Can you talk about the genesis of Here in Berlin?

The idea began as an inquiry into the human fallout from Cuba’s long association with the Soviet bloc. I wanted to find the interesting stories from this globalism—the relationships and children, complications and dislocations—that always accompany political upheaval.

 

Was Berlin your only, or primary, destination?

Originally, I thought of doing a book in three or four parts with stories set in Berlin, in Chile, in Vietnam, and Angola—all places where Cubans have studied, were politically involved, or fought wars. Berlin was my second stop, after Chile, and I couldn’t get enough of the city. I knew pretty quickly that it was where the whole novel would be set.

PROLOGUE

Lilacs were blooming in Cracauerplatz. The Visitor felt disoriented and alone, an outsider, lost without a map. Her atrophied German stuck in her throat. Thirty-one years had elapsed between her last stay in Germany (for an ill-fated job in Frankfurt) and her return to Berlin in late middle age. The city struck her as post-apocalyptic—flat and featureless except for its rivers, its lakes, its legions of bicyclists. She found herself nameless: nameless in crowds, nameless alone. Another disappearance in a city with a long history of disappearance acts.

This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. My guest today is the acclaimed author, writing teacher and online entrepreneur whose debut novel, This Is How It Begins, is the best novel I’ve ever read in my entire life—

Stop it! That’s private.

 

… Joan Dempsey, welcome to Fresh Air.

[Groan.] Now I’ll never meet her.

 

Oh, come on. Terry Gross isn’t reading your TNB Self-Interview.

Unless she’s actually considering an interview with me.

“I’m wracking brain, Izaac. Who is Stanley Brozek? This name is ringing a bell, but I cannot place it.”

Izaac tapped the paper lightly against his thigh. “I don’t know. Come.”

He tossed the newspaper on top of her galoshes to offer Ludka his arthritic hands, which were still good enough for leverage.

“Take a breath, kochanie, and come with me into the kitchen. I’m going to have a little drink and I suggest you do, too. One drink won’t shatter our wits. Come now.”

Paris, January 1940

By the time Lena reached the British embassy, her feet ached, the sky was dark and overcast, and a cold wind whipped her face. She climbed the familiar stone steps and pushed through the heavy door. At least she would find a few hours of shelter inside.

What’s one memory that came into your mind recently that you haven’t thought about for ages?

Weird memories come to me all the time – it helps to have siblings who like to remind you of the various horrors of your life – but the one that came to me today was from when I worked at an infomercial company in the 1990s. I think about that time fairly frequently, actually, because every time I see someone who looks like Ed McMahon – which, living in Palm Springs, is pretty frequently; he has a lot of doppelgängers among the retired golfing set – I remember how I worked on his ill-fated Miracle Fryer (the miracle of which was that there was no frying involved – it was a pan that you baked chicken on). But I suddenly remembered the day I realized that the company I was working for might be involved in something nefarious – there was a cult involved, and a defective exercise device, which I recognize doesn’t sound like two things that go together, and it turns out, well, they don’t – and so I emailed the one person I’m still in contact with from that job to confirm that a strange meeting happened where it was announced we would no longer be getting free bagels and snacks…which everyone then intuited was some very bad, bad news for our jobs. (Well, that and because there was talk the government was coming to seize our computers and that we should all delete our Napster accounts.) (It was the 90s.)

PROLOGUE

NOVEMBER 2000

Peaches Pocotillo never got to kill anyone anymore. All those years he’d spent perfecting his craft had led to bigger and better things, which in this case meant a mid-level leadership position in the Native Mob, overseeing tribal gang consolidation and farming operations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, even into Nebraska. He had Native Gangster Disciples reporting to him, Native Vice Lords, Native Crips, Native Bloods, Peaches the one guy everyone listened to, the one guy who could get everyone to the table, the one guy who you didn’t want to cross, because, man, he used to kill people for nothing, son.

Robert

In some cultures, alluding to the dead is considered taboo. Even remembering them is forbidden. Above all, one must never utter the deceased individual’s name.

 Now that I think of it, I have known a couple more people who’ve died. First there was Robert. It’s not like I knew him well or anything, but I did know him.

Translator’s Note

You never enter Beijing the same way twice. For centuries this was a hidden, forbidden empire: nine gates through which to pass, each with a melliferous name (Gate of Peace, Gate of Security, Gate Facing the Sun), each moat, wall, guard tower knocked down then rebuilt. First the Mongols, the Manchus, then the Boxers and Brits. So many defenses needed to protect the Peaceful Capital that eventually it was renamed Northern Capital—Beijing—for fear of instilling a false sense of quiet.

