(Originally aired 2018/07/14 - listen here)
Heather Rose: This month, The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast welcomes Justine Saracen, a prolific writer of historical fiction. Although her work has touched on a number of areas. She has a special interest in World War II and its aftermath, including her most recent release Berlin Hungers, which came out in April. Welcome, Justine.
Justine Saracen: Well, thank you. I'm so pleased to be here.
H: Why don't you start by telling us about your most recent book?
J: Berlin Hungers is sort of a slight off-shoot because it doesn't take place in World War II. I have four novels that take place in World War II and that's sort of my micro niche.
H: Is it five now? My list has five. Counting the new one. Yeah.
J: That's because of the Airlift, the Russian blockade and the Berlin Airlift took place in 1948. But it counts because it's still in war torn Germany, all the images that one associates with the war other than the deaths, although there's death too. But they remain the same and it takes place in Berlin. It's another war story, even though it's post-war.
H: What's the plot?
J: Well, the plot actually, as with all my novels, I cheat because the plot is the plot that history provides. I try to weave around an interesting story that shows depth about the event itself, but then weaves in women and then at some point romance, but I don't write romances. I write historicals that include as a subplot, a romance. So the plot of the Berlin Hungers is: a young British woman who has flown planes in World War II, after the war wants to keep on flying but cannot. So she joins the RAF, although she would have been called WRAF. She joins in the hopes of being around planes. The only way that she can get anywhere near them is to be a controller, air traffic controller. She is sent her Berlin to do that. And so we witness the blockade and the Airlift through her eyes because she's part of the machinery that lets it happen. While she's there, she's in Berlin, we get to meet the other female character. And we see a little bit of her background. She's a Berliner, Berlin woman. When we we're first introduced to her, she's being gang raped. I do not prefer that. I don't want to. And I couldn't, but because so many hundreds of thousands of women were, it would be false to create a woman in Berlin who had not been so abused. So we meet her right after she's been gang raped and we watch her development. And at some point, she meets the British woman who's controlling traffic and together they endure... That's about a year. They endure the year of the Airlift. I meant endure because it was almost like a war initiative because the planes were coming in and men were dying. Pilots were dying. There were lots of accidents and the people of Berlin were still suffering a great deal because it was not quite enough to sustain them. That's the plot.
H: Yeah. It occurs to me that we may well have listeners young enough that they don't know the context for this brief synopsis. [laughs]
J: Yes, I'm sure. One of the reasons I started writing-- there are several reasons-- But one of the many reasons I started writing about World War II in general is the discovery that there are in fact many Americans, a shocking percentage of our young Americans who know nothing at all about World War II. They think of the war as having one villain- Germany, one victim- the Jews, and one hero- the Americans. That's all they know because they've seen one or two movies about it. And I write about the nuances, the gray areas and all the populations involved, all the suffering in all directions that went on. But I suppose, same people will even know less about the Airlift. So I suppose--
H: Yeah. They may have seen the wall coming down but they don't know why the wall was there necessarily.
J: Well, the wall actually is unrelated to the Airlift. Let me give you two or three sentences. After the war, you have to imagine Germany totally devastated, occupied by four armies. The most aggressive of which was the Soviet army, because it had also lost the most. It lost about 20 million men. 20 million people, men and women, both. So it wanted nothing but revenge and reparations. The Western countries had suffered much-- The Western allies had suffered much less. So they were more benevolent towards the Germans. And so they wanted to develop a democracy to have a buffer zone with the Russians. This tension increased-- I mean, that's the core issue. Because tension increased until the Russian said, "We don't want you in Berlin. Berlin is in our zone. Was actually fought into the Soviet zone, so you can't come anymore." They blocked traffic, train traffic and road traffic and water traffic. Fortunately, there was already an agreement in writing for three narrow air corridors. And so using those, the Western allies managed to sustain Berlin for about a year with coal and food, but it was also to stand their ground. If they relinquished Berlin, they would relinquishing the capital of Germany. Would have changed Germany's fate very much.
H: Yeah. So in your bio, you call yourself a "recovered academic" I'm curious, was history your focus in academia, or did history seduce you away from your original field?
J: Well, I was seduced by a woman, [laughing] but I'll come to that later. My academic background is German, Germanistik, it's called German studies. The language, the literature, including back to the middle ages and its history. But of course, most people think of Germany and they think of the war because they were-- We most notice them during the war. So I was interested in that in general, the moral issues about Germany in the war, but then I met and fell in love with and lived with for 10 years with a Jewish woman whose ex-husband's, whose father-in-law, her ex-father-in-law had been in Dachau. So I suddenly had a personal interest in Germany's role in the war. And having lived in Germany, I was already aware of the German perspective, what the world looked like to Germans. And now I was seeing how it looked to Jewish survivors. So I found it so fascinating. There were just so many stories to be told that I wrote my first World War II book about that called Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright. And then I was there and I realized that I had a font of information already packed into my brain because of studying so much of German history that I went on writing other perspectives on the world, having already a very strong background in German and European history and a Jewish partner.
