an interview with Denise Giardina      
photo of Denise Giardina

first pullquote

second pullquote

second pullquote
  Kathy Feeley: How did you come to choose Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the subject of this novel?

Denise Giardina: I think my subjects choose me. I tend to write about things that obsess me since they are with me for so long in the writing process. I first read Bonhoeffer's classic text Letters and Papers from Prison in the mid-70s and he has been with me ever since. I have always been intrigued by World War II and the rise of the Nazis and I have long wanted to write on these topics. For a long time, I thought I would write about the students resisters of the White Rose League with Bonhoeffer as a minor character. But, in part, since I had gotten older by the time I came to write this, I found myself less interested in the college students. I began by researching the White Rose League, but Bonhoeffer's voice and the images from his story took over.

KF: How did you go about researching his life and times?

DG: I read everything I could get my hands on by and about Bonhoeffer. There are a few biographies about Bonhoeffer though we could still use a good, popular biography on him. There is a lot of material both in and out of print and I tracked down everything I could find. I also immersed myself in the time period in general, reading biographies and histories on topics such as the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis; books on the period like those of William Shirer were enormously helpful. I also listened to the music of the period to try and soak up a sense of life as it was lived then. I found myself listening to Nazi drinking songs on the tape deck in my car. I also listened to the music as I wrote, especially German classical music. I attended conferences devoted to Bonhoeffer, including one held at the Union Theological Seminary, and Bonhoeffer's good friend and biographer Eberhardt Bedke was there. Bedke has written the most important biography on Bonhoeffer. I was able to ask him some questions and speak to people who knew Bonhoeffer and who have studied him. Also, visiting Union Theological Seminary helped me to imagine Bonhoeffer's experiences there. I traveled to England and Germany and visited the houses Bonhoeffer lived in. The Bonhoeffer family's two residences in Germany are still standing. One is a private residence so I could not go inside, but the other has been turned into a Bonhoeffer museum. I was able to stand at the window in his room where he watched as the Gestapo came for him which was very evocative. I just immersed myself in this history for a year and a half before I ever began writing.

KF: What aspects of the research and writing of this novel presented the greatest challenges?

DG: While there is a great deal of material on his professional and political life, including his own writings, there was very little personal information available to me. His family was very private, there was very much an upper-class German reticence about them which meant they did not publicly discuss their private lives or feelings--a very "stiff upper lip" kind of attitude. I knew a few details of his personal life, but these things were not widely talked about.

For example, I knew he had a girlfriend and while they might not have been officially engaged, they had an "understanding" though they eventually broke off their relationship. It seems that she later married another theologian who knew Bonhoeffer and, for whatever reasons, perhaps to maintain her privacy, she decided not to publicly reveal her relationship with Bonhoeffer. While his family, friends, and colleagues knew her identity, they did not reveal it either. I did not find out her name until I was halfway through my book. I was at a Bonhoeffer conference and many of the participants were discussing the fact that her name hadfinally been released to the general public. I discovered her first name was Elisabeth, the same name I had already chosen for the fictional character of his girlfriend, Elisabeth Hildebrandt.

KF: All of your work is very rooted in historical events and characters. What draws you to work within the genre of historical fiction?

DG: I have always been drawn to history and particular time periods. For this book and my first book, Good King Harry, a historical novel about Henry V of England, I chose to fictionalize the lives of real historical characters while in Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth I chose to create fictional characters based on actual historical events. As a child, I often fantasized about traveling in a time machine. As an adult, I continue to be fascinated with imagining life in other eras and immersing myself in the past.

KF: How do you balance the demands of crafting a good story with the demands of the historical record?

DG: What is most difficult for me is approaching the work like any piece of fiction and giving myself permission to make changes and to use my imagination. For me, the story comes first, but there are lines you cannot cross. Violating the spirit and truth (if I can use this word) of the subject matter is a line I will not cross. To write a novel in which the Nazis were portrayed as good guys who didn't kill Jews and many others would be vile. However, if it is a question of rearranging the chronology to make events more comprehensible, while remaining true to the spirit and significance of these events, I think this is totally reasonable. One exercise I do with my students is have them think about how they might have to compress or rearrange things in order to tell someone a compelling story about a particular event in their own lives. The shape of real life is very rarely the shape of a good story that speaks to people and draws them in.

While we don't know for sure if T. S. Eliot and Bonhoeffer actually met, we do know that Bishop Bell was Eliot's patron and Bonhoeffer's friend. We also know that Eliot was with Bell at the Swedish conference that Bonhoeffer attended. I think it is very legitimate to ask the "what if" question. What if Bonhoeffer and Eliot met? What kind of influence might they have had on each other? How might meeting someone like Bonhoeffer have influenced Eliot's writing of Murder in the Cathedral which is the story of a famous religious martyr? Fiction gives us a chance to raise these important "what if" questions and explore the complexity of the human condition.

