An Interview with Katrin Schumann, Author of This Terrible Beauty

Award-winning author, Katrin Schumann’s debut novel, The Forgotten Hours, was a Washington Post and Amazon Charts bestseller. Now her second novel, This Terrible Beauty, published by Lake Union Publishing, is listed among SheReads’ Most Anticipated Women’s Fiction in 2020, and from the first to last page, there’s little question as to why.

The Iron Curtain has fallen on Rügen, a remote Baltic island in post-WWII East Germany, where Bettina Heilstrom struggles to forge a meaningful life amidst the everchanging sociopolitical realities of her time. As a wife, mother, worker, and nascent artist, Bettina is subject to varying degrees of authoritarian rule in her home, workplace, community, and country. She soon discovers that to live and love as she chooses requires great risk, with very dear costs to herself and others.

Told from two points of view (Bettina and Werner), two converging timelines (early 1960s and 1940s–’50s), and two settings (Chicago and Rügen), This Terrible Beauty deftly navigates the gray areas between agency and responsibility, self-preservation and ethical standing, private and public life, with compassion and wisdom, through an elegantly written, thoroughly suspenseful storyline, and couldn’t be more relevant to the complex questions surrounding the relationship of art and politics today. Long after being carried along by Bettina’s journey, I am still thinking and writing about the ideas it evoked.

Pamela Loring: With its cliffs and forests, villages and seaside towns, the island of Rügen is a romantic and intriguing setting which I think every reader will Google, and one I think to which you have a personal connection. What informed your choice of settings? 

Katrin Schumann: For me, setting is critical—I can’t write a word until I’m totally enraptured by where my story will take place. Rügen is a rugged northern island, shaped by a violent history. On the geo-political level, the Nazis built a massive holiday resort there which later housed East German Army units who conducted combat training on the beaches. After the war, during ‘Action Rose,’ the Communists forcibly moved all landowners off the island to the mainland. My aunt, who is still alive, fled during that time and her family lost its home and property.

But it’s really the smaller-scale, human element of the story, as experienced in that particular place, that moved me to write this novel. Right after the Wall came down, I visited Rügen with my father who’d vacationed there before WWII (you could say it’s a bit like the Vineyard in MA, if it had been overrun by fascists and then communists). We crept into an abandoned fisherman’s cottage on a medieval square and I saw the years of love and neglect in the shredded wallpaper, the stain of coal smoke on the walls. I began thinking about the people who had suffered through the war—and lost; they were the enemy, after all, the bad guys—and then the islanders who struggled to pick up the pieces and move on. I felt as if that story hadn’t really been told before, and I loved that it was set in an unusual but real place.

Your protagonist, Bettina, is one of those islanders who struggles to maintain an ordinary life in spite of the darker politics of her time, while others rebel against or embrace them. So many of your characters inhabit that murky gray area most of us share — getting on with the process of living, loving, and working, while to varying degrees, in some way, pondering bigger issue questions posed by public realities. Did your choice of telling their stories via close points of view present any specific challenges or benefits?

It’s quite common nowadays to use omniscient third, sweeping from one character’s POV to another, but I find myself drawn deeply into the psyches of certain characters, and I prefer to get in really close. While a lot happens in my books, they are character-driven and a close point of view takes advantage of that intimacy.

The drawback is if your reader is impatient with the character(s) or gets frustrated. That actually happened quite a lot with my first book, The Forgotten Hours—some readers wanted Katie to just get her act together. But frankly, that was kind of the whole point of the book, that painful journey toward fully becoming an adult and facing reality once and for all. I had to accept that some readers would be turned off. It’s then that I realized I needed to trust my instincts, and hope they’d ultimately serve the story I was trying to tell.

The issues regarding POV in This Terrible Beauty are different. I’m hoping that readers find it intriguing to be inside the head of a Stasi agent (Werner becomes part of the country’s new secret police), and that the closeness in point of view brings rewards in terms of opening their eyes to our shared humanity, despite our individual weaknesses.