H: So that answers the next question I had on my list, which was what is the special appeal of World War II? You were there, you were interacting with people who had lived it and it was immersive and I can see how the appeal of fictionalizing that, processing it through fiction would be very attractive.
J: It's very vivid to me. I lived in Germany for a year when I went to university, before I met my partner, I speak German. I speak it almost like a native, I've been told. And so I know what it's like to be German. And I know what it's-- Now with creeping fascism in America, I know what it's like to be the, "The good German."
H: Yeah. It's so easy to look the other way. I feel that in my everyday life of having the privilege to not go out there on the front lines and put my body on the line and I try to do what I can, but I can see how it happens. Yes.
J: Yeah. And those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it. I don't want them to repeat it.
H: And like you said, we know so much about the war mostly through Hollywood. And in Hollywood, it's all very black and white. It's villains and heroes.
J: Villains and heroes and always The Holocaust. I don't want in any way to diminish the profundity, the catastrophe of The Holocaust, absolutely. But that cannot be the story of World War II. World War II was not about The Holocaust. World War II was about this horrible disease that overtook Germany and then Europe of national [cross-talk] frenzied activism.
H: The Holocaust was what they used to worm their way into people's brains and say, "Hey, you know, hate these people and let us do what we want." And that's what we're seeing again.
J: Yeah. There's definitely a parallel and several parallels. Because I was professor I have a pedagogical urge that never goes away. [Heather laughs] And I realized that the burden is on me to write a novel that first of all, someone wants to read, someone has paid money to buy my book. They don't want to be lectured to, and they didn't buy a history book. They bought a historical novel, historical romance looking to be entertained and that's what I have to do it. But second to that, when I try to, is I sort of sneak in. I weave in, sneak in the things that I want them to know, but mainly about the gray areas in the war and all the people involved in the war.
H: So you mentioned earlier that you've got romance arcs in your stories, but they are not romance novels as a genre. And knowing how thoroughly attached Lesfic readers are to their romances. I'm wondering, do you get pushback about that? Do you get people saying things like, "No, no. I want more romance in my story."
J: Not so much pushback as…just that I don't-- I have a very strong readership, but they're a small readership. Because especially new lesbians, young lesbians who are just-- they just want a quick read. They don't want anything that's going to require thinking. I don't say that as an accusation, they want it to be kind of a lesbian candy bar. They want a quick image. They want to see women falling in love and falling into bed and they pay money for that. And that's fine. That's wonderful. The people who want to see that happen more slowly in an informationally dense context, they're rare. And I can't do anything about that. That's who I write for. It's never going to be all those who simply want a quick romance.
H: This is, of course, one of the reasons why I started this history podcast, is to let people know more about historical fiction and lesbian fic and let people know the types of stories and why they might want to read it. But yeah, I was wondering if you'd had that experience of people thinking that they're not interested because it's not genre romance.
J: Well, I have discovered, interestingly, because one of the questions that you asked me earlier was, "Are there very many others writing in this genre?" And the answer is sort of yes. But they're making much more of a concession to the romance anecdote, because I've read a few. And even though yes, it's historical, right away we have the romance beginning. I think it's just people moving closer to what the readership wants, and I'm a grumpy old lady. [Heather laughs] I write what I want to write, and I think I write it very well. I think I make it entertaining. You do have to slow down to read my novels. I could have the romance beginning early on, but then I'd have to detract a lot of the history. And I don't want to do that. I think the history is too important, too exciting. The details that surround all the events of World War II and the post war time, the Airlift, are fascinating. They're riveting. You just have to look at them. And I want people to look at them.
H: Although, I think people are attracted to the two 20th century major wars or-- well, let me be clear--the two 20th century major wars that America and Western Europe were involved in, because of the way that war disrupts social expectations and creates opportunities. And there are a lot of historic romances I've seen where the opportunity of women to move into traditionally masculine roles, to be active, to be independent, the way the economics of the war effort in America allowed women to have independence and therefore to explore new social models. I think that's attractive to people who are writing historic romance.
