called A Pope and a President by Paul Kengor. It really covered a lot of the 1980s Cold War period, which is a fascinating read. At present, I am reading a book that will come out in September. It’s called The Booklover’s Library by Madeline Martin. It’s completely charming. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also just read The Art Thief by Michael Finkel. It’s non-fiction and I thoroughly loved it. It was really fascinating and is really well written and well researched. I just finished that one.

Click here to go back to “The Berlin Letters” – In Conversation with author Katherine Reay (Part 1 of 2).

Katherine Reay is a national bestselling and award-winning author who has enjoyed a lifelong affair with books. She publishes both fiction and nonfiction, holds a BA and MS from Northwestern University, and currently lives outside Chicago, Illinois with her husband. 
For more information, log onto her website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


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