Q&A with Craig Novaby David Duhr • 03.30.2010
Acclaimed writer Craig Nova’s latest offering is The Informer, released in mid-March. A thriller set in 1930 Berlin during the dying stages of the Weimar Republic, The Informer follows Armina Treffen, a detective in the Berlin Police Department, as she hunts for a killer loose in the city. Someone has been murdering prostitutes in Berlin’s Tiergarten, and Armina’s investigation brings her into contact with Gaelle, a likely future target. Gaelle is playing both sides in what is a highly politically-charged climate, and fears for her life—and yet something keeps her from asking Armina Treffen for help.
Nova is the author of twelve novels and an autobiography. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and is now a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at UNC-Greensboro. His writing has appeared in, among others, Esquire, The Paris Review, and New York Times Magazine.
I had a chance to discuss The Informer with Nova shortly after its release.
Q. Fringe readers will be interested to know that you chose 1930 Berlin partly because of some cultural and political parallels between that time and place and ours. Can you talk about those parallels a bit, and how they helped lead to The Informer?
A. Well, this is a good question, and I’d like to answer it from the beginning, from the way the book came into existence.
When push came to shove, in the actual writing, I was interested in three things, story, story and story: I imagined it as a sort of collaboration between Graham Greene and Albert Camus (my inspirations for this book). I wanted to write a sort of Brighton Rock set in Berlin in 1930. Of course, there were gangs in Berlin, the Rings, and people were getting murdered all the time. It seemed like an ominous, moody place to set a sort of book like Brighton Rock.
The first item in writing a novel, at least for me, is a general feeling, a sort of uneasiness or curiosity, that gets me started. This, for The Informer, was the realization of the truth of Orwell’s discovery, if you can call it that, that people make up their minds first and then look for facts to support an argument already made.
Few people look at the facts first, and then decide. Mostly, in political circumstances, it’s the other way around. In politics, a fact is either convenient and should be emphasized, or it is inconvenient and should be suppressed.
So, this inability to discover what is going on presented itself to me as a problem and one I wanted to write a book about.
Then I began to look around. What was the most dangerous and most politically intense time in modern history? Invariably I came to Berlin in 1930. And the first thing that came to mind, which I found through reading and actually going to Berlin and talking to people, was a sort of cultural similarity.
So, in Berlin in the twenties we had many things that were like today. We had people confronting the impact of Modernism, that is people had lost the traditional support of, say, village life, of family, of the church, of a belief in what was known as civilization (the First World War had surely finished that off), and while the freedom of this new way of being was great for many people, I think others were simply uneasy and a little confused.
Today, we don’t have Modernism, but Postmodernism, which I take to mean that we don’t have a standard truth, but instead a series of points of view, from different perspectives, and that the entire notion of truth is somewhat under attack. A lot of people don’t like or are uncomfortable with the idea that truth doesn’t exist. Not in the way we used to think of it. Or that truth is determined by politics. In fact, in The Informer, a man from Moscow says that “reality is determined by power.”
Then there were other cultural matters. A fascination with the body and how people appeared (just think today of what people do to appear the “right” way: hours in a gym, and plastic surgery on every conceivable piece of anatomy, for men and women, genitals included). If this doesn’t betray a profound uneasiness, I don’t know what does.
And then in Berlin people had a profound fascination with sport (bicycles races, etc.) and this concern, along with physical appearance had the suggestion of a belief in an elite.
Surely, we have this, too, although we don’t call it an elite, which is a dirty word, but, instead, we call this elite “People.” That is there are people and then there are People. So, the cult of celebrity was similar, too.
Then, of course, sex comes into play. In Berlin people had more and new sexual freedom; they were coming to terms with new expressions of sexuality, women’s emancipation, gay emancipation, and while this was terrific, it also made people uneasy.
For instance, in Berlin in the 20s and early 30s Magnus Hirschfeld, an openly gay man, agitated for gay rights and sex education, but was vilified by the Nationalists and the Nazis, who finally burned the books in the library of the institute he had started. Surely, today, lesbians and gay men have achieved more freedom, but the violence against them is greater, too.