Clearly Bettina’s husband, Werner, is the most menacing. Can you talk a little bit about why you choose to give Werner a point of view, as well a chance to redeem himself?  

At its core, This Terrible Beauty is a love story, and I felt the only way I could fully explore that was by allowing readers to see—and perhaps understand—what was motivating Bettina’s husband Werner, who changes so dramatically over the course of the story. I didn’t want readers to get away with writing him off as “evil,” and the way for me to add that complexity was by getting into his head.

I wanted to look at how seductive power can be. How you can have all the best intentions and yet veer way off course. How insidious and enticing it is to have sway over people, especially when you’ve been perceived as weak. I have an enormous amount of sympathy for Werner. He is looking for love, just like most of us. I wanted his actions, whether good or bad, to be logical, to result from his character rather than the needs of the plot. In the end, he came alive for me because I entered his head, and I was happy to discover that his actions reveal him to be a simple man motivated by the desire for love.

In discussing her photography, Bettina says, “ ‘I try to record what I’m seeing, not so much what’s happening, but what I see. But there’s a risk in it … as though by capturing it you’re also diluting it.’ ” And later, her “gut tells her to be wary of trying to shape the creative impulse into a sword or a scythe.” Were these questions of the risks inherent in making art ones you intended, or did they evolve from the book’s historical or political context as you wrote?

The questions around the value and risks of creativity were intentional, and became more carefully articulated through multiple revisions. For me, the writing process is highly circular, and I came back to this story over the years, adding layers and stripping things away. In my final edit, I deepened the questions around art, personal expression and freedom that I’d been playing with all along but hadn’t fully realized.

I think writers often struggle with what it is we’re really trying to say and do, and why. I had some fun using Bettina as a surrogate, asking herself similar questions as I often do about the meaning and power of art—especially as she has to assert herself against the forces of politics and history. As a female with no agency in a totalitarian system, how do you find your voice? Do you even try?

For me, this connects with ideas around personal and political action today. Not everyone is a natural hero or change maker, but sometimes we’re stronger and have more to say than we may think. Art can be a conduit for those of us who observe and feel rather than move and shake.

Bettina thinks of herself as “an anemone in an ocean of sharks and whales. What can she do that would change anything, when she cannot even advocate for the life she wants for herself?” Can you talk a little bit about the role of Bettina’s agency or sense of agency? 

Bettina has no agency. As a young woman, she finds herself on the wrong side of history, through no fault of her own. She marries a man she doesn’t love, works in a factory, can’t seem to bear children, and is discouraged from developing her creativity. But she’s feisty and passionate by nature, she pays attention to the world. She’s eager to learn and grow.

A woman like that has to find a way to say and do something meaningful, no matter what her circumstances. I became interested in how someone like Bettina could achieve this in the face of dire political and personal realities. She decides it’s better to live a compromised life while striving for more, than to lie down and play dead when you’ve still got blood flowing in your veins. What does taking action look like when you’re a young woman like Bettina, with so few choices? I found that fascinating.

This Terrible Beauty perfectly balances the immersive character interiority of literary fiction with a complex plot rich with page-turning suspense. You obviously made a lot of decisions about structure, scope, and point of view. Can you talk about the challenges you faced in achieving this balance? 

The scope of the book was always vast; an early reader once called it an “East German Dr. Zhivago.” But I had problems with the structure—it was sprawling and dissipated, and while the history was different and interesting, there was no clear driving question to carry readers along. It took me multiple drafts to figure that out.

I put this book aside for a while and that helped enormously—the structural problems were so obvious to me when I picked it up again. It was a beautiful moment, actually: taking this material that I loved so much and shaping it with a firm and decisive hand.

Were there themes, characters or subplots you wanted but just didn’t have room for?

