4] Do you have a favourite book or books that you would like to have written?
I don't have a favourite book. For me that's like having a favourite dessert. I like whatever I am eating or reading this minute most of all. Lately I've been reading about the golem, so I'm enjoying The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and The Golem by Elie Wiesel (and the children's The Golem by David Wisnieski, with vivid paper-cut illustrations).
On a non-golem note, I recently finished Restless by William Boyd and loved it too. It's a mother-daughter spy thriller set in the 1930s and the 1960s.
5] How did you become fluent in German and what inspired you to write about a woman crime reporter in Germany during and after the Nazi takeover?
I was an exchange student in Berlin in the mid-1980s (now those of you who can do math know how old I am). I was there for two years of high school and a year of college. I've kept it up by speaking a bit and reading a good deal more in German, especially once I started researching A Trace of Smoke.
The story started with Ernst Vogel, the murder victim. At first Hannah was male policeman, but after 50 pages the character felt too distant from Ernst. Once I had read about the death photos in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead in Joseph Roth's What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933, I knew the investigator would be someone who saw his photo there and the first person by was a crime reporter, and his sister, Hannah Vogel. Hannah would not let her brother's death go unsolved, so I was able to tell the story from her perspective as a sarcastic, insightful woman, an unlikely sleuth and reporter determined to save a German boy [Anton] and a German people.
It turned out to be quite a fortunate decision, as I've since read many wonderful novels set in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s with male policemen as sleuths, from Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series to Jonathan Rabb's Nikolai Hoffner, and Jeffrey Deaver's standalone Garden of Beasts.
As for the time period, the late 1920s and early 1930s in Berlin was a time of intellectual and social freedom mixed with grinding poverty and violent protests. Berlin was a center for modern art, cinema, writing, and music. And yet within a few years it would all be gone: the artists fled, in camps, or in hiding.
Just like that an incredibly vibrant part of a modern European city vanished to be replaced by the horror of the Nazis.
How could such a transition NOT be a fascinating time to set a novel?
6] For SMOKE you obviously did a lot of meticulous research, did you do all this during the writing process or before you started the book?
I started researching the era back in high school when I walked into a building at the Dachau Concentration Camp and saw a fading pink triangle tacked on the wall. I wanted to know more about the people who had worn them. I researched the topic more when I wrote my college history thesis.
That gave me some historical background, but for A Trace of Smoke I still needed to do a great deal more research. I read many diaries from the era, such as those of Count Henry Kessler, Bella Fromm, Viktor Klemperer, William Shirer and Ernst Rohm himself. Plus various scholarly tomes and a bound collection of Berlin Illustrierte Zeitung newspapers from 1931.
I was very fortunate in that Berlin was a center of filmmaking in 1931, so I could watch films shot on the very streets that Hannah walked, including M, Blue Angel, Berlin: Symphony of a City, Emil and the Detectives, and The Testament of Dr Mabuse.
And my most important research was walking around Berlin in the 1980s, smelling the city, tripping on the cobblestones, and watching the brown coal smoke settle on the snow.
Rebecca's website can be viewed here.
[to be continued with more from this interview soon]