An interview with Sarah Matthias

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Eloquent, vivid, compelling and deeply moving, A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias (@SarahMatthias7) is one of those books I regret leaving in my bedside pile for too long. This historical novel, exploring the experience of Romanies during the Holocaust, is full of colour and intensity, gentleness and hope and could have become part of my internal store of nourishment, wonder and beauty months before it did, if only I’d known! It nurtures the belief that wonder and love can still be found in the midst of despair and hatred, and I know I certainly need such encouragement and optimism when I look at the world around me at the moment.

A Berlin Love Song is the story of how Max and Lili’s lives become entwined through a chance meeting, when one evening just before the outbreak of the Second World War Max visits a travelling circus. Romani trapeze artist Lili takes Max’s breath away but little does he realise how their lives will complicate, and enrich, each other’s until the end of their days. Max is forced to become a member of the Hitler Youth, and Lili has to wrestle with her community’s prohibition on relationships with outsiders. As if these were not barriers enough, Max is then sent to fight in France, and Lili becomes interned in a concentration camp. How can their love possibly survive?

A Berlin Love Song serves up complexity and seriousness with grace and clarity, creating a deeply satisfying story, brought to life through characters, settings and tableaux that will echo in your mind long after you’ve finished the book.

Sarah Matthias grew up in the north of England before studying at Oxford University. Employment as a BBC trainee producer, a barrister, a university lecturer in land law and trusts followed, but with the arrival of her fourth child, Sarah wanted something that would work better with family life, and thus writing took over. Three medieval mysteries for children followed in fairly quick succession in the 2000s, but then there was an eight year gap before earlier this year A Berlin Love Song was published.

Having been deeply entranced and profoundly moved by A Berlin Love Song, I approached Sarah and listened with delight as she told me about her writing, her research and how she too has been known to enjoy ‘playing by the book’. We started off talking about the books she loved as a child, and whether historical novels had been her genre of choice, given that all her published books as an adult are historical fiction.

Sure enough, it turned out one of Sarah’s favourite authors was Jean Plaidy, with Sarah devouring every one of her books. “I started with the Tudors and worked my way through the Stuarts, the Plantagenets, the Medicis. I was such a bookworm and I can still feel that fizzy feeling in my stomach when I see an old Jean Plaidy paperback published by Pan, with its iconic white cover with a moody looking lady in a long dress staring tantalisingly into the distance.

But if truth be told, it wasn’t the lure of historical detail that initially drove Sarah’s hunger for Plaidy’s stores; it was sex!

Sarah’s late father was a clergyman, a lovely man, but very strict and ‘the facts of life’ were not a topic for conversation at home. Having heard from one of her classmates that sex was quite a prominent feature in Jean Plaidy’s stories, Sarah devised a ploy to get her hands on some of her books.

I lied to my father and told him that my history teacher had told me to read Jean Plaidy as it was very historically accurate. My father was very keen on education and fell for my story and lent me one of his adult library tickets over a period of a few months.

Whilst I don’t press Sarah on how her sex education benefited from reading Plaidy’s novels, her school work definitely did; just after completing all of Plaidy’s Tudor series about Henry VIII, Sarah had to sit an exam, “a general knowledge exam at school where we were asked to write about anything that interested us. I wrote about Henry and all his wives in great detail including the manner of each of their deaths. One of the teachers at school told my parents that she couldn’t believe how much I knew about Tudor history for a child of 11. Hurrah for Jean Plaidy!

Whilst now as an adult reader Sarah still enjoys historical novels, and especially those of Rose Tremain, her reading-for-pleasure habits have changed over the years, and she raises a point I’m particularly intrigued by, with my special interest in non-fiction books. “Since I’ve been writing fiction I’ve gradually begun to read more biography and non-fiction. I’ve a hunch it’s because I can switch off and relax more with it than with fiction.

I wonder why this should be the case and Sarah suggests it may be something to do with reflecting on her own work. “When reading fiction, if I don’t like a writer’s technique, I make a mental note not to fall into the same trap. If I admire the way someone has created an atmosphere or described something, I try to work out how they’ve done it so well and take the lesson on board. So I’m always stopping and musing on style and I find that this irritating habit of mine interrupts the flow of the story. I don’t tend to do this with factual books or biography – probably because I’ve never written any, so I’m not mentally going through the editing process.”

Sarah’s writing desk, surrounded by some of the books she used to help her during writing ‘A Berlin Love Song’

Sarah’s increased non-fiction diet is surely also partly due to the sheer intensity of research she must have done for A Berlin Love Song; as I read it I was particularly struck by how much thoughtful, detailed and revealing research shone through the story, embellishing it with all sorts of tiny, meticulous, authenticating details without ever overwhelming the narrative or emotional threads. I’m sure we’ve all on occasion read historical novels where it has felt like the writer has wanted to include every single nugget unearthed during the process of researching a book, sadly to its detriment, but it never feels like this with A Berlin Love Song even though I’m sure Sarah must have been researching for years before she started writing her story.

