Author Q&A with David R. Gillham

  • January 29, 2013

David R. Gillham is the author of City of Women, a novel set in Berlin during the final years of World War II.

“Whom do you trust, whom do you love, and who can be saved?

It is 1943—the height of the Second World War—and Berlin has essentially become a City of Women. Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immorality of the regime. But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. Her lover is a Jew.

And Sigrid is not the only one with secrets.

A high ranking SS officer and his family move down the hall and Sigrid finds herself pulled into their orbit. A young woman doing her duty-year is out of excuses before Sigrid can even ask her any questions. And then there’s the blind man selling pencils on the corner, whose eyes Sigrid can feel following her from behind the darkness of his goggles.

Soon Sigrid is embroiled in a world she knew nothing about, and as her eyes open to the reality around her, the carefully constructed fortress of solitude she has built over the years begins to collapse. She must choose to act on what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two. In this page-turning novel, David Gillham explores what happens to ordinary people thrust into extraordinary times, and how the choices they make can be the difference between life and death.”

Interviewed by Ashleigh Andrews Rich

Q&A with David R. Gillham

The premise of City of Women caught my attention right away—World War II historical fiction is plentiful, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a novel with a German soldier’s wife as protagonist, set in Berlin during the final years of the war. Can you explain why you wanted to explore this particular angle, and your process for developing the story?

I chose Berlin at the height of World War II for the book’s setting, because it had once been a city of passion, desire and ideas, until the Nazis came and clamped down the lid. By 1943, when the novel starts, it is being slowly smothered by the war and threatened with destruction. My protagonist, Sigrid, shares this same history with her city. She is a woman filled with passion and ideas; a woman with a great mind and great ability, yet she too is being smothered and possibly destroyed by her wartime existence.

The book presents a remarkably vivid image of the daily grind of life in Berlin at this time. What did your research process for the book? Did you come across any great books you would recommend for readers with further interest in this time and place?

I continue to do research even as I’m writing, so I’m always on the lookout for some detail that might enrich a scene or even a sentence. In the process, I read many, many books, memoirs, histories, and other novels, and studied all the photographs I could find. And of course, I have walked the streets of Berlin, both in reality (searching for remnants of the war-torn city) and in my head, through the maps included in my Baedeker’s Berlin travel guide from the 1920′s, which I used as a blueprint for the city. Other books I found especially valuable were, Berlin at War (Moorhouse), Jews In Nazi Berlin (Edited by Meyer, Simon, and Schutz,) and Memoirs of a 1000-Year-Old Woman (McBride.)

The movie theater is absolutely central in City of Women. It is a place where characters continually return—a place of literal and metaphorical refuge, sex, subterfuge, and—at times—danger. Is your use of the movie theater entirely your own invention, or is it based on historical fact—did theaters commonly serve as a rendezvous point during the war? Please share your thoughts on the significance of movie theaters.

People in the 40’s thought of movie theaters differently than we do today in a world of home entertainment centers and HD TV. Movies were relatively cheap, and people went to see them a lot, often several times a week. The movie house was much more of a civic institution, a place where people could go and really get away from the pressures of everyday life. Having said that, however, the use of movie theaters as a rendezvous spot for secret activities in City of Women is (to my knowledge) my own invention. I thought that a dark public place was a perfect setting for various covert exchanges (especially when war movies were playing. It is absolutely true that war pictures were always sparsely attended.) I also liked the idea that not only the war, but also the propaganda war, could be represented by the two-dimensional films chattering through the projector, as my characters lived their very three-dimensional lives in the seats.

The main character, Sigrid, lives with her mother-in-law, who is an insufferable person. Their relationship is probably every woman’s worst nightmare. I am curious as to what made Mother Schröder the way she is. On the one hand, she seems like a flatly horrible person, end of story—but on the other, there are hints of a painful complexity beneath the surface. When you write a character like this, is there a history in your head driving that person’s psychology and life choices?

Yes, “Mother Schroder” is not quite as black and white as she seems, and I’m so glad you pointed that out. I’ve always imagined her as a lonely and embittered woman, but a person in possession of a powerful will. Perhaps, if she had been given more freedom in her earlier life, she might have pursued her love of music. Instead, her constrictive life experience turned her into a domestic tyrant. All her own hopes and desires were poured into her son, and she tried to live vicariously through his success. Of course, in the end, that backfired on her as well. And though she often acts like a gorgon to Sigrid, now and again her need for people appears. She is lonely. No one left but a daughter-in-law who refuses to toe the line. Even her love of music is twisted into a greedy gesture, when she snaps up the radio of a dead neighbor after the neighbor’s suicide.

The title, City of Women, refers to the fact that with so many men off at war (or killed in war), it’s mostly women who are left behind to carry on the daily life and operations of Berlin. Yet there are actually plenty of men in the book—men who provide a very important disruption to the tedium of a female-dominated work and home life.

The men featured in the book tend to be either part of the war machine (heavily armed soldiers and police on every corner), or marginalized, hunted, or in some way inadequate, defined by their physical and emotional scars. What happens to a society when all the remaining men fall into one of these categories? Why are men so essential to the action in City of Women?

It’s quite true, that there are still plenty of men in the City of Women. Certainly, dramatically speaking, I needed men for romantic interest. But I also wanted to portray what can happen to men as well when they are put through the meat grinder of an authoritarian regime, which eventually breaks the spirit of all its members, male and female, and leads to sink-holes of societal corruption.

What’s next for you? Are you interested in writing more novels set during World War II?

Well, I’m working hard on the next book, but it’s still at too fragile a stage to expose it to the open air. All I can reveal at this point is that it’s set in both post-war Amsterdam and 1950’s New York.

Ashleigh Andrews Rich is a writer living in Fairfax, Virginia. She studied English and history at Cornell University, and works on publications for a think tank in Washington, DC.

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