Getting The Story Idea For My Novel ‘Sektion 20’, by Paul Dowswell
I got the idea of my novel Sektion 20, set in East Berlin in 1972, on a trip to Prague researching my Renaissance novel The Cabinet of Curiosities. I was in a scruffy back street bar with a Czech-speaking friend waiting to watch a rock band. We got talking with a bunch of middle aged men who had been teenagers back in the early 70s. They told me how important rock music was to them, as a symbol of freedom and a life that was forbidden to them by the communist regime that controlled Czechoslovakia. They went to clandestine gigs but the cops would break up any they found and give the participants a good kicking, at the very least, for their rebelliousness. One cop told one of them that they liked to listen to the band for a while, outside, before they went in to break up the gig.
This made me feel extremely lucky to grow up in a place where citizens were allowed to have their own opinions and listen to whatever they liked. I’d always known this, of course, but sometimes talking to people who have been denied these freedoms makes you appreciate them afresh.
My book’s about an ordinary East German boy who has no particular beef against the regime. His parents are both keen Party members and his life is perfectly comfortable. But he is singled out for persecution by the Secret Police – the Stasi – because he likes to listen to Western rock music and he wants to grow his hair a bit. This, along with his sister’s interest in breaking away from the structures of ‘socialist realism’ in her photography course at school, causes no end of trouble for the family and ends with them desperate to leave the country.
I set my book in Berlin, rather than Prague because I knew it better. I had read more about the East Germans and the Stasi. I’d also written a novel, Auslander, about living under the Nazis in Berlin and thought a follow up book about the communist regime would be a logical choice.
When I take creative writing classes in schools I always ask the kids, ‘Which is the most important part of a book – the start, the middle or the end?’ They’re all important but a poor start will ensure your reader never gets to the middle or end, no matter how brilliant they are.
I got my opening chapter in Sektion 20 from a very instructive visit to the Stasi headquarters on Normanenstrasse one freezing Spring Sunday.
The main building in this great complex is now a museum. I was especially struck by the drabness of the décor, even in the offices of those at the very top of the hierarchy, but what sparked me off was a little hand drawn diagram in the Stasi Museum booklet, showing how Erich Mielke liked his breakfast prepared.
Paul Dowswell’s author website: www.pauldowswell.co.uk
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