Also, the political divisions were nothing short of spectacular. No one, and I mean no one, listened to anyone else. Minds were made up, just like today. Turn on talk radio some evening and listen.
The various groups, the socialists, the communists, and the extreme right wing (there were other groups beside the Nazis) all had armies, or street fighters, and while we haven’t come this far yet, it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility.
But then there is another thing: economically things had just tanked out in Berlin, and the unemployment rate was high, very high, and we are in the midst of a very bad time, and some people, some economists, are saying that it isn’t over yet and that we might have a “double dip” recession, that is it could get worse.
This economic fear is making people long for certainty. A lot of Americans are scared, and fear, as Frank Conroy once said, attracts evil.
Novelists are big on atmosphere. They may not be historians, or sociologists, but they are sort of tuning forks for the way things feel.
So, I thought of how to put a story, a sort of Graham Greene story, into this background.
Q. Talk a bit about the characters you plunge into this politically-charged setting.
A. I imagined a polite, attractive woman (Armina Treffen) who works in the Berlin police department and is assigned those cases, and there are many of them, where women were killed. Mostly these are young women who had worked as prostitutes near the main park in Berlin, the Tiergarten (which, by the way, means animal garden). Many of these crimes resemble those done by a man who was caught and convicted, although all of the details of what he had done, appalling things, really, were reported in the newspaper. So, while these crimes look like they are copy cat killings, Armina suspects there is a political connection.
This leads her to another character in the book, Gaelle, a woman who is a Gravelstone. These were women who had an erotically appealing deformity. Gaelle is an otherwise attractive young woman whose face is scarred in such a way as to suggest that her beauty is just submerged in the scar and is almost able to appear. It is as though she is wearing a scar like a veil.
Gaelle is the informer in the book and has been selling information she picks up to the various political groups in the city, both the left and the right, and she is afraid that one of them, or all of them are going to take their revenge. And, of course, she is suspicious of the police, and initially resists Armina’s offer of help.
The precinct where Armina works is evenly divided as far as politics are concerned, so Armina often finds herself caught in the middle, trying to do the right thing in a world where this is very difficult. And, when things are most tense, she meets a man who seems to understand her perfectly, and with whom she is willing to take a chance.
Q. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book with this much gray — so many characters are described as having gray eyes, gray skin, wear gray clothing, go in and out of gray buildings. Is all the gray a bit of Nazi foreshadowing?
A. I think, now that I look down in the depths, that this grayness, this uncertainty of color, which is what this hue is, came from the horror that was coming. It was like everything I did, every character I added was getting ready to go off a cliff.
Q. There are other places, too, where you seem to be hinting at the eventual Nazi regime. At one point, Armina walks past a veterinarian’s office where people used to line up to have their dogs killed at a time when inflation made feeding the dogs very difficult: “It seemed to be such a poor solution, killing the animals, as though everything could be solved by death.” The Nazis years later had their own Solution that involved a great deal of killing what they considered to be animals.
A. The one place where I really wanted the reader to think about what was going to happen is a brief description of the kids from the “special school” whom Armina sees one morning. That is, these are kids who weren’t quite right. But the idea is we know what was going to happen to them.
As far as killing the pets is concerned, yes, I meant that absolutely. What a horror to think that death is a solution.
Q. And then you end The Informer by jumping ahead in time to 1945 Berlin, just as Hitler’s empire is caving in all around him.
A. I have long wanted to write about complete chaos, the absolute heart of the heart of darkness, where everything has come unglued. Surely, Berlin in the summer of 1945 was like that. Frankly, it is hard to find out what really happened there, since the Germans are reticent about it. But, as nearly as I can tell, with gangs of one kind or another loose in the city, with the Russians out of control at times, with the desperation of the people left to survive, it seemed like a European Heart of Darkness. And, of course, it is here that one of the concerns of the book reveals itself.
That is, no matter how hard we struggle, and no matter how we are successful against the horrors we face (as in WWII), something seems loose in human affairs, and we must be constantly on guard against it. Of course, we defeated it in Germany and in Europe in the 40s, but it keeps coming back, and that is another aspect that makes me think of the Modern Age: the killing of one group by another is still going on, whether in Rwanda or other places. We don’t defeat it once, but we have to be alert to it constantly.
