Today for Inside the Writer’s Studio we have with us Monika Schroder, author of The Dog in the Wood, Saraswati’s Way, and the newly released My Brother’s Shadow. I was introduced to Monika by the irrepressible Kirsten Cappy, the brain behind Curious City. Shortly thereafter, Monika was working on a piece for Hunger Mountain about the writing of My Brother’s Shadow. It is an honor to have her with us today to dig into her process and her keen insights into human nature.
Welcome, Monika. And let us all welcome My Brother’s Shadow to the shelves.
A bit about the book:
From the publisher, FSG
As World War I draws to a close in 1918, German citizens are starving and suffering under a repressive regime. Sixteen-year-old Moritz is torn. His father died in the war and his older brother still risks his life in the trenches, but his mother does not support the patriotic cause and attends subversive socialist meetings. While his mother participates in the revolution to sweep away the monarchy, Moritz falls in love with a Jewish girl who also is a socialist. When Moritz’s brother returns home a bitter, maimed war veteran, ready to blame Germany’s defeat on everything but the old order, Moritz must choose between his allegiance to his dangerously radicalized brother and those who usher in the new democracy.
And though out only one day, the reviews are in and they are outstanding!
“A good choice for sharing across the curriculum, this is a novel readers will want to discuss.” --Booklist
"In this nuanced and realistic work of historical fiction, Schröder (Saraswati’s Way) immerses readers in her setting with meticulous details and dynamic characters that contribute to a palpable sense of tension. Moritz’s intimate narration captures the conflicts, divided loyalties, and everyday horrors of the period." --Publishers Weekly
" 'War gives meaning to some men's lives. For other men, the experience of war extinguishes all meaning in life,' says a man who becomes Moritz's mentor; Schröder makes this sad and ever-timely lesson all too clear."--Kirkus Reviews
“The sorrow and the pity of World War I haunt every page of this unsparing coming-of-age story set in Berlin during the war’s final days. Monika Schröder skillfully sketches in the fractured political background of a disintegrating imperial Germany. She doesn’t miss a beat in her fast-paced first-person narrative as sixteen-year-old Moritz copes with his family’s misfortunes, finds his calling, and discovers love…This is a memorable and instructive novel.”—Russell Freedman
, Newbery-award winning author of The War to End All Wars: World War I
Now on to the interview!
Monika, how do you stay inspired to face the dreaded blank page? Is it something you dread? Look forward to? Share a bit about your writing process.
I dread writing the first draft. I am not good at tapping into the “white heat” some writers describe that lets them write pages and pages of unedited text in one swoop. My “inner editor” is always on and I experience a constant struggle between the part of my brain that thinks about structure and function of a scene or a chapter and the part that just feels what needs to happen next. So probably like every writer I dread the blank page, but over time I have learned that sitting and staring is part of the process. When I talk to kids I tell them that one secret of writing is to just “keep your butt in the chair.” I don’t have a rule about minimum amount of pages per day, but I am very disciplined when it comes to just spending time in front of that page, be it empty or partially filled, and waiting until I can write the next sentence.
I much prefer revising to composing a first draft. Once there is something to shape it is easier to get into the flow.
Name a writer whose work and/or career you admire. And why do you admire them?
I like the books by Avi,
since I enjoy the way he makes place and time come alive. And I also admire Jennifer Holm
who writes always with a strong voice and has a gift of creating lively characters in historical fiction.
Theme can be seen as a dirty word but as writers I believe we all have something to say, something we want to share with the world. What is that something for you?
I think that one theme I have investigated in my writing is how war and political transitions affect regular people and children in particular.
I have always been interested in history. Germany, my home country, has started two World Wars in the last century. Both wars not only brought death and terror to large parts of Europe but also ended in defeat followed by fundamental changes of the political system. I have tried to imagine how regular people dealt with these changes. I find it fascinating that a German person born at the beginning of the 20th century could have experienced a monarchy, a failed democracy, a fascist dictatorship, a socialist totalitarian regime and then again a democracy, just within one life span.
In my first novel, THE DOG IN THE WOOD
, I wrote about the end of World War II and how people in a small village in east Germany experienced the arrival of the red Army. My new novel, MY BROTHER’S SHADOW,
is set in 1918, another important transition time in German history. I tried to imagine what it might have been like for a young man who had grown up under the Kaiser to see the monarchy disappear and be confronted with socialist ideas and women’s emancipation. The defeat in the war led to a socialist revolution in Germany. The split between those who considered this a hopeful event and those who thought of it as treason foreshadowed the conflicts to come during the Weimar Republic.
