Friday, June 28, 2024

 #AuthorInterview with Helena P. Schrader

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr. is talking with Helena P. Schrader, author of Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift.

FQ: Cold War is about a very specific time after World War II-the Soviet blockade and the Berlin Airlift. Why choose this specific time period as the setting for these protagonists’ stories?

SCHRADER: I lived roughly 25 years in Berlin and my husband is a Berliner so I feel a strong affinity for Berlin and what it suffered in this period. Then in 2006, a U.K. publisher commissioned me to write a non-fiction work on the Berlin Airlift to mark the 60th anniversary. My research for that book brought me in contact with many survivors of the Blockade and Airlift — Germans, British and Americans, including the famous “Candy Bomber” himself, Gail Halvorsen. The non-fiction book titled The Blockade Breakers could not begin to include all the human stories I discovered, and it was obvious that Berlin Airlift offered the raw material for a thousand novels. In short, I was drawn to the topic then, but was already fully engaged on other projects. I did not return to the Berlin Airlift until the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

FQ: You earned a PhD in history from the University of Hamburg, and you have expertise in both aviation and World War II. What led you into this field of study, and why write novels as opposed to commercial or academic non-fictional works, in this particular instance?

SCHRADER: Does any of us know why we get interested in a particular topic?

I lived in the UK as a girl when memories of the Second World War were still vivid and pervasive. I was there when the film “The Battle of Britain” was released and I lived near to RAF Tangmere. That’s probably what first got me interested in military aviation. I devoured first-hand accounts of the Battle of Britain, along with memoirs and histories. Eventually, I risked writing a novel on the topic, Where Eagles Never Flew, which included a German plotline and highlighted the role of groundcrews and controllers as well. There is nothing in my entire writing career of which I am more proud than that one of the surviving RAF Battle of Britain aces, Wing Commander Bob Doe, called this “the best book” he had ever seen on the Battle of Britain, adding that “it got it smack on the way it was for us RAF pilots.”

While studying at university, however, I encountered the German Resistance. I was fascinated by this moral and ethical struggle so different from the nationalist resistance movements in occupied Europe. So much so, that I went to Germany to continue my studies and eventually earned a PhD with a dissertation on a leading Resistance figure. I met survivors and family members of Resistance leaders. I visited in their homes, held long discussions over ethics, courage, human nature, guilt, greed and more. We became friends, and I became obsessed with telling their story. Yes, I wrote and published my PhD thesis, but how many people read those? I believed a novel would reach more people and spent the next twenty years trying to interest agents and publishers in Germany, the US and the UK in my manuscript on the German Resistance. Nobody wanted a book about “good Germans,” so I self-published under the title Traitors for the Sake of Humanity.

By then, I was working and living in Berlin and spoke fluent German. My interest in military aviation had resulted in not only the novel on the Battle of Britain (Where Eagles Never Flew mentioned above), it had also produced a non-fiction, comparative study on women pilots in WWII. It was this latter book which brought me in contact with the publishing editor who would contract me to write the non-fiction work on the Berlin Airlift referenced above.

Non-fiction books are all very well, but I still think novels have a greater capacity to engage people at an emotional level. Novels can also reach an audience that would never pick up a non-fiction book on a specific topic. In the case of the Berlin Crisis of 1948-1949, the advantage of a novel is that it can go beyond the political chess game and logistical accomplishments to explore the social and psychological impact of this pivotal historical event. With Cold War, I hope to reach readers at an emotional level.

Author Helena P. Schrader

FQ: Cold War is a work with a lot of moving parts to it, and yet the novel is quite linear in its construction. When starting this project, as well as the entire series, was that your intent to ensure focus was maintained? What is your writing and research process like?

SCHRADER: If an author is writing about common events in a familiar setting, then it can be intriguing and beneficial to play with time and space. The author does not risk jeopardizing the readers fundamental understanding of the context and subject. In contrast, in an unfamiliar setting, sophisticated narrative techniques tend to obscure and confuse rather than enhance a story. Given the complexity of the historical situation in Cold War — starting with the division of Germany into four zones of occupation, but with Berlin itself inside the Soviet zone, yet also divided into four — any approach other than a very straight-forward, chronological one would have resulted in chaos and irritation.

As for process, in this case the research had largely be completed when writing The Blockade Breakers, although I consulted a couple of recent releases. I then outlined the key events that I wanted woven into the story and got to work. For Cold Peace, I found it easier to write each storyline separately and then interweave them. By the time I was writing Cold War, the characters were sufficiently established and familiar for me to write the book as it appears, chronologically.

FQ: Cold War has many strong female characters, and a good portion of your canon speaks to women and their affiliation with the military. Do you have the sense that women are fundamentally under-represented in stories about military service and, more specifically, World War II?

