18 December 2012

Substitution Cipher is now available!

You can buy it at any of these fine e-retailers.

Candlemark and Gleam (The print version comes with a free ebook version, but only from the publisher :) )
Barnes and Noble
Book Depository
and the Apple iBookstore

17 December 2012

Book review: Five Germanys I Have Known

Five Germanys I Have Known, by Fritz Stern, 2006

Fritz Stern was born in Breslau, Silesia, in 1926. His father, grandfathers, and numerous other relatives were doctors, which was one of the few professions allowed for Jews at that time in Germany. His parents escaped in 1934 or so, but not all of his family or friends were so lucky.

This book is a combination memoir and history of Germany since about 1900 in 520 pages. As such, it is a fairly high-level overview which expects a certain basic familiarity with German history.

I had trouble getting interested in the text initially; the opening chapter, Ancestral Germany, focuses on the activities of his immediate ancestors during the late Bismarckian/early Wilhelmine eras and the Great War. The brief chapter on the (brief) Weimar Republic starts to be more interesting, partly because it's an era I'm not familiar with.

Stern intertwines his personal life--fleeing the Nazis, adjusting to life in New York City, becoming a historian and professor at Columbia--with historical events. His perspective as a German Jew, naturalized as an American citizen, is complicated. Germany was his home, German his native tongue, and he was expelled from his home. Yet he dedicated his life to the study of German history and to the development of modern Germany through that understanding of history.

The list of people Stern met in the course of his career is astonishing: Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, Willy Brandt, Henry Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke.

Once I got into the book, I enjoyed reading it. I would recommend it to other people who want a good, high-level overview of recent German history from a personal perspective. If you don't already have a modicum of familiarity with German history (ie, if you don't know who Adenauer, Kohl, or Brandt are), I would suggest reading this book with wikipedia open on your computer or phone.

Stern is very good at explaining the greater significance of events and linking them to each other, but this is not an introductory German history text.

10 December 2012

The story behind the story: Something There Is

Two and a half years ago, I was sitting on an overnight train from Berlin to Vienna, watching the city I love pass by and fade into the distance.

I'd just finished a four-week intensive course at the Goethe-Institut, and I was off to Austria to meet my husband, who was flying out for a two-week trip around the Habsburg capitals for our tenth anniversary.

When I visit Berlin, I'm always overwhelmed with the sense of history there. As I'm walking past brick walls that surround cemeteries or past any of the hundred or two-year-old buildings, I feel like I could reach out and touch the stone and get some sense of that building's past.

Like Sergey Larenkov, I can imagine the ghosts of the city, the old and new overlaid. (Check out more of Sergey's work. He's got some really amazing pieces about the siege of Leningrad/St Petersburg.)

I'm a child of the 80s, and a lot of the media and entertainment during my formative years were about the impending nuclear holocaust. The ones that weren't about misfit high school students, anyway. The Cold War is still interesting to me, even more so as I get older and read more about the history I never got in school (partly because there wasn't time (we got as far as Vietnam in US History 2), and partly because it was current events).

Abandoned, lost, and forgotten places have a certain appeal to me. There's a bit of sadness, of melancholy, of the decline of something once majestic ("Ozymandias" is one of my favorite poems). You can almost see the ghosts.

Places like this are scattered throughout former East Germany, as the massive state-support structure collapsed and these firms were unable to compete with the vast capitalist world. Unemployment is higher in the east (the euphemistically named "new states") than the west.

I have, scattered in various notebooks, beginnings of stories about a girl (always a girl) who can commune with the city of Berlin. This one sprang from an opening line (which doesn't actually appear in the story): "The city tells me things. That's why they find me useful." Then I saw the call for submissions for Substitution Cipher, and I had to write it.

I thought it should be a Cold War story, but Cold War spy stories are a dime a dozen. So I took that concept back to the 1880s, kept Kaiser Friedrich III alive, and tried to make it about a minor functionary (alternately the mayor) spying on some anti-reform faction or other, but a) the research was making my head spin, and b) the story just wasn't coming.

