'The Girl From Munich' is your debut historical fiction novel. It tells the story of Lotte who grew up indoctrinated, at school and through The League of German Girls, to give her all to the Third Reich. After World War II, when her wealth and privilege is stripped away and Germany falls to the Allied forces, Lotte sees the horror of Hitler’s Germany and the terrible consequences of the war. How much of your grandmother’s real experiences are in the novel?
Most of the main points or events in the story come from my grandmother’s stories and are inspired by her life. Documents of my grandmother’s and further research helped me to develop these ideas and scenes more vividly. From these main points which scaffolded the story, I was then able to fill in the blanks with what I imagined might have realistically happened. This was when fact and fiction blurred and the story took on a life of its own. The characters based on real people and their experiences became extensions of what I imagined could or might have been, around the historic events that actually took place or events that were handed down through oral history.
What prompted you to write a fictional tale rather than a non-fiction work based on your grandmother’s life?
Like many of her generation, my grandmother didn’t like to talk much about her past. I think that revisiting the turbulent times around World War Two was probably hard for her. It was an era so different to now, a time alien to any generation who hasn’t experienced what they did. So, there were only snatches of stories that she told, often the same ones but every now she would add an extra comment and that was when I was able to get a little more insight into her story which only intrigued me further. It was only when she passed away in 2015 that I learnt of the documents, photos and letters that she had kept. These treasures assured me that she wanted her story to be known.
‘The Girl from Munich’ isn’t a biography by any means. The small snippets of my grandmother’s life, the stories she told were the inspiration and springboard for my story. They provided me with some scaffolding to piece the larger story together but there were many blank spaces in between, so much I didn’t know. Using the documentation, photos, letters and further evidence to provide a factual basis for these snippets of stories, I tried to join the dots. Using the information and stories that I had from my grandmother, I was able to further research the many different facets I imagined her life to hold. I was able to marry this information with historical fact and use this as the basis of a fictional account of what life may have been like for someone like my grandmother. All the assumptions I made within the story are within the realms of possibility. Some of them I later discovered were close to the truth and some I’ll never know if they were, but what I learned allowed me to write a story in the spirit of that time, through the eyes of a woman who I had come to know so much more about. The process of this journey was eye opening and inspiring.
Lotte’s heart is divided in many ways; between the fantasy and the reality of the Third Reich and also between her love for her childhood sweetheart and her new attraction to her Luftwaffe superior. What lead you to use romance as a driving force in the novel?
I think Lotte’s story provides a fascinating look at those who grew up within Hitler’s regime. Their perspective was often skewed by the Nazi indoctrination that they received at school, within the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls, as part of general life within the Third Reich, and also through the propaganda that went along with the war effort to ensure the Fatherland’s success and victory in the war.
Although Lotte comes from a privileged background, I think it’s interesting to explore her journey from the naïve, patriotic young girl, devoted to the Nazi cause, sure of her place in the world. As the Fatherland and the social fabric crumbles around her, she begins to question everything she believes to be true and as Germany loses the war and she descends into the chaotic aftermath, she reaches the realisation that she and the German people have been betrayed by the Fuhrer and his ideology.
Lotte’s story is told through her experiences of a young woman finding first love because it’s through this experience and the intense emotions that come with it that she has her eyes opened to the world for the first time. The circumstances of war have contributed to her growing up more quickly than she might have purely within the protective cocoon of her social environment. Not only has she lost the brothers she adores and has to deal with her broken mother but she now mixes with those outside her social class through her photography course and her job. She becomes part of the workforce, something her family never expected, makes her own income and acquires a level of independence that she likely would not have had. In the process, she sees others with very different points of view and life experiences to her own. Her journey from child to woman is very much influenced by the events of the time and the circumstances she consequently finds herself in. In the end, like so many women in the war years, the experiences she has encountered gives her an awareness of her choices and a desire to choose her own life and discover who she is.
I believe that the love story is the vehicle for Lotte’s journey to self-realisation, fuelled and influenced by the events of the war years. Love is a strong emotion which will lead people to do things they never imagined. We often see the more noble qualities of people in love but of course, also it can bring out the worst in people. During a time of great crisis and upheaval like war, love can show us the truth of people’s motivations, the truth of the events which they live through and provide a fascinating perspective on a particular period in history. Love is the perfect counterpoint to the ugliness of war, a symbol of hope at a time when the world seemed to be descending into chaos and madness. Besides, who doesn’t love a good love story? After all, love is what we all search for. It’s what makes the world go round!
Your research started with your grandmother’s documents, photos, letters and memorabilia, only discovered after her death. What other research helped you re-imagine a teenage girl’s life during the Nazi regime?
