After a childhood spent in California, France, and West Germany, Anne Nesbet went on to study Russian, earn a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, and become a professor at U. C. Berkeley, where she teaches the history of film, Russian literature and children’s literature. Her research has taken her all over the world: she has lived, for example, in Paris, Moscow, Leningrad (when it was still called Leningrad), and East Berlin (when it was still called East Berlin).
Her first two novels for children (THE CABINET OF EARTHS, HarperCollins 2012, and A BOX OF GARGOYLES, HarperCollins 2013) are middle-grade fantasies about a girl who must take on the magical underworld of Paris. Her third fantasy, THE WRINKLED CROWN (HarperCollins 2015) is set in an imaginary, divided world; Linny’s breaking of the rule that girls must avoid musical instruments puts her best friend in mortal danger, and Linny must travel to the ends of the world to try to set things right. CLOUD & WALLFISH (Candlewick 2016), is a historical novel set in East Berlin in 1989, and is inspired by the author’s experiences in the German Democratic Republic at that time. When she is not teaching or writing, Anne enjoys hiking, playing the violin and viola, and going on adventures with her husband, three daughters, and one very well-traveled (yet still irrepressible) dog.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
In the case of Cloud and Wallfish, for some time I had been wondering whether there might be an East German story in me, because my husband and I lived there in 1989, the year the Wall eventually fell, and it was a fascinating, complicated place and time. But it was an idle question that finally got the storytelling juices flowing: I was remembering the old maps we had in East Berlin, in which West Berlin showed up as a blank space, and I wondered, “What would a child do with a map like that?” And suddenly it occurred to me that surely a kid would want to doodle an imaginary world into a map like that. And from that thought, my characters and all the rest of the plot eventually unfolded…
How do you conduct your research?
I was in East Berlin in 1987 and 1989 and 1990, doing research for my dissertation on cultural policies in the Soviet Zone of Germany after World War Two. But I was as fascinated with the German Democratic Republic of the 1980s as I was with the earlier period, so I took copious notes on everyday life, kept a detailed journal, talked to our East German friends, read the newspapers and clipped interesting articles, took photographs of interesting places, bought books about current and recent events, and generally was always “conducting research” all day long, even during the hours I wasn’t in the library!
For my WIP, currently called The Orphan Band of Springdale, which is set in a small town in Maine in 1941, I read through that whole year’s worth of the local paper and took photographs of various important locations. And asked relatives and friends who grew up on farms questions about when various crops would be planted and how to raise chickens and what breakfast usually consisted of, and the like.
What kinds of sources do you use?
Local newspapers from the period in question, in hardcopy and (when available) online. Guidebooks from the time in question. For Cloud and Wallfish, propaganda materials published by the East German government. Magazines from the time. Historical chronicles of 1989, day by day. My own journals and the ones my husband and I kept together. My notes on everyday life in East Germany in 1989. All of our photographs, and the photographs our friends took. Maps, brochures, East German novels. Everything!
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I have to have a pretty detailed outline before I begin drafting. That means I need a plot! For both of these historical novels, I sorted through my research notes, noting themes in a plotting notebook. When I finally got the interesting themes condensed into a two-page notebook spread, I started drawing arrows from one thing to the next, figuring out how to get the chain of dominoes going. At the same time I was brainstorming character details on other notebook pages. No matter how carefully I outline beforehand, I’m always caught by surprise by plot holes at some point during the writing of the first draft. Then I have to stop and do emergency research to figure out where to go next or when the school vacations were in 1989 in Berlin–or whatever the question may be!
What is your favorite thing about research?
I love research! It’s a kind of treasure hunt, really, but the kind of treasure hunt that threatens to swallow a person up. Sometimes it can be hard to step out of research mode and start writing . . . .
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
It is a humbling task, writing a historical novel. The more you research, the more you realize you don’t know. You learn more and more all the time, and that just makes you ever more aware of the gaps in your knowledge. Of course it is also true that we can’t know everything about anything, not even about our own present day! So at some point we have to acknowledge our limits and still take that leap into telling the story.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
Good question! I think the most interesting historical topics are filled with gray areas. All that complex gray can deepen a story, but it also takes extra time and pages to portray gray properly. I have tried to maintain some sense of the gray areas in my novels, despite the competing pressure to keep things relatively brief and relatively clear. For one example, I wanted to be sure we got a glimpse of the happy side of Cloud-Claudia’s East German childhood, even if our glimpse has to be pretty brief and “in retrospect.” And Noah and his mother have a discussion at one point that is really about the complicated ethics of spying . . . .
Why is historical fiction important?
The world is so large! And so much has happened since the beginning of time! How can we not be absolutely driven to learn as much as we can about as many different human stories as possible? What’s more, if we don’t understand history, we are moving forward in a fog–and fogs can be dangerous. But I should add quickly that stories from the past aren’t just “good for us”–they are also vibrant, fascinating, weird, moving, and lovely.