You’d be horrified if you knew how many pages I’ve written that didn’t make it into the final version of this book. Major storylines, research, characters, settings, subplots. Since I uncover story through writing (not by thinking and planning), I sometimes veer down the wrong path and don’t know it’s wrong until I’ve already invested quite a lot of effort. It’s a messy process of discovery, but I’ve come to accept that that’s how I work.

You mentioned that you’d written another book before The Forgotten Hours. Was This Terrible Beauty that first novel, and if so, did holding onto it enable you to gain something you wouldn’t otherwise have had? 

I have one book in a drawer, after which I started working on This Terrible Beauty. I put This Terrible Beauty aside for some years, which was painful at the time but I can see now that it was necessary. I was going through some difficult personal experiences which ended up becoming the launching off point for The Forgotten Hours, a book that looks at loyalty and love in the context of a rape accusation. That book was so challenging technically—a reluctant and somewhat unreliable narrator, multiple storylines, a tricky and sensitive topic—and I learned a lot by working through that.

When I came back to This Terrible Beauty after a hiatus and sold it to my publisher on a two-page summary, I was able to take the book to a whole new level. I had fresh eyes, and yet I had already done all the research and I knew my characters inside and out.

As far as eras go in literature, life in the GDR feels rarely written about. Most of my familiarity with the tenor of life during those times I think came from the film, The Lives of Others, which was extraordinarily good. What attracted you to these moments in history? Were your agent and publisher supportive of your choice to write about that time and place? And, did the alternate timeline and place of Chicago in the ’60s provide you a counterbalance? 

My attraction to the material was initially personal—I’d heard stories about my family’s experiences as Germans during and after the war, and I was fascinated by notions of guilt and redemption. In the English-speaking world there’d been very little published about “regular” Germans. I felt that it was the right time to open that door, so to speak.

My agent and publisher were presented with a complete, polished manuscript after I’d already sold The Forgotten Hours. I’m not sure how they would have reacted if they’d been more involved in the process from the get-go. They helped me tweak and fine-tune for an audience unfamiliar with this history, but I wrote this particular story in this particular way on my own steam.

I chose to set some of the story in Chicago for various reasons. There’s a scene during which Bettina is photographing the aftermath of a race riot, and she feels connected to the people she’s documenting: she’s an outsider, stripped of power. I thought there was a deep irony in that. But in contrast to her, the African Americans are fighting for their rights whereas she has become passive. Also, Americans think of the 1960s as relatively recent history and part of what I was doing, subconsciously, was trying to show how recently all this happened—that the Cold War was raging not all that long ago, and that limitations on personal freedoms and false news are weapons that can be wielded even in modern times.

In terms of parts, This Terrible Beauty has them all—a poem, a map, a Prologue, an Author’s Note, an Epilogue, Acknowledgements, About the Author, and best of all, Book Club Questions. These extra parts always seem like literary swag to me, mini-bonuses which I can save for later or indulge in at will. Did your agent, Erin Harris, and Lake Union Publishing, have any strong feelings about including them, either way?

Those inclusions all came from me. It probably varies from house to house, but in my case my “team” has been supportive of everything I wanted to do with this book, from the cover to all the extra tidbits inside.

Your blog is chockful of great tools, questions, and information for writers. In one blog, “How Does Creativity Work,” you write that after knocking around images and elusive thoughts for a while, you realized: “I wanted to write about a woman who comes into her own and pays the price.” You’ve certainly done that with This Terrible Beauty, but for those Pantsers among us, finding that central question can take a long time. You mentioned in a past interview that you were trying to be a Plotter, until you found that doing so had stymied you to such a fault you had to stop trying. How do you prefer to approach the first draft of books, and do you approach revisions differently?

Oh, how I wish I were a plotter. I’d be so much more efficient!

I’d prefer to approach a first draft with clarity and confidence, but that’s not how it works for me. I stumble around, hating every word of what I’m writing. But I keep going: I have a kind of stubborn persistence in the face of doubt that ends up serving me well.

