Author Interview: Fiona Rintoul


FIONA RINTOUL PHOTO SMALL BWCAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW BOOK?

It’s called The Leipzig Affair and it’s a story of love and betrayal set in East Germany. The first part takes place in the 1980s when East Germany was under Communist rule, and the second part is set after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s written in two voices. One is Magda, an East German linguist, and the other is Robert, a Scottish research student at Leipzig University, who falls in love with Magda but doesn’t realise what he’s getting himself into.

HAVE YOU VISITED THE PLACES YOU WRITE ABOUT IN THE BOOK?

Yes, I studied at the Karl Marx University Leipzig in 1986 as part of my undergraduate degree. I’ve been back to Leipzig many times since then and to East Berlin (I never linger long in West Berlin). In 1997, I lived and worked in Berlin for a while as part of a British-German journalists’ exchange and so I saw the city in transition. St Andrews, which also features in the book, is where I did my degree. Coming from a Lanarkshire comprehensive, I found it quite tough socially and I’ve tried to reflect that experience in the book a little bit, tough it’s not a major theme.

HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA/COME TO WRITE THE BOOK?

I suppose the inspiration for the book was the time I spent in Leipzig in the 1980s. To me Leipzig was a completely fascinating place – much more exciting than Paris where I spent a year as a language assistant. Suddenly, I was “behind the Iron Curtain” – in another world. I quickly learnt about this thing called the Stasi that everyone was afraid of. Stasi was a word, like cancer, that you didn’t say out loud. It was terrible but kind of thrilling too. There was a romantic side to life in East Germany. Underground clubs, secret happenings, forgotten desolate buildings where people could live for a pittance. Of course, it was easy to get romantic about it if you had a British passport in your rucksack.

While I was in East Germany, I also learnt that the world view I’d been brought up with wasn’t the only one. East Germans had a completely different socialisation, and it wasn’t all bad. Money wasn’t the arbiter of everything. Coming from Thatcher’s Britain, I found that quite attractive.

In the book, I wanted to convey some of the allure of East Germany, while also of course facing the dark side. I also wanted to explore the way people behave when they come under the kinds of pressures that a dictatorship exerts. Usually, very few people come out of it smelling of roses.

I also wanted to look at some of the downsides of German reunification. I think there’s a tendency to think that it was all wonderful, but it was a very difficult time for a lot of East Germans.

IS THIS BOOK A DEPARTURE FROM YOUR OTHER WORK?

It is in the sense that it’s quite plot driven. But some of the themes are ones that I keep coming back to. I’m interested in the different faces people show to the world and the concepts of private life and trust. That all becomes much more complicated and charged in a dictatorship, but even in other societies everyone has to decide what is private and who they can trust.

I’m also interested in the way the aftershocks from political events reverberate down the years. People only really began to digest what the fall of the Berlin Wall meant about twenty years after it had happened.

And I have to confess to being a bit obsessed with Germany’s tragic national past.

HOW DO YOU WRITE? DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL PLACE OR ROUTINE?

I have a nice desk by the window in the spare room at home where I usually write. Sometimes I make notes on the train and work them up later and sometimes I go to cafés because that helps me to stop staring into space. I’m not the world’s most organised person and I don’t have a fixed routine. I tend to work in mad bursts but lately I’ve tried to bring some order to my schedule.

WHO READS YOUR WORK? GIVES YOU FEEDBACK?

To be honest, I got a bit sick of feedback when I did the creative writing MLitt at Glasgow University, and I’ve become quite selective about who I ask. I have a couple of good friends who’ve read work for me in the past and given me really useful feedback. My husband sometimes reads things for me too. He’s always good for the unvarnished truth.

IS IT POSSIBLE TO TEACH WRITING?

Yes and no. You can teach people to be better at certain technical aspects of writing. That’s true of everything from business writing to concrete poetry. But you can’t teach people to have great ideas and to be passionate about their ideas. Neither can you teach them to have a way with words. However, if the basic ingredients are there teachers can help people to find their voice and to explore their ideas. They can also help them to have confidence in their writing, which is important.

WHAT ADVICE TO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE TRYING TO GET PUBLISHED?

Keep at it. There’s no reason why it should be easy, and rejection is part of the process. Writing a novel requires stamina and getting it published usually requires a great deal of persistence. I do a lot of long distance walking and bringing a novel to publication is a bit like that.

If you want to you need to keep going even if it’s raining and you’ve got blisters.

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