J: That is a fact of history that it did open up opportunities for women. A very significant example of that is in Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had, even though it had communism, theoretically proposes the equality of the sexes. In fact, women had very traditional roles. But with the outbreak of war and with the invasion, the astonishingly rapid invasion of Russia, Ukraine and Russia by the Germans, caused that all to reverse. And suddenly these women who are housewives and students and young ladies, they were put in uniform and put into every single part of the military. They were pilots, they were tank commanders, they were in infantry that had artillery that had barrage balloons. The war opened up the possibility for them to do anything that they were capable of doing. Less so, of course, in the West, but still you did have women flying planes.
H: I would like to talk about your non World War II novels for a bit. It seems to me when you've written about earlier eras, you use this technique that-- I call it a cross-time approach. That may be the wrong term in general, but where stories are either involving a modern character who was delving into the past, and that's how the historic aspect comes in, or stories that actually take place across multiple eras where it's either people who live in that era and there's a parallel in the story or, you know, sometimes I use this term, especially to cover ones that have a time travel aspect or past lives aspect. And I'm curious what is the appeal of that approach to you in writing about history?
J: You've identified something that I wasn't aware I was doing, but you're quite right. It is cross-millennial or something like that. I can think of three of my novels where I did that. You're making me articulate something which I haven't articulated before.
H: Oh, good.
J: I think what was happening is the sense that there are human behaviors which are timeless. They occurred in antiquity and they occurred in the middle ages and they occur now. The most vivid example I can think of, it just popped into my mind right now and I'm not prepared, is that Beloved Gomorrah that duplicates the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the 21st century with the husband of one of the protagonists basically reenacting Sodom and Gomorrah mythology. I suppose that behind that is the notion that there is an absolute set of behaviors. Oh, this is worth an article, an entire article. There's a set of behaviors that we as human beings repeat, and some of them are dastardly and some of them are heroic, but there are mythical patterns and they are in our DNA. I had no idea that I was writing for that reason, but--
H: Well, I was noticing that in Sarah, Son of God, you've got the multiple eras brought in and in Beloved Gomorrah and in the Ibis Prophecy duology. You get that as well. Oh, and Mephisto Aria as well. So, I saw this definite pattern.
J: What is the last thing you said?
H: Mephisto Aria?
J: Oh, Mephisto Aria. Yes, yes, yes. Yeah. Yeah.
H: So, to me, it jumped out as there's this very strong pattern. So, I'm glad that that suddenly it's, like, huh! You didn't know you did that. [laughs] [Justine laughs]
J: Yeah. Yeah. And of course that gives depth to the novel and that separates it yet again from the standard romance novel, where you put your reader into a certain era, any era you wish, and you have a character in that era, meet another character in that era and they fall in love. So it's a very straightforward romance. Some of the novels that I've read, they call themselves historical romances do just that. There's only one level of reality, and that's fine. Those are the quick pleasure romances, but I don't seem to be able to do that. I think the other things always roll out along with it with my story.
H: Well, I think another reason some authors use that technique is that it gives the reader more of an anchor. It gives the reader a character, a modern character to connect with who then takes them on a tour into history as it were in. And they can, you know-- there there's a connection with the more familiar.
J: That's true. In Sarah, Son of God, that's certainly the case. The message of Sarah, Son of God, was that we think we have this new phenomenon called the trans…the trans man or the trans woman. When in fact, it existed in the book, in the Italian Renaissance. [laughs] And look here, it exists also in antiquity, in biblical antiquity. I don't want to give away the shock element in that novel. [laughs] That's what I wanted to say. It is this modern thing--these things that we think of as modern phenomenon are not. So we carry with us the baggage of millennia.
H: And I know that I find, in talking about the historic research I do, that expressing that parallelism while not being absolute-- so talking about the overlap between homosexuality and trans identity in history--can get really intricate because these are people who are living lives very different in all ways from ours and having different images of what they were doing. And it's fascinating and an enormous minefield as well.
J: One also has to be careful doing that to try to be faithful to the period. One of the traps that one falls in easily is to go to another century but then have all the mannerisms, have the attitudes, have even some of the phraseology of the modern time. Why bother to go to the other era if you're bringing in modern notions?
H: Yeah, especially in the area of sexuality. I'm always interested in how authors who are writing historical characters approach that question of researching and portraying understandings and attitudes towards sexuality in the past. Did you have any particular challenges in this area?
J: No, because I assumed initially universal hostility to homosexuality or its invisibility. Especially for women, homosexuality has always existed, but it's been under the guise of friendship, even in very intense friendship, women get away with it. So I haven't really addressed the subtleties of the way homosexuals are treated throughout history, because I assumed they would have been abused.
H: What are some of your favorite research sources? So I'm not talking necessarily about the most comprehensive ones or the most useful ones, but what are some of the research sources for your writing that you were delighted to find? That you just said, "Oh my God, this is fabulous. I have to use this somehow."
