I ran across her name in 2003, not long after she’d published her first book. At the time I was editing a magazine and Anna Funder and her book, Stasiland: True Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall (Text Publishing), were new and unexpected and making their stellar debut on the world literary scene.
My mission: get her to tell us how that book had come to life. 3000-words later the story arrived on my desk from the Melbourne born, world educated, fluent in German and French, ex-lawyer now turned successful writer.
Eight years on from that encounter and we’re speaking to one another about her career choice, and reflecting on Stasiland, and her new, equally exciting and much accoladed novel, All That I Am (Penguin 2011). Anna has recently moved to New York with her husband, the architect, urban designer Craig Allchin, and their three young children, and the piece she wrote for me all those years ago is fresh in her memory: “I came across it recently in the process of applying for an American visa. I had to make copies of everything I have ever written and of every review of everything I have ever written.”
It’s the point we use to look at what it means to invest in a life of writing and the stories of others and to discuss how important it is to guard the facts and to not be afraid to tell people’s stories as truthfully and faithfully as possible.
“I was very excited about Stasiland, because at the time I was telling stories that had not been told before: stories of extraordinary human bravery and trauma. I was young. I felt responsible for having elicited them and upset by the things I heard, but excited at the same time. In the book I admit I drank too much. Clearly, drinking was my way of coping,” Anna explains of her actions at the time. She also feared that those people and their stories could very well be ignored by history or, and this is what she hoped would be the case, they would be “honoured one day, and I was just on the front of a wave”.
“I don’t think it ever happened,” says Anna, her voice tinged with sad frustration at the injustice.
“I think the people who were powerful then and who were in the Stasi went and got themselves very good jobs in reunified Germany. They had the educations they denied their victims by imprisoning them, and they had the work history companies wanted to see,” continues Anna, who also believes reunified Germany has actively chosen to forget 40 years of German Democratic Republic history, finding it too embarrassing to acknowledge, let alone examine.
On the side of the Stasi men, who answered Anna’s newspaper ad and told her their stories all those years ago about working in what has been dubbed the most successful secret police network of all time, she admits to having been curious about their lives: “I’d been a lawyer for a large, well-respected establishment law firm that represented the interests of tobacco manufacturers and asbestos manufacturers. It was a very elite job and I felt qualms of conscience around what I did. I found myself identifying with these sinister blokes.”
What she finds hard to know but important to know (it’s a lesson she’s learned from Stasiland only in retrospect) is that the good guys don’t always win: “For those men, involved in a system of hierarchical and institutionalized dobbing and cruelty and torture, there has really been no price to pay. A couple of head honchos were tried and a couple of civilian informants, but for the most part they are doing much better – in terms of both employment and pensions – than the people they oppressed.
“The people who had the courage to stand up against informing on friends and family or who spoke out against the totalitarian nature of the political system are not being recognized in anywhere near the same way. They live difficult lives without pensions and without the education their Stasi competitors have had and many of them have now died unrecognised. You get a higher pension if you were a warder in the notorious Bautzen prison, than if you were a political prisoner in it. There’s something wrong here.
“It is very important to have the facts straight. It’s why we need to put them down in stories and guard them. We need people’s stories even if they don’t necessarily get what they deserve in their lifetime.”
Anna admits she’s impatient with injustice and not patient with stupidity and that although she can work with others she is better as a lone operator, something that suits the pursuits of the writer.
“I have this very good friend I used to work with – a film producer, a very nice guy and we worked well together. He said to me when I was complaining about some situation or other at work one day, ‘you know’, and he said it to me in the nicest possible way: ‘You know, you’re just really not a get-along gal.’
“I’m not, I know, but I was devastated all the same to hear it,” laughs Anna, self-deprecatingly, explaining later that, “writers have a certain pathology… They tend to be very close observers, sensitive and very wordy and happy with long stretches of solitude.
“Since I was 6 year’s old, I’ve always wanted to write. I can’t say why, but, for me, it’s what makes me feel most alive. When I am most invested in someone else’s story, someone else’s skin, when I think I can represent in the case of non-fiction a story or a life that would otherwise disappear and not be known, that is a very exciting thing to do.”
In a Radio National interview with Anna back in May 2006, the interviewer commented on why people crave law and order and want to obey. Anna, in the interview, went on to note that her interest in obedience came from “what it takes to be disobedient. …how it is that some human beings have the courage to do what their conscience tells them.”
It’s an interest obvious in the stories and themes running through Stasiland, and again in her new novel All That I Am, about the efforts of German political refugees living in the UK between the World Wars to alert the world to Hitler’s real ambitions. Their very real fears and understanding of what was happening in Germany at the time fell for the most part on deaf ears with horrific consequences for the world.
“I am very excited by something that has a link into the real world. All That I Am’s plot is invented but the characters lived,” says Anna, whose friend Ruth, the novel’s narrator, had been a refugee in the UK and was eventually arrested and imprisoned for attempting to smuggle anti-Hitler leaflets out of Germany and was a member of the anti-Hitler political parties in the 1930s.
“The truth of the matter as it is in history states that Ruth’s friends Dora and Mathilde, independent, strong, brave women killed themselves – rather mysteriously – out of ‘a disturbance of mind’ due to ‘unrequited love.’ I found that version of the story completely ridiculous, as did their friends at the time in 1935,” explains Anna of the documented suicide that forms the crux of her novel.
The excitement for Anna was in re-imagining what is more likely to have happened: “I had to do that in fiction because I am not a forensic examiner. I went back to the evidence and researched and then made this other story…. To be inside these real people’s heads; to represent them and obviously, they are to some extent figments of my imagination – well, every breath, every love scene, every emotional response has to be – there’s something very, very exciting about making all that work in the context of what happened.”
Running alongside that story-telling process, Anna also acknowledges that there’s something unbelievably exciting about inviting the reader to come into “my book and let me rearrange the furniture of your mind. Let me show you something you have never seen and take you somewhere you’ve never been… that is a very exciting thing to be able to do and I think that is what most writers try to do.
“I am in favour of having very good, very accurate, very moving stories being told and collected and getting it right.”
Stasiland and All That I Am have not been quick books, taking four and five years respectively to write. Anna agrees her process is what it is but that every day she worked and every day she would get home emotionally drained from the intensity. At 45, she says, if she has another four or five books in her that’s fine: “I’m a particular kind of horse. Some people are racers, some are Clydesdales – it’s just the way you do things.”
There is an essay on ‘courage’ coming out in 2013 and she has, “rather stupidly,” she believes, got two new novels on the boil. Whichever of those has the legs and hits the shelves first, Anna’s past success bodes well for her future and for us as her readers.
(Anna Funder portrait Karl Schwerdtfeger.)