KF: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages in building a novel around a real person?

DG: I had to go through a whole lot of soul-searching to decide what I could change and what I would have to leave out. Writing a historical novel about a real person requires a different kind of discipline than with other forms of fiction because I am bound, to some extent, by the historical record. I know he was born on this day, went to school here, got married on this day, and died on that day. The historical reality takes away some of the writer's creative freedom and restricts the imagination on some levels. With fictional characters, the characters can dictate to me what happens and I can choose when they are born, if they marry, and if they die, but those were not choices with Bonhoeffer. On the other hand, having the facts of a person's life provides a ready-made narrative framework and allows me to focus my energy elsewhere--addressing the larger questions and creating complex, human characters.

KF: Given the tremendous scope of this novel, how did you decide what to use and what to leave out?

DG: It was very difficult. This was one reason it took me six years to write this book. There was so much information. I would compare the process to that of a sculptor faced with a big block of stone that must be chipped away at to leave behind a sculpture. I could not have written this novel first. I needed experience as a writer before I could take on this subject and be able to "follow my nose" as a storyteller through the immense amount of material. Early on, I was working on some scenes of Bonhoeffer working with the youth group in Berlin, but the scenes felt forced and weren't working. Though this was an important part of his life, it was a path I decided not to follow in as much detail as I originally intended. He also spent a year in Barcelona prior to going to New York City, but I decided to focus instead on his time spent in New York City. Every step of the way, I had to make decisions like this. Of course, some aspects of the story were always there and offered very strong visual and literary imagery.

KF: How does the writing process work for you?

DG: I don't start writing until I feel comfortable with my characters and have fully immersed myself in their lives. I just jot down scenes and sentences as they come to me, recording odds and ends. I spend a great deal of time getting know my characters and savoring their stories. I enjoy this "marinating" process which can last one or two or even three years. While I admire writers who are very prolific and can write a book a year, that is not for me.

When I sit down to write the first draft, I try to tell the story and let it flow without getting bogged down by details. For example, if I use a word I am unsure of, I simply underline it and come back to it later. I write a section one day and then go back the next day and rewrite and try to keep pushing forward this way. When I finish the first draft, I go back and do another rewrite and then send it off for input and so forth.

The process has changed for me over the years as I have become computerized. For my first book, I wrote everything in longhand and then typed up the final draft. For my next two books, I began to work on a computer and these books were a mixture of working in longhand and on the computer. This book marked the first time I worked exclusively on the computer from beginning to end.

KF: How do your own experiences impact upon your work in terms of subject matter and themes?

DG: Like anyone, I write about the things I am interested in: how people make ethical decisions, how people determine right from wrong, and what people draw sustenance from. I know in my own life I have developed a growing sense of how complex human existence is. There is a tendency in our society to make clear distinctions between right and wrong which are not always so easy to make. The overly simplistic way in which we often raise children and impart values does not always allow for the complexity of the human condition and the difficult decisions we must all confront in our lives.

I use my own experiences to add detail; my perspective as a writer from West Virginia is part of the mix of research and character development that goes into all my stories. My work is shaped by who I am and where I come from. For me, as I think is true for many writers, all of my characters contain bits and pieces of me, expressing many of the different aspects of my personality. I also draw on people I've known. I am, in fact, drawn to people who I think would make good, complex characters and I try to analyze them and use them in my work. I am very interested in history and theology and political activism, and these interests are reflected in my work.

KF: What themes do you find yourself returning to again and again?

DG: Sin and redemption, moral choices, the nature of good and evil. I try to explore the human side of evil and the flawed aspects of good and see moral complexity.

KF: In the afterword, you mention that some of the characters are your inventions and composites to varying degrees, including Alois Bauer, Fred Bishop, and Elisabeth Hildebrandt. How and why did you create them?

DG: It varies from character to character. I created composites because of the enormous number of people in Bonhoeffer's life--to retain all of them would have made the narrative unwieldy and difficult for the reader to follow. Also, combining a number of individuals helped to create richer, more complex characters in the novel. The character of Alois Bauer was a composite of several Nazis who interrogated Bonhoeffer. Especially near the end of the novel, when Bonhoeffer is imprisoned as things began to break down in Nazi Germany, a whole series of Nazis interrogated him, but that offered no continuity for the reader. To use a series of interrogators would have meant creating a large number of characters the reader could not really get to know in any depth. The character of Bauer offers an opportunity to explore the human side of evil, to try to understand why he did what he did. As I was researching this novel, I learned of the disappearance of Mozart's Mass in C Minor from the Prussian State Library during World War II and I began to wonder who stole it. What kind of person would have done this? From here the character of Bauer began to develop.