J: Well, let me answer that in two levels. On a general level, for all of my novels, whenever possible, I go to the place I'm talking about, because I want to write in such a way that the reader will feel like they are there. I need to know what it's like to be there. What it smells like, what the background sounds are like, what the atmosphere is like, what the people passing me by look like. When I went to Venice because of the Venetian novel, because those buildings are still there, I'd imagine living in some of the houses and I imagined my friends living in some of the houses. So my research there was simply being there. As for specific researches, research sources, my best one for Berlin Hungers was a book called-- I recommend it to anyone hearing this podcast, A Woman in Berlin.
If you read this book, you will realize how much I plagiarized it. [Heather laughs] It's by anonymous, and there's no author named. She was a journalist who suffered through the period right after the war. She also was gang raped from the very beginning of her diary, which is very articulate because she was a journalist and she happened to have spoken Russian. This is so much information. I mean, it was like a feast of information and I was able to put a great deal of it into my own novel, because she gave me the most vivid idea of what it was to live in Berlin in 1945 and 1946, and up through the blockade. So I'd recommend that book. I mean, it's available now in about six languages. She wrote it and with-- And her publicist agreed to not publish her name until after she died. And even after she died, the publicist said, "No, I want to respect her privacy." And still has not. So the book always has a little description in the back, but anonymous doesn't mean that it's fictionalized. It was a real journal written by a real woman, but she does not want to have her name known.
H: So you've had a book come out really recently, but I know how the schedules of these things go. So you're presumably already working on the next project. Want to talk about that or do you not talk about in-process books?
J: No, that's fine because this one is going more slowly. Not for lack of inspiration, but just I get tired of pushing myself every day to have to do a certain amount and I don't need to do that. I'm getting too old for that. [Heather laughs] [Justine laughs] Plus living in a globally warmed Europe, I never see snow or I barely see snow. So, I made a trip to Finland with a friend where they had snow up to your booties. And I got to know about the Sámi people. We call them Laplanders. We Americans call them Laplanders. And I've decided to write yet another war novel, but primarily about Norway in the war with a lot of information about the Sámi. I think they're very-- they're native inhabitants of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and a small part of Northern Russia. They're stretched across all those four countries. And they are like-- they were for a while like Native Americans on kind of reservations, isolated from the mainstream culture. But now they've been-- Now they're very much caught up in the tourist industry. The Sámi way of life is like the Native American way of life, pretty much eradicated. But I don't write about that. And snow, did I mention the snow? [Heather laughs] [Justine laughs]
H: And this again, I think you said will be another World War II novel?
J: Yes. It would be both Norwegian resistance, of which there was rather little, but there were some major events that happened, resistant events that happened. There's even a movie made about one of them. I will include that because I steal from history. I'm allowed to. [Heather laughs]
H: Are there any historical stories that you want to tell some time that you just haven't gotten there yet?
J: Yes. There are a couple but they're way too dangerous. At some point maybe if I feel like it's my last novel, I'll write about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Because I find them horrifying. Only one nation in human history has obliterated an entire city with an atomic weapon, and that was the United States and they did it twice. And I feel that needs to be talked about, but I'm afraid it's such a minefield to write about it and not get a lot of blowback. The same with Israel, Palestine.
H: Oh yeah. Yeah. Talk about minefields. That one is a really tough knot.
J: I would lose a significant portion of my Jewish readers and I don't have very many Palestinian readers, so I better stay away from that until I'm ready to stop writing, then that'll be the last one.
H: If listeners wanted to follow you on social media or keep up with you online, where should they go?
J: Well, I'm on Facebook but lately I'm much more on Twitter. But I do not encourage them to go there to look for my political opinions because I'm pretty adamant about them. And I'd rather be liked [both laugh] if you don't know the real me. Facebook is fairly safe. I have pictures of my garden and my dog and occasionally political remarks, but don't look for me on Twitter.
H: Okay. With that in mind, I will put up links to your books and to your social media, but I'll leave Twitter off of it.
J: Thank you. Yeah.
H: Thank you so much Justine Saracen for joining us on The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
J: It's been lovely talking to you. It's very strange to think that I'm seeing you and you're seeing me, but all that's going to be offered to the public is my voice. I'm trying to make my voice sound interesting, but I don't know how to do that. [Heather laughs]
H: Yeah. I mean, I know a lot of people really like the video format and could put it on YouTube, but it would make the editing a lot harder. It's easier to conceal edits when the person isn't jumping around. [laughs]
J: Right. That's true. But it's been a pleasure talking to you and your questions have been really brilliant.
H: Thank you.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Justine Saracen Online