What do you feel is your strength as a craftsperson? How do you turn your weaknesses into strengths?
I hope that my strength lies in pacing and characterization. I believe my weakness is voice. I hope to have tackled this weakness by writing MY BROTHER’S SHADOW
in first person. The book I am currently working in is also told in first person. And I have another work-in-progress that I am trying to tell in two alternating voices.
How does “place” come through in your writing? How important is place in this current novel/picture book? Is it tied to a place you once lived or are familiar with or is it a new world entirely?
I think place is very important in my books. I have written two novels set in Germany and one set in contemporary India, and I hope that readers feel transported to those locations while reading the books.
MY BROTHER’S SHADOW is set in Berlin, my favorite city. I have lived in Berlin in the late 1980 and early 1990s and was always fascinated with the city’s history. When I wrote the book, which takes place in the year 1918, it was easy to imagine what Berlin looked like at the time. Also, there are a lot of photographs and even early film reels available to help an author see the setting.
Currently, I am working on a book set in the 1830s. The story starts in Boston and the character takes a boat to Calcutta. I have visited both cities but the historical time period requires a lot more research for me to depict it authentically.
How do you balance the internal and external arc in the story? Which comes to you first—the external action or what is emotionally at stake? How do you weave the two together?
I seem to develop the external plot structure first. For THE DOG IN THE WOOD I had to slowly create a character that this story could happen to. Akash, the main character of SARASWATI’S WAY,
was fleshed out in my mind early on and I knew that his internal journey would be connected to his relationship to his gods and how he defines fate. I knew the story’s arc would take him from his village to the train station in New Delhi, but I didn’t learn about the obstacles along his way until I wrote the book.
When I started to write MY BROTHER’S SHADOW I knew it would be a story about disillusionment, about how the main character, Moritz, deals with the loss of what once was and adjusts to a completely new world. I knew that Moritz’s brother would return from the war and join the reactionary forces in Germany, opposing his mother’s involvement with the socialist movement. But the details of his journey and the emotional development that he went through I had to discover through the process.
Which literary character, yours or another author’s, do you most relate to? And why?
In my own work I can relate to Akash. He is a math wizard (I used to be very good in math), he has a burning desire to fulfill his dream and the stamina to pursue it, but he has to learn patience (I still haven’t learned to be patient).
Inspired by the Actors Studio, what sound do you love? What sound do you hate?
I love silence. When my husband and I spend the summers at our cabin in Northern
Michigan I enjoy the absolute silence at night. Having lived in big, noisy cities for the last 15 years probably has made me crave silence even more. We have now left New Delhi, a noisy city of over 17 million, and moved to the mountains of North Carolina, where it is more silent.
But if you ask me about my least favorite ones I might name a few: I don’t like the sound of chain saws or loud machines but I also have some quirky dislikes: I don’t like hearing someone clipping his nails or cracking his knuckles or the sound of people jingling coins in their pockets. (I know this is weird.)
Be brave. Share a paragraph from a WIP.
As I passed the reverend’s room I noticed that the door stood ajar. I peeked inside and found his chamber empty. I gave the door a light push and it opened without the familiar squeak. The reverend must have fixed it himself as I noticed a dark oil stain around the hinges. I entered the room where the bag stood on the bed. Next to it a large map was spread out on the cover. I recognized the almost triangular outline of India, as I had read about the country in Uncle Ezra’s magazine. On the left bottom of the map was written: “A New Map of Hindoostan by Major James Rennell, Surveyor General to the Honorable East India Company.” I stepped next to the bed to study the tiny names of cities and rivers. A circle was drawn in red pencil around a city in the northern part of the country. Leaning closer I tried to decipher the name. Dehly. I wondered if this was the location of the reverend’s brother’s mission. Looking at the bag I contemplated a quick search for the heavy object that caused the clanging sound earlier but I didn’t dare to touch it. When I heard footsteps on the stairs I quickly hurried from the room. I had just reached the hallway when the reverend appeared on the landing, wearing his coat and hat. “You are still awake, Caleb?” he asked, eyeing me suspiciously.
“I’m just about to go to bed,” I said, glad the loud banging of my heart was inaudible to him, and that I could slip into my room without another word.
In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.
I only drink three kinds of beverages: water, red wine (preferably Merlot from South America) and high end second flush Darjeeling tea.
Thank you to Monika for being with us. I will always have water, red wine and Darjeeling tea on tap for you!