Ben Fergusson won the Betty Trask Prize and the HWA Debut Crown Award in 2015 with The Spring of Kasper Meier. His new book, The Other Hoffman Sister, has just hit the shelves. Jason Hewitt caught up with Ben to find out more.
Hi Ben. I loved The Other Hoffman Sister – as you know – but for those who have not read it yet, I guess I should start by asking you to tell us a little about the story.
Well, first off, thank you very much! So The Other Hoffmann Sister is about Ingrid Hoffmann and how she deals with the disappearance of her sister, Margarete, in Berlin just before the First World War. The book opens in German Southwest-Africa (present-day Namibia) as their parents are trying to marry Margarete off to Emil von Ketz, the son of a local Baron. The Baron’s violent death and the Herero and Nama Uprising drive the Hoffmanns back to Germany, where the brief calm brought about by Margarete’s marriage is quickly shattered when she goes missing on her wedding night. The book then traces Ingrid’s attempts before and after the war to discover what happened to her.
And where did the idea come from?
The spark for the book was the chapter (now in the middle) in which Margarete disappears. I also had the idea that I wanted to write three books set in Berlin in the same block of flats, based around key moments in German twentieth century history, so knew that this one would be set around the First World War and subsequent revolution. My first book, The Spring of Kasper Meier, was also set in that block, and indeed Kasper has a brief cameo in this one, and I’m currently working on a third set around the fall of the Berlin Wall. A few years ago I did a lot of research about the collapse of the German aristocracy after the 1918 revolution for my MA, so I was able to bring that in. I was interested in this idea of a family trying to desperately get into an elite that then collapses. The colonial historical part was also inspired by research done for my MA. Both the fate of the German aristocracy and German colonial history were things I didn’t previously know anything about, and of course those historical blanks are always fascinating if you’re a writer.
I love the idea of setting three books in the same block of flats and seeing pivotal points in history through the characters that live there. Does Windscheidstraβe and the apartment block actually exist and, if so, what drew you to that particular street?
There is a real Windscheidstraße 53 in Charlottenburg, not far from Kurfurstendamm. I picked it for The Spring of Kasper Meier for completely practical reasons. Initially Kasper lived in Kantstraße, because it was important for the plot that he lived in the British Sector and I wanted a street there that was easy to pronounce if you didn’t speak German. Because of the description of the half-destroyed street in that book, it also had to be a street that had a mix of standing and destroyed housing. Then I visited Kantstraße and realised that it’s a really big main road, which didn’t fit the story, so I moved Kasper to Windscheidsträße, which is a connecting road. The internal description of the apartment is actually based on the apartment I used to live in in Prenzlauer Berg, which was from the same period.
Do you have moments sometimes when you think, ‘Oh, actually, hang on, I wish I’d chosen somewhere else now’?
Yes, particularly in terms of the third book, based around the Wall. I think it would have strengthened the sense of change in the city if the apartment had been in the Communist East. Saying that, that restriction has forced me to write about West Berlin, which has turned out to be really interesting, because it was this weird little island surrounded by East Germany. There was a real existential angst there, the sense that the connection to the West could just be pinched off by the Russians at any moment.
Ah, yes, and of course, you live in Berlin now, so did that make the writing of The Other Hoffman Sister any easier?
Yes, it has definitely helped with all of the books. Partly it’s just understanding how the city fits together, how long it takes to get to places and things like that. Also the architecture of most of the buildings, with these high apartment blocks built around sets of courtyards, is very particular to Berlin and lends itself to fiction, because of the inherent Rear Window vibe that that creates. There’s always someone watching you! Of course you have to be careful, because, in a city with that much history, so much has changed. I had Ingrid and Hannah wandering down Leberstraße, until I wondered who it was named after and discovered it was Julius Leber, an SPD politician killed by the Nazis, which of course meant that the street used to be called something else. Also the splitting of the city and different developments means that trains lines aren’t where they used to be, there are buses where there used to be trams etc.
Speaking of Ingrid and Hannah, in the novel they get involved with a key political figure of their own time – Rosa Luxemburg, one of the founding members of the German Communist Party. She was brutally killed in 1919 only two years after the Russian Revolution took place. Was there ever a point, do you think, when the German Communist Party might have swayed enough of the population to go the same way as Russia? And if not, why not?