So I went back to the Cold War and the initial construction of the Berlin Wall. That's what this story had to be. It's not your usual le Carre or James Bond-style Cold War spy story. It's not even a Black Widow story. It's a cross between magical realism and historical fantasy, about a high school girl coerced into working for the Stasi.

I hope you like reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

06 December 2012

The history behind the story: Something There Is

5 July 1961
Mielke sat behind his desk, and a pair of officers stood on either side of it. They couldn’t consider me a threat to the minister, not after leaving me alone with him so far. Could they? I’m not much of an athlete. I get decent marks in sport, but I’ll never make it onto an Olympics team. Surely they’d know that. They knew everything else.

“Have a seat,” he said.

There was only one chair, so I sat in it.

“How long have you been having these feelings?”

I knew what he meant without asking him to explain further. “I can’t remember not having them.”

I swear he looked like a cat who’d stolen a fish as big as himself before he settled his impassive face back on. “Interesting.” He made notes in a pad on his desk. “What was the first time?”

I told him about how I got separated from Mama and Papa in the park when I was three or four, and when I got scared, I felt something like a hand on my back, guiding me toward them. He wanted to know how often it happened, and I told him it didn’t happen all the time, only when something was important. I didn’t mention that it’s been happening more often recently...

The German Democratic Republic was founded in 1949 in response to Allied recognition of the Federal Republic of Germany. It took shape in the Soviet Occupation Zone as designated by the Yalta Treaty. Berlin, the once and future capital, was itself divided into occupation zones, Soviet, French, British, and US. The Soviet zone comprised about half the city and included many landmarks, like the Museum Island and the Brandenburg Gate.

When the Western Powers worked with Chancellor Adenauer and his government, relocated to Bonn, to create the Deutsche Mark (which sparked the West German economic miracle), the Soviets and the SED (Socialist Unity Party, the East German politburo) disagreed and blockaded West Berlin. The Western Powers responded by airlifting supplies into the city for nearly a year until Stalin ended the blockade.

West Berlin served as a convenient exit point for residents of the Soviet sector, as they could go into the other side of the city by showing simple documentation, and they could defect to the west from there. Alarmed by this exodus, the SED decided to put a stop to it. In 1952, they built a barbed-wire fence along the inner-German border, and throughout the 50s, they made it increasingly difficult for GDR citizens to travel into the west.

Berlin remained a loophole, however, and it wasn't until 1961 that the SED closed it. The Party began stockpiling bricks and other construction materials, and, when asked about it, First Secretary Walter Ulbricht said, "No one has the intention of building a wall," and that they were using the materials for normal construction. The city was still largely devastated from the bombings, after all. This was June 15, 1961.

August 13, 1961, the border between West Berlin and East Germany was officially closed, and the first foundations of the Wall were laid. This sparked international outrage, and fear among the citizens--including some who were separated from their families. The original cinderblock and barbed wire wall grew into this, which they called the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall:

A two-cobblestone-wide line runs through Berlin today, a reminder of where the Schandmauer (shame-wall) once stood. A vibrant business district stands in the former wasteland of Potsdamer Platz.

The Ministry for State Security, the Stasi, kept GDR citizens in line through both spying and a formalized informer state. After 1989, it was thought that the Stasi had 175,000 unofficial informants, but more recent studies suggest it was closer to 189,000, not including the official employees. They rooted through the garbage, steamed open letters, installed hidden cameras and microphones in people's walls. (They also operated an outward-facing spy agency.) People who opposed the SED were jailed. People who tried to escape were killed.

The GDR was a real-life dystopia.

How does this relate to the story? you ask. What would happen if a teenaged girl who can hear the voice of the city were coerced into becoming an informer for the Stasi? Find out on December 18, when Substitution Cipher is released!

Come back on Monday to find out more about the story behind the story.

(This post was inspired by fellow Substitution Cipher author M. Fenn's post about the real history behind "So the Taino Call It.")