In the twenty years I’ve lived here, I witnessed hutong alleyways paved over by four-lane highways, a landscape of construction cranes pocking the horizon with hungry, steel arms; my old neighborhood with its elderly inhabitants, once accustomed to shared squat toilets and courtyard kitchen fires, shipped to the suburbs to make way for a Holiday Inn and an office tower with iridescent windows reflecting an endlessly gray, heavy sky.

October 1576

“No! I won’t go!” Emilia shouted, kicking at the rushes on the floor.

“Stop that and come here, Emilia!” Her mother held out her arms.

Emilia stomped around the room, shouting, “No, no!” Stompstomp. “No, no, no, no, NO!”

“Stop!” implored her mother.

The little girl stood teetering as her mother began to cough. She stood on one foot, then slowly lowered the other to the floor. “Stop coughing, Mama!”

Her mother pressed her handkerchief to her mouth, swallow- ing hard, then sprang up and grabbed her daughter by the shoulders. “You are going to the Countess of Kent, and that’s all there is to it!” Emilia went limp and began to wail as her mother held her tight.

It’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying than writing historical fiction. The opportunity to get it wrong, whether the feeling of a place or a time or a person, seems like an insurmountable barrier, before the writing even begins. Creating historical fiction becomes more than simply writing, it becomes research: the reading of books and interviews, listening of transcripts, visiting the locations, trying as best you can to express even a micron of the magic in someone’s life in clumsy, fallible words. Not to mention the issue of the author’s own voice – have they been able to present an accurate depiction of the subject’s life, beyond their own stylistic prejudices? Or worse, has the author merely recited events without the kind of flavor or fervor necessary to engaging reading? It is truly a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, where the very best examples somehow manage to walk the edge of the knife, a strange feat of authorial alchemy that features all these seemingly-contradictory things in perfect balance. To achieve this remarkable result, it helps if the author and the subject share a kind of kinship, where personalities meet across backgrounds, discipline, and centuries to create something simultaneously unique and seamless.

Signorina.

Signora Rosa. Such a delicate name. She must be someone’s grandmother, stout and soft with a halo of white hair; this had tricked me into thinking that she would be soft with me. But she is all hard edges. No sooner have I closed the door than she is there on the stairs with that same side-eyed look. Why? It is almost September. Almost a new month. Only cash, she’d said when she agreed to rent me this bright apartment, even though it was caro, caro, caro. Only cash. Up front.

Commercial Wisdom

 

Ravelton Parlay was a wealthy man and a rational, even calculating one. But that didn’t mean he was beyond belief either in theory or in practice. The guy had faith in spades. Not to mention diamonds, clubs, and hearts. The truth was Parlay had an entire deck of faith—not just in God, but in himself, Capitalism, and America—the sort of clean, clear, core belief structure that had propelled him to greatness and promised to keep him going, to keep him growing ever greater, into eternity and beyond. Of course, Parlay prayed. As a creature of belief—not to mention habit—he prayed morning and night, noon and midday. Parlay prayed working in his office and napping in his dayroom, sitting down to meals and standing up to scream. He prayed in the back seats of limos and the staterooms of yachts, as he strolled the grounds of Bayousalem or hustled through a Righteous Burger photo op. Parlay prayed for his employees, his servants, and even his fourth wife, the beautiful, sexually elusive Kelly Anne. He prayed for the smiley little black kids in Africa, the wizened Asian herdsmen in the Himalayas, and the endangered species —including the ones that weren’t even furry or cute. Heck, Parlay even prayed for the entire world once in a while. Most often, though, Parlay prayed for his beloved country. He prayed for America.

Romalyn TilghmanYou really carried around notes for this novel for several decades?

Yep. Those notes have lived in the garages of nine homes in five states during that time. I was 24 years old when I was hired to work with local arts councils in Kansas, and although I’d grown up in Manhattan, Kansas, the rural communities I was visiting could’ve been on the moon. I became fascinated by these towns and wondered why some had a certain energy about them and some didn’t. What was in the water that made people in one town walk faster than those in the next town over? And my, did those towns have feuds! Each competed to have the best arts council, seemingly still carrying animosity from the Civil War days of Bloody Kansas.

to the stars through difficultiesTORNADO DEMOLISHES KANSAS TOWN

NEW HOPE, Ks. (AP)—The entire community of Prairie Hill, Kansas (population 2754) was demolished Saturday evening by a tornado the National Weather Bureau rated EF-5, the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The twister was 1.7 miles wide, on the ground non-stop for 24 miles and 29 minutes, with a wind velocity of 200 mph.

Over 100 injuries have been treated at the nearby makeshift clinic in New Hope. The town was leveled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins.

“Exactly one wall is standing,” said Mayor Wade Brown. “The front, just the façade, of the old Carnegie library is the only vertical object in the entire town. Otherwise, everywhere I look, there’s nothing but sky. Flattened debris and sky. We’re lucky; we had a 20-minute warning which saved hundreds of lives, but otherwise, we have nothing.”