This week I’m beginning to write my new book. In my mind I’m circling the room which will become that book, feeling my way forward, wondering where to place the door which I'll walk through into a new world. I’ve written six books, all of them non-fiction (to a greater or lesser extent). This time it’s different. I’m writing a novel.
I’ve often been asked, where does a book begin? For me it begins with a passion, a memory or an obsession. In a way I started this book back in 1977, when I first saw the Berlin Wall. The sight of that brutal structure shook me to the core. It was the moment I decided to become a writer.
Over that Wall lived two East Berlin writers whose work I’ve come to deeply admire. Many of you will be familiar with the first of them, Christa Wolf. In an interview she was once asked, is content truth?
‘More than that. The content is first and foremost your material. And that material has to be worked and reworked. Of course it’s silly to say the material is lying on the street. The material doesn't lie on the street. Rather, each author has a specific material at a specific time. And the key is to hit exactly that point of strongest affinity, of inner necessity, at the right time. That's what defines the narrative tone.’
Last night I had dinner with the second author, Thomas Brussig, the gifted and hilarious creator of ‘Heroes Like Us’ and other books who I first met and interviewed back in September. Over the meal I shared these thoughts with him (as well as my anxiousness at the start of this literary journey). This morning he wrote to me enthusing, ‘You are writing your first novel now, and you are discovering the novel as a form. Better: the possibilities of the form. This is an amazing process! Each novel is an invention of its form, and each novel is unique, concerning its form. I know, how you feel. I love the novel: everything is possible -- when you find the form. So I think, not only content is truth, but form (that includes the “narrative tone”) is truth too. A novel can tell the truth by telling lies -- isn´t that amazing? So if you want to love the novel as a form -- write it!’
Berlin is the place where I started my creative journey; where I worked on movies with Dietrich and Bowie, and returned to ten years later to write my first travel book ‘Stalin’s Nose’, where I’m about to write a fictional ‘Chapter One…’ I believe, and feel, that the timing is right for this book. But I won’t be sharing the process here – that’s not my style nor the purpose of this blog. I simply want to mark the moment, if you’ll excuse the indulgence, for this is the reason I – and Mrs. Cat and Maus – are living in Berlin.
At dinner Thomas asked me that very question. Why here? I told him many of the things mentioned over the last months in this blog: that I respect the courageous and moving German response to history, that I admire the dynamism of this rough, magic city, that I want to understand why the Germans are so obsessed with systems, elevating their importance -- even at the start of the twenty-first century – over that of the individual.
Berlin has long attracted writers. The historian Peter Gay wrote that living in the city in the Golden Twenties was the dream of ‘the composer, the journalist, the actor; with its superb orchestras, its 120 newspapers, its forty theatres, Berlin was the place for the ambitious, the energetic, the talented.’ The Twenties are long gone of course, and goodness knows if I’ll manage to produce anything of value over the next few years, or even finish the book (I have a recurring dream of being stuck forever on chapter one chapter one chapter one…). Originality is an uncommon achievement. All I can do is what any of us can do, to try to express that ‘inner necessity’, and – in the moments when despair sets in and I need help defining the true value of art, click through to Josh Hollands’ animated cartoon, to put it all into perspective.