It’s only once I have a draft that I start having more fun with the process. That’s when things come alive. I’m editing on the sentence level but I’m also sharpening my themes and making sure they come through. I’m cutting out the parts that are too pat and making myself take greater risks.

Once the storyline is cemented, I go back again on the level of language in order to clarify and cut. There are words and gestures I need to watch out for. My editor is always asking me to elucidate on how my character feels (which I’m resistant to, for some reason) and so I put work in trying to add that in a way that isn’t too touchy-feely.

You were born in Germany, grew up in Brooklyn and London, studied at Oxford and Stanford, and taught at the amazing GrubStreet, as well as in Massachusetts prisons through Pen New England. You’ve been featured on TODAY and in Woman’s DayThe London Times and on NPR. You have a knack for writing award-winning books, and now you’re the Program Coordinator for the Key West Literary Seminar. Can you talk a little about what you’re doing now and how you’ve managed to write while living such a rich and vital life? 

I had to re-read that paragraph multiple times—I’m sometimes amazed that I managed to build the career I dreamed of, because it wasn’t easy or fast.

Working as a freelancer while writing, I often felt isolated and disconnected, and I yearned for meaningful work that would allow me to have some kind of impact outside my immediate family. There were a few times when I considered changing my path, doing something “useful” like becoming a nurse or a psychotherapist, but I was always drawn back to writing.

Finding my community at GrubStreet allowed me to develop confidence, and I learned how to ask for help and to give back to others. I grew to love teaching and presenting, and that helped me emerge from my shell. That, in turn, led me to where I am today, running workshops and scholarships for 150+ people, for a literary nonprofit.

One thing built on another to get me where I am today, but the one element that was totally consistent was my need to write, even when it was difficult or when I was told “no.” I stuck with what I loved, worked on overcoming my weaknesses, and made an effort to celebrate my strengths so that I could work on further developing them.

I’m amazed by the writers who write without the benefit of wonderful beta-readers, writing groups, and organizations like Writers Room of Boston and GrubStreet, who you thank in your acknowledgements. But you also mention someone named Kathleen Buckstaff, who left you a 10-minute long voicemail “with an unbridled outpouring of support, [and an] absolute certainty that this story was worth telling.” Who is Kathleen Buckstaff and can other writers hire her to leave a message on their machines? 

That’s my favorite question of all time. Kathleen is a writer I met back in graduate school who reads all my work. Every writer needs a cheerleader, someone you trust and admire, who believes in what you do. Kathleen is that person for me. And I don’t even pay her!

My last question, I promise. What’s next for you? Is there another novel in the works? 

Yes! I’m currently at the “shitty first draft” stage, though I do occasionally catch a glimpse of the story I hope this will become.

It’s a loose reimagining of Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, set on a scorching Mediterranean island during the summer of 1969, a time of immense social upheaval.

The book centers on a troubled young mother who accompanies her husband—a  Yale professor behind deadline on his breakthrough book on the human brain—to Ibiza on sabbatical. Their two boys go missing, and Elena is (somewhat unreliably) retracing the events of that life-changing summer, trying to piece together what went wrong. It involves a first edition copy of Madame Bovary, a commune run by Vietnam War deserters, and an art forger named Elmyr.

Katrin Schumann is the author of the Washington Post bestseller The Forgotten Hours, and This Terrible Beauty, a novel about art, politics and love set in communist East Germany, as well as numerous nonfiction titles. She teaches writing at GrubStreet, was an instructor in PEN’s Prison Writing program, and is now the program coordinator for the Key West Literary Seminar. Katrin has been granted numerous fiction residencies, and her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, among others. She studied languages at Oxford and journalism at Stanford. Born in Germany, Katrin lives in Boston and Key West. For more information and to sign up for her newsletter, go to www.katrinschumann.com.

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