I had wanted to write Stasiland as fiction at first, and in fact drafted, very early on, a couple of terrible chapters. They were terrible in their own right, but they were also terrible for reasons that I’d describe as moral and aesthetic. I was writing about people who were alive and walking around the streets of Berlin and other former East German towns, and they had lived through a time which was, almost literally, unbelievable – that humans are capable of such insidious surveillance on the one hand, and of such extraordinary courage and resistance on the other. It was important to me that Stasiland be non-fiction, because I wanted to honour the courage of those people in it.
Also, the first task of a novel is to create a believable world. East Germany was not a believable world! A place where the secret police might break into your apartment and steal dirty underwear to get a sample of your bodily odour to bottle in a jam jar and train a dog to track you. It’s just not the kind of credible detail you can put in a novel without stretching credulity, but it’s exactly the kind of thing the people I was writing about were dealing with. In that way, the subject matter, and writing so close to history, dictated the non-fiction form.
I felt that I’d taken the non-fiction form as far as I could in Stasiland – I’d made non-fiction as moving and evocative as fiction. The one thing I couldn’t do was to represent the interior consciousness of my characters. What I mean is, unless they literally told me what they were feeling, I couldn’t legitimately go there. With All That I Am, I wanted to do exactly the inverse. I asked myself the same question you’re asking me: Why fiction? And the answer is to do with the purpose of fiction itself. Which is to represent what it is to be alive, what it is to be another person. It is the supreme way we have of entering another’s consciousness. So that was the main aesthetic and technical aim in All That I Am.
Some critics have been bothered by the blurred line between authentic and imaginary in the novel, much more so than (I think) they would be by other time periods. Why would this time in history elicit such strong emotions in the English-speaking world that using (some) real characters in a semi-fictionalized plot becomes the main issue for many reviewers?
All That I Am is set long before the war, and it tells the story of four very brave people who really, at great risk to themselves, tried to alert the world – and first the British – to Hitler’s plans for war. As we know now (and as the reader knows, when she’s reading) is that the world wasn’t listening. And although there were some very prescient and sympathetic English people, Britain wasn’t listening either. This isn’t a well-known story or period, and the characters are almost completely unknown – very exciting for me to discover them.
I took a long, hard look at what happened behind the locked door of that apartment in Great Ormond Street in March, 1935. I looked at the inquest, I looked at all the people involved, I looked at what was going on in London and what Hitler was doing to other outspoken opponents, even those who’d managed to escape Germany. It was like putting my old lawyer’s head on for a while. And I found the historical record deeply unsatisfactory. It doesn’t match the psychology of the people involved, and it doesn’t match the facts of what was going on in London and Hitler’s Berlin. So I put together, out of real elements, and real people, a new case – a new plot. This was very hard to do, but it means that the novel has a hook into history that is powerful and unsettling and unusual.