Well, of course the German Communist Party did come to power after 1945, when they joined SPD to form the SED, which ruled East Germany until 1990, though the establishment of East German communism came about because of the Soviet occupation and not because a majority of East Germans voted for the party democratically. Rosa Luxemburg would have been highly critical of that transition. She explicitly saw the need to have democratic approval of a majority of voters before moving to a communist system. She didn’t believe that there should be a vanguard to enforce communism through a one-party state, believing that true communism should increase rather than limit democracy. I think you could argue that Luxemburg’s approach to communism would have been most likely to have functioned, but I think it’s questionable whether such a system could have survived under truly democratic conditions. I also think that Luxemburg’s idealism and moderation at a time of extreme politics mean that the voices that were shouting the loudest swayed public opinion. Saying all of that, as history bore out, her opponents clearly thought that she had a chance of success, otherwise they wouldn’t have killed her.
It’s certainly a novel steeped in the politics of the time; and, of course, the catalyst for the whole story is actually provided by another key political event – the Uprising in German Southwest-Africa. What lured you to write about this; and was it always going to form part of Ingrid and Margarete’s story or did it find its way in as you were researching the period?
No, the Namibian part of the book came later when I was thinking about what this family’s backstory was going to be. I tried out a number of different ideas – I could publish book’s worth of discarded opening chapters. As I mentioned, I studied German colonialism as part of my MA, so was already interested in that period, particularly because I knew so little about the German colonies. That was where the idea stemmed from, and it fitted, because the German colonies were places in which some Germans thrived and others were completely destroyed, so was the perfect place for a social-climbing family to try and seek their fortune.
It’s a period that people know so little about, including me, until I studied it. Like so much of German history, it is one of the episodes completely overshadowed by the Second World War. Even the genocide of the Herero and Nama in German Southwest Africa is usually talked about nowadays only as a precursor to the Holocaust, which I think is a huge oversimplification, and doesn’t honour the particular horror of what happened to those people at the start of the twentieth century.
Now, I can’t interview you for Historia without mentioning that you won the HWA Debut Crown in 2015 for The Spring of Kasper Meier. You must have been thrilled! And now, of course, you’re one of the judges for this year’s Debut Crown. How are you finding that?
Yes, it was an amazing evening and I was genuinely surprised and thrilled to win, especially because the other writers on the shortlist were so good. It’s been fascinating doing the reading for this year’s prize. In the past I always scoffed at the cliché of judges on literary prizes saying that the decision was hard, but, as with most clichés, it turns out to be true. Nearly every entry I’ve read is well written and fascinating, so you have to change the way you approach the judging, and really critically judge the books at every level.
In your reading as a judge has your appetite been whetted for any new periods that you might look to write about in the future?
It’s great to be forced to read outside of the periods that you usually focus on in your reading and writing. It’s rare that I read books nowadays not written in or set in the twentieth century, but some of the best things I’ve read for the prize are set in the distant past in places that are very foreign to me. And, yes, it genuinely has made me think differently about what I might write about once the trilogy of Berlin books is done.
Finally, Ben, we’ve had some fun doing a few book panels together, along with fellow HWA members William Ryan and Jane Thynne. If you could be on a dream book panel with three other authors (dead or alive), whom would you choose? (We’ll obviously assume that your first choice would be another panel with Bill, Jane and myself. Naturally.)
Indeed. It’s hard to improve on perfection! However, my dream panel would probably be something like Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, E.M. Forster and Richard Yates, who are some of my favourite authors. Though I think Richard Yates was pretty hard work, so I might swap him out for John Cheever or Maya Angelou to liven things up a bit. I can’t imagine having anything useful to say on any of these panels; I would just nod reverently.
Now that’s a book panel I’d love to see. I’m sure the post-event drinks would be a lot of fun, too. I reckon that lot could get quite riotous given enough whiskey chasers! On that note, Ben, it has been a pleasure.
Photo: Ben Fergusson at Harrogate History Festival 2015 © Charlotte Graham