Yes, I’m meticulous about historical research. I try to be as historically accurate as I can because I’m very aware that sometimes a novel might be the only literature a reader will read about a subject; I feel I have a certain obligation not to mislead,” says Sarah, making me think of the recent debate about Hilary Mantel and how accurate (or otherwise) her novels are.

Sarah continues, “You can always say that a novelist isn’t a history teacher and if the reader wants to know about history they should read a history book – but I know lots of people who enjoy historical novels but wouldn’t read non-fiction. Not everyone enjoys reading history books and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sarah at the memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism in Berlin, Germany.

As well as visiting Germany several times, Sarah read as many diaries as possible written by Germans during the war. As her novel is set in Germany, and told from a German perspective, it was very important to Sarah to really get a feel of how Germans viewed events during the war, and for Sarah not to be influence by the victor’s narrative that is perhaps more dominant in the UK, especially the UK’s education system. Likewise, when researching the Romani experiences of the holocaust, Sarah was careful not to let her reading of accounts by Jewish survivors influence her, because the Romani experience was quite different.

As to the nuts and bolts of Sarah’s research process, whilst she employs two particular techniques to track her research, the direction in which it goes isn’t one she can necessarily predict from the outset. “I only ever have the germ of an idea when I begin. I never have a fully worked out plot, although I do know more or less where I’m going by the time I start to write. In the beginning, I have a hunch that there might be a story somewhere and so I go looking for it. I start by simply reading. I read and read around the subject and as I do the plot begins to form in my imagination. I read serious history books about the period and memoirs written by real characters from the past.

Character boards and big A4 notebooks are tools she uses to bring her research together. The boards are A3 pieces of card with photographs and snippets of imagined dialogue or other details, “descriptions of how my characters might look, what they might have worn, and what their personalities might be like. These will shift and change as I read, so by the end of my research – it all looks a bit of a mess.

But there’s actually lots of order in that apparent mess. “I have big A4 notebooks I buy from Rymans divided up with coloured dividers and I label each section. So for example, for A Berlin Love Song, I had sections entitled: Hitler Youth, the Hartmann family home, Air Raids, Music, Propaganda, Religion etc. I had a separate A4 note book for the war years, each year 1939 – 1945 having its own section.

Sarah seems able to hold on to vast amounts of detail, and to know when to use it effectively to bring a particular scene to life and so I’m not surprised when she tells me, with delight, how she researched the weather for every day of every year of the war, in order that she could occasionally but always accurately include such details in the book.

Not only do such facts help with a sense of authenticity, they also help in structuring her drafts as she works towards a final version. “After the research is done I enjoy making my plot fit in with what really happened. The historical facts form a sort of skeleton and my characters are the flesh on the bones but the flesh has to fit the skeleton properly – no lumps and bumps and ‘muffin tops’. I find having a structure of real events is very helpful. It makes it easier for me when I’m plotting. I always think writing fantasy must be very hard because there’s no structure except one that the writer has to imagine.

But with so many facts, so many true details, Sarah then has to make judicious decisions about what to include and what to cut. She herself hates “writers who appear to have ‘swallowed a history book’” though she fully understands the temptation to use everything one has come across in the course of research.

The bottom line for me is that I’m a storyteller and I’m not trying to teach history. I want my novels to be historically accurate and if people learn things they didn’t know along the way then that’s great. But I don’t write to tell people about history. I write to tell stories that I think ought to be told or shine a light on issues that have moved me and I think need to be exposed. I use my research to add local flavour, colour, depth of character and to inform conversations, but I try never to slip in something I know just because I happen to know it.

A German ration card from the Second World War. Source: bills-buker.de

Sarah then goes on to amaze me with her knowledge of the colour of every ration ticket ever issued to Germans throughout the course of the entire year and her ability to recall such tiny details prompts me to ask if her past career as a lawyer (a line of work where accurately holding on to lots of detail is vital) might have helped lay the ground for her writing career. At first she seems somewhat surprised by my suggestion:

I don’t think legal writing and creative writing have anything remotely in common! A lawyer needs to use language very precisely. A whole case can turn on the position of a comma. There’s no room for shades of grey. You need to say exactly what you mean or you’ll be in difficulties. But in creative writing, shades of grey are vital; life is not black and white and characters can be contradictory. They often say things they don’t really mean or that can be interpreted in several different ways and the reader has to guess what they mean. A novelist can be deliberately ambiguous to serve the plot whereas a lawyer cannot be ambiguous at all – ever! So no, my past legal career has not helped me to write novels!

I press Sarah on this. Perhaps being even more acutely aware of ambiguity, even if only to ensure that there is none in the case of legal writing, may have helped hone her creative writing skills? Sarah remains sceptical but does then concede that two aspects of her legal career have helped her writing considerably:

As a lawyer you have to be able to see things from several different points of view. For example, if you are representing a client, you need to imagine what your opponent will say in reply to what your own client might say. You need to understand both sides of the argument – or sometimes there are many sides. Only by doing this can you prepare your counter arguments effectively. So, yes, I think a legal training is good for that aspect of the creative process. I’ve been well trained in looking at life and events from all sides and seeing lots of different points of view about the same topic at the same time.

And what about the cut and thrust of the court room? Surely that’s a fertile ground for writers (as John Grisham’s experience might suggest)?