Lots of research went into exploring the events of this time. I was lucky to be able to start with my grandmother’s stories. I’m forever grateful that she left behind such a comprehensive amount of documentation, photos, letters and memorabilia of the war years and after. Linking the stories with the documentation which gave me a factual reference point, I was able to research further. I read lots of history books, first-hand accounts of the war years and after, watched lots of documentaries and researched online as well. My grandmother’s generation was unique in that they grew up within Hitler’s regime and were indoctrinated by Nazi teachings and there is good documentation about this generation. I felt it was imperative that I got the factual detail right as historical events are so important in this book and are essential to the backdrop of Lotte’s story, allowing me to realistically weave her journey around these significant moments. Along the way I researched anything associated with Lotte’s life and journey from Wehrmacht uniforms, rank and pedigree certificates to German beer.
Your currently working on a sequel, which picks up the story of Lotte and her family when they arrive in Australia as immigrants in 1956. Without giving away which man Lotte marries(!), what obstacles does she come across in her new country?
This sequel picks up the story of Lotte and her family when they arrive in Australia as immigrants in 1956. Work prospects for her husband beckon them here at a time when Australia is in an economic boom. It is the land of milk and honey, where she and her husband can give their children the future they have always wanted for them. They hope to extend their family and live the Australian Dream, to finally have a home of their own. But their hopes and plans are not realised in the way that they expect and they struggle to find their place in a country they now call home.
They are excited about the life they can lead here but there are obstacles. Once in Australia, they discover that many professional qualifications aren’t recognised and many can’t work in their professions. Work is hard to come by for many new migrants, living in camps and hostels until they can manage to make a start in their new country and step out on their own. Housing is very expensive and on low incomes, it’s difficult to buy a home. The customs and British ways are strange and take getting used to and many find that British or Australian citizens are the ones who tend to move up through the workplace hierarchy. The language barrier can be a problem, even for those with English with Australian colloquialisms and the dangerous creatures (snakes and spiders!) remind them that they are far from home. Lotte and her family try to assimilate and become Australian while holding onto their heritage and culture. It can be a fine line to walk, a time when they question their identity. The war is not forgotten and living in a country that fought with the Allies, the role of Germany is not looked upon kindly.
Will all of your future works be historical fiction? What is it that you particularly love about this genre?
Yes, I think I will continue to write historical fiction. I’ve always loved history. I suppose that helps a great deal when writing in this genre. I have to say that I love the research almost as much as I love the writing. Weaving the history of the time through the story is something I feel is quite important. I want to explore how the characters respond to the influences around them, including significant historical events. I love to immerse myself into a particular period in history, discovering how things were done at a certain time, how people dressed, what they ate, how they lived. The social, economic and political factors of the day had to impact on the characters’ lives and I enjoy imagining how that may have affected their lives, their relationships and their experiences.
Being a debut author, what has helped you the most in finishing this manuscript and finding a publisher for it?
I decided to do Fiona McIntosh’s masterclass in 2015. This was when I had my lightbulb moment and realised that it was the time to write about my grandmother’s stories. She had passed away about five months earlier and we had discovered her boxes of documents, photos and letters. Fiona encouraged me to write this story. She thought it was something that people would want to read and that publishers might be interested in. I went home and began writing ‘The Girl from Munich’.
While at one of Fiona’s workshops we could pitch our story ideas to publishers that came to talk to us. One of them was interested in my story about WW2 told from the German perspective and asked me to send it to them when I was finished. I was over the moon of course and quite shocked. I worked as hard as I could to finish it and then submitted my manuscript. Luckily for me, they liked it and Simon and Schuster offered me a contract for ‘The Girl from Munich’ and its sequel. It was a truly surreal moment for me, realising that my grandmother’s stories had been responsible for my first publication, for making my childhood dream come true.
The thing that helped me the most was the fact that someone like Fiona believed in my story and believed that I could write it. Then knowing that a publisher also liked the idea and wanted to see the manuscript when it was complete, spurred me forward to get it finished. Following what I had learnt in Fiona’s masterclass, I kept to my daily word count to ensure I moved forward with the story and completed a full first draft before moving on with the many edits and drafts until I was happy to submit my manuscript.
Tania lives in Sydney with her husband and three children. Coming from a family with rich cultural heritage with a German mother and Italian father, stories have always been in her blood. Following a career in physiotherapy, it was only when she had her family that she decided to return to her passion of writing. Her debut novel is The Girl from Munich, the story she has always wanted to write, inspired by the fascinating stories told by her German grandmother, and she is currently working on the sequel, set in Australia in the 1950s. Tania is excited to have found her light bulb moment, her love for writing historical fiction. She looks forward to delving further into her interests of history and family stories to enrich and bring to life the many ideas inspired by the amazing tales she has gathered over the years.