As for Elisabeth, she was also a composite character drawn from many sources. Bonhoeffer's sister Suse had a Jewish friend who was involved in a youth group with the Bonhoeffers though she fled Germany before Hitler came to power. Bonhoeffer also had a friend named Franz Hildebrandt, a fellow minister of Jewish heritage, who helped him confront Nazi policies and decide where he stood on these issues--a role that the character of Elisabeth plays in my novel. Also, I knew from my research that one female member of the group of Jews that Bonhoeffer and his fellow resisters rescued included a personal friend of Bonhoeffer's.

Fred Bishop was based on Frank Fisher, a friend Bonhoeffer made at Union Theological Seminary. Fisher was from Georgia and returned South after his time at Union, so I used this person to create a character who would bring Bonhoeffer to West Virginia.

KF: Was it difficult to make the heroic and martyred Bonhoeffer a multi-dimensional, flawed, and complex human being?

DG: No, because I don't believe in such things as paragons of virtue or evil monsters. I never saw him as a paragon of virtue; I am predisposed to see complexity. I saw the flaws and was more interested in the complexities and layers that made him a real human being. As you begin to read about and get to know someone, you find the strange, quirky stuff that makes them distinct and interesting as individuals. Whether your subject is St. Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you don't have to dig too deep to find the flaws, those are the things that interest readers and make people tick. Reading about a man such as Bonhoeffer being depressed and having trouble sleeping are details that make him human and interest me as a reader and writer.

KF: Is the Gauley Mountain industrial disaster which claimed the lives of Fred Bishop and countless workers based on a real incident?

DG: Yes. It is based on the Hawks Nest industrial disaster, an incident that was well-known in the 1930s. The reason we have worker safety laws and federal regulatory agencies such as OSHA grew out of the scandal surrounding Hawks Nest. It helped to illustrate why we need to regulate industry and led to major reforms and laws to protect workers that are still in place.

KF: Why was Bonhoeffer's confrontation with racism in the United States so important to his intellectual and political development?

DG: Bonhoeffer first came to the United States before Hitler came to power and his letters home reveal how appalled he was at racism in the United States. In his letters, he commented on lynching and segregation and discussed how blacks were not welcome in white churches. He reflected on his own experience of being kicked out of a New York City restaurant because his black friend was not welcome. He also traveled in the South. He did not know what was coming in Germany when he wrote those letters. Then he returned home and Hitler came to power. The first anti-Jewish laws passed were basically segregation laws-no intermarriage and so forth. In fact, the Nazis modeled their initial policies after the treatment of blacks in the United States. Bonhoeffer recognized that the Germans were treating Jews as Americans treated blacks in the United States--he saw the connections. Of course, the end result would be very different in Germany as the Nazis opted for total annihilation, but the beginnings were very similar. Bonhoeffer's experiences in the United States made him very conscious of the dangers in Nazi Germany from the outset.

KF: How are Bonhoeffer and other members of the German resistance remembered in Germany today?

DG: Certainly, they are held up as examples that not all Germans did nothing. There is a street named after him in Berlin and, as I mentioned earlier, his family's home has been turned into a museum dedicated to his memory and his work. Yet, it was only a few years ago, in 1994 or so, that Bonhoeffer was officially cleared of the charges of treason. Despite the rather hurried nature of his sentencing and death, the charges remained legal and binding until just a few years ago. What is interesting is that he is treated mainly as a political opponent of Hitler, not as a religious opponent. When a plaque was erected in his name in Germany, the local bishop did not attend because in the church's opinion he was a political rather than a religious martyr. I think he is both.

KF: Did his family actually find out about his death over the radio as you describe?

DG: Yes. Communications were so bad at the end of the war that while family members tried for several months to find out what happened to him, including going to the concentration camp in which he was held, they couldn't find out anything. They just happened to be listening to the BBC one evening and that is how they learned of his death.

KF: What do you imagine was Alois Bauer's ultimate fate?

DG: I imagine that the O.S.S. (which would later become the C.I.A.) took him up on his offer of assistance and employed him as part of the Cold War apparatus. As an employee of the C.I.A., he would have been able to live out the rest of the life in relative peace and quiet.

KF: What is next for you? What will your next project be?

DG: After taking a bit of a break from writing, I have been doing some reading and researching and writing on a new project. I have written a chapter of a new novel which will be a fantasy. While it will have a historical aspect since time travel will be involved, I want to cut loose from the strictures of history and write something that is more humorous and playful this time around.
author's page
Bold Type
Bold Type
Bold Type
    Photo credit © James L. Mairs