Well, yes, it’s helpful when writing dialogue, especially when writing about people arguing! Though as a mother of 4 young adults myself I have listened to countless family ‘disagreements’ and whilst writers usually have to use their imagination to create unknown worlds I didn’t have to look much further than my own kitchen table for a rich source of dialogue for the Hartmann children!

And some rich family dialogue that Sarah may have been able to draw upon arose not that long ago when Sarah decided to make her family participate in an experiment to better understand wartime cuisine. This anecdote arose when I asked Sarah about books which she’s read which resulted in her “playing” or somehow being creative, in the spirit of this blog.

Sarah remembered somewhat ruefully when she “bought a book at the Imperial War Museum about Wartime Recipes: The Wartime Kitchen and Garden. I was curious to know how people made meals with so little and so I decided our family would eat only wartime food for a week. I stuffed a marrow with mince and rice, more rice than mince. I made Fish Paste Sandwich Filling with more potato than fish and ‘Viennese’ fishcakes with potatoes and anchovy essence but no fish! They weren’t popular. My Beefy Stew with Vegetables also went down very badly. There was no meat in the stew, just Bovril gravy. It almost caused a riot. But it was the Egg and Rice Loaf with something called ‘vegetable boilings’, dried eggs and parsley that created the final walk out. We ate an Indian takeaway that night and I was made to promise to consign the book to the charity book bank!

More recent ‘playing by the book’ has revolved around re-learning to play the piano. Having read Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, a sad tale about an amazingly gifted black German citizen called Hieronymous Falk, a jazz musician and rising star of the cabaret scene, Sarah really got into Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. She’s now bought herself a piano book called ‘Big Band Intermediate’ and “tortures” her family with it. “I call all the wrong notes ‘improvisation’ but they still put their fingers in their ears!

And now that A Berlin Love Song is out there in bookshops, libraries and finding its way into homes and hearts, when Sarah is not improvising on the piano, she’s working on a couple of ideas for what comes next story-wise. “One is set in Zambia and the other is a parallel tale to A Berlin Love Song, looking at another little explored issue from the Nazi era, and using some of the characters from the novel that I really enjoyed creating but who didn’t have a ‘starring role’ in A Berlin Love Song. So it won’t be about Lili – but perhaps more about Professor Hartmann and Erika. I’m excited about both ideas, but I need to make up my mind soon where I’m going next.

Having been born in Zambia myself, I’m very excited at the prospect of a new novel by Sarah set there. But I also know I will be thrilled to return to some of the characters from A Berlin Love Song. Definitely a Win-Win situation!

My thanks go to Sarah for so generously responding to all my questions. A Berlin Love Song will surely be on several award shortlists next year.

More good things to read / watch /listen to

  • Don’t miss the whole host of fascinating articles Sarah has on her website about different aspects of A Berlin Love Song and the research behind them. They make fascinating reading

  • An interview with Sarah on the Islington Faces blog

  • Audio recording of an Allied bombing raid over Germany, recorded in the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber. Sarah listened to this as part of her research. “I found it terrifying, chilling, nauseating … words can’t describe how I felt as I listened to it. War is so terrible. It affected me for days.

  • Sarah watched this film clip to start understanding what it felt like to be a trapeze artist. She says, “I LOVE the circus. I’ve always found it romantic although I’m a great animal lover and I’m very glad we don’t use performing animals any more. Research into the circus in Germany was one of the most enjoyable parts of my research for the book. It was light relief from the Auschwitz research and what it was like to be bombed and how it felt to be in a tank during a battle.

  • When Sarah was a child she loved this song by Cher. “I used to lie in bed at night listening to it on my record player and imagining the life of a travelling show.“. When you’ve got a copy of A Berlin Love Song, note the opening of the chapter called Circus Petalo and see if you can spot any connection…
  • 5 Responses

    1. What a fascinating interview. I will definitely try to get a copy to read during the summer. Having just read Carnegie winning ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys it is great to have stories written from an unusual or less well-known perspective.

      Thanks Zoe for all your inspiring posts – I am signing out as I am retiring from being a librarian (though not from reading – I aim to make more time for that!) next week. Keep up the good work!

      • Thanks Ruth. I think if you enjoyed Ruta’s book (do read her others if you haven’t already, they are also very good), you’ll really enjoy this too. Exciting times ahead for you Ruth – wishing you lots of happiness!

    2. ThanksZoe, looks amazing. Has your elder daughter read it? Am wondering if my 11 year old would be ready for it or if I should wait a few years…

      • Hi Rebecca, sorry for the delay in replying to your comment. No, my 12 year old hasn’t yet read it. Historical novels aren’t really her thing. My hunch with your daughter might be to wait a little – there is a romance at the heart of it, which may or may not be to your daughter’s liking (my eldest runs a mile from anything like that at the moment!)

    3. Hi Zoe, thanks for this. My daughter, like yours, is definitely not into anything with a whiff of romance in it yet (“bleurrrghhh!” she’ll say!) so thanks for the advice, will hold off for now. Looks fab though.
      Rebecca Narracott recently posted..Part 3 of my Self-Publishing Journey: The other side of the tunnel

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