Q. You’ve mainly been a writer of literary fiction, and The Informer is one of your first forays into so-called “genre” storytelling. Can you describe for us what went into this change in style? Is it a transition or just a brief departure?
A. I think that the use of suspense, which is a legitimate tool, is something that has been used right along by writers, and particularly my favorites (Graham Greene, Albert Camus, and JM Coetzee). What is more suspenseful than gang warfare in Brighton Rock? Or the increasing intensity of a plague in the Plague?
And so I think I have naturally moved in that direction, not so much for the genre aspect as the increasing intensity of plot, if you can really draw a distinction.
Q. Nested within this commentary on politics and culture are characters who are just as much caught up in “smaller” matters — the search for love and friendship, mostly. And, if neither of those is available, simple companionship. Is this the old character-oriented Craig Nova elbowing his way into the work of the new plot-driven Craig Nova?
A. Here is the really critical thing: I think the usual aspects of character (the desire for love, etc.) are not diminished by the use of suspense, but enhanced by it. If a character is vulnerable in a world where things are predictable and safe, this same character will be vastly more compelling in a world that is dangerous. So I see the use of suspense as a way of leveraging the power of human needs. And, in fact, I think a keenly drawn a character, in circumstances that are historical or socially significant, does double duty, once for the book as, well, as a book, and once to make the other matters more memorable.
It may seem that there is an enormous change in this book, and if the change is there, it is that maybe I am no longer hiding the suspense, but coming right out with it for everyone to see.
It is hard for a writer to see himself, but I guess I have changed to the extent that I am having more fun with suspense. And there’s no rule that says a writer can’t have some fun. I really don’t think that books that deal with social matters or historical matters should be let off the hook for old fashioned, heart breaking character. In fact, maybe the demand for these qualities is greater than ever. Maybe this belief is why it took me so long to write this book (pretty close to five years).
Q. So what happens to a person (or to you, specifically) after finishing a project that takes such an immense amount of time? Is it an exhilarating feeling? Is it depressing? Is it like a hangover?
A. You know, no one, in the many books I’ve published, has ever asked this question.
It is really hard to describe, and it has to do with the fact that when you write a book, it is not what you do to the book, but what the book does to you. The most obvious sensation is one of exhaustion and uncertainty, since being a novelist is like being a good communist in the heydays of the Cultural Revolution: every morning begins with two
hours of self criticism, that is looking over what you did the day before.
The uncertainty comes from the fact that you really can’t tell, after a certain point, what is right and what isn’t, although you have your suspicions. So, there is an epistemology aspect. What do you know, about the book, and how do you know it.
Then there is a sort of Zen moment: you realize that you can change a word here or a word there, but it isn’t going to change the basics of what the book is, which is this unstated thing that you have finally discovered or is really there. And along with this is the feeling that if you cut one scene out, it will make a noticeable difference.
And, of course, no one has any idea about this but you.
Q. Let’s wrap this up with your thoughts on the future of our culture. The events and atmosphere you’re portraying in The Informer help usher in the Nazis’ reign and WWII, and you discussed earlier how you’re seeing so many of these same elements in our present-day culture — fascinations with violence, sport, sex and celebrity, a morbid obsession with physical appearance, an increasing amount of closed-minded political factions. Not to mention financial insecurity. What, if anything, will keep us from putting on gray uniforms and armbands?
A. I wish I could say that we have the good sense to (1) know the history and (2) realize that a society is more frail than we usually suppose. It is not a good idea to get things so polarized that people no longer listen to each other.
We are not at the state of Weimar in 1930, but we are in a condition that, with a couple of really good kicks, could become that way, and it is the potential more than the actuality that bothers me right now. We have bumbled through a lot and done a lot of stupid things as a country, and yet we seem to have a sort of resilience that I am reluctant to believe in but at the same time it is all we’ve got. I guess I am hoping that we will bumble through the current potential, too.
Cold comfort. A hope that we will bumble through.