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Talking Location With author Emma Venables – BERLIN

7th June 2023

#TalkingLocationWith Emma Venables, author of Fragments of a Woman

BERLIN 

Fragments of a Woman tells the story of five women – Lore, Liesel, Greta, Ingrid, and Gisela – and their experiences of National Socialism. Spanning the years 1933-1945, the novel is predominantly set in Berlin.

When I first visited Berlin, several years after I’d started writing about the city, it was a shock. I realised how naive I’d been, how I’d not connected my research with actual Berlin. I’d somehow expected to walk through streets as they’d been in the 1930s, find those buildings and curiosities wherever I looked. No: Berlin was bombed mercilessly by the Allies during the war and then blitzed by street fighting as the Russians rampaged through it in May 1945. And then came the Cold War with its Wall and division. On the face of it, Berlin now is, of course, not Berlin as it was then.

Isherwood’s apartment building

But there are facets of war, of the 1930s/40s, still written into the topography of Berlin. How could there not be? And it was these facets that I drew into Fragments of a Woman. With each visit to Berlin, I’d find more and more. It was overwhelming in some ways: with so many locations and details I could thread into my novel, it was difficult to decide what to put in and what to (reluctantly) leave out.

Here are some snapsnots from my travels to Berlin, highlighting some of the places that inspired Fragments of a Woman:

I seek out the apartment building English writer Christopher Isherwood lived in in Schöneberg. I find the plaque, imagine Christopher on the steps, imagine the fear that rippled through the LGBT+ community at the time as the National Socialists raided their safe spaces. I weave this into my novel. There is the bar Gisela and Volker frequent. Loosely based on the bars around Nollendorfplatz, that Christopher would have frequented. There is the fear, mixing with the cigarette smoke in the air, as their acquaintances disappear. Then one day the doors are flung open not by patrons but by men in uniform.

The author looking over the roof tops

I develop a tradition: every time I go to Berlin, I go to the KaDeWe’s (the iconic department store) Wintergarten restaurant and eat Apfelkuchen while looking out across the rooftops. And there is Lore, as an adolescent, sat in the KaDeWe eating Apfelkuchen with her mother, Ingrid. A blatant attempt by Ingrid to smooth over the cracks of a fracturing relationship as the tide of Nazism sets them apart.

Damaged statue of Prinz Albrecht

I wander up and down the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s famous shopping boulevard, looking into the shop windows after visiting the Jewish Museum where I learnt more about the events of 9th-10th November 1938. Kristallnacht: when the Nazis attacked Jewish businesses and homes, arresting sons, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and throwing them into concentration camps.  There’s Greta, walking along this street in the immediate aftermath, resisting the looted wares offered to her, avoiding the broken glass. A rage at the injustice of it all swells within her.

In Volkspark Humboldthain, there’s a flak tower. You can go on a tour of this on certain days. I don’t. I just stand marvelling at the sheer size of what remains. This concrete structure was built to house thousands of civilians during air raids and armed with anti-aircraft guns. There were several built around Berlin; most were blown up by the Allies when the war ended. But in the latter years of the war, there’s Liesel in the pitch-dark, preparing to start another shift manning the anti-aircraft guns. She eyes the monstrous building, would much rather be at home, sheltering from the air raid than shooting at fuselages and wings.

On a walking tour of WW2/National Socialist Berlin, my attention is drawn to the war damage, still visible, on some of the buildings. And so, this detail goes into my novel. There are the bullet holes in the facades from street fighting, not patched up, just left there: a visible wound; something you can put your fingers in and trace. There they are as my characters go about their lives in the ruins, seeking shelter from the vengeful Soviet soldiers, food for their starving children.

And still I have notebooks filled with facts and stories about this brilliant city. I find myself retracing my steps around its streets in my mind, creating characters, storylines, plots, to inhabit the history, the buildings that no longer exist: Berlin as it once was.

Fragments of a Woman by Emma Venables is published by Aderyn Press in paperback £8.99 and is available to purchase on the link below

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Emma Venables‘ short and flash fiction has been widely published in magazines and journals. Her short story, ‘Woman at Gunpoint, 1945’ was a runner-up in the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2020. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and has taught at Royal Holloway, University of London and Liverpool Hope University.

Praise for Fragments of a Woman:

A remarkable and memorable book, filled with hard light and raw love.” – Katie Munnik

 “A novel that chronicles with an unwavering eye and sharp empathy the daily horrors of war.” – Douglas Cowie, author of Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago

“Strong and original… heart-breaking… lives are ripped apart, lives are lost, love is forgone and love conquers as each of these trapped women attempts to survive” – Jane Fraser

Catch the author on Twitter @EmmaMVenables

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