SCHRADER: No. Not really. Men did — and still do — dominate the armed forces. It would be perfectly appropriate for most books about the Second World War to focus on them. In fact, however, there seem to be an inordinate number of books about women during the war, mostly as spies and resistance fighters, or on the home front.

FQ: You seem to have a very strong sense of voice; your characters are very distinct and the dialogue in Cold War is very indicative of the time or of how the time is generally represented. Do you think that comes from your knowledge of and research on the subject matter or is there something more personal happening? How did you come up with your characters’ voices?

SCHRADER: For a historical novel to work well, it must be more than accurate, it must also feel authentic. It is the latter which makes it considerably easier to write non-fiction than fiction. A non-fiction book remains a contemporary work looking back at a specific topic in the past. We can use modern language, references, draw parallels to the present, exploit hindsight etc. etc.

A novel should do none of those things. A novel should transport the reader back in time and make them feel as if they are living through the events described. The people who inhabit a novel ought to use the language of the period (to the extent this is still comprehensible to modern readers). They should have the same interests, opportunities, belief-systems, prejudices etc. etc. as the people of the age in which they “live.” I’m pleased to hear that you think I succeeded in doing this!

If I did, it is largely because of my heavy reliance on primary sources for my research. That is interviews, letters, memoirs, autobiographies, oral histories and diaries. If you immerse yourself in enough primary sources, the language of the age starts to become second-nature.

But you are correct that there is something ‘more personal’ at play as well. My major characters are people who have asked me to write about them. I am only the media for those who want their stories told. I try very hard to let them speak for themselves.

FQ: Around the world, we are currently seeing the horrors of war and potential for conflict. Ukraine-Russia. Israel-Palestine. Taiwan-China. Cold War is quite timely in that way. Was this intentional? Or, are stories like this just so common place that it seems like you were being intentional?

SCHRADER: The parallels to the invasion of Ukraine and the increasing threat of a Chinese blockade of Taiwan were a prime factor motivating me to returning the topic of the first battle of the Cold War. As I mentioned, the Berlin Airlift had long intrigued me, but I’d put on a “back burner” for a “later date.” That date seemed to have come.

FQ: What one appreciates about Cold War is its accessibility to the general public; the work is not difficult to follow, even though there are technicalities and complex terminologies associated with the military. Your forward, in particular, is most helpful in keeping your audience on track. Do you find it difficult to suppress the need to get technical for the sake of the story?

SCHRADER: Thank you! I’m very relieved to hear that you, as a reader who had not read Cold Peace, found it easy to get involved in the story and follow it!

As to your question, the problem is not wanting to get lost in technicalities, but rather remembering to include explanations of things that seem absolutely obvious to me. I’m frequently baffled when readers make comments that reveal a fundamental lack of understanding of essential facts, e.g. that Berlin was 100 miles inside the Soviet zone, that the Airlift operated from bases in western Germany (not England or the US), that RAF pilots could have any rank from Sergeant to Air Marshal etc. My editor, who is completely ignorant of all things military, kept forcing me to put in more information than I thought necessary.

FQ: You are quite prolific. You have written close to 30 pieces of fiction and non-fiction. What is it about writing and research that draws you to do it so regularly

SCHRADER: I simply can’t stop. The stories — or voices as you put it — are in me. They want to be heard. I live in fear I have not done justice to my subjects. I’m particularly distressed by feeling I’ve failed to market my books adequately.

All the dead ask of the living is that we remember them. My books are intended as memorials. I wish they were bigger, stronger and more enduring than what I create on my laptop, but I have no other tools.

FQ: This is the second book of a trilogy. Can you tell us a bit about what your plans are for the third and final book in the series?

SCHRADER: Cold Victory picks up where Cold War ended, again taking the reader into the hearts and minds of the familiar British, American and German characters. The first draft of Cold Victory is roughly three-fourths finished, which means it is on track to be released in April or May of next year, 2025.

However, Cold Victory posed significant challenges to me as a novelist because historically the logistical and political challenges to the Airlift had been overcome by the end of January 1949. From then onwards, the volume and diversity of supplies delivered by the Airlift just grew and grew. That makes for a boring plot.

To counter that, I chose to explore the changing nature of the world as it slid deeper into the Cold War by giving two characters greater freedom to operate outside the rigid framework of the historical record. This was risky for me as an author because it entails trespassing into two personally unfamiliar genres: crime and espionage thrillers. In one case, a murder trial shines a light on the incomplete de-nazification of Germany. In the other, a clandestine operation to rescue a civilian from unjust accusations of espionage highlights the degree to which the Cold War was fought “under cover.”

Nevertheless, the framework remains the Airlift. The over-arching theme is turning enemies into allies. Yet the need to confront the new Stalinist threat also resulted in an overhasty and imperfect pasting-over of the Nazi past; collective guilt became collective amnesty. In addition, this first victory of the Cold War left a bitter after-taste by leaving Germany and Europe divided for another forty years.

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